Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 664
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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 371
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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 634
Invisible Man's most important theme is the individual's quest for identity. The narrator moves from a state of ignorance to a state of enlightenment, represented by the profusion of light bulbs in his underground hiding place. He comes to see that his identity, as a black person, is wholly determined by other people's perceptions—and that, as a result, he is invisible. Whether as a student, an employee, or a political spokesman, he is an instrument of those who would see him only as a member of his race.
In the tradition of the bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, the narrator is an innocent who gradually comes to recognize other people's corruption, self-deception, and deviousness. At first he believes that others are genuinely interested in him; later he recognizes that they are looking through him to whatever preconception they have of his race. Ellison has noted that minorities in particular face this problem, losing individual identity through classification as members of a group. Blacks, of course, can be stereotyped simply by the color of their skin. The narrator, after struggling to make society recognize him, ultimately embraces the quality of "invisibility." His experience illustrates both the dehumanizing nature of racial prejudice and the agonizing loneliness that often triggers or accompanies the search for self-knowledge.
The nameless narrator is the most fully drawn character in Invisible Man. Since the reader experiences the entire novel from his point of view, the other characters appear, ironically, as "invisible" to him as he does to them, for he, too, is incapable of looking beyond preconceptions. Continually misinformed or self-deceived, the narrator learns, through a series of revelations, that people are seldom what they seem.
The earlier parts of the book focus on Dr. Bledsoe, president of the college that the narrator attends. An "example to his race," Bledsoe seemingly enjoys the respect of both whites and blacks. The narrator fantasizes about ascending someday to Bledsoe's position. But Bledsoe reveals his true character when the narrator accidentally exposes Mr. Norton, a white New England benefactor, to aspects of black life that Bledsoe has spent his life concealing. Norton comically passes out when confronted with an incestuous farmer, mental patients, and prostitutes. Bledsoe is furious, for he has spent his life exploiting liberal white preconceptions about black culture in order to gain power over the very people he purports to represent.
Another fascinating character is Jack, the man who recruits the narrator into the Brotherhood, a political organization based on the Communist party. Along with the other members of the Brotherhood, Jack claims to be interested in a world of equality but is guilty of lumping all blacks into a category. His political dogma limits the scope of his vision, a fact that the narrator finally realizes in a climactic scene where Jack's glass eye pops out. Others connected with the Brotherhood are equally guilty of stereotyping. One man thinks he understands Harlem because he married a black woman, and a woman married to an important "Brother" propositions the narrator because of notions about black males' sexual potency.
The most sympathetic character is Mary Rambro, a boarding house operator. Kind, suffering, and patient, she does not press the narrator for money when he loses his job. Her extraordinary patience ultimately angers and embarrasses the narrator, who comes to consider her a stereotypical, impoverished black saint. Less sympathetic is Ras the Exhorter, a flamboyant militant who reveals the Brotherhood's deceptions but is consumed by notions of total separation from or destruction of whites. Other characters include Lucius Brockway, the narrator's co-worker at Liberty Paints; Mr. Sparland, owner of Liberty Paints; DuPree, who decides to burn down the Harlem tenement where he lives; Trueblood, the incestuous farmer; Tod Clifton, a member of the Brotherhood who becomes disillusioned; and Brother Tarp and Brother Maceo.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486
It is impossible to discuss even half of the characters that appear in Invisible Man, but each has symbolic overtones contributing to the themes and action, and although most are less complex than they might be, they are consistently fascinating. The nameless narrator is the most thoroughly drawn character, and since the reader experiences all events of the novel from his point of view, the less complex qualities of the others seem, ironically, to show that the narrator is also incapable of seeing others beyond his preconceptions of them: They are as "invisible" to him as he to them. Each step in the narrator's education consists of a revelation in which people reveal that they are not what they seem, or rather, what the narrator wishes them to be. Certainly one of the most enduring qualities of Invisible Man is this gallery of characters, each one of whom provides many opportunities for study and explication.
The earlier parts of the book center on Bledsoe, the college president. As "an example to his race" Bledsoe enjoys the seeming respect of whites and blacks. The narrator fantasizes ascending to Bledsoe's position. However, Bledsoe's true character is revealed when the narrator accidentally reveals aspects of black life (which Bledsoe has spent his life concealing) to Mr. Norton, a white New England benefactor who comically passes out when confronted with an incestuous farmer, black mental patients, and prostitutes. Bledsoe exploits liberal white preconceptions for self-aggrandizement and power over the very people he purports to represent.
Another fascinating character is Jack, the man who recruits the narrator into the Brotherhood. Along with the other members of his organization, he purports to be interested in a world of equality, but he nonetheless is as guilty as a bigot of lumping all blacks into a category. He cannot see beyond the narrow limits of his political dogma, which the narrator finally recognizes in a dramatic scene in which Jack pops out his glass eye. Others connected with the Brotherhood are equally guilty of stereotyping. One man thinks he understands Harlem because he married a black. A woman married to another important "Brother" offers sex to the narrator because of rape fantasies and her notion of male blacks' sexual potency.
