Introduction to Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison’s enormously influential novel Invisible Man was published in 1952, shortly before the advent of the Civil Rights Movement, and won the National Book Award in 1953. Narrated by an unnamed Black protagonist driven to live underground as a hermit by the relentless racism, hypocrisy, and absurdity of modern urban society, the novel grapples with many of the forces arrayed against Black Americans in the first half of the twentieth century, as well as with existential themes of identity and alienation. In particular, the narrator struggles to form a coherent sense of self in a world where racism renders him effectively “invisible” and where he is forced into a series of roles rather than treated as an individual. Ultimately, however, the narrator prepares to reenter the world, deciding that even “an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.” Today Ellison’s novel remains as relevant as ever, and its first chapter is frequently read and studied as a standalone short story titled “Battle Royal.”

A Brief Biography of Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison (1913–1994) was an American writer who is most famous for his novel Invisible Man (1952), which embodies the dilemma of being Black in the United States with the line “I am invisible, understand, because people refuse to see me.” Along with racial prejudice, Ellison experienced emotional and financial hardships in his young life, including the death of his father. Despite these difficulties, Ellison had an unstoppable passion for the arts. He began his career as a trumpet player at the Tuskegee Institute, but finding it too conservative for his unconventional jazz leanings, Ellison moved to New York to pursue a career as a visual artist. A happenstance meeting with the poet Langston Hughes and the novelist Richard Wright changed his artistic direction once again. In 1936, he joined the Federal Writers’ Project and found his true calling. Ellison died in 1994, leaving a legacy of innovative writing that still stirs passions.

Frequently Asked Questions about Invisible Man

Invisible Man

This statement ends the narrator's long rumination on his invisible, underground status in the epilogue of the novel. In saying "Who knows but that ... I speak for you," the narrator draws readers...

Latest answer posted July 12, 2021, 12:15 pm (UTC)

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Invisible Man

As the narrator is undergoing his humiliating ordeal in chapter 1, he is described as coming from Greenwood: I'm told that he is the smartest boy we've got out there in Greenwood. I'm told that he...

Latest answer posted July 10, 2021, 6:27 pm (UTC)

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Invisible Man

As the narrator drives Mr. Norton off campus, Norton wants to stop at one of the poor cabins they see. He marvels when the narrator tells him it was built to house slaves but also seems shocked at...

Latest answer posted July 10, 2021, 12:04 pm (UTC)

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Invisible Man

Dr. Bledsoe is angry with the narrator for bringing Norton to visit Jim Trueblood, a Black man living in the former slave shacks near the college. Trueblood impregnated his daughter and speaks...

Latest answer posted July 11, 2021, 11:47 am (UTC)

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Invisible Man

When he is hired to work at Liberty Paints, the narrator is assigned to be an assistant to Mr. Brockway. Mr. Brockway is an old Black man with "cottony" white hair, and when he first meets him, the...

Latest answer posted July 11, 2021, 1:19 pm (UTC)

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Invisible Man

Mr. Norton, a white trustee of the college, represents white power and privilege as well as white illusion. He is a wealthy, blue-eyed New Englander who wears custom-made white shoes with black...

Latest answer posted July 11, 2021, 3:00 pm (UTC)

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Invisible Man

Mr. Norton's shock continue in the Golden Day, a bar and brothel where the narrator brings him after the older man insists he needs a drink following the shock of meeting the incestuous Jim...

Latest answer posted July 12, 2021, 12:40 pm (UTC)

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Invisible Man

As the narrator drives Mr. Norton around, the older man asks if he has read Ralph Waldo Emerson. When the narrator says he has not, Mr. Norton is surprised and says he must read him. Mr. Norton...

Latest answer posted July 12, 2021, 1:21 pm (UTC)

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Invisible Man

The narrator begins the novel a naïve teenager, desiring to be another Booker T. Washington, a Black leader who believed Black people could get ahead by accepting second-class citizenship and being...

Latest answer posted July 12, 2021, 2:08 pm (UTC)

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Invisible Man

At the start and end of Invisible Man, the unnamed narrator and protagonist lives somewhere underground in New York City. The narrator refers to his residence as a “hole in the ground.” He uses...

Latest answer posted July 11, 2021, 3:54 pm (UTC)

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Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man could be considered a modernist novel. Like modernists, Ellison departs from standard conventions of narrative and character. He scrambles his narrative by beginning...

Latest answer posted July 11, 2021, 3:05 pm (UTC)

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Invisible Man

On his deathbed, the grandfather tells his son, in the presence of the grandchildren, including the narrator, that he should "keep up the good fight." He goes on to say that Black people are at...

Latest answer posted July 11, 2021, 12:28 pm (UTC)

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Invisible Man

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...

Latest answer posted July 9, 2021, 10:58 pm (UTC)

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Invisible Man

On his deathbed and in the hearing of his grandchildren, the grandfather says to his son, the narrator's father, Son, after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our...

Latest answer posted July 10, 2021, 2:25 pm (UTC)

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Invisible Man

Names give people place, substance, and meaning. A name is integral to having a sense of identity. As writers like Primo Levi point out, for example, in their narratives of the Nazi concentration...

Latest answer posted July 12, 2021, 1:38 pm (UTC)

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Invisible Man

The message of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man lies in the title. The narrator repeatedly mentions that he is invisible, a condition brought on because white society refuses to acknowledge his...

Latest answer posted July 9, 2021, 4:41 pm (UTC)

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Invisible Man

We are not given a specific year Invisible Man is set in, and the story actually spans many years, from the narrator's high school graduation through college and into his adulthood in Harlem....

Latest answer posted July 9, 2021, 5:30 pm (UTC)

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Invisible Man

The narrator is expelled from college by Dr. Bledsoe, whose name, which sounds like "bled so," suggests that he has been bled of his integrity by a racist culture. Bledsoe explains that he has...

Latest answer posted July 10, 2021, 12:57 pm (UTC)

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Invisible Man

The narrator goes to an unnamed Black college modeled on the Tuskegee Institute, a Black college in Alabama founded by Booker T. Washington. The narrator begins by describing the beauty of the...

Latest answer posted July 9, 2021, 2:33 pm (UTC)

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Invisible Man

In Ellison's Invisible Man, the narrator is invisible because he is Black. As the narrator writes early on in the novel: I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. This...

Latest answer posted July 9, 2021, 12:17 pm (UTC)

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Summary