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.
Bell, Bernard W. “Myth, Legend, and Ritual in the Novel of the Fifties.” In The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Proposes that Invisible Man begins in medias res, moves simultaneously in linear, vertical, and circular directions, and offers, in its use of blues, jazz, wry humor, and a mythic death and rebirth motif, a “paradoxical affirmation and rejection of American values.”
Bone, Robert A. The Negro Novel in America. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965. Takes a historical look at the development of the African American novel. Has a section on Ralph Ellison and Invisible Man.
Byerman, Keith E. “History Against History: A Dialectical Pattern in Invisible Man.” In Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Sees Invisible Man as “a crucial text for contemporary black fictionists.” In each of the novel’s major phases, the college, the move to Harlem, and The Brotherhood, Ellison carefully undermines all fixed, cause-and-effect versions of history.
Callahan, John F. “The Historical Frequencies of Ralph Waldo Ellison.” In Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship, edited by Michael S. Harper and Robert S. Stepto. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979. Asserts that Invisible Man’s narrator learns the essential conditions of American life to be “diversity, fluidity, complexity, chaos, swiftness of change,” anything but one-dimensionality—be it racial or otherwise. History in Invisible Man thus means metamorphosis, “many idioms and styles,” rather than the received writ of any one version.
Callahan, John F., ed. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. A collection of critical essays on Invisible Man written by a variety of scholars. Includes an Ellison lecture.
Gayle, Addison, Jr. “Of Race and Rage.” In The Way of the New World. Garden City, N. Y.: Anchor Press, 1975. Suggests this “picturesque novel” to be a four-part history of the “black man’s trials and errors in America.” Argues that the book’s prologue and epilogue add up to a depiction of “soul,” “the richness and fullness” of black heritage. Argues that Invisible Man, however, is to be faulted for its final assimilationism, the flaw of believing in “the path of individualism instead of racial unity.”
Gottesman, Ronald. The Merrill Studies in “Invisible Man.” Westerville, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1971. A collection of essays focuses on Ellison’s thematic concerns, narrative point of view, style, and use of language in Invisible Man.
Hersey, John, ed. Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. A collection of essays on different aspects of Ellison’s work. Provides a panoramic view on Ralph Ellison as an artist, a musician, and a writer. The book also includes John Hersey and James McPherson’s interview with Ellison.
O’Meally, Robert G. The Craft of Ralph Ellison. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980. An excellent study of Ellison’s work. Contains biographical information about the author, a bibliography, and key references on Ellison and Invisible Man.
Ostendorf, Berndt. “Ralph Waldo Ellison: Anthropology, Modernism, and Jazz.” In New Essays on “Invisible Man,” edited by Robert O’Meally. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Interprets Invisible Man through three frames: as a series of ritual transformations, as a work of modernist tactics, and as a jazz improvisation.
Reilly, John M., ed. Twentieth-Century Interpretations of “Invisible Man.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970. Ten interpretations of the novel and five excerpted “viewpoints,” several of which criticize Ellison as insufficiently militant.