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Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison



Invisible Man opens with a Prologue. The unnamed narrator tells you that he is an invisible man living in a hole under the streets of New York somewhere near Harlem. His hole is warm and bright. He has come here to hibernate, to think out the meaning of life, after the events he is about to narrate. What drove him to this state of hibernation? He begins to tell you.

The story starts when the narrator graduates from high school in a southern town. The leading white citizens invite him to give his graduation speech at a "smoker" in the ballroom of the local hotel. He arrives to find himself part of a "battle royal" in which local black boys are forced to fight one another blindfolded for the entertainment of the drunken whites. After the battle, the blacks are further humiliated by having to crawl on an electrified carpet to pick up coins. Finally, the hero is allowed to give his speech and is rewarded with a leather briefcase and a scholarship to the state college for blacks.

The narrator is a good student at college and is sufficiently well thought of to be allowed to drive distinguished white visitors around the campus and community. Near the end of his junior year he drives one of the trustees, a Mr. Norton, out into the country. They arrive by accident at the cabin of a black sharecropper named Jim Trueblood, who has caused a terrible scandal by committing incest with his daughter. Trueblood tells his story to Norton who is so overwhelmed that he nearly faints. In order to revive Norton, the narrator takes him for a drink to a nearby bar and house of prostitution called the Golden Day. A group of veterans who are patients at the local mental hospital arrive at the same time, and a wild brawl ensues during which Mr. Norton passes out. He is carried upstairs to one of the prostitute's rooms and revived by a veteran who was once a physician.

The horrified narrator finally returns Norton to the college, but the damage has been done. The young man is called into the president's office and dismissed from school. The president, Dr. Bledsoe, gives him letters of introduction to a number of the school's trustees in New York, and the narrator boards a bus the following day, hoping that the letters will help him succeed in the white world.

To his surprise the letters do not seem to help when he arrives in Harlem. No one offers him a job. Finally, young Mr. Emerson, the son of one of the trustees, explains why: The letters were not letters of recommendation at all but instructions not to help the boy, to keep him away from any further association with the college. The stunned narrator now has nowhere to turn, and so takes a job at the Liberty Paint Company at the recommendation of young Mr. Emerson. The experience is a bizarre one. He is sent to work with an old black man named Lucius Brockway. Brockway, a black man, is the real creator of the Optic White paint that Liberty is so proud of, but the naive young narrator doesn't understand the irony of the situation.

Later, when he fails to pay attention to Brockway's instructions, he is knocked out in an explosion. When he wakes up, he finds himself in a large glass and metal box in the factory hospital. He seems to be the object of some sort of psychological experiment. He is subjected to electric shock treatment, questioned, given a new name by a man in a white coat, and released. Dazed, he returns to Harlem like a newborn infant, unable to care for himself.

The confused protagonist is taken in by a compassionate black woman named Mary Rambo, who nurses him back to health. But what is he to do? Winter is coming and the money given him in compensation by the factory has all but run out. The narrator goes out into the icy streets and has the most important experience of his life. He sees an old black couple being evicted and spontaneously gets up before the gathered crowd and stirs the people to action. He has found a new identity- as a spokesman for blacks- but the police arrive and he is forced to flee across the rooftops, followed by a white man who introduces himself as Brother Jack. Brother Jack would like the narrator to work for his organization, the Brotherhood, as a speaker for the Harlem district. The narrator hesitates, then accepts the offer. He is given a new name and is moved from Harlem to a new location, where he will study the literature of the Brotherhood.

The next evening the narrator is taken to Harlem to begin his career as a speaker for the Brotherhood. He and several others sit on a platform in a large arena, and he is the last to speak. When he speaks, he electrifies the audience with his emotional power, but the Brotherhood is not pleased. They consider his style primitive and backward, and so he is barred from further speeches until he has been trained by Brother Hambro in the methods and teachings of the Brotherhood.

Four months later the narrator is made chief spokesman of the Harlem district. His committee, which includes Brother Tobitt, Brother Tarp, and the narrator's favorite, Brother Tod Clifton, is concerned about regaining the support of the community from Ras the Exhorter, a wild black-nationalist rabble- rouser who has drawn black people into a war with whites. The narrator and his new friend Clifton engage in a street fight with Ras, a fight that foreshadows the final battle in the novel between the Brotherhood and supporters of the black nationalist. Nothing is concluded, but at the same time Ras is unable to stop the Brotherhood, under the narrator's leadership, from making great progress in Harlem.

Brother Tarp, as a token of his support for the narrator's leadership, gives him a link of leg chain. But there are many in the Brotherhood who do not like the narrator. He is too successful and moving too fast. At a meeting of the committee, the narrator is removed from a leadership role in Harlem and ordered to lecture downtown on the Woman Question. He is stunned, but he obeys the Brotherhood and gives the lecture as ordered, whereupon a white woman, more interested in his sexuality as a black man than in the Woman Question, seduces him in her apartment after the lecture. His lectures downtown continue until he is suddenly and surprisingly returned to Harlem after the unexpected disappearance of Brother Tod Clifton.

