Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man explores the subject of prejudices and stereotypes as they existed in the United States beginning in the 1930s and continuing for more than a decade thereafter. The author portrays the narrator/protagonist as a young black man with many dreams, though it is doubtful they will ever be fulfilled. He is a naïve man who tells the reader “I am invisible ... simply because people refuse to see me.” His naiveté lies in the fact that he believes success depends on pleasing whites. When he returns to his hometown, he demonstrates his flawed understanding of achieving success when he places his trust in those who ultimately betray him.
In this novel, there is no better example of misplaced trust and stereotypical attitudes as described in the story than the narrator’s relationship with Mr. Norton. The Invisible Man relates a tale from his earlier days when he was a student at a prestigious black college founded by a black man. Norton is a white, self-righteous, pompous college trustee who asks the protagonist to be a driver for him. The narrator intends to bring him to the college campus to witness the annual Founders’ Day celebration, but Norton squashes the idea, saying he has already seen the college. This is an obvious indication of Norton’s lack of concern for the learning institution. Nevertheless, Norton prefers to brag about his generosity and support for blacks, while he falsely patronizes the narrator:
I have wealth and a reputation and prestige—all that is true. But your great Founder had more than that, he had tens of thousands of lives dependent upon his ideas and upon his actions. What he did affected your whole race. In a way, he had the power of a king, or in a sense, of a god.
Mr. Norton proves to be nothing more than a figurehead for the college and asks the narrator to drive him elsewhere. The protagonist takes him to the black section of town, with former slave dwellings and dilapidated shacks. While there, they visit the cabin of Jim Trueblood, “a sharecropper who had brought disgrace upon the black community.” Jim relates the story of his incestuous relationship with his daughter, and Norton is overcome with emotion since he has had incestuous feelings toward his own daughter. He hands Jim one hundred dollars and asks the narrator to take him somewhere for a drink:
Suddenly Mr. Norton touched me on the shoulder. "I must have a stimulant, young man. A little whiskey." "Yes, sir. Are you all right, sir?" "A little faint, but a stimulant ..." His voice trailed off. Something cold formed within my chest ... I stepped on the gas, wondering where I could get him some whiskey. Not in the town, that would take too long. There was only one place, the Golden Day. "I'll have you some in a few minutes, sir," I said. "As soon as you can," he said.
Norton cannot face reality and chooses to ignore it. Ellison demonstrates in this scene the stereotyping of blacks. In the narrator’s view, whites see blacks through prejudicial eyes as rapists. They are incapable of thinking beyond their racist views. Norton cannot even see the narrator as a unique individual. Jim, the narrator, and other blacks are invisible to him. In Norton's view, blacks serve as scapegoats. Norton envisions his own incestuous thoughts quite differently than those of Jim. He hypocritically pays one hundred dollars to Jim for his children, as whites often paid blacks for being “bad.” The narrator saw the payment through a different lens:
I saw Jim Trueblood wave as I threw the car into gear. "You bastard," I said under my breath. "You no-good bastard! You get a hundred-dollar bill!"
The narrator recognizes that he cannot shield himself from reality. He knows the only way blacks can free themselves is by understanding and accepting their invisibility and by relying on their own talents to overcome American society’s discriminatory stereotypes.