Last Updated on January 4, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 961
Invisible Man is a 1952 novel by American author Ralph Ellison. The novel tells the story of an unnamed Black man who, after years of struggling for success and recognition in academia and social justice movements, covertly takes up residence in the basement of a whites-only apartment building to live in secret.
Told from the man’s first-person point of view, the text opens with the narrator explaining that he is “invisible”—not, he notes, for any magic or metaphysical reason. Instead, those around him simply neglect to perceive him. Explaining that this invisibility allows him to live in the world without responsibility or culpability, he proceeds to tell the reader how he came to embrace invisibility and his chosen exemption from the outside world.
This flashback structure serves as a useful narrative frame to meter the reader’s expectations. While the character encounters severe danger at multiple points throughout the text, the reader knows that the story ends with the narrator telling his own tale. He may not be completely unscathed, and may in fact be traumatized by some of his experiences, but he does make it through them alive and in reasonably good spirits. His narration, while sometimes caustic, is often wry and playful.
Ellison uses the narrator’s self-proclaimed invisibility to explore several major themes throughout the work. The narrator’s invisibility can, of course, be interpreted as an illustration of both racism and classism, and the many ways in which the most privileged can overlook other populations on both of these grounds; the narrator’s level of “invisibility” often fluctuates within the text according to his perceived importance to the other characters in the scene. Racism and classism both feature heavily in the text, and the characters with racial and financial privilege often oppress those without in an ongoing series of attempts to consolidate and retain their own power.
The narrator’s invisibility can also be viewed as an exploration of identity and dispossession. While the present-day version of the narrator who introduces himself to the reader seems fairly comfortable in his identity as the “Invisible Man,” his earlier self lacks this confidence. Throughout the narrative, he is constantly trying to settle the question of his own identity without much concrete success.
At three significant points throughout the work, the narrator’s identity is very literally taken from him. After his fight with Lucius Brockwell at Liberty Paint, he is forcibly lobotomized in the factory hospital. This changes an aspect of his personality without his consent, which is a loss of identity, as well as temporarily wiping his memory. He awakes from the procedure unsure of his own name.
When the narrator begins work with the social justice organization known as the Brotherhood, a condition of his employment is that he divest himself of his prior identity and assume a new one. He consents to this without too much in-text introspection, but it ultimately becomes one of the factors by which the Brotherhood exerts control. He is on their payroll, living in one of their properties, working under one of their conjured identities, and subject entirely to their whims.
At the end of the text, when he falls into the manhole after escaping Ras the Destroyer, the narrator is forced to burn everything in his briefcase to light his way underground. This includes his identification but also his hard-won diploma and all the ephemera from his old life. This is, perhaps, the most painful loss of identity, but it also becomes the most transformative—when he burns these items, he realizes that his ties to the world aboveground are so minimal that doesn’t actually need to return at all. He is untethered from his aboveground responsibilities, free to decide what’s next on his own terms.
This, arguably, represents the narrator’s first display of true agency within the context of his big-picture life decisions. For the majority of his life until this point, his decisions have been passive rather than active. Circumstances happen to him, and he goes along with them. He is sent to New York as punishment, so he goes to New York for the rest of his life; he is sent to Liberty Paint, so he gets a job at Liberty Paint; he is invited to go live at Miss Mary’s house, so he moves to Miss Mary’s house; he is invited to join the Brotherhood, so he makes that his life’s work; and so on. Even his greatest skill, as an extemporaneous speaker, is representative of this: on more than one occasion, he starts giving a speech without knowing what he’s talking about or who he agrees with and simply talks until the people applaud.
This ongoing tendency to be passively assumed into an experience is best encapsulated in a brief vignette from the book’s final chapters. Caught up in the riot in Morningside, he helps a group of men burn down their own tenement building while only very briefly wondering whether he should stop them or if he wants to be doing this at all.
When he decides to stay underground for good, rather than seek out connections to his old life, the narrator is still passively accepting an unintentional fate. But this time, he’s doing so in a way that allows him to exempt himself from any further manipulation by those aboveground. By taking it a step further and leveraging his invisibility to evade culpability for his actions, even his violent ones, he is repudiating the circumstances that sent his life awry in the first place: at the story’s beginning, he is blamed for everything, and it destroys his entire future. By the end, he can’t be blamed for anything at all.