Places Discussed

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 684

*Harlem

Illustration of PDF document

Download Invisible Man Study Guide

Subscribe Now

*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.

Historical Context

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877

The Great Migration
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s had its genesis in the Great Migration, the move north of 6.5 million black Americans from the rural South. This created large black communities like New York's Harlem and Chicago's South Side. In the early 1900s, black migration increased dramatically with the beginning of World War I in 1914, in response to the demand for factory workers in the North. While the move did not bring social justice to blacks, it did provide some social, financial, and political benefits, and it established the issue of race in the national consciousness. Both Ralph Ellison and his protagonist, like so many before them, made the journey north. When the invisible man tells the vet from the Golden Day that he's going to New York, the vet answers, ‘‘New York! That's not a place, it's a dream. When I was your age it was Chicago. Now all the little black boys run away to New York.’’

Northern black factory workers could expect to make two to ten times as much as their southern counterparts, and thus newly arrived blacks from the South had an uneasy relationship with organized white labor. Their reluctance to jeopardize their access to the industrial job market by taking part in labor agitation was exploited by their employers to frustrate unions who hired black laborers to replace strikers. It was already clear by the 1930s that America's labor movement could only survive through integration, and between 1935 and the end of World War II 500,000 blacks joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). But white opposition to bringing blacks into the unions persisted up to the time Ellison wrote Invisible Man. At Liberty Paints, an office boy tells the invisible man, ‘‘The wise guys firing the regular guys and putting on you colored college boys. Pretty smart. That way they don't have to pay union wages.’’ And when Lucius Brockway mistakenly thinks the invisible man has gone to a labor meeting, he fairly explodes. ‘‘‘That damn union,’ he cried, almost in tears. ‘That damn union! They after my job! For one of us to join one of them damn unions is like we was to bite the hand of the man who teached us to bathe in the bathtub!’’’

American communists strongly advocated racial tolerance, thereby winning the support of black leaders and intellectuals, particularly during the Depression. Like Richard Wright Ellison leaned on the party for financial support and because it offered him a way of getting published. Nevertheless, Ellison objected to what he considered to be a kind of thought control, and he never became a party member. During World War II, when the party advised against pushing issues of racial segregation in the U.S. armed forces, Ellison became disillusioned. In Invisible Man, the hero returns from an absence only to discover that ‘‘there had been, to my surprise, a switch in emphasis from local issues to those more national and international in scope, and it was felt for the moment the interests of Harlem were not of first importance.’’

Nationhood and Civil Rights
In 1916, Marcus Garvey came to the United States from Jamaica and founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Like Ras the Exhorter in Invisible Man, Garvey was an ardent and flamboyant nationalist, and he electrified Harlem with his message of black pride and self-determination through the recolonization of Africa. But Garvey's arguments for racial separation were at odds with the integrationist efforts of communists, and the schism between the two groups would outlast Garvey's political demise in 1921. Another significant black nationalist figure of the 1930s was Sufi Abdul Mohammed; elements of his colorful personality turn up in Invisible Man in both Ras the Exhorter and Rinehart, the mysterious numbers runner and preacher.

Some 400,000 black soldiers served in World War I, but they found that their devotion did not translate into respect abroad during the war or at home after it. Once overseas, blacks were relegated to menial tasks, were passed over for combat duty, and were subjected to continual harassment by whites. The society to which they returned was even more conservative on issues of race than the one they had left. The black press, particular W. E. B. Du Bois's influential magazine The Crisis, was loud in its condemnation of reports of discriminatory treatment made by returning black soldiers. The outrage felt by black veterans is described in an incident in Invisible Man, where a group of black World War I veterans cause a disturbance at a whorehouse and bar called the Golden Day. One veteran describes how he had served as a surgeon in France under the Army Medical Corps but was chased out of town on his return to America.

