Written as a bildungsroman, or novel of education, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man finds the main character, the unnamed narrator, searching for an identity. However, unlike most bildungsromans, Ellison's recounting of a young man's growth is not one in which he reaches success, but rather, a realization. To begin with, he wishes to become educated; however, he finds himself exploited first at the battle royal that parallels his graduation speech that extols submissiveness. Then, when he goes to the North after having been expelled from "the state college for Negroes" he is denied jobs because Dr. Bledsoe of the college has written that he is a troublemaker.
The narrator, later, finds work both is both accused of being a "fink" by the union and of being a unionizer by management. Continuing his misfortune, he is injured at work; factory hospital workers attempt to give him a lobotomy. After wandering the streets, he is taken in by a kind woman, but one day he listens to a communist and joins the Brotherhood in search for equality. Again, he is disappointed, much as Richard Wright was in his autobiography, Black Boy. For, the narrator is denounced by the party as Wright was and moved to Harlem. After another denouncement, the narrator experiences his epiphany:
...I began to accept my past....images of humiliation...were more than separate experiences. They were me; they defined me.....I was simply a material, a natural resource to be used....now I recognized my invisibility.
So, while the narrator retains his goal of desiring improving himself and being recognized, his invisibility to the white world has prevented him from achieving this goal. Because of this situation, with his grandfather's exhortation that he must live as a "spy in the enemy's territory," the narrator resolves to undermine the Brotherhood, but is, instead, caught up in a riot and must retreat under the streets. Here the narrator ends his story, hoping that he may someday emerge and find "a socially responsible role to play."
At the beginning of the novel, the narrator wants to be a young Booker T. Washington: to be an educated, self-made man who stands for a strong work ethic. More than that, he wants to simply be an individual. He wants to be visible, to be seen for himself, not for his race, gender, socio-economic status, or as a representative of a group.
His "dream" of becoming an individual is, like the poem of Langston Hughes, "deferred" throughout the novel. With each new chapter comes an initiation, a self-discovery that his dream must be redefined or put on hold. At the beginning, before the Battle Royal, the narrator thought he was better than the other young black men in the ring. Because of his education and public speaking ability, he thought he held status in white society. After the fight, however, he realizes he is just like the other black men: blind with naivete and unseen by whites as an individual.
He will go through several more initiations that lead to this same self-discovery: with Dr. Bledsoe at college, with Lucious Brockway at the paint factory, with Tod Clifton in the Brotherhood, and with his own grandfather's curse.
At the end, the narrator is still invisible. So, he goes into hibernation. Unlike Dostoevsky's "underground man," the Invisible Man says he will emerge from his hole. In the Prologue he says:
A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action.
We can only assume that he does emerge with the same dream; we must assume that he will be seen as an individual.
So says the Enotes editor:
The invisible man starts his tale as an innocent, one who believes that "humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress.’’ His greatest aspiration is to be an assistant to Dr. Bledsoe, the president of his college, who kowtows to whites in an attempt to hold on to his position. The invisible man believes, consciously or unconsciously, ‘‘the great false wisdom … that white is right’’ and that it is ‘‘advantageous to flatter rich white folks.’’ He grudgingly admires other blacks who do not share his scruples; for instance, he is both humiliated and fascinated by the sharecropper Jim Trueblood's self-confessed tale of incest, and he is similarly impressed by the vet at the Golden Day: ‘‘I wanted to tell Mr. Norton that the man was crazy and yet I received a fearful satisfaction from hearing him talk as he had to a white man.’’