Foremost in the novel is the unnamed figure of the narrator. His is the voice through which the entire panorama of Invisible Man is reflected, a life begun in the Deep South and brought north to Harlem as America’s premier black city-within-a-city. In language full of richly oblique double-meanings and nuance, often bluesy and vernacular, he speaks of writing “confession,” of implying from within his specific case history that of an altogether wider, historic black America. He also serves as Ellison’s own surrogate, from start to finish cannily and reflexively aware of his literary “performance.” In both the prologue and the epilogue, and at each turning point in his career—the Battle Royal, the Trueblood “quarters,” the Golden Day, the Liberty Paints factory, The Brotherhood, his incarnation as Bliss Proteus Rinehart, the Riot, and his final “hibernation”—he functions as both the subject and the object of his own story, both the teller and, as it were, the tale. Few novels have created a subtler autobiographical self.
The narrator’s encounter with Bledsoe, the president of the black college to which he wins his scholarship, introduces the first of a line of characters marked out by splits and self-division. In one guise, Bledsoe plays the perfect Uncle Tom, fawning and grateful, and dancing to the tune of Norton, the white philanthropist from Boston. In another, he plays the black despot, the college’s administrative tyrant known to the students as “Old Bucket-head.” Ellison so fashions him as a kind of harlequin, one self hidden within the other.
Norton (“northern,” as his name implies) in turn acts out his double game. He can flatter himself that his “destiny” lies in helping black students to become dutiful mechanics and agricultural workers. However, when he encounters the incestuous True-bloods, impoverished black sharecroppers living in The Quarters, he reveals his own hitherto unacknowledged dark longings for his dead daughter. In the Golden Day brothel, Ellison has the veterans, ironically to a degree, associate him with a roll-call of other white would-be American messiahs, among them John D. Rockefeller and Thomas Jefferson.
The narrator subsequently hears the sermon of the Reverend Homer Barbee on returning Norton to the college. This blind “Homer” preaches a truly parodic Emersonianism, a message of uplift at odds with the life actually led by black Americans within a fearful, racist white Dixie.
On arrival in Harlem, the narrator meets one of the strong female presences in the novel, Mary Rambo. She takes him in, mothers him, and typifies a standard of black community care. He also meets in Brother Jack, the leader of The Brotherhood, another of Ellison’s deft caricatures. Patronizingly, Jack appoints the narrator “the new Booker T. Washington,” his personal apparatchik. He also speaks the language of “scientific terminology,” “materialism,” and other quasi-Marxist argot. When he leads a witchhunt against the narrator, only to have his “buttermilk” glass eye pop out, he grotesquely reveals himself for what he is, a half-seeing—or truly one-eyed—Jack.
Tod Clifton, the Harlem youth leader, is the novel’s martyr figure. Pledged to fight black joblessness, the color line, and (at the outset) Black Nationalism, Tod is shown to move increasingly into a fascination with Ras’s Caribbean “Africanness.” That he ends up peddling Sambo dolls, then shot by a white policeman, and finally the name at the center of the Harlem riot that ensues, points to Ellison’s interest in the black activist as both individual and icon.
In this, Tod links perfectly to Ras, The Destroyer, the militant Rastafarian whose politics recall the back-to-Africa nationalism of Marcus Garvey. However, if Ras derides The Brotherhood as a white-run fraud serviced by deluded black lackeys, he himself becomes a figure derided, an anachronistic Don Quixote replete with horse and shield. The novel thus returns in the aftermath of the riot to the narrator as once more the presiding “character” of Invisible Man, each figure he has put before readers part real, part mythic.
The narrator, the canny, unnamed voice of the story. The narrator looks back on a life begun in the Deep South and brought north to the United States’ premier African American city-within-a-city. In language full of richly oblique double meanings and nuances, he speaks of writing “confession,” of ending his “residence underground,” and of implying in his own specific case history that of an altogether wider, historic black America.
Dr. A. Herbert Bledsoe
Dr. A. Herbert Bledsoe, the president of the college that the narrator attends. In one guise, Bledsoe plays the perfect Uncle Tom, fawning and grateful, who dances to the tune of Norton, a white philanthropist. In another, he acts as a despot, the college’s presiding tyrant known to students as “Old Bucket-head.” He expels the narrator in the name of maintaining the image of “Negro” behavior that Bledsoe believes expedient to put before white America.
Mr. Norton, a New England financier and college benefactor. As his name implies, Norton equates with “Northern.” He is a figure of would-be liberal patronage who sees his destiny as helping African American students to become dutiful mechanics and agricultural workers. An encounter with the incestuous Truebloods, however, awakens his own dark longings for his dead daughter.
Brother Jack, the leader of the Brotherhood, a revolutionary group. The white, one-eyed leader of the group’s central committee, he takes up the narrator as “the new Booker T. Washington.” His is the language of “scientific terminology,” “materialism,” and other quasi-Marxist argot. He leads a witch-hunt against the narrator, only to have his glass eye pop out, showing him as truly a half-seeing, one-eyed Jack.
Tod Clifton, a Harlem activist. Initially, Clifton operates as a Brotherhood loyalist, a youth organizer pledged to fight African American joblessness, the color line, and Black Nationalists. Fascinated by the Black Nationalist Ras’s Caribbean “Africanness,” however, he drops out. Tod is shot by a white police officer, and his death sparks a long-brewing Harlem riot.
Ras, the Destroyer
Ras, the Destroyer, a militant, West Indian Rastafarian. Ras advocates, in the style of Marcus Garvey, a back-to-Africa nationalism. He derides the Brotherhood as a white-run fraud serviced by deluded black lackeys.