The prospect of a new draft in the wake of the eruption of conflict in Europe again in 1939 led to civil rights protests in the early 1940s and violent racial incidents between white southerners and black northerners at military bases across the United States. The issue was responsible for the Harlem riot of 1943. The climax of Invisible Man is a riot in Harlem allegedly instigated by the Brotherhood; the event is based in part on a riot that occurred there in 1935, which some commentators blamed on communist agitators.

Setting

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 136

The story takes place in a small southern town, at the nearby college for blacks, and in New York City during the late 1930s. Although Ellison denies any autobiographical elements in the novel, the town and college are reminiscent of his ownTuskegee Institute. More important than the place is the time of the setting. The narrator arrives in New York during the rise of socialism, expecting to contribute to and benefit from the changing times. Instead, he is continually duped. He lives in a basement apartment illuminated by 1,369 light bulbs, which provide, symbolically, enough light to examine his identity but which physically would produce enough heat to destroy life. Through a mistake, the power company pays his electric bill. A cave dweller, invisible to the world, the narrator searches for enlightenment within a supposedly enlightened society.

Literary Style

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 794

Point of View
At the outset of Invisible Man, the unnamed hero is in transition. He has discovered that he is invisible and has retreated from the world in defiance; but the reader senses that all is not resolved. In the adventure that the invisible man proceeds to relate in the first person (‘‘I’’), his voice changes over time from that of a naive young man, to someone who is clearly more responsible though still confused, to a person willing to deal with the world whatever the risks. The novel is framed by a Prologue and Epilogue. The story opens in the present, switches to flashback, and then returns to the present, but a step forward from the Prologue. Writing down the story has helped the hero to make up his mind about things. Leonard J. Deutsch attributes the complexity of the novel in part to this juxtaposition of perspectives of the ‘‘I’’ of the naive boy and the ‘‘I’’ of the older, wiser narrator. Anthony West, on the other hand, writing in The New Yorker, called the Prologue and the Epilogue ‘‘intolerably arty … the two worst pieces of writing in the work.’’

Setting
Invisible Man is set in an indeterminate time frame sometime between the 1930s and 1950s. The protagonist's adventures take him from an unnamed southern town to New York City, mirroring the migration during the period of the novel of over a quarter of a million African Americans from the rural South to the urban North in search of jobs. The novel opens on the campus of a southern black college whose buildings and environs are repeatedly described in honeyed terms. Nevertheless, in retrospect the hero remembers it also as a flower-studded wasteland maintained by the money of white philanthropists blind to the surrounding poverty. The action then moves to Harlem, a part of New York City associated with several political and cultural elements of importance in the novel: the active recruiting of black intellectuals by the Communist party in the United States, the rise of black nationalism, and the golden age of jazz.

Symbol
Invisible Man is rich with symbols that have given critics fertile ground for interpretation. For example, the ‘‘battle royal’’ that opens the book represents the novel in a nutshell and serves as a microcosmic portrayal of race relations in a socially segregated society. The narrator will clutch to him the briefcase the Board of Education awards him throughout his adventures, though he will burn its contents—which symbolize his middle-class aspirations—at the end. Ellison gives his characters names that often suggest something about their personalities, for example, Dr. Bledsoe, Jim Trueblood, Brother Wrestrum, or equally significant, as in the case of the protagonist, he does not name them at all. Songs figure significantly in the novel. In the prologue, for instance, the hero remembers the words to a Louis Armstrong song, ‘‘What did I do / To be so black / And blue?’’ and at the end of the catastrophic visit to the slave quarters, which will result in the hero's expulsion from college, the children are singing, ‘‘London Bridge Is Falling Down.’’ The lobotomy-like operation undertaken to make the hero more amiable backfires and instead brings him somewhat to himself, constituting a symbolic rebirth.

