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The following are major themes of Invisible Man.
The most natural theme to begin with is that of invisibility. What is an invisible man? How is the kind of invisibility Ellison writes about different from the physical invisibility of the English writer H. G. Wells' famous book The Invisible Man? A reading of Ellison's novel suggests that the theme of invisibility has different dimensions: (a) Invisibility suggests the unwillingness of others to see the individual as a person. The narrator is invisible because people see in him only what they want to see, not what he really is. Invisibility, in this sense, has a strong sense of racial prejudice. White people often do not see black people as individual human beings. (b) Invisibility suggests separation from society. While the narrator is in his hole, he is invisible. He cannot be seen by society. He is invisible because he chooses to remain apart. Invisibility, in this sense, is associated with hibernation, with the narrator's conscious choice to remain in his cave and think. (c) Invisibility suggests lack of self-hood. A person is invisible if he has no self, no identity. This leads you to the second theme.
2. THE SEARCH FOR IDENTITY
"Who am I?" This phrase echoes through the novel, especially in Chapters 12 and 23, those crucial sequences where the narrator struggles most openly with the problem of identity. The narrator has no name. At various points in the novel he is given pieces of paper by individuals or groups. These pieces of paper name him, identify him as having some role: student, patient, member of the Brotherhood. Yet none of these names is really his. The narrator cannot be named until he has a self, a self that is not defined by outside groups and organizations. The story of Invisible Man, then, might be described as the narrator's taking on and discarding a whole series of false identities, each one bringing him a little closer to a true sense of self.
3. BLACK VS WHITE
This is both a very simple and an enormously complex theme. On a simple level Invisible Man is a novel about race in America, about the way in which black people suffer from the prejudice of white people and from the cruelty of other black people who want to please white people. But the symbols of black and white are used also in more complex fashion. Traditionally, in Western culture black symbolizes evil, and white stands for good. Ellison plays with this symbolism in Invisible Man, turning it inside out and upside down. The narrator, for example, at first tries to deny his blackness, but eventually plunges into a dark hole-a black hole-where he remains for a long time. What is the true relationship between black and white? The expressionistic sequence at Liberty Paints in Chapter 10 is built almost entirely on the interplay between black and white as symbols. If black and white are mixed, what are the results? Can they be kept separate? Should blacks try to be like whites? If not, why not? These are all questions raised by Ellison's fascinating use of the black-white conflict in this novel.
4. FROM IGNORANCE TO KNOWLEDGE
Invisible Man might be read as a novel about a young man's journey from ignorance to knowledge. Early in the novel, the naive narrator knows little. He is constantly taken in by people's appearances. As he goes through the series of initiations from the battle royal in Chapter 1 to the humiliating exposure by young Mr. Emerson in Chapter 9, to the experiences with the Brotherhood in the later chapters, he gains more and more insight. You might notice that ignorance is often associated with blindness and knowledge with sight, ignorance with darkness and knowledge with light. The narrator falls into a dark hole, but he fills it with light, with 1,369 light bulbs. If you explore this theme fully, you will see that it parallels and interrelates with the black vs white theme.
5. THE WISDOM OF THE BLACK FOLK EXPERIENCE
Robert G. O'Meally's fine book, The Craft of Ralph Ellison, focuses on this important theme (see The Critics section of this guide for an excerpt). He notes how important the black folk tradition is in Invisible Man. This tradition includes blues (Louis Armstrong singing "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?"), spirituals, sermons of southern ministers, folktales (especially the Uncle Remus stories), jive talk, street language, colloquial speech of southern blacks like Jim Trueblood, the down-home wisdom of Mary Rambo, and all sorts of traditional verbal games.
Look for these elements as you read the novel and notice that the narrator frequently either ignores or looks down on the people who embody or preserve these traditions. To the extent that he tries to be white, to be upper class, the narrator forgets his black folk heritage and the common-sense wisdom that goes with it. It is only when he accepts this source of knowledge and culture that he can become a real human being.