Free Study Guide: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison - Free BookNotes

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The narrator, also called the Invisible Man, is the protagonist and central figure of the book.


The antagonist is racism in the United States. At times the racism is embodied by different characters in the novel, some overtly and others subtly. Also, the racism is symbolized by organizations and institutions which claim to have the interests of black people at their center.


The novel reaches its climax when the narrator loses all his illusions about life and success in the world. This disillusionment is most easily traced in his relationship with the Brotherhood, an organization that he gradually comes to realize has used and betrayed him. This climax is actually a series of small disillusionment’s that culminate in a final catastrophic scene of understanding that takes place underground in a manhole. Here, the narrator sees for the first time all the things that have been holding him back and causing him to fail.


The narrator has come to realize the racism that exists all around him, especially in organizations such as the Brotherhood. He grows from his knowledge and comes to some very important and liberating realizations while holed up underground. He decides to write down his lessons. In the end of the novel, he is on the verge of emerging from his underground existence to try once again to engage responsibly with society for productive change. His realization is that his identity comes form both inside and outside himself and that he must achieve a balance in order to maintain his equilibrium in a racist society. He continues to regard himself as an invisible man, but works out a more enabling way of seeing his invisibility, one that will allow him to act. Therefore, even though the racism does not abate in the book (the tragic part of the story), the narrator undergoes change and emerges as a better person for his tragic knowledge and experiences. As a result, the story is a tragedy tempered by a degree of hope.


Invisible Man is the story of a young black man from the South who does not fully understand racism in the world. Filled with hope about his future, he goes to college, but gets expelled for showing one of the white benefactors the real and seamy side of black existence. He moves to Harlem and becomes an orator for the Communist party, known as the Brotherhood. In his position, he is both threatened and praised, swept up in a world he does not fully understand. As he works for the organization, he encounters many people and situations that slowly force him to face the truth about racism and his own lack of identity. As racial tensions in Harlem continue to build, he gets caught up in a riot that drives him to a manhole. In the darkness and solitude of the manhole, he begins to understand himself - his invisibility and his identity. He decides to write his story down (the body of the novel) and when he is finished, he vows to enter the world again.

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Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison: Free BookNotes Summary

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