Literary Styles
The many stylistic elements used in Invisible Man are part of what make it such a literary tour de force. Warren French, for example, has described the formal organization of the narrative as ‘‘a series of nested boxes that an individual, trapped in the constricting center, seeks to escape.’’ Several critics cite the use of varied literary styles, from the naturalism of the events at the college campus, to the expressionism, or subjective emotions, of the hero's time with the Brotherhood, to the surrealism that characterizes the riot at the end of the novel. Invisible Man can be classed as a bildungsroman, or novel of education, similar to Voltaire's Candide, in which the hero moves from innocence to experience. It has also been called picaresque because of the episodic nature of the hero's adventures, but this term implies a shallowness that the invisible man is finally able to overcome. Comedy and irony are used to good effect in both the episode with Jim Trueblood and the scene at the Golden Day. But most important, Ellison drew on the knowledge of African American folklore he acquired in his days with the Federal Writers Project, and the influence of that tradition, particularly jazz and the blues, is inextricably woven into the thought and speech of the characters. The Reverend Homer A. Barbee's address, for example, is alive with gospel rhythms: ‘‘‘But she knew, she knew! She knew the fire! She knew the fire! She knew the fire that burned without consuming! My God, yes!’’’

Literary Techniques

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495

Invisible Man is primarily a naturalistic novel, rather than a realistic one. As in the novels of Emile Zola, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris, the characters are limited by the circumstances of birth, intelligence, and social upbringing, seriously raising questions of the existence of free will in human beings. As Ihab Hassan observed, the characters are "sleepwalkers all, captives of their particular illusion, hence grotesques in the sense Sherwood Anderson gave to that word." Critics have pointed out that each turn in the narrator's fate is based not upon some willing act of his own, but upon accidental occurrences. Only the narrator's acceptance of invisibility seems to be an act of will, and yet even his discovery of the underground is precipitated by an accident. Also in the tradition of naturalism is the general tendency to have the characters represent types of people, rather than idiosyncratic individuals. Despite the fascinating array of characters, most can be generalized. Ras might be typical of back-to-Africa extremists, Bledsoe of establishment black leaders, and Norton of deluded philanthropists. To say, however, that Invisible Man is unrealistic is not to denigrate it. The novel operates on a near mythic level in which the interplay of symbols and meaning is designed to create greater insight than strict realism can give.

Ellison also exhibits greater flexibility than most of the naturalist writers. Invisible Man is often described as being surrealistic, because of the other worldliness of certain scenes and because it tries to go beyond reality to a higher level of truth. The dreamlike quality of the hospital scene, for example, is certainly not realistic and goes beyond the usual techniques of naturalism — although one can find dream sequences in Zola and others. As a whole, however, the novel cannot properly be called surreal, as its distortions are not sufficiently disorienting and because Ellison so strongly evokes a realistic sense of place. The feeling of the black college in the South and of Harlem are vivid and capture the corresponding reality of such places. Despite Ellison's occasional forays into the more adventurous techniques of the dream landscape, he tightly holds the reins and keeps Invisible Man within the limits of naturalism.

Another aspect of Ellison's technique, which has already been alluded to, is his frequent use of puns, allusions, and blatant symbolism. These literary devices create a detachment in the reader and a strong awareness of the presence of the novelist. If one, for example, notes that the name Tod means "death" in German and links it to Tod Clifton's fate, one takes pleasure in the author's cleverness, but in doing so, becomes aware of the book as contrivance, an awareness authors of the realistic school try to discourage. As earlier mentioned, these devices constitute a major portion of the techniques of postmodernism, and although they are neither invented by Ellison nor turn Invisible Man into a so-called "experimental" novel, they do add another level of complexity to an already complex book.

Literary Qualities

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589

As in the naturalistic novels of Emile Zola, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris, characters in Invisible Man are limited by the circumstances of birth, intelligence, and social upbringing. The naturalistic tradition raises serious questions about the existence of free will in human beings. Critics have pointed out that each turn in the fate of Ellison's narrator is based not upon willed action but upon accidental occurrence. Only the narrator's acceptance of invisibility seems an act of will. Also in the tradition of naturalism is the characters' general tendency to represent types rather than unique individuals. Despite the book's fascinating array of characters, most can be generalized: Ras is a typical backto- Africa extremist, Bledsoe an establishment black leader, and Norton a deluded philanthropist. Invisible Man operates on a near-mythic level where the interplay of symbols and meaning creates greater insight than a work of strict realism could provide.