The most sympathetic, perhaps too sympathetic, character is Mary, a boarding house operator whose name recalls the mother of Christ. She is kind, long suffering, and patient. For example, when the narrator loses his job, she does not press him for money. Yet, it is her extraordinary patience and ability to take punishment that ultimately makes the narrator wish never to see her. She becomes for him a stereotypical impoverished black saint, and this embarrasses him. In contrast, there is the flamboyant Ras the Exhorter, a militant who reveals the deceptions of the Brotherhood, yet is filled with mad notions of Africa as the Promised Land and total separation from or destruction of whites.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2020
The Reverend Homer A. Barbee
A blind preacher from Chicago of substantial rhetorical skill who gives the Founder's Day speech at the college.
Dr. A. Herbert Bledsoe
Dr. Bledsoe is the president of the college attended by the invisible man. Called ‘‘Old Bucket-head’’ by the students, he is a shrewd survivor who has spent his career humoring the white trustees in the hopes of retaining his position. A person of considerable affectation, he can manage even in striped trousers and a swallow-tail coat topped by an ascot tie to make himself look humble. He is aghast when the invisible man tells him that he took Mr. Norton to see Jim Trueblood because that's what the trustee wanted to do: ‘‘My God, boy! You're black and living in the South—did you forget how to lie?’’ His recipe for success is to attain power and influence by making the right contacts and ‘‘then stay in the dark and use it!’’ His self-interest makes him capable of betrayal, as when he lets the invisible man head off for New York City thinking that the letters he is carrying addressed to various trustees are letters of recommendation.
The invisible man's irascible second supervisor at Liberty Paints. ‘‘Lucius Brockway not only intends to protect hisself, he knows how to do it! Everybody knows I been here ever since there's been a here.’’ His one worry is that the union will do him out of a job.
Brother Tod Clifton
Young and handsome, Clifton is the leader of the Brotherhood youth, ‘‘a hipster, a zoot suiter, a sharpie.’’ He has run-ins with Ras the Exhorter over their philosophical differences. He is friendly and helpful to the invisible man, despite the hero's being made his superior. ‘‘I saw no signs of resentment,’’ says the invisible man in admiration, ‘‘but a complete absorption in the strategy of the meeting…. I had no doubt that he knew his business.’’ Brother Clifton has put his full faith in the brotherhood, and when he is abandoned by it, his despair is total. He plunges ‘‘outside of history,’’ becoming a street peddler selling paper black sambo dolls, and is murdered by the police. His death is a defining moment for the invisible man.
One of the first members of the Brotherhood the invisible man meets. The hero is skeptical of the Brotherhood's motives when he hears Emma ask, ‘‘But don't you think he should be a little blacker?’’
The invisible man's grandfather, whom the protagonist had always thought of as a model of desirable conduct. He is dead when the novel begins, but his influence on the invisible man is powerful. His dying words were, ‘‘Son … I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion's mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open…. Learn it to the younguns.’’ These words prick the invisible man's complacency, and he remembers them as a curse that haunts him throughout his journey, a reminder that all is not right in the world.
The spirited manager at the Golden Day.
Hambro takes the invisible man through a four-month period of intense study and indoctrination after his arena speech to the Brotherhood to correct his ‘‘unscientific’’ tendencies. ‘‘A tall, friendly man, a lawyer, and the Brotherhood's chief theoretician,’’ he tells the invisible man that ‘‘it's impossible not to take advantage of the people…. The trick is to take advantage of them in their own best interest.’’
The unnamed protagonist of the novel. In explaining to the reader what he has done to be so ‘‘black and blue,’’ the hero says, ‘‘I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.’’ By the end of his adventures, he will conclude that ‘‘I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!’’ 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.’’
Although he has the ‘‘queer feeling that I was playing a part in some scheme which I did not understand,’’ he ignores his instincts, as when, for instance, he personally delivers to prospective employers in New York City what he foolishly believes to be positive letters of recommendation from Dr. Bledsoe ‘‘like a hand of high trump cards.’’ For every two steps forward, he takes one back. His experience in the factory hospital, for example, is a kind of awakening, and he develops an ‘‘obsession with my identity’’ that causes him to ‘‘put into words feelings which I had hitherto suppressed.’’ But though he is skeptical of the Brotherhood's motives in recruiting him—‘‘What am I, a man or a natural resource?’’—and their obvious emphasis on the ‘‘we,’’ the invisible man sets aside his misgivings and embraces the organization; ‘‘it was a different, bigger ‘we,’’’ he tells himself. He is kind, joining the Brotherhood partly out of desire to pay Mary Rambo the rent money he owes her, and loyal to people like Brother Tarp and Brother Clifton in whom he senses a fundamental goodness But he is forever second-guessing himself, and it takes the raw injustice of Brother Clifton's murder to spark the invisible man into consciousness: ‘‘Outside the Brotherhood we were outside history; but inside of it they didn't see us…. Now I recognized my invisibility.’’ At first defiant—‘‘But to whom can I be responsible, and why should I be, when you refuse to see me?’’—by the end of the novel the invisible man is ready to come out, ‘‘since there's a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.’’