The narrator returns to Harlem, hoping to reorganize the neighborhood, but things have deteriorated since he was sent downtown. He searches for Tod Clifton and finds him, pathetically selling Black Sambo dolls near the New York Public Library. A police officer nabs Clifton for illegal peddling and shoots him when he resists arrest. Suddenly the narrator, who has witnessed this, finds himself plunged into an historical event. A huge funeral is arranged for Clifton in Harlem, and the narrator speaks at the occasion, but his speech is very different from his earlier speeches. He can no longer rouse the crowd to action. He returns to Brotherhood headquarters and is severely criticized by Brother Jack for having acted without authority.

The angry narrator is frustrated at his inability to accomplish anything constructive. He puts on a pair of sunglasses to disguise himself and suddenly finds that he has taken on another new identity, that of Rinehart, a swindler. Not even Ras the Exhorter, now Ras the Destroyer, seems to recognize the narrator in this disguise. Concerned about the growing strength of Ras and his men, the narrator goes for advice to Brother Hambro's. Here he is told that international policies have temporarily changed directives. Harlem is no longer a priority for the Brotherhood. The narrator is astonished. Again he has been betrayed by an organization he trusted. He finally begins to see what a fool he has been and understands that he has, to white people, been invisible. He follows his grandfather's advice and starts "yessing them to death," meanwhile secretly planning his own strategy.

As a part of his revenge he spends a drunken evening with Sybil, the wife of one of the Brotherhood members, hoping to obtain useful information from her. But she is more interested in his body than in politics. A telephone call interrupts them. There is a huge riot in the district, and the narrator is needed. He hurries back to Harlem to find total chaos. Looters are everywhere, and Ras and his troops are out in force. Ras, on a black horse and dressed as an Ethiopian chieftain, is armed with spear and shield. The narrator narrowly escapes being killed by Ras. He dives into a manhole to avoid being mugged by a group of white thugs, and falls asleep.

He wakes up to find himself in a dark, underground passage from which he can't escape, and decides to stay. Here he will try to understand what has happened to him and then write his story. The novel ends with an Epilogue in which the narrator decides it is time to come out of his hole. He is ready to rejoin society, because he knows and understands himself now "The hibernation is over. I must shake off the old skin and come up for breath," he says. The novel ends as he makes a new beginning.

[Invisible Man Contents]




    You begin with a problem. The novel's central character has no name. Some readers refer to him as the Invisible Man, others call him the narrator. Some regard him as the protagonist or the hero. You may call him by any of these titles, because he has all these roles.

    "I am an invisible man," he tells you in the first sentence of the novel. When he calls himself invisible, he means that other people don't see him, that no one recognizes him as a person, as an individual. A helpful way to understand the Invisible Man as a character is to use the ideas of the noted twentieth-century Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber. Buber distinguishes between I-Thou relationships and I-It relationships. When we love someone, there is an I-Thou relationship, one between two individuals who truly care for one another as persons. In an I-It relationship we use others as things. We like people for what we can get out of them.

    If you apply this idea to Ellison's central character, you may conclude that he is invisible because people always see him as an "It," never as a "Thou." He is used by the college officials and the wealthy white trustees in the first half of the novel and by the leaders of the Brotherhood in the second half. Once he is no longer useful to these people, he is discarded like trash. It is particularly interesting to note that, when people want to use him, they give him a name. He is named in Chapter 11 by the doctors at the factory hospital before being released. He is renamed by the Brotherhood in Chapter 14. Notice that you are never told these names. The. only name he is ever called is "Rinehart," and that is in Chapter 23 when he puts on a pair of dark glasses, and, later, a hat, to disguise himself from Ras the Exhorter's men. Throughout the chapter, he is mistaken for a variety of "Rineharts"- Rinehart, the gambler; Rinehart, the lover; Reverend Rinehart, the minister. Eventually the protagonist discards the glasses, but it is significant that it is his choice, not someone else's. When the main events of the novel are over, he chooses to stay underground, to remain literally invisible- out of circulation- until he has thought through who he is and who he wants to be rather than accepting other people's definitions of him. At the end he decides to come out of his hole and rejoin society. Maybe he will still be invisible. That is an interesting point for you to consider. Ellison certainly seems ambiguous about it in the Epilogue. But the narrator is a different person from the young man who experienced the adventures in the main body of the novel.