Ellison exhibits greater flexibility than most naturalistic writers. Invisible Man is often described as surrealistic because of the otherworldliness of certain passages. As a whole, however, the novel cannot properly be labelled surreal; its distortions are not sufficiently disorienting, and Ellison strongly evokes a realistic sense of place. His vivid descriptions of Harlem and of the black college in the South capture the corresponding realities of such places. Despite Ellison's occasional forays into the more adventurous literary technique of the dream landscape, he keeps Invisible Man within the limits of naturalism.

Another literary device is Ellison's frequent use of puns, allusions, and blatant symbolism to create a sense of detachment in the reader and a strong awareness of the novelist's presence. Tod Clifton's first name, for example, means "death" in German. In light of Clifton's fate, Ellison's choice of name can be considered either a clever stroke or a contrivance. Characteristic of postmodernism, such deliberately playful, self-conscious techniques do not necessarily earn Invisible Man classification as an "experimental" novel, but they do add another level of complexity to an already complex book.

I am what I am.
Ellison's concept of the art of writing is strongly grounded in the tradition of Western literature. Critics have identified possible influences on Ellison's work ranging from the Russian authors whom he admired to other black American authors. One obvious literary precedent is Feodor Dostoevski's Notes from the Underground, in which the narrator becomes "The Underground Man" in order to distance himself from conventional society and thereby find his true self. Similarities in theme and structure create strong parallels between Dostoevski's short novel and Ellison's longer one. Further connections have been drawn with Richard Wright's short story "The Man Who Lived Underground." The nameless narrator of Invisible Man is clearly a descendant of Franz Kafka's Joseph K. in The Trial, particularly in his complicity in his own abuse. Invisible Man also contains numerous allusions to T. S. Eliot's poem "Ash Wednesday" and drama Family Reunion.

Because of its subject matter, Ellison's novel naturally draws upon the work of many American authors—among them nineteenth-century writers such as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson's philosophy of transcendentalism, in particular, forms a foundation for the narrator's quest for independence and his eventual acceptance of invisibility.

Ellison and Richard Wright grew to be close friends upon Ellison's arrival in New York in 1936. The older author encouraged Ellison to write, and Invisible Man bears the strong marks of Wright's influence. Other black Americans who influenced Ellison's work include James Weldon Johnson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, Claude Mc- Kay, and Jean Toomer.

Social Concerns

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 750

Although Invisible Man has universal appeal in its reflection of the human condition, it is deeply rooted in the social problems faced by blacks in the United States. After World War II, great changes in the relationships between the races were obviously on the way. The military was desegregated, the color barriers in sports were brought down, and, about the time Invisible Man .was published, the Supreme Court made its historic ruling against separate but equal schools. One of the reasons Invisible Man has been an enduring work is its contribution over the past thirty-five years to the ongoing dialogue between blacks and whites. The novel is subtler than most works dealing with racial oppression. Telling the tale through symbolism and certain deliberate distortions, it avoids being either a political harangue or a simple allegory. Its generally naturalistic style allows readers of any race to identify with the main character's humiliations, disappointments, and anger. Neither whites nor blacks are portrayed as being totally evil, nor totally without flaw, as one sees in the politically effective, but now virtually unread, Uncle Tom's Cabin (Stowe, 1852).