The Brotherhood's district leader for Harlem, he befriends the invisible man after hearing him address a crowd gathered to witness the eviction of an elderly black couple, and sets about recruiting him to the Brotherhood. That his motives might be suspect is evident from the beginning, when he asks the invisible man, ‘‘How would you like to be the new Booker T. Washington?’’ (Washington was viewed negatively as an accommodationist by many blacks) and warns him, ‘‘You mustn't waste your emotions on individuals, they don't count.’’ Brother Jack turns out to be the author of an anonymous threat mailed to the invisible man.
The invisible man's first supervisor at Liberty Paints.
A white philanthropist and trustee of the college attended by the invisible man, Mr. Norton describes himself as ‘‘a trustee of consciousness’’ and believes that the students of the college are his ‘‘fate.’’ He calls his ‘‘real life's work … my first-hand organizing of human life.’’ A romantic about race, he insists on being taken to the old slave quarters, where he expects to hear a lively folktale but instead is treated to a matter-of-fact account of incest by Jim Trueblood. Norton is the cause of the invisible man's expulsion from the school.
See Dr. A. Herbert Bledsoe
Mary Rambo runs a rooming house and takes the invisible man in after finding him ill in the street following his stay in the factory hospital. The only person to treat him with genuine affection, Mary is cynical about the big city, and puts her faith in the newcomers from the South: ‘‘I'm in New York, but New York ain't in me.’’ The invisible man does not think of Mary as a ‘‘‘friend’; she was something more—a force, a stable, familiar force like something out of my past which kept me from whirling off into some unknown which I dared not face.’’
Ras the Exhorter
Modeled on Marcus Garvey, though not a caricature of him, Ras is a flamboyant West African nationalist who preaches black pride, a return to Mother Africa, and a willingness to die for one's principles. Ras and the Brotherhood are engaged in a perpetual turf war, and Ras repeatedly exhorts the black members of the Brotherhood to remember their history. He says to Brother Tod Clifton: ‘‘You my brother, mahn. Brothers are the same color; how the hell you call these white men brother?… Brothers the same color. We sons of Mama Africa, you done forgot? You black, BLACK!… You African, AFRICAN!’’
A mysterious figure who signs himself a ‘‘Spiritual Technologist.’’ The reader never meets Rinehart, but the invisible man is mistaken for him by so many different people that he ends up putting together a fascinating though confusing composite: ‘‘Still, could he be all of them: Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehart the Reverend. Could he himself be both rind and heart? What is real anyway?… Perhaps the truth was always a lie.’’ It is in trying to figure out Rinehart that the invisible man begins to see both how complex reality is, and that it is possible to live with contradictions.
Wife of a member of the Brotherhood with whom the invisible man has a brief liaison in the hope of gaining inside information on the organization.
An old but ideologically vigorous member of the Brotherhood. ‘‘He can be depended upon in the most precarious circumstance,’’ Brother Jack tells the invisible man. Brother Tarp hangs on the nvisible man's office wall a picture of Frederick Douglass which reminds him of his grandfather. Unlike the invisible man, who left the South more or less voluntarily, Brother Tarp was forced to escape to the North after spending nineteen years on a chain gang because ‘‘I said no to a man who wanted to take something from me.’’ He gives the invisible man a link from his ankle iron as a keepsake.
Once respected as a hard worker and a lively storyteller, Jim Trueblood is a black sharecropper who has since shamed the black community and who shocks Mr. Norton with his matter-of-fact account of incest with his daughter. Despite the awfulness of his crime, Trueblood's refusal to stint on the details or to make excuses for himself reveals a basic integrity that is reflected in his name, and the invisible man listens to him with a mixture of horror and admiration.
Veteran at the Golden Day
A skilled doctor who served in France and on his return to the States is run out of town and ends up in the local mental hospital. He attends to Mr. Norton after his heart attack at the Golden Day. The invisible man is impressed with the bold way the vet talks to the white trustee. The vet is the first person to grasp the invisible man's dilemma: ‘‘You cannot see or hear or smell the truth of what you see.’’
A kindly rubbish man the invisible man meets in the streets of Harlem singing the blues and who makes him think nostalgically of home.
A troublemaker, jealous of the invisible man. He makes a false accusation that indirectly results in the protagonist's being taken out of Harlem and sent downtown.
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