    The Invisible Man is not only the chief actor in the novel- the protagonist- he is also its narrator. The story is told in the first person, and for that reason you have to be careful about the way you interpret it. In this guide's section on Point of View you will find additional material on the problems of interpreting first-person narratives. For now, you need to be aware of the way in which first-person narration affects your analysis of the Invisible Man as a character. The Invisible Man is what is known as a naive narrator. Throughout most of the novel, he is young, inexperienced, and gullible. You cannot take what he says at face value because there are many, many occasions when he misses the irony of a situation or the true import of people's words and actions. Sometimes he simply misinterprets things. So he is not only a naive narrator, he is an unreliable narrator in the sense that you cannot trust his version of the story to be entirely accurate. He tells it as he sees it, but he doesn't always see it very well.

    But, before you judge the narrator too quickly, be careful. He is not the same person at the end of the novel that he is at the beginning. He is a character who grows. The German word Bildungsroman is often used to describe the novel of education, the story of a person's growth to maturity. Invisible Man is a Bildungsroman, and the narrator changes a good deal during the course of the story. You will follow his development step by step in The Story section of this guide. For now, you should be aware that the protagonist is a developing rather than a static character. The only tricky thing to watch out for is that the Prologue represents a stage of development after the events of Chapters 1 to 25. Thus, if you are tracing the narrator's development, the order would be Chapters 1 to 25, Prologue, Epilogue. Between the Prologue and the Epilogue the narrator is actually writing the novel, and in the Epilogue he is trying to understand the meaning of what he's just done.

    One final point: The narrator is an Afro-American. Part of the reason he's invisible is that Ellison feels white people do not see black people. Much of what he suffers comes at the hands of white people and those blacks who work for white people. From this point of view the narrator may be interpreted as a symbol for the black person in America. And if you are black or Hispanic, or a member of another minority that suffers from prejudice, you may identify especially with this character, who seems to be treated so unjustly at the hands of prejudiced men and women. But Ralph Ellison, when asked about the narrator, frequently emphasized the point that his hero was universal- he was any person searching for identity in the chaos and complexity of contemporary America.


Invisible Man is, in a sense, a one-character novel. The narrator himself is the only figure whose life you are concerned with from the beginning to the end of the novel. Other people enter the novel, live in it for a few chapters as they influence the narrator, then vanish. We will look briefly at the most important of these figures in the order that they appear in the book. Each of these characters is also discussed in some detail in the appropriate chapters of The Story section. You should consult those chapters for more complete treatment. The minor figures are considered briefly in the Notes in The Story section.


    Mr. Norton (his name suggests northern) is the first figure to influence the narrator's destiny. He is a white-haired, red-faced multimillionaire from Boston who serves on the black college's Board of Trustees. He looks and acts like Santa Claus, seeing himself as a good-natured benefactor of black people. Norton tells the narrator that he was one of the college's founders and that his success as a man depends on the success of the college's students. He seems to mean by this that black people ought to try and rise up from the effects of slavery and illiteracy in the way prescribed by the white power structure.

    The narrator drives Mr. Norton out to the country, where they stop at the home of a black sharecropper named James Trueblood, who has committed incest with his daughter. Norton seems both horrified and fascinated by Trueblood's story and is so shocked by hearing it that he must be taken to a bar named the Golden Day for a drink to revive him. Here he is injured in a scuffle, eventually revived, and finally returned to the college, but not before the damage has been done- Norton has been educated to the realities of black life in the South. He has seen not what Dr. Bledsoe, the college president, wants him to see but what black people like Jim Trueblood and the veterans at the Golden Day really think and feel about themselves and whites. In the process he is exposed as a vulnerable old man who is himself near death and needs care. Who cares for him? A prostitute and a supposedly crazy black veteran. Has the narrator intentionally taken Mr. Norton on a journey to self-knowledge?


    On his way back from the Golden Day, the narrator says, "Here within this quiet greenness I possessed the only identity I had ever known, and I was losing it." That identity is associated with Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the college. "He was the example of everything I hoped to be," the narrator tells us. Bledsoe is rich, he has a beautiful wife, and he owns two Cadillac automobiles. He is a successful and powerful black man in a white man's world.

    Do you see the two sides of Bledsoe that the narrator misses? There is the surface Bledsoe humbly attending to his white guests and doing exactly what white people expect of a black man. You can see this Bledsoe especially in Chapter 5, the vespers sequence. There is also the Bledsoe who bitterly attacks the narrator for taking Mr. Norton to Jim Trueblood's and the Golden Day, the Bledsoe who will attack anybody and anything to hold on to the power which he has. This is the Bledsoe who "bleeds his people so," as his name suggests- the Bledsoe that the narrator can't let himself believe in. Ellison depicts Bledsoe as a man who rather than really helping his race is actually holding it back. Do you agree?


    Young Mr. Emerson is the son of the trustee to whom the seventh of Bledsoe's sealed letters is addressed. Young Emerson opens the letter and explains to the shocked narrator what the letters have really said. Do you admire young Mr. Emerson for this action? It seems like a step forward in the narrator's development. After all, he cannot grow until he stops idealizing people like Norton and Bledsoe. Emerson's decision to tell him the truth may enable him to take a step forward.

