Summary of the Novel
Invisible Man is a first-person novel. It concerns an unnamed narrator, whom the reader meets in the Prologue. In the Epilogue, the narrator seems to “rejoin” the reader once again.
Other than his memories of his grandfather’s death, the narrator reveals nothing about his childhood. After the humiliating battle royal (a chaotic boxing match, along with sundry torments, in which high school boys competed), he goes to college, where he has an experience in betrayal that changes his life.
Having inadvertently taken an important visitor to the wrong places, the narrator is left exposed to the harsh judgment of Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the college. The narrator is emotionally scarred by what has happened.
Forced to leave the college that he loved, the narrator takes a bus to New York City to find work. There he tries to use letters of recommendation, but to no avail. He eventually takes a job in a paint factory. Another unpleasant lesson ensues there, for the narrator is untrained for the work. He is placed under the thumb of a bitter and distrusting man, who maneuvers the narrator into an industrial accident.
The narrator is once again torn loose from his moorings. After the accident, the narrator endured a bizarre experience, in which medical personnel tortured him. Mary, a stranger, finds the narrator in the street, and offers him a home. Soon afterward, a protest of the eviction of an old couple leads the narrator to join a political group called the Brotherhood.
The narrator seems to advance in the organization, but the petty politics and machinations of those around him ensure the narrator’s instability. Eventually, the narrator is betrayed by the Brotherhood. Not long after one of the members is killed by a policeman, a riot begins. In the growing confusion, the narrator takes to the underground.
The Life and Work of Ralph Waldo Ellison
Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He died on April 16, 1994, in Harlem, New York. He was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, a great nineteenth-century writer. When Lewis Ellison thought of the future, he saw his son, the poet.
The narrator of Invisible Man shows an interest in Ralph Waldo Emerson. The young Ralph Ellison felt a burden attached to this great name, a pressure to become great himself, and it made him uncomfortable.
Ralph Ellison did not grow up in the Deep South, as his parents had, and this made an important difference in his life. Oklahoma was a new territory, offering a chance for a better life than in the former slave states, despite the Jim Crow laws that white settlers brought with them.
Ellison went to Douglass High School (named after Frederick Douglass), and then to Tuskegee Institute, a well-known historically black college in Alabama, in June 1933. He was unhappy at Tuskegee, and his impressions of that college are reflected in the narrator’s experiences with Dr. Bledsoe in Invisible Man. Ellison never finished his degree. Instead, he left for New York in the spring of 1936. The great promise of Harlem was calling his name.
Once he arrived, Ellison took odd jobs and met the leading black artists and intellectuals of his day. The atmosphere was vibrant, and Ellison, whose artistic abilities included music, sculpture, writing, and photography, participated in what was later called the Harlem Renaissance. Soon, through the encouragement of black American writer Richard Wright author of Native Son, Ellison was publishing book reviews and short stories.
Ellison worked on Invisible Man for five years. It was published in 1952 and won the National Book Award for fiction. Ellison’s only novel, it established his literary reputation. He also published two collections of essays: Shadow and Act in 1964 and Going into the Territory in 1986.
Ellison died in Harlem, New York, which had been his home for twenty years, and which he immortalized in his masterpiece, Invisible Man.
Estimated Reading Time
The average silent-reading rate for a secondary student is 250 to 300 words per minute, making the total reading time for this novel about 19 hours.
Invisible Man can be a challenging novel. Teachers will no doubt be sensitive to Ellison’s subject matter and technique, and divide their assignments accordingly. Allow plenty of time to enjoy this great work. Reading the book according to the natural chapter breaks is the best approach, although most of the longer chapters have their own divisions.
Frequently discussed as a novel addressing racial identity in modern, urban America, Invisible Man is also discussed regarding the larger issue of personal identity, especially self-assertion and personal expression in a metaphorically blind world. In the novel, the unnamed young black narrator is invisible within the larger culture because of his race. Race itself, in turn, is a metaphor for the individual’s anonymity in modern life. The novel is scathing, angry, and humorous, incorporating a wide range of African American experiences and using a variety of styles, settings, characters, and images. Ralph Ellison uses jazz as a metaphor, especially that of the role of a soloist who is bound within the traditions and forms of a group performance.
The novel describes a series of incidents that show how racism has warped the American psyche. As a boy, the nameless narrator hears his grandfather say: “Undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction.” Later, the youth sees a social function degenerate into a surrealistic and barbarous paroxysm of racism. Next, the narrator is expelled from a black college and heads north. After a job in a paint factory ends in shock treatment, the narrator heads to the big city and falls in with the Brotherhood, a group of political radicals. After realizing that the Brotherhood is just as power-hungry and manipulative as the other organizations and institutions that have victimized him, the narrator leaves the Brotherhood. He comes to understand that racism denies personal identity: As long as he is seen by others as a sample of a group rather than as an individual, he is invisible. The narrator finally becomes an urban hermit, living anonymously in a cellar and using pirated electricity.
The novel’s narrator is typically viewed as representing a generation of intelligent African Americans born and raised in the rural South before World War II who moved to large cities such as New York to widen their opportunities. Such historical context aside, readers also see him as a black Everyman, whose story symbolically recapitulates black history. Attending a Southern black college, the narrator’s idealism is built on black educator Booker T. Washington’s teaching that racial uplift will occur by way of humility, accommodation, and hard work. The narrator’s ideals erode, however, in a series of encounters with white and black leaders. The narrator learns of hypocrisy, blindness, and the need to play roles even when each pose leads to violence. The larger, white culture does not accept the narrator’s independent nature. Accidents, and betrayals by educators, Communists, and fellow African Americans, among others, show him that life is largely chaotic, with no clear pattern of order to follow. The narrator’s complexity shatters white culture’s predetermined, stereotyped notions of what role he should play. He finds himself obliged as a result to move from role to role, providing the reader a wide spectrum of personalities that reflect the range of the black community.
In the end the narrator rejects cynicism and hatred and advocates a philosophy of hope, a rejection mirroring Ellison’s desire to write a novel that transcended protest novels, emphasizing rage and hopelessness, of the period. The narrator decides to look within himself for self-definition, and the act of telling his story provides meaning to his existence, an affirmation and celebration preceding his return to the world. He has learned first of his invisibility, second of his manhood.
In his later years, Ellison realized that his novel expands the meaning of the word “invisible.” He observed that invisibility “touches anyone who lives in a big metropolis.” A winner of numerous awards, including the National Book Award in 1953, Invisible Man has continually been regarded as one of the most important novels in twentieth century American literature.