Invisible Man Themes
The main themes in Invisible Man include identity, individualism, and duty and responsibility.
- Identity: The novel’s narrator sets out on a journey of self-discovery, learning that he is “invisible” to the white world but ultimately claiming his own sense of self.
- Individualism: Even without a strong sense of identity, the narrator remains an individual and is able to recognize the individuality of others.
- Duty and responsibility: The narrator carries a sense of personal responsibility throughout the story, ultimately leaving his isolation behind in order to play a “socially responsible role.”
Last Updated on June 2, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1363
In Invisible Man, an unnamed protagonist sets out on a journey of self-discovery that takes him from the rural South to Harlem. Learning who he is means realizing that he is invisible to the white world, but by the end of his journey, the hero has the moral fiber to live with such contradictions. The overwhelming theme of the novel is that of identity. While the novel has to do with questions of race and prejudice, most critics agree that these ideas are subsumed under the broader questions of who we think we are, and the relationship between identity and personal responsibility. The invisible man’s moment of self-recognition occurs almost simultaneously with his realization that the white world does not see him, but Ellison seems to be saying, “Well, don’t worry about that.” Until the invisible man can see himself, he can only be passive, “outside of history.” At the beginning of the novel, even Jim Trueblood has a stronger sense of himself than does the hero: “And while I'm singen’ them blues I makes up my mind that I ain’t nobody but myself and ain’t nothin’ I can do but let whatever is gonna happen, happen.” In fact, everybody but the invisible man seems to be aware of his problem. The vet at the Golden Day sees it, remarking to Mr. Norton: “Already he is—well, bless my soul! Behold! A walking zombie! Already he’s learned to repress not only his emotions but his humanity. He’s invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, the most perfect achievement of your dreams, sir! The mechanical man!” And Mr. Bledsoe, the college president, tells the hero, “You're nobody, son. You don’t exist—can’t you see that?” Ironically, when the invisible man offers to prove his identity to the son of Mr. Emerson, a white trustee, the son answers him in the careless manner of someone for whom identity has never been a question, “Identity! My God! Who has any identity any more anyway?” When the invisible man joins the Brotherhood, Brother Jack gives him a “new identity.”
Though he constantly stumbles, every misstep seems to bring the hero a little closer to solving the puzzle of who he is. For example, after the operation at the hospital, when a doctor holds up a sign that reads “WHO WAS BUCKEYE THE RABBIT?” the invisible man begins thinking about his identity. And in the wake of Brother Clifton’s murder, he remembers past humiliations and sees that they have defined him.
Another theme that pervades the novel is that of individuality. Although he may be uncertain of his identity, the invisible man has never quite lost the sense that he is an individual. One of the superficial arguments he uses for leaving Mary Rambo without saying goodbye to her is that people like her “usually think in terms of ‘we’ while I have always tended to think in terms of ‘me’—and that has caused some friction, even with my own family.” He rationalizes the Brotherhood's emphasis on the group by deluding himself into thinking that it is a “bigger ‘we.’ ” But though he tries, the invisible man cannot fully suppress his individuality, which continues to intrude on his consciousness. After his first official speech to the Brotherhood, he remembers unaccountably the words of Woodridge, a lecturer at the college, who told his students that their task was “that of making ourselves individuals. . . . We create the race by creating ourselves.” At the funeral for Brother Tod Clifton, whose murder is one of several epiphanies, or moments of illumination, in the novel, the invisible man looks out over the people present and sees “not a crowd but the set faces of individual men and women.”
Duty and Responsibility
The theme of responsibility has to do with making choices and accepting the consequences of our actions. The invisible man uses the term at several reprises, but it is only toward the end of his adventures that he is able to match the word with its true meaning. In the course of the “battle royal,” he uses the words “social responsibility” to impress the Board of Education, because “whenever I uttered a word of three or more syllables a group of voices would yell for me to repeat it.” When he cannot get Dr. Bledsoe to see that what has happened to Dr. Norton is not his fault, the hero believes that by taking “responsibility” for the mishap he will be able to get on with his career. But what he means by taking responsibility is smoothing things over, and he cannot control the result. As he moves from one troubling experience to another, however, a growing maturity is evident, and people come to depend on him. When Brother Jack asks him by what authority he organized the rally for the people following Brother Tod Clifton’s funeral, the invisible man tells him it was on his “personal responsibility” and offers a coolly reasoned defense. At the end of the novel, when he is about to leave his hole, he talks about the “possibility of action” and explains that even an “invisible man has a socially responsible role to play,” echoing with mild irony the phrase he once used without thinking.
