Invisible Man Summary

Invisible Man is a novel by Ralph Ellison in which the unnamed narrator leaves college and finds work at a paint factory, where he's gravely injured. He later joins a group called the Brotherhood.

  • The narrator is forced to leave his college after making an honest mistake.

  • He finds work at a paint factory, but his manager engineers an accident in which the narrator gets injured. He's then tortured by medical professionals in the hospital.

  • Later, he joins a group called the Brotherhood. He rises in the ranks, but the group betrays him, and he's forced to flee when a riot breaks out.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 629

Frequently discussed as a novel addressing racial identity in modern, urban America, Invisible Man is also discussed regarding the larger issue of personal identity, especially self-assertion and personal expression in a metaphorically blind world. In the novel, the unnamed young black narrator is invisible within the larger culture because of his race. Race itself, in turn, is a metaphor for the individual’s anonymity in modern life. The novel is scathing, angry, and humorous, incorporating a wide range of African American experiences and using a variety of styles, settings, characters, and images. Ralph Ellison uses jazz as a metaphor, especially that of the role of a soloist who is bound within the traditions and forms of a group performance.

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The novel describes a series of incidents that show how racism has warped the American psyche. As a boy, the nameless narrator hears his grandfather say: “Undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction.” Later, the youth sees a social function degenerate into a surrealistic and barbarous paroxysm of racism. Next, the narrator is expelled from a black college and heads north. After a job in a paint factory ends in shock treatment, the narrator heads to the big city and falls in with the Brotherhood, a group of political radicals. After realizing that the Brotherhood is just as power-hungry and manipulative as the other organizations and institutions that have victimized him, the narrator leaves the Brotherhood. He comes to understand that racism denies personal identity: As long as he is seen by others as a sample of a group rather than as an individual, he is invisible. The narrator finally becomes an urban hermit, living anonymously in a cellar and using pirated electricity.

The novel’s narrator is typically viewed as representing a generation of intelligent African Americans born and raised in the rural South before World War II who moved to large cities such as New York to widen their opportunities. Such historical context aside, readers also see him as a black Everyman, whose story symbolically recapitulates black history. Attending a Southern black college, the narrator’s idealism is built on black educator Booker T. Washington’s teaching that racial uplift will occur by way of humility, accommodation, and hard work. The narrator’s ideals erode, however, in a series of encounters with white and black leaders. The narrator learns of hypocrisy, blindness, and the need to play roles even when each pose leads to violence. The larger, white culture does not accept the narrator’s independent nature. Accidents, and betrayals by educators, Communists, and fellow African Americans, among others, show him that life is largely chaotic, with no clear pattern of order to follow. The narrator’s complexity shatters white culture’s predetermined, stereotyped notions of what role he should play. He finds himself obliged as a result to move from role to role, providing the reader a wide spectrum of personalities that reflect the range of the black community.

In the end the narrator rejects cynicism and hatred and advocates a philosophy of hope, a rejection mirroring Ellison’s desire to write a novel that transcended protest novels, emphasizing rage and hopelessness, of the period. The narrator decides to look within himself for self-definition, and the act of telling his story provides meaning to his existence, an affirmation and celebration preceding his return to the world. He has learned first of his invisibility, second of his manhood.

In his later years, Ellison realized that his novel expands the meaning of the word “invisible.” He observed that invisibility “touches anyone who lives in a big metropolis.” A winner of numerous awards, including the National Book Award in 1953, Invisible Man has continually been regarded as one of the most important novels in twentieth century American literature.

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