Last Updated on June 6, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 276
This book begins with a prologue in which the narrator explains why he has gone underground. Essentially, he has retreated from a society in which he could find no place for himself as an individual. From his subterranean hideout somewhere in the depths of Harlem, he reflects on his past as a means of regrouping in the present and preparing for his future.
He tells an extraordinarily vivid story about his authoritarian Southern background; his confusing experiences as a naive student at a Black college, where he meets a visiting white philanthropist; and his journey to New York City, where he becomes involved with various religious and political groups.
Ellison is a virtuoso stylist who manages to combine the graceful economy of Ernest Hemingway’s best prose with the rather baroque imagination that William Faulkner exemplifies in many of his novels. Thus Ellison’s narrator is thoroughly lucid even as he describes episodes that get at the mystery and confusion of the roles people play in their everyday lives.
Rinehart, a character who never actually appears in the novel, is regarded as the epitome of the role-player. When the narrator is mistaken for Rinehart, he realizes that ultimately he, too, will have to play many roles—that he has, in fact, already played many roles, from Black college student to mental patient to revolutionary and counter-revolutionary.
In addition to being steeped in the themes of American identity that appear in the work of so many authors from Herman Melville to William Faulkner, Ellison also makes splendid use of his musical training by blending jazz lyrics and improvisational motifs that are characteristic of a specifically Black culture.