    The question remains: What does Emerson offer him in place of the world of Bledsoe and the college? Read Chapter 9 carefully and look at the details of young Mr. Emerson's world-a world of nightclubs like the Club Calamus (named for Walt Whitman's "Calamus" poems, a group of openly homosexual poems), a world of jazz joints in Greenwich Village and Harlem where blacks and whites can mingle. Young Mr. Emerson thinks of himself as Huckleberry Finn and he thinks of blacks as being like Jim. Just as Huck in Mark Twain's novel decides not to turn Jim in, so young Mr. Emerson feels that he is helping the narrator by freeing him from the slavery of ignorance. Do you believe Emerson is really helping the narrator? What are his motives? Are they clear?

    In thinking about him, you may wish to consider the symbolism of his name. Remember that Ralph Ellison was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson. Biographical information on the historical Emerson may be found in a Note to Chapter 9. Is there a parallel between young Mr. Emerson and the famous nineteenth-century essayist? Have you read "The American Scholar" or "Self Reliance"? What might the author of these essays say about young Mr. Emerson? Have Ralph Waldo Emerson's ideas been diluted and corrupted over time?


    After his shattering experiences in the paint factory in Chapters 10 and 11, the narrator returns to Harlem but is too weak to care for himself. The person who saves his life is Mary Rambo. Mary is important in the novel because she starts the narrator on the right track by offering him love and care without asking anything in return. She doesn't expect him to be something for her. The fact that the narrator has been living at Men's House, a place where important blacks gather to impress one another, is significant. After the paint factory experience, the narrator is like a newborn child. He cannot survive at Men's House. He needs a mother to care for him, and Mary Rambo serves that role. She feeds him, shelters him, and gives him love. She is part of that important southern folk tradition that the narrator has abandoned, the tradition of the relatively uneducated but morally upright southern black mother. The narrator has come to believe he is too good for such people. He traveled to New York to make his way among whites and educated blacks. He has had nothing to do with the servants, farmers, and housekeepers of his childhood in the South. Mary reminds him of those true values he has forgotten. "I'm in New York but New York ain't in me," she tells him. "Don't git corrupted." He calls her "a force, a stable, familiar force like something out of my past which kept me from whirling off into some unknown...."

    Though he leaves Mary's, what she stands for remains so important to him that, at the end of Chapter 25, when he is nearly killed in the street riot, he tries to get back to Mary's, where he can be loved and cared for. But he never does. Instead he remains in the hole that becomes his new home, his new room or womb. Do you see parallels between his room at Mary's and the underground hole?


    In Chapter 13 the narrator makes a powerful speech at a sidewalk eviction. The speech attracts the attention of "a short insignificant bushy-eyebrowed, white man with red hair." The man is Brother Jack, the leader of the Brotherhood, who dominates the narrator's life for the next ten chapters. It is not until the crucial showdown between the narrator and Brother Jack in Chapter 22, after the funeral of Tod Clifton, that the narrator finally sees the truth about Brother Jack, a truth that is vividly symbolized by Brother Jack's glass eye, which drops out of its socket into a glass of water during the argument. You might want to explore the symbolism of the glass eye further.

    Brother Jack's red hair may stand for his Communist ideology, just as the Brotherhood may represent the Communist party, to which Ellison and other black writers and thinkers were drawn during the 1930s. Certainly the sequence of events in Chapters 13 to 22 roughly parallels the relationships between many black American intellectuals and the Communists during the Depression and the early years of World War II. Jack, as the leader, expresses much of the party's ideology.

    If you wish to pursue the study of Brother Jack as a symbol of communism in America during the 1930s, remember that a good many leftist writers and critics did not like Ellison's portrayal of Brother Jack and thought the chapters about the Brotherhood the weakest section of the novel (see The Critics section of this guide for some examples of their reaction). Whether you agree with them or not, Brother Jack is a character who merits close study.

    His name, Jack, is a common slang term for money, and money is what attracts the narrator to Brother Jack in the first place. He uses the money to pay Mary Rambo, to buy new clothes, and to move into a social set that includes wealthy white women. The name "Jack" combined with Jack's glass eye also suggests the "one-eyed Jacks" in playing cards. Jack pretends to be the king of the Brotherhood in New York, but when the real international kings make changes in policy, Jack turns out to be nothing more than a discard. Do you see any parallels between Jack and Bledsoe, those two figures who dominate the narrator's life throughout the better part of the novel?


    In Chapter 17 the narrator is made the chief spokesman of the Harlem District for the Brotherhood, and at his first meeting he is introduced by Brother Jack to Brother Tod Clifton. Clifton is tall, black, and strikingly handsome. This young, muscular man is passionately engaged in his work. As a Harlem youth leader, he is sympathetic to the narrator's idea of organizing community leaders to fight evictions. The two begin their crusade as true brothers in the cause, and their friendship deepens when they end up literally fighting side by side against Ras the Exhorter, the militant black nationalist, and his men. Ras both hates and loves Tod. He hates him because Tod works with white men, but he loves him because he is black and beautiful. He doesn't kill Tod, because he hopes that Tod will some day join his cause.

