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

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The narrator attends the next Brotherhood meeting and tells them everything they want to hear. He says things are calming down in Harlem, even though he really knows that tension is mounting perilously. He gives them a fake list of new members who support the Brotherhood. The leaders are impressed.

The narrator has planned to use Sybil, the lonely wife of one of the Brotherhood leaders, to enact his underhanded plan to corrupt the Brotherhood’s goals. He gives Sybil a ride home and arranges for them to meet at his apartment. When they are together, he botches his plan, serving drinks that are too strong. He also talks of politics, a subject that she hates. He tries to gather information from her about the Brotherhood leadership, his role in the organization, and what plans are being made. When he fails to gain any information, he imagines how Rinehart might handle the situation.

Sybil becomes drunk and sexually aggressive, inviting him to perform acts he has never done. She wants him to pretend to rape her. She says she trusts him and thinks he is beautiful, calling him a “big black buck.” He begins to wonder if she is using him, just as he is using her. He realizes that he is not even special to her, just a black man she is going to have sex with. The Brotherhood calls and tells him something is brewing in Harlem and he needs to come at once. When he gets to Harlem, wild riots have erupted. Debris is flying, and the narrator is struck on the head. He puts his briefcase over him as protection and begins to run.


The narrator is successful in keeping the Brotherhood ignorant about the neighborhood conditions and the growing discontent, for he told them what they wanted to hear, rather than the truth. Despite this small success in his plan, his mission with Sybil proves to be ineffective. He realizes that while he can rationalize away his personal responsibility, he still has a conscience. The narrator may be invisible to others, but this does not mean he does not exist; he is real and must answer to himself. He chooses not to use Sybil.



The narrator is suddenly aware of people crouching in the darkness and in doorways everywhere. Men come towards him pushing a safe, telling him to get out of the way. Police begin to fire at the men with the safe, and they run, letting the safe swerve out into the road. Other men approach the narrator and notice the blood coming down his face and the injury on his head. Someone comments on a person who has been shot and killed. Someone asks him if the briefcase on the ground is his, and he grabs it in panic. There is the sound of breaking glass and shouting further down the street. Two men invite the narrator to come along with them.

He follows the looting men while gunshots ring out all around. The men, Scofield and Dupre, ask him if he has some loot, pointing to his briefcase. He opens it up and looks inside to find his Brotherhood identification, the anonymous letter he received, Clifton's doll, and Mary's bank. The looters invite him to fill his briefcase, but he tells them he has enough to carry already. He remembers where he was originally going, but is unable to leave his present company who argue about how the riot got started.

The destination of Scofield and Dupre is the tenement building in which they live; they plan to torch it. The narrator asks them where they will live if the building is burned down. They tell him to stay in the tenement is not “living.” A woman runs up to Dupre and asks him to stop because she will have a child soon. He says he does not want anymore children and insists that no one can change his mind.

The narrator hears someone call him by his Brotherhood name. The person thanks him for leading the people as he had promised. Suddenly Ras's men are after him, but he manages to blend in with the crowds on the street. Then Scofield finds him again. The two of them almost bump into a man bleeding to death. The narrator stops to help put a tourniquet on him; he tells someone to take him to a doctor. Scofield wants to know if someone has called him brother. The narrator denies it.

Cops come from ahead. As bricks fall from the building tops, the police fire their guns. The rioters duck to avoid the bullets. The narrator overhears a man talking about the "race riot;" he realizes that it is a phrase that gives meaning to much that he could never articulate before, but he is frightened at being a part of it. He gets up and runs away, wanting to leave before more guns arrive. As he departs the area, he is horrified to see the bodies of several white women hanging from street lampposts. He is greatly relieved when he realizes that they are mannequins.

Ras's men head towards narrator. Their plan is to get themselves heavily armed and attack the other political forces in the streets. They are calling for people to stop looting and to join them. The narrator searches for his glasses to conceal his identity, but he drops them and they break. Ras sees him and spears a hanging dummy before pointing him out to the crowd and calling him a betrayer. Then someone announces his identity as a brother. He shouts that he is no longer a brother and claims that the Brotherhood wants a race war so every one in the community will be killed. When he declares that he is against the Brotherhood now, Ras calls him a liar and instructs his men to lynch him as an example. He protests, saying that the Brotherhood has planned the riots. They want to use blacks to help kill other blacks. When Ras again orders him to be hanged, the narrator realizes he cannot talk his way out of this situation.

