Invisible Man Summary
Invisible Man is a 1952 novel narrated by an unnamed Black man living underground in New York City.
The narrator is forced to leave his Southern college for New York after making an honest mistake.
He finds work at a paint factory, but his manager engineers an accident in which the narrator is injured. In the hospital, he is subjected to a procedure that affects his memory.
- Later, he joins a group called the Brotherhood. He rises in the ranks, but the group betrays him, and he is forced to flee when a riot breaks out.
Last Updated on January 4, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1122
The novel begins with an unnamed Black narrator who declares himself to be an “invisible man” because those around him refuse to fully perceive him. For years, he reveals, he’s been living undetected in the basement of a segregated whites-only building. His underground dwelling is brightly lit, courtesy of the power he’s been stealing from Monopolated Light & Power, and he takes great joy in using as much electricity as he possibly can undetected.
As the narrative develops, the man shares his life story and explains how he first came to learn he was invisible. Once the most promising graduate of his Greenwood, South Carolina, high school, he was granted a year’s scholarship to the region’s most prominent college for Black students.
At first, he was deeply enamored with the college, its vast and picturesque grounds, its beloved-but-unnamed Founder, and the school’s formidable president, Dr. Bledsdoe. When Dr. Bledsdoe asked him to drive a white trustee named Mr. Norton around campus for a day, chaos ensued. At Mr. Norton’s direction, they traveled outside the campus grounds and arrived at a cabin belonging to a man who had been ostracized from the community for impregnating his own daughter.
Shocked and feeling faint, Mr. Norton told the narrator he needed whiskey at once. Unsure where else to go, the narrator stopped at a rowdy bar and brothel called the Golden Day. He tried to bring the whiskey out to Mr. Norton so he wouldn’t be exposed to the rampant vice inside, but they wouldn’t let him take the drink out past the front door despite his pleas. The narrator was forced to bring Mr. Norton inside, where his worries turned out to be prescient—a fight erupted, and Mr. Norton sustained a small injury.
When Dr. Bledsdoe found out about the upheaval, he was furious and expelled the narrator from the school. Telling him he was sending him to New York to earn next year’s tuition, he gave the narrator a stack of seven reference letters addressed to prominent associates in the city. Despite his initial shame about being expelled, the narrator eventually grew optimistic about his prospects in New York. When he failed to hear back from the first six associates, he was shocked to hear the truth about his letters: as the son of the seventh associate told him, the letters stated that Dr. Bledsdoe was deeply ashamed of him and would not be letting him back on campus under any circumstances.
Disillusioned and upset, the narrator took a job at Liberty Paint. His first assignment was to mix an additive into pure white paint destined for government monuments, but he was given insufficient instruction and ruined a batch while trying to improvise. His next assignment, too, went awry—sent to help run the boilers, he got into a fight with his new boss. As punishment, the man tricked him into setting off an explosion, and the narrator was injured.
Waking in a strange hospital room, the narrator found himself hooked up to an electroshock machine. The doctors insisted he would have the benefits of a frontal lobotomy without the surgical complications and began the procedure without any input or consent from the narrator. Afterward, he struggled to access his memory and briefly forgot who he was entirely. They discharged him, insisting he’d been cured and promising him a settlement for his workplace injury.
While walking around Harlem a short time later, the narrator encountered an elderly Black couple being forcibly evicted by their white landlord. A crowd had gathered, and some people had started to fight. The narrator stepped up on the couple’s porch and delivered an impromptu speech that motivated the onlookers to peacefully carry the couple’s belongings back inside. Police soon declared a riot, and he fled.
Several blocks away, a white man complimented the narrator’s speech and invited him for coffee. Introducing himself as Brother Jack, the man explained that he belonged to an organization working for social progress. He offered the narrator a job as the organization’s speaker for the Harlem District. It came with a generous salary but the caveat that he must adopt a new identity.
When the narrator completed training and first met Brother Tod Clifton, one of his new peers, it was clear that Brother Clifton had recently been in a skirmish. His opponent was Ras the Exhorter, a Black separatist who opposed the multicultural approach taken by the Brotherhood and posed an ongoing threat to their mission. Ras felt betrayed that Brother Clifton, a young Black man, should willingly align himself with whites instead of the separatist movement.
After some turbulence at the Brotherhood in which the narrator was temporarily sent to another district, Brother Clifton went missing. Roaming the streets in search of his friend, the narrator was startled to see him busking on the street while operating small puppets stylized like old racist caricatures of Black people. Before he could confront him, Brother Clifton got into a fight with a police officer and was killed.
Distraught, the narrator organized a public funeral for Brother Clifton. When he returned to the office after the service, he was upset to find the rest of the Brotherhood hadn’t attended. Brother Clifton, they explained, was a race traitor, and the narrator had given him the funeral of a hero. Furious that white men were adjudicating Clifton’s Blackness while leaving the actual Black community behind, the narrator secretly vowed to make them pay.
While walking down the street and formulating his plan, the narrator found a pair of sunglasses and put them on. As soon as he did, he was repeatedly mistaken for someone named “Rinehart.” Startled by how easy it was for him to hide in plain sight, he realized invisibility might be his biggest asset.
On the evening of a big birthday party for Brother Jack, the narrator left with a woman and then eventually went to the Morningside neighborhood, where immense social upheaval was underway. There were gunfights and fires breaking out, and he was eventually chased by Ras the Exhorter—now going by the name “Ras the Destroyer”—who appeared to be behind the riots. The narrator realized that the Brotherhood had intentionally stoked community tension to facilitate community-razing turmoil while they enjoyed a luxe party across town, and his disillusionment grew.
The narrator escaped Ras but was soon chased by a gang that attempted to steal his briefcase. He ran and fell into an uncovered manhole as the gang taunted him overhead. Unable to find a ladder out, he burned his important papers one by one to afford himself enough light to travel underground.