Blindness as a kind of moral and personal failing is a recurring motif, or theme, in the novel. Whether inflicted by others, as in the “battle royal,” where the young men are forcibly blindfolded, or as evidence of confusion, as when the invisible man describes stumbling “in a game of blindman’s bluff,” the idea of blindness is used to multiple effect. The Reverend Homer A. Barbee is literally blind, Brother Jack has a glass eye, white people cannot see the invisible man, and the hero cannot see himself. A variation on the theme is the idea of looking but not seeing, of not trying to see, which comes back to the theme of responsibility. Various characters impress on the invisible man the importance of not accepting things as they are. “For God’s sake,” the vet from the Golden Day tells him, “learn to look beneath the surface. Come out of the fog, young man.” And the son of the white trustee Emerson asks him, “Aren't you curious about what lies behind the face of things?”
History and Folklore
In Invisible Man, history and identity are inextricably bound: we are the sum of our history and our experience. This message is brought home in the novel both overtly—“What is your past and where are you going?” Ras the Exhorter asks an uncomfortable Brother Tod Clifton—and indirectly, as in Mary Rambo’s advice to the invisible man that it is the young who will make changes but “something’s else, it’s the ones from the South that’s got to do it, them what knows the fire and ain’t forgot how it burns. Up here too many forgits.” That is, you are your history, but only if you remember it. An inventory of the sad belongings of the couple the hero finds on the Harlem sidewalk reads like a synopsis of the story of Black people in America, and the power of the associations the objects evoke inspires the invisible man to address a crowd for the first time. Closely related to the theme of history is the motif of folklore as a link to the past, particularly folktales, jazz, and the blues. The simple folk who appear in the book all seem rooted in a way the invisible man and others are not and have a sureness about them that is reflected in their names: Jim Trueblood, Mary Rambo, Peter Wheatstraw, even Ras the Exhorter. Likewise, the hero’s grandfather has a “stolid black peasant’s face.” The vet at the Golden Day, who is a patient at a mental hospital but does not appear to be completely insane, tells Mr. Norton that he had made a mistake in forgetting certain “fundamentals. . . . Things about life. Such things as most peasants and folk peoples almost always know through experience, though seldom through conscious thought.”
Last Updated on June 2, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 548
Besides the social themes which play such an important role, Invisible Man is rich with possibilities for thematic interpretation and study. One possible approach can derive from Ellison’s assertion that he was more interested in art than in protest. Published at a time when writing which emphasized the art of writing (rather than social content) was coming into vogue, Invisible Man may initially seem straightforwardly naturalistic and far removed from the works of writers such as John Hawkes and John Barth. However, if one reads the novel carefully, one finds a plethora of symbolic material and numerous instances of irony which relate more to the contexts of literary writing than to the illusion of reality. There are puns and direct allusions in the names of the characters; Trueblood, Ras, Rinehart, Norton, Bledsoe, and Mary are only a few of the more obvious examples. Furthermore, typical of much “postmodern” writing are the direct allusions to Ellison’s being named after Ralph Waldo Emerson. Also, Ellison is not shy about introducing surrealistic or fantastic elements into the narrative. To a degree, therefore, one of the important themes could be argued to be that of the making of art.
Most important, however, is the more traditional theme of the individual person’s quest for identity. This theme embraces the social and artistic concerns and is ultimately the most important aspect of Invisible Man. The narrator goes from a state of ignorance to a state of enlightenment represented by the 1,369 lights in his underground hiding place. He comes to see that he, as a Black man, has no identity to other people except as what they wish to see in him, and, therefore, he is invisible. One immediately notes the parallels to the post–World War II philosophical and literary works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, in which a person is known only by his acts, not by his words or internal character, and to the famous Sartrean line “Hell is other people.” Through most of Invisible Man, the narrator attempts to meet the expectations of other people, Black and white, but does not face his existential responsibility to create his individual essence. In each case, therefore, whether as a student or an employee or the spokesman for the Brotherhood (a political organization based upon the Communist party), he is used as an instrument of someone else’s concept of him as a member of his race.
In the tradition of the bildungsroman, the narrator is an innocent who gradually comes to recognize other people’s corruption, self-deception, or deviousness. He moves from his own foolish belief that others are genuinely interested in him to the recognition that they are looking through him to whatever conception they have of his race. Ellison has said that minorities are particularly faced with this existential problem, although it is not limited to the underprivileged classes. If one becomes classified as a member of a group, one loses individual identity. Black people, of course, can be stereotyped simply by the color of their face. The narrator, who struggles to make society recognize him, ultimately loses and embraces the quality of “invisibility.” The themes raised are thus not simply those of race relations, but are the general human problems of loneliness, the self, and identity.