How is humor used in Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man"?

Expert Answers
Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ellison's humor is typically sarcastic, a sarcasm enveloped by bitterness and anger.  We see his rueful, ironic tone (a recurrent device) beginning in the prologue and scattering like bird-shot throughout the dark novel. 

"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids--and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination indeed, everything except me."

Let's unpack this a bit.  "Spook" had an instantaneous double-meaning in the 1940s; that is, as a haunted spirit but also as a black person.  Unlike Poe's tales of horrific fantasy, intended for a white reading audience and penned by a white man, the Invisible Man's horror is no ficition.  "I might even be said to possess a mind," he says, in a voice dripping with sarcasm. 

The Invisible Man then evokes images of the circus and of funhouses, a world where color is overpowering and realistic images are purposely distorted.  But the Invisible Man's life is no joke, and a far cry from fun and games.

Read the study guide:
Invisible Man

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question