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

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In the prologue, the narrator introduces himself as the Invisible Man. He explains that he is invisible because others choose not to see him. Because people do not or will not see him, they often bump into him. The Invisible Man resents this treatment. He feels the worst part of being invisible is that he begins to doubt his own existence. Retaliating becomes a way to prove his existence; it forces others to see and recognize him.

The narrator recounts a past incident he experienced with a white man on a street at night. The man had rudely knocked him down. The narrator grabbed the man and demanded an apology. The European insulted the Invisible Man, and the meeting grew increasingly aggressive. The Invisible Man head-butted the man, kicked him down on the ground, and pulled a knife out to cut the man's throat. Suddenly, stopping short of murder, the Invisible Man realized the white man had never even seen him. He left the scene with many conflicting feelings, probably explaining why he still remembers the meeting vividly.

The narrator refers to the white man and people who do not see him as sleepwalkers. They choose to remain unconscious of his presence and, like sleepwalkers, often become violent if awakened. Once the Invisible Man realizes he is invisible, he realizes the power of invisibility. He learns how to fight back without waking the sleeping people. He refers to the amount of untraceable electricity he steals from the Monopolized Power Company and his rent-free existence. Once he realized he was not visible, he realized he did not have to live by the rules of visible people.

The narrator reveals his current living situation in an abandoned basement. He refers to the basement as a hole in which he is temporarily hibernating. The basement is warm and well lit from 1,369 burning lights, which run on stolen electricity. Moreover, while stealing was once his original goal, he finds that now he needs the lighting to confirm his existence to himself. Without the light he steals, he is not able to see himself. He explains that to feel formless, to be invisible to one's self, is to feel dead. He explores the reasons why he takes the electricity. He begins to speak metaphorically of how the light represents the truth, especially the truth of his existence. He thinks that if he can shine enough light on himself, perhaps others will see him and he will no longer be invisible. He is self-affirming and optimistic that he can solve his dilemma.

Next, the narrator explains his need for sound. He enjoys Louis Armstrong's "What Did I Do to be so Black and Blue" and recounts a time when he used to listen to music and smoke marijuana. Marijuana, like invisibility, creates a different sense of time for him. He believes this awkward sense of time accounts for the beauty of Armstrong's music. He metaphorically compares Armstrong's use of an offbeat time sense to that of an underdog champion fighter. When one learns the opponent's regular rhythm, one may take advantage of predictable rhythm.

The narrator describes his experience of being under the influence of marijuana. What follows is a drug-induced summary of his significant life experiences, the basis for all the chapters to follow. It is a story of his early innocence, his eventual disillusionment, and his recent revelation about his own identity. He tells of his mental return from his drug-induced state and how he realizes the power of music, which demands action from him. He resolves not to smoke any more marijuana, since it inhibits his drive to take appropriate action. When he figures out what to do, he does not want to be prevented from doing it. He further defines his current period of hibernation as a stage of preparation for the action he will soon be ready to take. Like the musician who makes visible the sound of music by writing notes on a page, he will make himself visible by writing the sound of his voice in notes on the pages of a book.

In closing the prologue, the narrator responds to those who would call him irresponsible. He points out there is no one to whom he can be responsible. People must recognize him in order for him to have any responsibilities. He mentions the white man with whom he fought and notes that, contrary to the readers' likely opinion, he is irresponsible for this encounter. He could not reason with a man who refused to acknowledge him. He continues in a tone of confession that he should have been a responsible person and killed the white man to protect others in society from his unconscious wrath. Thus, he says there is truth in calling him irresponsible and he commences with the telling of his story.


The Prologue is narrated in first person and in present day. The narrator introduces himself as the Invisible Man, presenting himself as both a character and as a theme. That he is a character is self-explanatory; he is telling a story of events in his life. His status as a theme is a more abstract assertion. His invisibility is symbolic of the fact that the United States, structured as it is in its economic and social racism, gives him no identity. The novel is his search for identity.

One of the prominent themes introduced in this prologue is the loss or denial of identity and its impact on both the individual and the group. Individuals get their sense of identity from sameness, or affiliation, to a group of like people. The sense of belonging to a social group or groups is an important part of personal development. The Invisible Man presents a problem for this development pattern. He belongs nowhere. While the novel is his personal odyssey for identity, it is also a social commentary. The Invisible Man represents the position of the black in society. In his crucial concept of invisibility, Ellison is likely drawing from W.E. B. Dubois’ notion of double consciousness. For Dubois, blacks cannot attain a true sense of self-consciousness while living in a racist country. They see themselves from two points of view simultaneously -- from their own eyes and from the contemptuous point of view of the white majority. Ellison takes the notion of double consciousness and complicates it, looking at it from many different angles.

The Prologue and the Epilogue frame the events of the novel, but both take place sometime after the events of the main novel. The distance between the body of the novel and the framing chapters allows the narrator to comment on his story as if he has had the time to reflect and ponder the significance of the events he relates. Additionally, the narrator in the opening and closing of the novel speaks from a position of maturity and revelation; the events in the middle have already happened, and the beginning and the end comment on what has been learned from those events.

Ellison’s novel is fraught with symbolism, some of which is introduced in the prologue. Invisibility is the obvious symbol, one that will come up again and again. But there is also the symbolic “hibernation”, the narrator’s life in the hole. His hole represents imprisonment, for the narrator feels he is held prisoner by his lack of identity and by the society that refuses to see him. Many times in this section and throughout the novel, the Invisible Man will speak of spring and coming out of the hole. The analogy is clear and simple, one that speaks of oppression and triumph, of death and rebirth. Again, this section is written with perspective; the narrator has had the time to reflect on his life and believes that he will eventually make it out of hibernation. He believes the events he will tell and the lessons that come from them will someday, somehow, make a change for him and for the world.

One of the more interesting ideas presented in this Prologue is the basis for the written story. The narrator reveals that for him the act of writing is an exercise in affirmation. Since he is invisible, he writes down his life so he can have evidence that he actually exists. This confession provides an immediate and urgent justification for the novel. The reader is alerted to the extreme importance of the story about to be told and listens with greater attention and heightened suspense to the events the narrator shares.

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