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

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The narrator begins by telling of his search for identity. He has always gone to other people for answers about himself. His search has led him to the conclusion that only he can answer the questions about his own identity, for to others he is invisible. He does not, at the start of this narrative, know who he is. He is confused and seeking.

The narrator’s search begins with a recollection of his grandfather, a slave. He had often been ashamed of his grandfather; he believed the old man accepted a separate but equal philosophy. When his grandfather was dying, however, he spoke of his philosophy; they were the words of a covert warrior whose goal was to destroy the enemy through seeming agreement. He told his grandson to pass those words on to the next generation. This enigmatic confession and request puzzled the Invisible Man, who was warned by other adults in the house to forget what his grandfather had said. The narrator explains that the memory of his grandfather's words became a source of apprehension for him in his dealings with white people. He learned, however, that meekness was, indeed, the way to progress.

The narrator found that his compliant behavior often earned him many opportunities, the most recent of which was the opportunity to give a speech to the echelons of white society--the town leaders. Before giving his speech, the narrator was asked to participate in the evening's entertainment. He accepted reluctantly, thinking it might detract from the seriousness of his presentation. He and the other black participants were asked to dress in boxing attire. They were then led into the room with the white leaders. The narrator was shocked to see the prominent men of the town nearly all drunk. He was even more shocked to see a naked blonde woman standing among the young black men, who hung their heads in fear. Although the narrator experienced conflicting emotions, he could not help but look. He found the girl beautiful, but he felt violent towards her at the same time. When the music began to plan, she started to dance, causing more of a stir. The black participants experienced great fear as the white men taunted them about the woman. The drunken white men then began grasping at the woman. She tried to remain calm and graceful, but they started howling and chasing her. The narrator recognized terror and disgust on her face, similar to that which he felt. Finally, some of the more sober white men helped her escape from her predicament.

Now hysterical with fear about what was happening to them, the black participants were ordered into a boxing ring and blindfolded. Although they did not want to fight each other, they were forced to do so by the white men, who told them they would be beaten if they did not fight. The narrator felt terrified, especially with the blindfold in place causing total darkness. The town leaders began to taunt and insult the young men with name-calling and threats. Finally, the blacks responded and began to strike one another. The more the young black men fought each other, the more the white men became excited. The narrator began to receive a beating. Although he felt he was losing his dignity, he could not escape. Then the narrator found himself left in the ring with one other man, the largest of them all. The others arranged for him to be left behind to take the final beating. He tried to negotiate with the larger man, but the man was insistent upon beating him and winning the fight. The narrator grew desperate, ironically still worried about how the outcome of the fight would affect his speech. As a result, he began to fight more ferociously, determined to win at all costs. He then heard a voice in the crowd shouting in favor of the larger man; the narrator, struck by insecurity, hesitated for a moment. He next found himself coming to consciousness. His waking thought was for his speech.

The boxing ring was wheeled away and a large rug was placed on the floor in its place. Gold coins were thrown on the rug, and the young black fighters were told that this was their pay for the night's work. As they sought the money, they discovered that the rug was electrified for the amusement of the white spectators. After the white men grew tired of such merciless entertainment, the narrator was finally called upon to give his speech, a version of Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Exposition. When the narrator used the phrase "social equality," he was made to correct the phrase with the more acceptable words of "social responsibility." When his ordeal was finally over, the narrator was awarded a leather briefcase. Upon opening the briefcase, he found he had been given a scholarship to the State College for Negroes. Because of this award, he was not too upset to discover that the gold coins collected from the electric rug were only brass tokens.

For once, the narrator feels he is not haunted by his grandfather's words. As a result, he can sleep soundly; ironically, he dreams about his grandfather. They are at a circus, but the grandfather will not laugh at the clowns. The grandfather tells him to open his briefcase and look in the envelope. The narrator obeys, only to find one envelope inside another, and another. He becomes tired of opening envelopes. When his grandfather instructs him to open a particular one, it says, "To whom it may concern...keep this nigger-boy running." It is a dream he will have over and over in his life, but at the time he does not know what it means.


The narrator has an identity crisis and longs to find out who he is. He begins to write the book as a journey of self-discovery. The first chapter of the novel is a flashback to a time that the narrator is much younger than in the Prologue. He is just out of school and optimistic about life and his own abilities; he is also intelligent and ambitious, but innocent and naive at the same time. He begins his narration with a memory of his grandfather, who had always seemed to him like an “Uncle Tom” figure--the accommodating, obeisant black servant content with his inferior social status. On his death-bed, the grandfather shattered the image his impressionable young grandson held; he told the boy of his hatred for white people and his strategy to destroy them by pretending to agree with them. He advised the boy to do the same.

The narrator next reflects on the time he was asked by the town leaders to give a speech to them. First, however, he was expected to participate in their entertainment. During this gathering, Ellison develops several striking symbols for his broader themes of the novel. The first symbol is one of lack of power and fear, as reflected by the naked young woman, surrounded and dominated by men. The narrator realizes that she is a spectacle--that the groping, staring, leering men shame and embarrass her. He senses that she is uncomfortable and resistant to her role, but she is powerless in the face of such a large and powerful group. The narrator is torn about how to regard her; he feels sorry for her, but he is also unable to look away from her. As he looks into her hollow eyes and feels her discomfort, he is sympathetic to what he thinks is her fear and resulting submission to the larger group. But the narrator is also gripped with fear and cannot help the young woman. The symbol of the woman helps the narrator to understand the importance of power and control in establishing an identity for oneself. In fact, he realizes that power is everything; without it, one is helpless and naked, like the woman. The fear the narrator experiences is heightened when a blindfold is placed over his eyes. Ellison uses this blindfold as the first of many metaphors about the narrator’s blindness to truth and reality. Throughout the novel, as he becomes more and more disillusioned by his experiences and loses his naïveté, his blindfolds are ripped away; by the end of the novel, the narrator can see clearly and is able to fight against his oppression. During the course of the novel, however, he struggles blindly against reality, just as he struggled in the blindfolded boxing match; both struggles are degrading to him.

The whites are also degraded by Ellison; he offers a damning portrait of their cruel and oppressive behavior, as seen in the treatment of the naked white woman and the young black men. They bask in their power, laugh at their own cruelty, and escape from the realities of life by drinking excessively. The young narrator is totally shocked to see such behavior, for he has always foolishly regarded the white man as worthy, especially those in positions of power like the town leaders.

The dream at the end of the chapter is significant. The narrator dreams of his grandfather, a significant influence in his life, especially after the deathbed command. In the dream the grandfather points to a particular envelope for the narrator to open. Inside there is a message that says, “Keep this nigger-boy running.” Through much of his life, the narrator feels he is made to run by the powerful whites who surround and oppress him. He is writing the book to show who has learned to quit running.

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