The Characters (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Foremost in the novel is the unnamed figure of the narrator. His is the voice through which the entire panorama of Invisible Man is reflected, a life begun in the Deep South and brought north to Harlem as America’s premier black city-within-a-city. In language full of richly oblique double-meanings and nuance, often bluesy and vernacular, he speaks of writing “confession,” of implying from within his specific case history that of an altogether wider, historic black America. He also serves as Ellison’s own surrogate, from start to finish cannily and reflexively aware of his literary “performance.” In both the prologue and the epilogue, and at each turning point in his career—the Battle Royal, the Trueblood “quarters,” the Golden Day, the Liberty Paints factory, The Brotherhood, his incarnation as Bliss Proteus Rinehart, the Riot, and his final “hibernation”—he functions as both the subject and the object of his own story, both the teller and, as it were, the tale. Few novels have created a subtler autobiographical self.
The narrator’s encounter with Bledsoe, the president of the black college to which he wins his scholarship, introduces the first of a line of characters marked out by splits and self-division. In one guise, Bledsoe plays the perfect Uncle Tom, fawning and grateful, and dancing to the tune of Norton, the white philanthropist from Boston. In another, he plays the black despot, the college’s administrative...
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Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
The narrator, the canny, unnamed voice of the story. The narrator looks back on a life begun in the Deep South and brought north to the United States’ premier African American city-within-a-city. In language full of richly oblique double meanings and nuances, he speaks of writing “confession,” of ending his “residence underground,” and of implying in his own specific case history that of an altogether wider, historic black America.
Dr. A. Herbert Bledsoe
Dr. A. Herbert Bledsoe, the president of the college that the narrator attends. In one guise, Bledsoe plays the perfect Uncle Tom, fawning and grateful, who dances to the tune of Norton, a white philanthropist. In another, he acts as a despot, the college’s presiding tyrant known to students as “Old Bucket-head.” He expels the narrator in the name of maintaining the image of “Negro” behavior that Bledsoe believes expedient to put before white America.
Mr. Norton, a New England financier and college benefactor. As his name implies, Norton equates with “Northern.” He is a figure of would-be liberal patronage who sees his destiny as helping African American students to become dutiful mechanics and agricultural workers. An encounter with the incestuous Truebloods, however, awakens his own dark longings for his dead daughter.
Brother Jack, the leader...
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Themes and Characters
Invisible Man's most important theme is the individual's quest for identity. The narrator moves from a state of ignorance to a state of enlightenment, represented by the profusion of light bulbs in his underground hiding place. He comes to see that his identity, as a black person, is wholly determined by other people's perceptions—and that, as a result, he is invisible. Whether as a student, an employee, or a political spokesman, he is an instrument of those who would see him only as a member of his race.
In the tradition of the bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, the narrator is an innocent who gradually comes to recognize other people's corruption, self-deception, and deviousness. At first he believes that others are genuinely interested in him; later he recognizes that they are looking through him to whatever preconception they have of his race. Ellison has noted that minorities in particular face this problem, losing individual identity through classification as members of a group. Blacks, of course, can be stereotyped simply by the color of their skin. The narrator, after struggling to make society recognize him, ultimately embraces the quality of "invisibility." His experience illustrates both the dehumanizing nature of racial prejudice and the agonizing loneliness that often triggers or accompanies the search for self-knowledge.
The nameless narrator is the most fully drawn character in Invisible Man. Since the...
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It is impossible to discuss even half of the characters that appear in Invisible Man, but each has symbolic overtones contributing to the themes and action, and although most are less complex than they might be, they are consistently fascinating. The nameless narrator is the most thoroughly drawn character, and since the reader experiences all events of the novel from his point of view, the less complex qualities of the others seem, ironically, to show that the narrator is also incapable of seeing others beyond his preconceptions of them: They are as "invisible" to him as he to them. Each step in the narrator's education consists of a revelation in which people reveal that they are not what they seem, or rather, what the narrator wishes them to be. Certainly one of the most enduring qualities of Invisible Man is this gallery of characters, each one of whom provides many opportunities for study and explication.
The earlier parts of the book center on Bledsoe, the college president. As "an example to his race" Bledsoe enjoys the seeming respect of whites and blacks. The narrator fantasizes ascending to Bledsoe's position. However, Bledsoe's true character is revealed when the narrator accidentally reveals aspects of black life (which Bledsoe has spent his life concealing) to Mr. Norton, a white New England benefactor who comically passes out when confronted with an incestuous farmer, black mental patients, and prostitutes. Bledsoe exploits...
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The Reverend Homer A. Barbee
A blind preacher from Chicago of substantial rhetorical skill who gives the Founder's Day speech at the college.
Dr. A. Herbert Bledsoe
Dr. Bledsoe is the president of the college attended by the invisible man. Called ‘‘Old Bucket-head’’ by the students, he is a shrewd survivor who has spent his career humoring the white trustees in the hopes of retaining his position. A person of considerable affectation, he can manage even in striped trousers and a swallow-tail coat topped by an ascot tie to make himself look humble. He is aghast when the invisible man tells him that he took Mr. Norton to see Jim Trueblood because that's what the trustee wanted to do: ‘‘My God, boy! You're black and living in the South—did you forget how to lie?’’ His recipe for success is to attain power and influence by making the right contacts and ‘‘then stay in the dark and use it!’’ His self-interest makes him capable of betrayal, as when he lets the invisible man head off for New York City thinking that the letters he is carrying addressed to various trustees are letters of recommendation.
The invisible man's irascible second supervisor at Liberty Paints. ‘‘Lucius Brockway not only intends to protect hisself, he knows how to do it! Everybody knows I been here ever since there's been a here.’’ His one worry is that...
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