    Tod Clifton is one of the genuinely loveable and tragic figures in the novel. He is the hope of the black community. His intelligence, physical grace, strength and cunning on the streets, as well as his loyalty to his people, make him a hero. Then, without warning, he disappears from the district. The narrator does not know why, because it is during the time that the narrator himself has been exiled from Harlem. The narrator returns to the district in Chapter 20 and begins his search for Tod. And he finds him, not in Harlem, but downtown near the main building of the New York Public Library, hawking Sambo dolls. What did Ellison have in mind by making Tod a mockery of himself, a mockery of everything that he and the narrator have stood for in Harlem?

    If you are going to deal with Tod as a character, this is the first important question you must answer. Reread Chapter 20 carefully and look for clues. Perhaps Tod left Harlem because the Brotherhood betrayed him and changed its emphasis to national and international issues. Perhaps he gave up because he realized, as the narrator finally does, that the Brotherhood was just using him. What is your interpretation, at this point in the novel, of Tod's role?

    Suddenly the ludicrous comedy of Tod's part as a sidewalk peddler turns into a tragedy. Tod is shot and killed by a white policeman for resisting arrest. Again you must ask, "Why"? Is Tod's death primarily the result of social forces, of white prejudice, of police brutality? Or does Tod in a sense take his own life? Would it help you to know that the German word for "death" is "Tod"? Does this name have particular symbolic importance in the novel? If so, what? Even if the name Tod suggests death, it still does not answer the question of why Tod must die.

    Tod's death has a powerful impact on the narrator. His friendship with Tod evokes a moving and terrible grief, which he tries to put into words at Tod's huge outdoor funeral. Tod Clifton, in death, becomes a symbol for all black people, for all the young and talented black people who are symbolically shot down in all sorts of ways. Tod is dead, and the narrator moves the crowd to grief. But he cannot move them to political action. He can, however, rouse himself to human action against the Brotherhood which destroyed Tod. Tod Clifton is the catalyst for the narrator's final awakening to self in Chapters 22 and 23. In that role, Tod is one of the truly important figures in the novel.


    At the same time that the narrator meets Tod Clifton, he also meets two other black brothers, Brother Tarp, who becomes an inspiration to him, and Brother Wrestrum, who becomes a Judas figure. They may symbolize two equal and opposite reactions to the black situation- one good, the other evil.

    Tarp is a genuine freedom fighter. Like his hero, Frederick Douglass (see the Note to Chapter 17), whose picture he puts over the narrator's desk, Tarp has been cruelly punished for fighting tyranny. "I said no to a man who wanted to take something from me," and for saying no he was sentenced to nineteen years at hard labor. So he broke his chains, outran the dogs, headed north, and joined the Brotherhood because it seemed like a good place to be in his fight for freedom. He is old, and as a symbol of his age, he gives the narrator the piece of chain which he had filed from his leg and saved. For Tarp this is a way of passing on the fight to the younger generation. Tarp, the narrator realizes, reminds him of his own grandfather, whose image has haunted him since his childhood.

    The narrator keeps Tarp's leg iron on his desk as a reminder of the fight against slavery in which they are all involved. He is stirred and reassured by the gift, which he later puts into his briefcase and uses as a weapon of self-defense during the riot described in the final chapters.

    Brother Wrestrum sees the leg iron on the narrator's desk and complains about it. He is a "pure brother," and he wants no reminders of the black man's past in the office. He wants all Brotherhood members to wear buttons or pins so that they can be instantly recognized. Wrestrum is not working for black freedom, but for the Brotherhood, and he is perfectly willing to turn against any black member who does not follow Brotherhood discipline to the letter. It seems as if Wrestrum is a kind of paid spy for the higher-ups like Brother Jack. After all, it is Brother Wrestrum who turns the narrator in to the board, charging him with selfish opportunism and causing him to be sent downtown to lecture on the Woman Question. Is Brother Wrestrum acting on his own initiative when he accuses the narrator in the middle of Chapter 18, or is he acting on orders? You don't know, but in either case there is something consistently sneaky and dishonest about Brother Wrestrum, whose name sounds unmistakably like "rest room." In Chapter 24 the narrator refers to him as "that outhouse Wrestrum." Need anything more be said?


