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

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The Invisible Man

The narrator changes so drastically from his younger, naive self to his older, disillusioned self, that he can almost be seen as two characters: the narrator who opens and closes the story and the young man who experiences life in the story. As a young black man, the narrator had great hope. He could even forgive the white leaders of the town for shaming him when he realized that they also gave him a new opportunity - to go to the Negro college. During college he sought his own identity, away from his Southern home and his family’s backward way of thinking. Unfortunately, a white benefactor of the college was his undoing. When Mr. Norton asked the narrator to take him to the black community, the narrator obliged, by taking him to see Mr. Trueblood. Mr. Norton was so shocked and upset by Trueblood’s story of incest the he felt physically ill and asked the narrator to get him a drink of whiskey. Fearful about Norton’s condition, the narrator drove him to the closest place that served alcohol; it was a black dive, ironically called the Golden Day. Since a group of black men from the local mental institution were in the bar, things got quickly out of hand, and Norton passed out under the stairs. As a result of these incidents, the narrator was kicked out of school by Dr. Bledsoe, who told the narrator that a black man must never show a white man what he wants to see, only what he should see. It is the first step of the narrator’s process of disillusionment.

The narrator next went to seek his fortune in New York, armed with supposed letters of recommendation from Dr. Bledsoe. He soon learned that Bledsoe betrayed him, and the letters warned against the narrator, preventing him from finding employment. It is a second lesson in disillusionment. Out of work and lost, the narrator was easily attracted to joining the Brotherhood, who offered him a salary of sixty dollars a week to give speeches to excite the blacks in Harlem. The narrator accepted the offer with blindfolds on, fully trusting the promises of the Brotherhood. Much of the novel deals with his finding out the truth about the organization - that they used him for their own purposes and encouraged him to incite the blacks to a riotous level so they would kill one another. Caught in the riot himself, the narrator barely escaped from his enemies, especially from Ras, the Nationalist. He fell into a manhole, where he stayed for a period of time, coming to grips with his own blindness to reality and deciding what to do with his invisibility.

It is crucial to remember that the narrator’s tale is one of gradual disillusionment that is told from the point of view of a black man who has almost totally withdrawn from the social world. He is interested in telling the story of his life in order to come to grips with who he is and to communicate the lessons he has learned through living. In the epilogue that follows the end of the actual novel, the narrator states that he is ready to put his new philosophy of the multiplicity of life into practice; he is ready to emerge from his long period of writing and hibernation. There is a spark of hope that he will be able to successfully handle his future life because he has fully analyzed and discarded his past.


Ellison plots Invisible Man along the lines of an allegory, a literary style that presents an abstract meaning thorough concrete or material forms, usually for the purpose of teaching a lesson. In other words, it is a figurative treatment of a subject. It is an ancient form of writing, which is fairly rare in modern writing. In the novel, all the characters and incidents have a symbolic meaning in addition to their own figurative existence and occurrence. The plot depends upon a layering of symbol upon symbol. In fact, Ellison has described the novel’s structure as that of a jazz composition. It has a central theme with harmonic variations made upon it.

The central theme that unifies the novel is the narrator’s search for identity. Initially, the young black man tries to understand his grandfather, who lived like an Uncle Tom on the surface while believing in his mind that he was a resistance fighter who battles the white establishment by agreeing with them. Throughout the novel, the narrator recalls the philosophy of his grandfather and the words he spoke on his deathbed. For a while, the narrator even tries to live out the philosophy of working within corrupt systems and agreeing to their standards in order to get what he needs. In the end, he realizes that his grandfather’s philosophy does not work in modern times.

Another important symbol of the novel, which is repeated allegorically over and over and which refers the narrator’s search for his identity is the symbol of the veil and blindness. The statue at the school, which represents a blindfold being removed or placed firmly on the eyes of a slave figure, is echoed many times in the novel and refers to the narrator's sense of losing illusions and falling back into them. Closely related to the theme of blindness is the central symbol of invisibility. Throughout the story, the narrator tries to deal with being an invisible man, a person that the white man can simply ignore. Besides the narrator, there are many other invisible characters in the book, including the grandfather, Dr. Bledsoe, and Reverend Rinehart. By the end of the book, the narrator has learned to use his invisibility to his advantage.

The novel is also plotted on the principle of ascension and submersion. The narrator begins with the idea that he can ascend from his lowly position in society by the American Dream of hard work and perseverance. Time after time he is pushed back down, submersed because of his color. As a result, he is symbolically often found in basements and finally ends up in a man-hole; he hides underground for awhile, hibernating in order to withdraw into himself, to find meaning in his invisibility, and to come up with his true identity. The novel ends on a promise of ascension, as the narrator states he is ready to come out of hibernation and face a life of multiplicity.

Structurally, the novel is developed in classical form. The epilogue serves as an introduction where the protagonist, the narrator, is presented and the problem, racism, is identified. Most of the story is comprised of rising action, where the narrator has one frightening experience after another; each teaches him about life and helps to remove some of his blindness to reality. Gradually, he begins to come to grips with his own identity in a racist world and accepts the fact that the Brotherhood has used him and his blackness, like so many other white organizations have done. When he is caught up in the Harlem riots, the racism almost kills him, as he is being sought by Ras and other enemies. Fortunately for him, the narrator falls into a manhole, which offers him protection in the total darkness of an underground world. In this “blind” environment, the climax occurs, for the narrator finally puts his life into perspective and sees his invisibility and his identity in a new light. The true moment of climax occurs when he burns the tokens of his past, which he has carried in his briefcase; once freed from this “excess baggage,” he can think clearly about his true self and his future. The falling action centers on his coming to grips with a philosophy of the multiplicity of life, which is not all black or all white, all good or all bad, all weak or all strong, all agreeable or all disagreeable. The narrator also accepts that he has all of these things within himself. The epilogue then serves as the final conclusion to the plot, revealing why the narrator has written the book and explaining that he is ready to emerge from underground and live life as a changed and more hopeful man.

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Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison: Free BookNotes Summary

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