Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Harlem. African American neighborhood of New York City’s Upper Manhattan in which much of the action takes place. The unnamed narrator lives there after the explosion of the paint factory. A surrealistic vision of the real city, the Harlem setting allows him to mix with a wide variety of people, from wealthy white women, who believe him to be a powerful, savage lover, to poor black prostitutes, who mistake him for a pimp named Rinehart. In Harlem readers see that the “invisible man” is not only invisible to whites but to fellow African Americans, as well. None of the characters, white or black, can see past racial and cultural stereotypes into the real invisible man.

Jack-the-Bear’s “hole.”

Jack-the-Bear’s “hole.” Apartment of the narrator in a white neighborhood near Harlem. Deep in the bowels of a “whites only” building, the apartment is a section of a basement that was walled off and forgotten in the nineteenth century, just as black America was walled off and forgotten after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. There the narrator steals electricity, thereby remaining invisible to the power company, and wires every inch of his walls and ceiling with more than one thousand light bulbs to bathe himself in brilliant light as he seeks knowledge about himself and his race.

State college

State college. Unnamed black college in Alabama to which the narrator wins a scholarship. Modeled on Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, the college embodies the educational ideals of Booker T. Washington, who advocated gradual progress for blacks and continued separation of the races. The college’s central fountain is broken and dry, suggesting the exhaustion of Washington’s outmoded, conciliatory policies. The college is a model community in which “model” black citizens present to white benefactors a whitewashed version of black America—a veil behind which real black life is kept hidden.

The Quarters

The Quarters. Poverty-stricken black community near the state college. There one of the college’s white founders, Mr. Norton, encounters black poverty in the flesh for the first time: People live in shacks as squalid as those from antebellum days, suggesting how little progress African Americans have been permitted to make. In contrast to the ivy-covered buildings and manicured lawns of the “show” college, the Quarters features the weathered shacks and shabby farms that typified much of southern black life in the age of widespread sharecropping and Jim Crow laws. Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the college, keeps his white benefactors from seeing the Quarters. Thus, the truth of black life remains hidden behind the veil that is the college.

Golden Day

Golden Day. Bar and brothel near the college, that is a microcosm of an insane society built on racism and hypocrisy. The Golden Day is filled with the “veterans,” patients from a nearby asylum, a group that includes World War I veterans and a variety of educated black professionals. They are considered insane because the veterans expected to return from the war to a Golden Day of full integration, and the professionals—doctors, chemists, and others—also expected to take their rightful places in society. The Golden Day and the asylum are, like the Quarters, kept carefully hidden behind the whitewashed veil that is the college, and they, too, represent hidden truths about black American life and the effects of racism.

Liberty Paint Factory

Liberty Paint Factory. New York factory in which the narrator gets his first job. There, too, he remains invisible as pro-union workers revile him as a scab and his supervisor, old Lucius Brockway, reviles him first as a spy, then as a union organizer. The enormous factory produces the whitest of white paints by adding a few drops of black pigment to each bucket, suggesting the hidden black foundations (stolen slave labor) underlying much of America’s industry and culture.

Factory hospital

Factory hospital. Medical facility in which doctors treat the narrator for injuries he receives in the paint factory explosion. They do not see him as a human being, but as a research subject, so he remains invisible even in the hospital.