    Ras the Exhorter enters the novel with Tod Clifton in Chapter 17 but survives Tod's death to become the most dominant figure in the book's closing chapters. Ras the Exhorter, who becomes Ras the Destroyer during the final race riot, is a black nationalist who has organized the Harlem community along racial lines. The name "Ras" clearly suggests "race." The name may also come from "Ra," the name of the Egyptian sun-god, who is pictured as a man with a hawk's head. Literally, the name comes from the Amharic word Ras, which means "prince" or "king." The Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was Ras Tafari before he became emperor, and the Jamaica-based religion Rastafarianism believes that its members derive their ancestry from Ethiopia and, if traced all the way back, to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Rastafarian ideas were well known in Harlem during Ellison's time. Ras is inspiring because he has a message that blacks want to listen to, the unity of race. On the other hand, he is terrifying, because his methods are violent and lead finally to the terrible reality of black fighting against black in senseless mutual destruction. When the Brotherhood is no longer interested in Harlem, they turn it over to Ras, who uses the pretext of Tod Clifton's death to start a race riot. What Ellison seems to be suggesting through Ras is that the ultimate implications of Ras' philosophy are totally self-destructive. Ras and the Brotherhood appear to be equally wrong choices for different reasons.

    One of the unusual things about Ellison's portrait of Ras is that it is not based on any particular figure. Ellison was asked if he had Marcus Garvey in mind, because Garvey was a black nationalist from Jamaica who spoke with a Caribbean accent similar to the one Ras uses in Invisible Man. Ellison said that Ras came from his imagination. Rather than being historical, the figure of Ras is prophetic. Within fifteen years after Invisible Man was published, figures like Ras sprang up all over America. Some, like Malcolm X, became Black Muslims. Others, like Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, called themselves Black Panthers and carried weapons, as they said, to defend themselves against white violence. America's cities- Watts (Los Angeles), Detroit, Newark, Chicago-were rocked with race riots, and many blacks turned away from any kind of dialog with whites. Today the figure of Ras, and the riot at the end of the novel which he engenders and prolongs, seem to prophesy what America would go through in the 1960s when the calmer voices of integration gave way to the radical shouts of the Black Muslims and Pan- African movements. Ras is a powerful and frightening figure who may symbolize some of Ellison's worst fears.


    Rinehart is a student's dream. Almost anything you say about him is likely to be true. About Rinehart there are far more questions than answers, and you should have an exciting time exploring this mysterious figure who never appears.

    You know that someone or perhaps several people named Rinehart exist, because the narrator is mistaken for Rinehart a number of times in Chapter 23 after he puts on a pair of dark glasses and a white hat to disguise himself from Ras the Exhorter's men. The glasses and the hat are magical. "They see the hat, not me. There is magic in it. It hides me right in front of their eyes..." the narrator thinks to himself. Not only does it hide him, it gives him a new identity, another new identity- that of a man named Rinehart who, it seems, is a numbers runner, a lover, a storefront evangelist, and a hipster. But can one man be all these things at once? Could there be at least two or three Rineharts? Is Rinehart a character at all? Is he really more a symbol, a type, than an individual?

    The narrator thinks about the meaning of Rinehart's name. "Could he himself be both rind and heart? What is real anyway?" Later he says, "So I'd accept it, I'd explore it, rine and heart." If we are trying to discover the meaning of Rinehart as a symbol, we need to look at both the words "rind" and "rine." "Rind" means a thick outer skin, like the rind of an orange. It means a kind of toughness that enables one to survive. "Rine" is really street talk for "rind." A man with a lot of "rine" is a tough dude, one who can survive in the chaos and confusion of the unstructured world of the street. Ellison said in an interview that "Rinehart is my name for the personification of chaos. He is also intended to represent America and change. He has lived so long with chaos that he knows how to manipulate it."

    Rinehart is a con man, a manipulator. He lives in the world, but he doesn't really do anything for the world except use it. The identity of Rinehart may be a temporary sanctuary for the narrator, but it is another identity he must reject if he is to find himself as a person. Eventually he discards the glasses and the hat and takes to his hole to think out his true identity. You will have a fascinating time following the glasses and the hat through Chapters 23 to 25 and exploring what they suggest symbolically about the elusive and ever-present Mr. Rinehart, and the narrator's adoption of his lifestyle. Early in Chapter 25 the glasses are broken, and the narrator must face Ras the Destroyer without the protection of Rinehart. What might that suggest?

[Invisible Man Contents]



Setting is always important in Invisible Man, because Ellison is both a realistic writer and a symbolist. He puts events in real settings, but these settings always stand for something beyond themselves.

The largest and most significant element in setting is the contrast between South and North. Chapters 1 to 6 take place in the South, Chapters 8 to 25 in the North, with Chapter 7 as a transition. In Ellison's words, the narrator "leaves the South and goes North; this, as you will notice in reading Negro folktales, is always the road to freedom." Thus one major pattern of the novel is a move from the restricting bonds of the South, symbolized by the rigid distinctions between black and white, to the greater flexibility of the North as symbolized by life in Harlem. But the existence of that pattern should not lead you to view North and South simply as symbols for restriction and freedom. In Ellison's popular short story, "King of the Bingo Game," the anonymous narrator finds himself in the cold, unfriendly North missing the warmth and easygoing quality of southern life. Do you find, as you read Invisible Man, that North and South are mixed symbols, representing a variety of things? Is the South both restrictive and friendly, the North freer yet more impersonal?

