Through the course of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the unnamed narrator is on a quest to discover his place in the world, and this forms the central conflict of the novel. As he moves among different locations in the United States of the mid-twentieth century, the narrator finds that different social groups focus on various aspects of his identity. However, they almost all treat him as an interchangeable representative of a group, especially of African Americans, rather than as a distinct individual.
Among the significant factors that Ellison explores are race, class, gender, physical prowess, and intellect. The harder the narrator tries to assert his own individuality, the more resistance he finds from society at large. Temporarily placing his faith in specific institutions, such as a college or the political Brotherhood, he runs up against a large number of exploitative, hypocritical men and women who lead those institutions.
The large number of negative experiences that the narrator endures, both in his native South and the North, weigh heavily on his inner being. As his apparently fruitless quest to fit in somewhere lays him low emotionally and mentally, this descent is matched by his move underground. The physical separation from society in the artificially illuminated subterranean hideout corresponds to his psychological illumination as he accepts his individual responsibility to make his own way, despite the hostility he will doubtless continue to encounter.