Invisible Man Themes
The main themes in Invisible Man are invisibility and identity, racism and inequity, and power and control.
- Invisibility and identity: The unnamed narrator is uncertain of his own identity and describes himself as functionally invisible to others.
- Racism and inequity: The narrator constantly encounters inequity, and both implicit and explicit racism, in his interactions.
- Power and control: Many of the conflicts in the novel revolve around the struggle to establish and maintain power and control.
Last Updated on January 4, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 925
Invisibility and Identity
The themes of invisibility and identity are tightly intertwined within Ellison’s text.
When the invisible man describes himself as “invisible,” he doesn’t mean he’s literally invisible. Rather, he means that those around him simply don’t register him. He explains this as a problem with their “inner eyes,” in contrast to their physical eyes—something deep within them chooses not to see the person standing before them, even as they visually take him in.
This can be understood to be a commentary on race and class, as the narrator moves in and out of the public eye throughout his life in ways that often relate to both his Blackness and his financial situation, but it also stems from his own uncertainty about his identity. He is constantly unsure of who he is, invisible not just to others but to himself.
Notably, though he speaks directly to the reader in the first person and seems to recall the details of his life well, the narrator never shares his own name. This supplements his invisibility with anonymity, echoing the three distinct moments in the narrative at which he genuinely loses his sense of self: when he’s lobotomized, he wakes up with no memory of who he is; when he joins the Brotherhood, he’s asked to divest himself of his old name and take on a new identity; and when he falls into the manhole, he’s forced to burn all his papers and identification to light his way as he wanders underground.
Racism and Inequity
Racism is a major theme throughout Invisible Man, both implicitly and explicitly. Implicit racism is evident in many of the narrator’s interactions with white people, even those who believe themselves to be benevolent. Mr. Norton, for example, has invested heavily and generously in the Black college, and appears to care a great deal about the success of the community, but he is also deeply self-aggrandizing about that investment. He uses his financial outlay as an excuse to place expectations and assumptions on the narrator and the Black community because he views himself as an important part of their story, whether or not they want him in it.
More explicitly, the narrator and the other characters repeatedly encounter systemic anti-Black racism as they move throughout the world. One notable instance is the narrator’s arrival at Liberty Paint, where his employers immediately vocally evaluate him based on his race rather than his qualifications. The elderly Black couple being thrown out by the white landlord, too, highlight systemic racism.
Though the Brotherhood is ostensibly an organization working toward racial equity, racism is also deeply evident within its ranks as the story progresses. When Brother Tod Clifton is killed in an act of racist police brutality, the white members of the Brotherhood find it appropriate to disavow him as a “race traitor” for performing a puppet show that caricatures Blackness. The narrator protests this, upset that they should be the ones to adjudicate Clifton’s Blackness, and is told that one of the white members is a perfectly adequate authority on the matter because he’s married to a Black woman.
Racism occurs between Black characters, too—notably, Dr. Bledsdoe calls the narrator a racial slur when they have their argument about his expulsion. The narrator is shocked to hear this from another Black man, realizing that Bledsdoe has invoked something so deeply, canonically hurtful because he views the narrator as the “wrong” kind of Black.
A corollary inequity is evident when the narrator arrives at his first Brotherhood party and is introduced to the other members. He meets Emma, who greets him...
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and then privately asks someone else if they think he’s “Black enough” to be the Harlem district spokesperson.
Power and Control
The personal and institutional conflicts within Invisible Man can largely be viewed as fights to retain power and control.
When Dr. Bledsdoe expels the narrator, it isn’t because he has caused any tangible harm. It’s because he has been involved in something Bledsdoe finds disreputable, which threatens the school’s standing and, by extension, Bledsdoe’s own station in life. As he and the narrator argue about the impending consequences of the incident, he tells the narrator outright that he will betray as many other Black people as he needs to in order to retain his own power.
When Brother Tod Clifton is killed, the narrator is left to contemplate who will be the one to record his friend’s place in history. Realizing that it will always be the one with power, the narrator is upset to think that Clifton will be immortalized as a one-dimensional criminal instead of a whole, complicated, contradictory person simply because the power imbalance between him and the police is so vast.
The power struggles within the Brotherhood, too, ultimately foreshadow the power struggles of the world at large. In the story’s final chapters, the narrator realizes that the violence in the streets is an intentional unwitting community sacrifice instigated by the Brotherhood to consolidate their own power by allowing their enemies to destroy themselves.
By choosing to exempt himself from the perceivable world at the novel’s end, the narrator both cedes and gains power. He loses the power of bureaucracy, failing to exist in the outside world and thus unable to ask anything from it outright. And yet, he also gains power—the power to live undetected in the margins, taking what he wants from the world without being seen.