There are several significant settings within each geographic area. The settings in Chapters 1 to 6 include the hotel ballroom where the battle royal takes place (Chapter 1), Jim Trueblood's farm (Chapter 2), the Golden Day (Chapter 3) and the college (Chapters 4 to 6). Each of these settings allows you to see black life in the South from a different perspective. Chapter 1 represents blacks in their most demeaning situation- on public display in the white world. Chapters 2 and 3 show blacks acting more freely in more natural settings, but these are settings outlawed for the college boys. The college boys are being educated on a tree-lined campus with brick buildings. It is a neat and orderly world, a world in which blacks are restricted to the kind of behavior that suits those black leaders who would please wealthy whites. The campus is an Uncle Tom world, a world of blacks trying to act like whites.

To grow, the narrator must stop idealizing this world and its leaders. He must accept the freer and yet more dangerous world symbolized by New York. New York is a microcosm of the North. Though not rigidly segregated like the South, it is divided into predominantly black Harlem and predominantly white downtown. Downtown is where the Brotherhood has its main office. It is where the narrator visits white "brothers and sisters." It is where Tod Clifton is killed by a white policeman. It is significant that when the narrator joins the Brotherhood, he leaves his rooms at Mary Rambo's boarding house in Harlem to take more expensive rooms in a white part of town. Harlem is the center of black life and culture, the place where Ellison himself lived for a number of years after leaving Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The black must know and understand Harlem in order to find his identity. By rejecting Harlem, the narrator has rejected his own blackness. He has spent most of the novel trying to become white.

The final significant setting is the underground cave of the Prologue and Epilogue. Here, the narrator is in a "border area," not associated with either black or white. Here he has retreated into himself to think out his identity, to come to some self-understanding. Here, alone, apart from those who try to force identity on him, he is able to arrive at some genuine self-knowledge. The cave is a place of contemplation, a place to grow a new skin and be protected from the harsh realities of the outside world until he is strong enough to go outside. The novel ends, significantly, with the narrator's decision to leave the cave, to go up and out into the real world again, a world of both blacks and whites.


Invisible Man is a stylistic performance of the highest order, a delight and a constant series of surprises to anyone who loves words. That's one view. The other is that it is a confusing mass of shifting styles that only serves to keep the reader from knowing what's going on. Therefore, take this section of the study guide as a warning: Invisible Man is not an easy novel to read, and if you want to get the maximum pleasure and understanding from Ellison's dazzling use of language, you will have to work at it.

Ellison's first stylistic device is word play. He loves puns, rhymes, slogans, and paradoxes. "I yam what I am!" cries the narrator, after buying a hot buttered yam from a street vendor in Chapter 13. "If It's Optic White, It's the Right White" is a slogan for the Liberty Paint Factory coined by the black Lucius Brockway. It reminds the narrator of the old southern expression, "If you're white, you're right." "All it takes to get along in this here man's town is a little shit, grit, and mother-wit," says Peter Wheatstraw, a street blues singer in Harlem. What all these expressions and many others have in common is that they are not only funny and clever, they also embody folk wisdom that the narrator needs to hear and understand.

Ellison also has a fine ear for all kinds of speech- especially varieties of black folk dialect. All the black folk characters- Jim Trueblood, Burnside the Vet, Brockway, Wheatstraw, Mary Rambo, Brother Tarp, and at the end the two black revolutionaries Scofield and Dupree- speak in their own varieties of black folk dialect and exhibit a kind of knowledge that the more educated "white" characters seem to lack, a "street" knowledge that has passed from South to North, from generation to generation, and needs to be remembered.

Ellison's stylistic range is enormous. In Chapter 2 he writes a description of the college in the style of the poet T. S. Eliot. In Chapter 4 he writes a sermon modeled on the classic oratory of black preachers throughout the South in the early twentieth century. Influenced by a range of writers from Eliot and Joyce to Dostoevsky and Richard Wright, he can write in whatever style suits his purpose at the time. When asked about his changing styles in the novel, he said, "In the South, when he [the narrator] was trying to fit into a traditional pattern and where his sense of certainty had not yet been challenged, I felt a more naturalistic treatment was adequate.... As the hero passes from the South to the North, from the relatively stable to the swiftly changing, his sense of certainty is lost and the style becomes expressionistic. Later on during his fall from grace in the Brotherhood it becomes somewhat surrealistic. The styles try to express both his state of consciousness and the state of society."