Another of Ellison's primary concerns is the extent to which black culture has formed and contributed to American culture, although that contribution has been absorbed and ignored. A powerful image in the novel which demonstrates this relationship is the episode at the paint factory in which the narrator mixes black dope into white paint. The dope disappears into the white without darkening it, but the paint will not dry properly without the additive. Also, the narrator discovers that deep in the bowels of the factory is an old black man whose intuitive operation of the boilers is superior to any engineer's and who makes the paint possible. Similar light and dark imagery weaves through the book. With a strong background in jazz, perhaps Ellison has always been more aware of the symbiotic relationship between the races. Jazz has been called America's major contribution to Western music and is primarily black in origin. In an interview with John Hersey, Ellison explained, "What makes for a great deal of black fury is the refusal of many Americans to understand that somebody paid for the nation's peace and prosperity in terms of blood and frustrated dreams." He adds that it was not only blacks who paid for America's success, thereby widening the category of underprivileged who became "invisible" as they were absorbed into the mainstream white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture.

Additional Commentary

Of universal appeal in its reflection of the human condition, Invisible Man is deeply rooted in the social problems faced by blacks in the United States. After World War II race relations began to shift dramatically: the military was desegregated, the color barriers in sports broke down, and, in 1954, the Supreme Court made its historic ruling against racial segregation in Brown us. Board of Education. More than thirty-five years after its publication, Invisible Man remains a timely book because of its ongoing contributions to breaking down prejudice. Subtler than most works dealing with racial oppression, the book employs symbolism and deliberate distortions to make its points, and successfully avoids being labeled a political harangue or a simple allegory. Ellison refrains from turning any of his characters into one-dimensional paradigms of good or evil, and readers of all races can identify with the main character's humiliations, disappointments, and anger.

One of Ellison's primary concerns is the extent to which black culture has been absorbed and ignored by an American culture it helped form. Two episodes at the paint factory where the narrator works are emblematic of this relationship. First, the narrator must mix black dope into white paint; the dope disappears without darkening the white paint, but the paint will not dry properly without the additive. Second, the narrator discovers that an old black man who works deep in the bowels of the factory intuitively understands how the boilers operate and makes the paint's production possible. Ellison weaves similar light and dark imagery through the book.

In an interview with John Hersey, Ellison explains, "What makes for a great deal of black fury is the refusal of many Americans to understand that somebody paid for the nation's peace and prosperity in terms of blood and frustrated dreams." He adds that underprivileged citizens of all races have become "invisible" as they are absorbed into mainstream white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture. Invisible Man treats the plight of all "invisible" citizens with sensitivity but challenges the society that continues to deny them full individuality.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 284

  • 1930s: Following an active policy of inclusion, the Communist party recruits many black leaders and thinkers.

    1952: A ‘‘witch-hunt’’ for communists begun by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy continues through the early 1950s and ruins many careers.

    Today: The 1980s see the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. In America, politics is increasingly middle-of-the-road. American communists are a small fringe group.

  • 1930s: The U.S. labor movement gains support under the New Deal, but prejudice against African Americans is widespread.

    1952: Union membership peaks in 1945 at 35.5% of the non-agricultural workforce and is still strong in the 1950s.

    Today: Unions are fully integrated. But membership is at an all-time low, and unions are forced to compromise on wages and benefits to preserve jobs.

  • 1930s: Brain surgery to correct the behavior of mentally ill patients, or lobotomy, is widely practiced between 1936 and 1956.

    1952: Lobotomy is largely abandoned in favor of alternative treatments including tranquilizers and psychotherapy.

    Today: Psychoactive drugs have become the first line of treatment for mental illness, and a de-emphasis of institutional care and the closing of mental hospitals have produced increased homelessness.

  • 1930s: Big bands in the swing era give way to bebop, the basis for modern jazz, which arises in Kansas City and Harlem. Major influences are Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonius Monk.

    1952: Progressive, or cool, jazz, with less convoluted melodic lines, begins in New York City in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Lester Young and Miles Davis are major figures in the movement, which is better received critically than bebop.

    Today: After a period of several decades of experimentation, including a style called fusion, jazz settles into a revivalist phase. Popular artists include Wynton and Branford Marsalis, David Murray, and John Carter.

