Invisible Man Additional Summary

Ralph Ellison


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The narrator and protagonist in the novel is nameless. An innocent teenager, he was born and grew up in the South of the United States. He is used to the social patterns of the region. With maturity, the narrator gradually recognizes the chaotic understructure of “orderly” society. The demarcation line between the “two” societies is blurred in his mind for the first time when he hears his grandfather’s deathbed instruction to his father. Although the old man seemed to be “obedient” and “obsequious” all his life, he tells his son and grandchildren that he was “a traitor all his born days, a spy in the enemy’s country” and advises them to overcome their enemies “with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.”

Later the narrator witnesses a formal social function that is attended by all “big shots” of the town. The party degenerates into a nightmare of barbarity, vulgarity, and bestial desire. At the battle royal, black students are asked to fight each other for white people’s entertainment. The black students are forced to watch a naked white woman dance; they are also urged by the audience to pick up coins on electrified rugs (the coins later turn out to be advertisement souvenirs). As a reward for his Booker-T.-Washington kind of valedictory speech, the narrator receives a calfskin briefcase. That night, the narrator dreams of meeting his grandfather, who tells him to read a note in the briefcase. The note says: “To Whom It May Concern: Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.”

As part of the prize for his speech, the narrator also receives a scholarship to go to college. What he learns there, however, only further confuses him: A white philanthropist and a black sharecropper share the same kind of incestuous desire for their daughters. A black minister who gives a wonderful speech about the importance of education turns out to be blind. The...

(The entire section is 811 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ellison’s Invisible Man is framed by a prologue and an epilogue that are set at a time after the completion of the novel’s central action. The novel’s picaresque story of a young black man’s misadventures is presented as a memoir written by an older, more experienced embodiment of the protagonist. The narrator of the prologue and epilogue has withdrawn into a state he calls “hibernation” after surviving the multiple deceptions and betrayals that he recounts in his memoir. As he says, “the end is the beginning and lies far ahead.”

The prologue foreshadows the novel’s action. It prepares the reader for the narrator’s final condition; focuses the reader’s attention on the major themes of truth, responsibility, and freedom; and introduces the reader to the double consciousness that operates in the book. Throughout the novel, the naïve assumptions of the youthful protagonist are counterbalanced by the cynical judgments of his more mature self, creating an ironic double perspective.

The broken narrator to whom the reader is introduced in the prologue is hiding in an underground room, stealing power from the Monopolated Power Company to light the thousands of bulbs he has strung up. An angry and damaged man, he explains his frustration at his “invisibility,” a quality that prevents others from seeing anything but “surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination.” The narrator experiences a desperate need to convince himself that he does “exist in the real world.” As he listens to Louis Armstrong’s recording of “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?” he dreams and then recounts his experiences.

The first episode, which goes back to his graduation from a black high school in the South, is a representative anecdote, a story that sets the pattern and themes of subsequent misadventures. Throughout Invisible Man, the young hero builds illusory expectations based on the deceitful promises of people who set themselves up as his mentors. In each cycle, he is eventually disillusioned by a dramatic revelation of deceit and sent spiraling toward his final confrontation with himself.

In the initial episode, he is invited to repeat his valedictory speech before the white leaders of the town. These men, however, humiliate him and some other black youths by forcing them to engage in a “battle royal,” a blindfolded fistfight in which the last standing participant is victorious. They also tempt the black youths to fight for counterfeit coins tossed on an electrified rug, and they rudely disregard the protagonist’s remarks when he is finally allowed to speak.

The episode demonstrates how racist leaders disempower African Americans by encouraging them to direct their anger at one another while rewarding the more acceptable submissive behavior, such as the protagonist’s speech about “social responsibility.” Although the corrupt and even bestial nature of these men is clear to the reader, the protagonist is blinded by his eagerness to succeed, and he gratefully accepts the briefcase he is given after his speech.

Ellison develops the ocular symbols of blindness/sight, darkness/light in this episode that are used in the novel to describe the protagonist’s invisibility and his stumbling quest for truth. It also introduces the briefcase, a symbol of his naïve effort to accept prescribed identities. The briefcase stays with him until the end of the novel, accumulating objects and documents to represent the false identities he assumes. These two symbols...

(The entire section is 1460 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Having spoken in the prologue of his need to come out into the light, to surface from a building that has been “rented strictly to whites” and “shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century,” the narrator gives immediate notice that he is telling not a single but a typological, or multiple, story. Everything that has happened to him bears the shadow of prior African American history. He vows, however, that all past “hibernation,” all past “invisibility,” must now end. It falls to him to “illuminate”—that is, literally and figuratively to write into being—the history that has at once made both him and black America at large so “black and blue” but that has also represented a triumph of human survival and art.

To that end, he steps back into Dixie and into a “Battle Royal,” a brawl in which a group of blindfolded black boys fight for the entertainment of whites. The scene gives a crucial point of departure for the novel. In fighting “blind,” the boys illustrate an ancestral divide-and-rule tactic of the white South; the boys’ reward is money from an electrified rug. Equally, when a sumptuous white stripper dances before the townsmen, an American flag tattooed between her thighs, the ultimate taboo looms temptingly yet impossibly before the black boys. Literally with blood in his throat, the narrator thanks his patrons and leaves, having received a scholarship to a Tuskegee-style college. He thinks, too, of his grandfather’s advice, that of a slavery-time veteran of black mimicry, who tells him to “overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction”—the words of the trickster as seeming “coon” or “good nigra” whose every act of servility in fact derides his white oppressors. Nor can the narrator be unmindful of a dream in which mountains of paper contain a single, recurrent message: “Keep this Nigger Boy Running.”

At the college, he believes himself to be in a black version of an ideal Dixie. His life, however, undergoes a major reversal when he shows Norton, a white philanthropist, the incestuous “fieldnigger” family of the Truebloods, thus reawakening...

(The entire section is 893 words.)


(Novels for Students)

Although Ellison has expressed doubts about Invisible Man's enduring worth, critics have been almost unanimous in ranking it among the best post- World War II American novels. By universalizing the experience of American blacks, Ellison is often credited with having transcended more political works of social protest. The "invisibility" referred to in the title is the end result of an existential search for identity. The unnamed narrator slowly realizes that people see only what they wish to see in others and are themselves defined by concepts imposed upon them. Ellison is often quoted for having said, "I wasn't and am not primarily concerned with injustice, but with art," a statement that paradoxically implies that Invisible...

(The entire section is 1695 words.)