The figure of Rinehart appears in Invisible Man as both cipher and symbol. While he never actually appears in the novel in person, he becomes an important point of consideration and comparison for the narrator.
Like the narrator, Rinehart possesses some public power and is widely recognized in Harlem. Unlike the narrator of the novel, Rinehart has a name. Ironically, Rinehart manages to go about his various types of business unseen by the political elements of New York and he is only discovered by the narrator when the narrator adopts a simple disguise of a hat and dark glasses. On the street, people confuse the narrator with Rinehart, a confusion of identity that speaks to some of the larger issues of identity in the novel.
Notably, Rinehart is a person of many roles (a numbers runner, a pimp, and a preacher) and each of his roles gives him power and prestige. Although he pays off the local police, Rinehart answers to no one. In the terms often applied by the narrator, Rinehart exists “outside of history” as a person with no activist or political agenda. Despite his political insignificance, Rinehart is a potent figure on the streets, loved and hated.
Rinehart’s shape-shifting persona leads the narrator to his most profound insights about identity and race and a functionally complete disenfranchisement:
“You don’t have to worry about people. If they tolerate Rinehart, then they will forget it and even with them you are invisible. . . . It didn’t matter because they didn’t realize just what had happened, neither my hope nor my failure. My ambition and integrity were nothing to them and my failure was as meaningless as Clifton’s.”
Historically “invisible” and locally famous, Rinehart represents a political concept at the core of the novel. Perhaps best taken as an open question, the Rinehart figure asks by contrast whether the narrator’s turns of progressive social activism and assimilationist ambition can possibly be successful in a world “without the possibility of action”?