Literary Precedents

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

Echoes of an extraordinary variety of earlier authors have been found in Invisible Man. Ellison himself was familiar with a great number of writers and his whole concept of the art of writing seems based on the tradition of Western literature. Critics have therefore traced the outlines of such disparate sources as the Russian authors which Ellison has admired (and upon whom he has lectured) to black American authors. The most obvious literary precedent is Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground (1864), in which the narrator becomes "The Underground Man" in order to distinguish himself from conventional society and to find his authentic self. Affinities of theme and structure create strong parallels between Dostoevsky's short novel and Ellison's longer one, although the connections have been argued to have been transmitted through Richard Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground." Parallels with Franz Kafka's The Trial (1925) can also be seen. The nameless narrator of Invisible Man is clearly a descendent of Kafka's Joseph K., particularly in his complicity in his own abuse. By trying to work within absurd rules, both characters compound the difficulties of their situations. Among other strong European influences is the picaresque tradition, in which a hero encounters a number of characters and situations on his way to self-discovery, and Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce.

Because of the subject, the novel naturally draws from many American authors. At Tuskegee, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) helped awaken Ellison to literature as he wondered why nothing as accomplished had been created to explicate the black experience. Numerous allusions to Eliot's great poem can be found in Invisible Man. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday" (1930) and Family Reunion (1939) are also alluded to. Several nineteenth-century Americans, including Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville (especially in The Confidence Man, 1857), and Ralph Waldo Emerson, have thematic consequence in the novel, particularly the latter. Transcendentalism has been argued to be an important influence on Ellison, as the narrator achieves a transcendent independence in his acceptance of invisibility. Loose connections have also been found to the themes of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.

When Ellison came to New York in the 1930s, he grew very close to Richard Wright and his earliest opportunities in writing were largely through Wright's encouragement. As Ellison's early short stories bear the strong marks of Wright's influence, so does Invisible Man, although Ellison (who usually denied being anything like the disciple of Wright that others who knew them described) has plainly broken free of imitating his patron. Among other black American influences found in Invisible Man are the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) by James Weldon Johnson, The Souls of Black Folk (1903) by W. E. B, Dubois, the poems of Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer. There are other precedents and influences too numerous to mention because of Ellison's broad reading and artistic concerns. Invisible Man is a rich mine of antecedents and influences.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13

Invisible Man was recorded by Dr. Marion J. Smith for Golden Voice Production, 1993.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 614

Sources
Bellow, Saul. ‘‘Man Underground,’’ in Commentary, June, 1952, pp. 608-10.

Bishop, John. Ralph Ellison. Black Americans of Achievement. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

Deutsch, Leonard J. ‘‘Ralph Ellison,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography Volume 2: American Novelists since World War II, edited by Jeffrey Helterman and Richard Layman. Gale Research, 1978, pp. 136-40.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. Vintage Books (30th Anniversary Edition).

Emanuel, James A., and Theodore L. Gross, eds. Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America. New York: The Free Press, Collier-Macmillian, Limited, 1968, pp. 253-94.

French, Warren. ‘‘Invisible Man,’’ in Reference Guide to American Literature, 3rd edition. St. James Press, 1994, pp. 993-94.

Howe, Irving. ‘‘Black Boys and Native Sons,’’ in Dissent, Autumn, 1963.

Johnson, Charles. ‘‘The Singular Vision of Ralph Ellison,’’ preface to Invisible Man. Modern Library, 1994, pp. vii-xii.

Littlejohn, David. In Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes. Viking, pp. 110-19.

Margolies, Edward. ‘‘History as Blues: Ralph Ellison's ‘Invisible Man,’’’ in his Native Sons: A Critical Study of Twentieth-Century Negro American Authors. Lippincott, 1968, pp. 127-48.

Ousby, Ian. Fifty American Novels: A Reader’s Guide. London: Heinemann, 1979, pp. 329–34.

Reilly, John M., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Invisible Man. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970.