The narrator realizes suddenly that he does not want to die. He will live out his absurd life as the invisible person he is. He grabs the spear and throws it back in the air to catch them off guard. Ras turns his head to shout, and the spear catches him through both cheeks. His men pull out guns but are too close to shoot. The narrator knocks them with Tarp's leg chain and his briefcase and runs. They chase after him but do not shoot. He realizes he is running to Mary's. He escapes into a crowd, but is punched and pointed out again. He wishes he could turn around and organize the people to work together with him in his new understanding. As he runs, a mounted officer approaches; he is so close that his eyes are slapped by the horse’s tail, blinding him. He continues as best he can, running towards Mary's house.

The narrator stops behind a house to rest. Men approach and stand around drinking. He realizes that they are two neighborhood men, commenting on the crimes of the night. One recounts seeing Ras shoot people for insulting him. The event of Ras' clash with police is told comically. The narrator, still on the ground, thinks how Ras may be funny, but he is also dangerous. He also accepts that he was used as a tool by Jack and that his grandfather was wrong. Perhaps his grandfather was right for his time, but his philosophy does not work in the present.

When the neighborhood men have left, the narrator gets up to go look for Jack. Someone shouts at him and asks him what is in his briefcase. He is filled with shame when he thinks about the assortment of things he is carrying; they are the relics of his past that he cannot seem to discard. He takes off running and falls into a manhole. The men chasing him stop around the hole and look down, wondering if he is dead. The narrator tells the men that they are inside his briefcase, and they decide he is crazy. They light a match, but cannot see him in the dark, which makes them angry. They cover the manhole, and the narrator finds he cannot remove the cover because of its weight. He realizes he does not need to panic, because he has been living a disaster all his life. This acknowledgement helps him to go to sleep.

Because the cover blocks the sunlight, the narrator does not wake in the morning. In fact, he does not even realize how long he has been underground, sleeping. When he gropes in the darkness, he cannot find the cover or a ladder. He does, however, locate a packet of matches that the men had dropped down into the hole. With only three matches left, he searches for a piece of paper to light. When he finds nothing to burn, he reaches for something from inside his briefcase to use. He begins by lighting his high school diploma and sees that he is in a large basement. He realizes he will need to burn everything in the briefcase to find his way out. Next he burns Clifton's doll. Then he grabs the anonymous letter. As he uses the anonymous letter to light the paper with his Brotherhood identity, he sees the handwriting is identical. He realizes that Jack had written the letter that sent him running. He becomes enraged, causing his flame to burn out. He thrashes himself about angrily, and screams.

The narrator drifts in and out of consciousness, dreaming of Norton, Bledsoe, Jack, Emerson, and countless others, who all demand that he come back to them and run some more. When he tells them he refuses to run again, they castrate him. They then laugh at him in his pain and ask him how it feels to be free of illusions. He responds that he it is empty and painful. The narrator then begins to laugh, saying he now sees what he could not see before. He has paid the price for his blindness. He realizes he cannot go back to Mary's or anywhere else. He knows he must stay underground or move ahead, and so he chooses to stay.


This scene is full of violence, confusion, and chaos, but it is also the scene wherein the narrator is suddenly able to understand everything fully. Hambro has told him that some will be sacrificed for the good of the whole. The “some” are the black men, and the benefactors are the white men. The Brotherhood has all along sought to turn the black men against each another so that they can eliminate themselves. The rioting is a vital part of their plan. With horrifying clarity, the narrator realizes that he has been totally duped. He thought he was tricking the Brotherhood, but they were tricking him. Without his realizing it, he has organized the massacre of his own people, all the while thinking he was smart.

Once he is able to escape Ras and his enemies, he falls into a manhole and finds himself underground - trapped and alone. Without light and with no possessions beyond his briefcase full of tokens representing his past life, he is left to discover his identity fully for the first time. It is the most metaphoric scene in the entire novel. In the darkness, he is blind; even the light of day (the truth) cannot wake him up. But as he burns the mementos of his past -- his diploma, his anonymous letter, his Brotherhood membership, Clifton’s dancing doll - he begins to see clearly, removing his blindness. The light from his past experiences helps him to realize the truth. He commits himself to the one thing he has left: the search for his own true identity. He proposes to write down the events that have happened to him, hoping the writing will help him find himself.

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Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison: Free BookNotes Summary

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