You might underline the three words naturalistic, expressionistic, and surrealistic. If Ellison is right in his analysis, then these are the three major styles of the novel. "Naturalistic" means faithful to the small details of outward reality or nature. "Expressionistic" means characters and actions standing for inner states. "Surrealistic" means tending to deal with the world of dreams and the unconscious. Thus, the scenes at the college are naturalistic, the scenes at the paint factory are expressionistic, and the scenes from the Harlem riot chapters at the end are surrealistic. We will explore the significance of these stylistic shifts more fully in The Story section. For now you may want to think about why Ellison felt that realism alone was not enough. What could these other styles do for him that realism could not?


Invisible Man is a first-person narrative told by a developing character. That means you can trust his perceptions and judgments much more toward the end of the novel than you can at the beginning.

At the beginning (leaving out the Prologue, which we will look at later with the Epilogue) the narrator is young and naive. In Chapter 1 he is a high school graduate. In Chapters 2 to 6 he is a college junior. He has experienced little of the real world. As a result he misinterprets, misses ironies, and makes naive judgments about other characters. Your interpretation of the events of the first third of the novel must be colored by your awareness that the narrator is frequently missing the point. You must be more mature and perceptive than he is.

During Chapters 7 to 10, his first months in New York, he is not much better, but the accident in the paint factory at the end of Chapter 10 changes him. In Chapters 11 to 13 you see a more thoughtful narrator emerge from the machine in the paint factory hospital. He begins to ask questions about his identity, makes some connection with his black roots, and discovers his vocation when he makes an eloquent speech protesting the eviction of an old couple from their apartment. As the narrator becomes more concerned with social justice, you may find yourself identifying more strongly with him. But he still has a long way to go.

In Chapters 14 to 21, the period when he is working for the Brotherhood, he is mature in some ways but not in others. The narrator's sight begins to clear in Chapter 22, when he sees many of the Brotherhood members for what they really are for the first time. Chapter 23, in which he discovers the identity of Rinehart, marks another phase of his development, and the Prologue and Epilogue, which happen chronologically after the action of the novel proper, represent a final phase.

Your job as a reader is to sort out this progress as it occurs and to evaluate how much the ideas of the narrator at any particular stage of his development may be associated with those of the author. Is the narrator, as he nears maturity in the later chapters, speaking for Ellison? Do the Prologue and Epilogue, more than the main body of the novel, represent an identification between narrator and author? A look at Ellison's essays in Shadow and Act (1964) would help you answer these questions. "That Same Pain, That Same Pleasure" is particularly helpful. Some critics, Marcus Klein for one (see "The Critics"), feel that Ellison violates point of view in the Epilogue by making the narrator come to conclusions that are too optimistic, too affirmative for his character. These statements, say the critics, are really more Ellison's than the narrator's, and they belong in a different novel. You will have to make your own decision about these questions as you study the Epilogue to the novel.


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.


    "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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


Form and structure do not pose a problem in this otherwise complex novel. The form is simple: It is chronological narrative with no flashbacks and no confusing time switches. The only formal element that might give you any trouble is Ellison's use of the Prologue and Epilogue. The Prologue, which precedes Chapter 1, occurs in time after the action of Chapters 1 to 25 has been completed, but before the Epilogue. In the novel proper, Chapters 1 to 25, the narrator tells you what he did to end up in the "hole" which he describes in the Prologue. In the Epilogue he talks about leaving the hole and going back up into the world which he has temporarily abandoned. You don't know how long the narrator has been in the hole, but you may infer that his main activity there has been writing the novel. When he has completed that, he will then rejoin the world of action. Thus, the Prologue and Epilogue frame the novel, putting it in the context of the narrator's present thoughts about life and activity. The narrator is finally not just the person to whom these events have occurred but the person who is organizing them into a work of art that tries to explain their significance. In the process, he creates himself.

The main body of the novel is a straightforward chronological narration of the protagonist's development. It may be divided into two, three, or four parts, depending on where you think the main structural breaks are. Ellison gives you only chapters, so the division into larger units is up to you. One structural principle is the movement from South to North (see comments under Setting). A second is that of death and rebirth. If you look at the death and rebirth structure, the novel would break into four major sections. Section I (Chapters 1 to 6) takes place in the South, mainly at the college. The narrator is expelled and this way of life is literally dead for him. In Section II (Chapters 7 to 12) he is born again in New York, only to have that existence literally exploded by the accident in the paint factory. Section III (Chapters 13 to 22) tells the story of his life with the Brotherhood and its eventual destruction. Section IV (Chapter 23 to the Epilogue) reveals the narrator's brief existence as Rinehart followed by his decision to disappear and rethink his values from his underground hole. He says at the end, using the words of the German philosopher Nietzsche, "I must shake off the old skin and come up for breath." Life is a series of rebirths, a process of shaking off the old skin (rind) over and over.

Whatever pattern you think is the most essential, the novel is fundamentally a developmental novel, a Bildungsroman in which a young man goes through a series of difficult and confusing experiences on the way to his maturity. Your main job is to discover what each of those experiences contributes to his growth.



ECC [Invisible Man Contents] []

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