West, Anthony. ‘‘Black Man's Burden,’’ in The New Yorker, Volume 28, No. 15, May 31, 1952, pp. 93-96.

Further Reading
Benston, Kimberly W., ed. Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison. Howard University Press, 1987. A wide-ranging collection of essays on Ellison's fiction and nonfiction, as well as interviews with Ellison and poems written in his honor.

Ellison, Ralph. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan. Modern Library, 1995. A recent collection of all of Ellison's essays, reviews, and interviews, some previously unpublished. Includes the complete text of Ellison's two published collections, Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory, as well as his introduction to the Thirtieth Anniversary Edition of Invisible Man.

Ellison, Ralph. Conversations with Ralph Ellison, edited by Maryemma Graham and Amritjit Singh. University Press of Mississippi, 1995. A collection of interviews with Ellison including considerable commentary on Invisible Man.

Hersey, John, ed. Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays. Prentice-Hall, 1974. A collection of early reviews, an interview with Ellison, and several important essays on Invisible Man.

Nadel, Alan. Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon. University of Iowa Press, 1988. Nadel reads Ellison's novel as a commentary on the formation of the American literary canon through its allusions to canonical figures such as Emerson, Melville, and Twain.

O'Meally, Robert G. The Craft of Ralph Ellison. Harvard University Press, 1980. An important critical study of Ellison's life and his writing, with particular attention to Ellison's characters and the ‘‘fictional world’’ they inhabit.

O'Meally, Robert G., ed. New Essays on Invisible Man. Cambridge University Press, 1988. A collection of five recent essays on Invisible Man with an historical overview in O'Meally's Introduction.

Parr, Susan Resneck, and Pancho Savery. Approaches to Teaching Ellison's Invisible Man. Modern Language Association, 1980. Though intended primarily for teachers, this collection of brief essays also offers the first-time reader several productive avenues into Ellison's novel.

Remnick, David. ‘‘Visible Man.’’ In The New Yorker, March 14, 1994, pp 34-38. Published just one month before Ellison's death, this essay discusses the importance of his writings to discussions of race in America since the 1960s.

Sundquist, Eric J., ed. Cultural Contexts for Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Bedford, 1995. This useful collection ‘‘illuminates and contextualizes’’ Ellison's novel by gathering various historical and cultural documents, including speeches, essays, songs, and folktales.

Trimmer, Joseph F., ed. A Casebook on Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Thomas Y. Crowell, 1972. A collection of essays that places Ellison in the context of both a ‘‘racial heritage’’ and an ‘‘artistic heritage’’ and concludes with a listing of ‘‘possible discussion questions or research topics.’’

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581

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.

For Further Reference

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 206

Bone, Robert. "Ralph Ellison and the Uses of Imagination." In Modern Black Novelists: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by M. G. Cooke. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971. Explores Ellison's techniques, beliefs, and literary forebears.

Covo, Jacqueline. The Blinking Eye: Ralph Waldo Ellison. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1974. Bibliography and essays on Ellison's reception among American, French, German, and Italian critics.

Gottesman, Ronald, ed. The Merrill Studies in "Invisible Man." Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill, 1971. Includes essays by various critics and an interview with Ellison.

Gottschalk, Jane. "Sophisticated Jokes: The Use of American Authors in Invisible Man." Renascence (Winter 1978): 69-77. Traces influences on the novel.

Hassan, Ihab. Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971. Contains critical commentary.

Hersey, John, ed. Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974. An interview with Ellison and a variety of essays and excerpts by critics.

Karl, Frederick R. American Fictions 1940-1980. New York: Harper and Row, 1983. A general work placing Ellison in the context of other American writers.

Reilly, John M., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of "Invisible Man." Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970. Essays by various critics.

Tanner, Tony. City of Words. New York: Harper and Row, 1971. An excellent analysis of Ellison's themes and techniques.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Characters

Next

Critical Essays

Explore Study Guides