What is the main idea/theme of Invisible Man by Ellison?  

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man explores many critical themes, including the role of racism in the South in the 1920's and 1930's, the nature of folklore and the importance of remembering history, blindness as an act of personal failure, obedience to others, the value of individuality, etc.

Perhaps the most critical of these themes, however, is that of the quest for identity, as the novel describes the literal disappearance of a man who is rendered invisible--an event which seems to negate his identity and very existence. The invisible man must, thus, learn to become (in a sense) "visible" again through the act of self-recognition, conquering the racial and existential crises that are a part of this dilemma only by embracing invisibility itself. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Invisible Man is Ellison's only published novel. He lived in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, learning much about black culture and folklore. That part of his life was interrupted by military service during WWII but soon after he started work on Invisible Man.

In his interpretation of the Black experience, Ellison touches on familiar important topics such as slavery, reconstruction, Jazz, Harlem and civil rights in both serious and realistic ways as well as more humorous and ironic ways. Throughout the theme is that of man seeking his identity on many levels from personally, to community, to a national identity. There is also a theme of disillusionment as each time a cultural, communal or national identity is within reach, it is seen to be false. Ultimately, Ellison comes to terms with the idea that one must find identity within self and not within others. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is a very difficult question because there are many themes.  However, all of them are related to one prominent theme:  identity and individuality...finding oneself and learning who one is through self-discovery and through the experiences one goes through in life.  The narrator does not have an identity at the beginning and through the horrific and trying experiences he goes through, he learns more and more about who he really is and he becomes "visible" instead of "invisible":

The invisible man's moment of self-recognition occurs almost simultaneously with his realization that the white world does not see him, but Ellison seems to be saying, ‘‘Well, don't worry about that.’’ Until the invisible man can see himself, he can only be passive, ‘‘outside of history.’’ (eNotes)
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial