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

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Major Theme

The major theme of Invisible Man is the necessity to construct a personal identity in a divided society. Ellison builds this theme on the assumption that in a racist country, blacks are granted no true identity; instead, they are merely the receptors of the projections of the white manís fantasies and fears. The novel demonstrates the process by which the narrator came to the realization that he--and other blacks--are invisible and as such cannot ever succeed by playing according to white rules. The task of the narrator upon realizing he is invisible is to figure out how to proceed from that realization responsibly. He does not want to withdraw altogether from the world. He also does not want to engage with it on the false basis that he has in the past, when he was blind to his invisibility.

Minor Themes

A minor theme of the novel is the responsibility of a member of an oppressed group to act to end individual oppression, not just as a member of a group but also as a human being. Another theme is the importance of facing change rather than shrinking or fleeing from it.


The mood of the novel is surreal--dream-like and sometimes nightmarish. In fact, the dream serves as a motif that is echoed over and over in the novel. The narrator dreams that his scholarship to a black college is merely a note reading "keep this nigger boy running;" his unconscious seems to be telling him that his faith in the American Dream, as it applies to blacks, is naive and dangerous to his sanity. From that point on, every time the narrator seems to be on the verge of success--in college or in speech making or in organizations--he hears the echo of that dream. The novel functions in the way that a dream functions. It reveals what has been too painful to be faced, what has been repressed in the waking state.

Ralph Ellison - BIOGRAPHY

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City on March 1, 1914 and named after the famous American writer and celebrator of self-reliance and non-conformity, Ralph Waldo Emerson. His parents came from South Carolina. His father, Lewis Alfred Ellison, worked as a construction worker; he died when Ellison was only three years old. His mother, Ida Millsap Ellison, was a strong intellectual and a Socialist. She supported the family by working as a domestic servant, but also canvassed for the Socialist party and was jailed several times for protesting housing discrimination. The young Ellison studied the cornet under the founder of the Oklahoma Symphony and developed a strong interest in jazz, moving in a circle of friends who later became members of the Count Basie Orchestra. Ellison considered a career in jazz for himself, for he had also become an accomplished trumpet player. In 1933, he began musical studies at the Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington, and then moved to New York. Once there, he met members of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, both of who encouraged Ellison to write. Ellison was employed with the Federal Writers Project as a researcher from 1938 to 1942. During this time, he published short stories and essays in various magazines. In 1942, he became the editor of Negro Quarterly, where he served for a year. In 1943, Ellison joined the Merchant Marines and served during World War II. After the war, he married Fanny McConnell in 1946. He also began to write his novel, Invisible Man, with the help of a Rosenwald Fellowship.

It took him seven years to complete the novel, but it was a best seller and won him the National Book Award in 1953. Because of the attention he received for Invisible Man, he became a professor, teaching at Bard College, the University of Chicago, and Rutgers University. He also traveled extensively and lectured in Austria and Germany, as well as at Yale University and UCLA. He also continued to write and has published two volumes of essays, Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory. In 1963, Ellison was granted a Doctor of Philosophy in Humane Letters from Tuskegee.


Invisible Man is one of the most important books written about the reality of racism and the problem of black identity in the United States. It draws upon earlier literary work, especially that of W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington. In 1901, Booker T. Washington wrote Up from Slavery in which he describes his rise from slavery to freedom and from ignorance to education. In this work he urges blacks to forego the political struggle for equality in favor of hard work. He asserts that with hard work, blacks can gain the trust and support of whites in power, who will in exchange give them political equality. He writes that blacks are not yet ready for the vote or for equality. In 1903, W.E. B. Dubois wrote The Souls of Black Folk, largely to refute the validity of Washingtonian optimism and his legitimacy as a leader of blacks. In a vitally important chapter called "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," Dubois writes of a veil under which blacks are born. He writes that in the United States, blacks are given "no true self-consciousness." He adds that this country "only lets [blacks] see themselves through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his [or her] two-ness--an American, a Negro." For Dubois, this double-consciousness both gives blacks a "second sight" and hinders their progress toward a simple access to identity. Blacks can never see themselves directly, but only through the eyes of contemptuous white men who are watching for them to fail or to behave foolishly. Ralph Ellison extends the concepts of DuBois and Washington in his novel. He shows that Washington's optimism is not only futile, but also dangerous, for it leads blacks to serve the interests of their enemies and waste their energy that could be used to uplift their people. He also shows that blacks are more than recipients of double-consciousness; he describes them as invisible to white men who only see them as shadows of themselves or as caricatures and stereotypes.

Another race leader important to an understanding of the novel is Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), an advocate for the expatriation of blacks to Africa with the slogan "Africa for Africans." Ras the Exhorter is Ellisonís advocate, a man similar in ideology and approach to Garvey. The Communist Party (referred to in the novel as the Brotherhood) also plays a very large role in the novel. During the time in which the novel is set, the Communist Party had headquarters all over the United States and had launched a short-lived campaign to recruit blacks and to bring their concerns under the umbrella of class struggle. It eventually betrayed its pledges to blacks and Ellison's novel responds to that betrayal with great force. A third group who appear peripherally in the novel are the black Muslims, who are repeatedly noticed by the narrator for their common manner of dress and behavior. Since they also offer a similar neglect of individuality, like the Moslems, Ellison dismisses their strategy as unsatisfactory as well.

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