Invisible Man


"Invisible Man", written in 1952 by Ralph Ellison,
documents a young black man's struggle to find identity in
an inequitable and manipulative society. During the course
of this struggle, he learns many valuable lessons, both
about society and himself, through his experiences.
The story begins with the narrator recounting his memories
of his grandfather. The most remarkable, and eventually the
most haunting of these is his memory of his grandfather's
last words in which he claims to have been a traitor to his
own people and urges his son to "overcome 'em with yeses,
undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and
destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust
wide open." These words remain imprinted in the narrator's
mind throughout the book, although he never fully
understands their meaning. His grandfather's words
eventually serve as catalyst for his subsequent
disillusionments, the first of which occurs directly after
he graduates from high school.
At this time, the narrator is invited to give a speech at a
gathering of the town's leading white citizens. The speech
he is planning to give expresses the view that humility is
the essence of progress. Subconsciously, the words of his
grandfather prevent him from truly believing the thesis of
his own speech, but he gives it anyway. Instead of being
shown respect for his work, however, he is humiliated by
being made to fight blind-folded against other young black
men, and then being shocked by an electrified rug. He
pretends not to be angered by these events, yet his true
feelings escape him for a moment when, while he is reading
his speech, he accidentally says "Social equality," instead
of "Social responsibility." After he finishes his speech,
he is awarded a new briefcase. Inside the briefcase is a
scholarship to the state Negro College. That night he has a
dream in which his grandfather tells him to open the
briefcase and read what is in the envelope. He finds that
it says "To Whom It May Concern, Keep This Nigger-Boy
Running." Unfortunately, he is still too disillusioned to
grasp the meaning of his grandfather's warnings.
During his Junior year at college, the narrator drives for
Mr. Norton, one of the college founders who is visiting the
campus. During the drive, Mr. Norton tells the narrator
that he is his destiny. The narrator, however, fails to
understand this statement until several years later, when
he finally understands the real nature of his own
While driving, the narrator and Mr. Norton pass by an old
log cabin. Mr. Norton becomes curious about the two
pregnant women washing clothes in the yard. The narrator
explains that one is the wife of Jim Trueblood and the
other is his daughter and that he impregnated them both.
Mr. Norton is astonished by this and decides to go talk
with Trueblood. Trueblood explains how it happened, and Mr.
Norton is so disturbed that when he gets back into the car,
he becomes sick and instructs the narrator to get him a
The narrator drives to a local bar and tries to buy a drink
to take outside to Mr. Norton, but the bartender won't let
him. The narrator is forced to carry the now unconscious
Mr. Norton into the bar. When Mr. Norton awakes, he is
harassed by several mental health patients, and leaves in
utter disgust.
When Dr. Bledsoe, the head of the narrator's college finds
out what happened, he expels the narrator. When the
narrator threatens to fight him, Dr. Bledsoe explains to
the the narrator the true nature of his power. He tells the
narrator that he doesn't care if he tries to fight, because
behind his power is an entire hierarchy of power that
cannot be displaced by anything, no matter how true or
righteous: "This is a power set-up, son, and I'm at the
controls. You think about that. When you buck against me,
you're bucking against power, rich white folk's power, the
nation's power--which means government power!" But even
then, he still does not understand what is being done to
him. He still believes that other people have his best
interests at heart. 

Dr. Bledsoe tells him that if he goes to New York and earns
enough money, he will be readmitted to the college. The
narrator agrees to this, and Dr. Bledsoe gives the him
several letters of recommendation and sends him on his way.
When the narrator gets to New York, the son of Mr. Emerson,
one of the people to whom Dr. Bledsoe wrote a letter, tries
to tell the narrator about the tyranny under which he is
being exploited. The narrator refuses to listen, until he
is shown the letter that Dr. Bledsoe had written. He
discovers that all the letters of recommendation are phony
and that Dr. Bledsoe never actually intended for him to be
able to re-enroll in the college. This realization finally
causes the narrator to become at least partially
disillusioned. Because of this, he decides to forget about
the college and takes a job at a paint factory.
At the paint factory he begins working as an assistant to
Lucius Brockway, an old black man that works the machines
in the basement. Brockway explains to the narrator that it
is the people who work the machines, and not the machines
themselves, that are responsible for the success of the
company. He tells him, "We the machines inside the
machine." The narrator, however, fails to grasp the broader
meaning of this quote. 

When Brockway discovers that the narrator went to a union
meeting, he attacks the narrator. While they are fighting,
the machinery goes haywire and when the narrator tries to
fix it, it explodes, knocking him unconscious. The narrator
wakes up in the factory hospital. At first he thinks they
are going to help him-that they are going to try and
relieve his pain and suffering. But again, this is only a
naive illusion. Instead, he becomes a guinea pig for
experimental electroshock therapy. The electroshock therapy
causes him to forget who he is. This is symbolic of how his
continual exploitation has been robbing him of his
identity. After he recovers from the amnesia and leaves the
hospital, he realizes that he is no longer afraid of
important men since he no longer expects anything from
them. He is still a long way away, however, from full
A few days later, as he is walking down a street in Harlem,
he happens upon a crowd gathered where an old black couple
are being evicted from their apartment. Here he gives a
speech about how the couple has been disowned by
society-about how the entire black race has been disowned
by society. This speech motivates the crowd to attack the
evictors. Later that day, the narrator is approached by
someone who witnessed the incident. He offers the narrator
a job as a public speaker. The narrator eventually accepts
and joins the political organization known as the
Brotherhood. In the first speech he gives for the
brotherhood, he says that we are all like one-eyed men
walking down opposite sides of the street. If someone
starts throwing bricks, we start blaming each other and
fighting among ourselves. This description later proves to
be more accurate than he thought. 

After he has given his first speech, the Brotherhood
decides to train him and give him a new name, new clothes,
and a new residence. All these changes make the narrator
think that he is finally finding an identity. "The new suit
imparted a newness to me. It was the clothes and the new
name and the circumstances. It was a newness too subtle to
put into thought, but there it was. I was becoming someone
else." The narrator does not realize, however, that it was
still the same game, just with a deeper level of illusion. 

The Brotherhood teaches him their doctrine of scientific
world brotherhood and he eventually becomes manager of the
entire Harlem branch. At first, things seem to be going
well and he is very enthusiastic, but then he receives an
anonymous note that tells him not to gain power too fast,
or the whites will start to resent him. This disturbs him
deeply. A few days later, another setback occurs. A fellow
brother accuses him of trying to amass power for himself.
The Council takes this accusation seriously and relocates
the narrator to the downtown branch. The narrator is
infuriated, but accepts the relocation. This experience is
the first step in the narrator's realization that even the
Brotherhood is a bureaucracy, and acts only in its own
Without the narrator's leadership, the Harlem Branch soon
falls into disarray. Because of this, the Council decides
to move the narrator back to Harlem. When he returns he
finds that most of the members have left, and the community
feels betrayed by the organization. Within a few days of
the narrator's return, Tod Clifton, a former member of the
Brotherhood, is shot, unarmed, by a police officer. The
narrator decides that this is just the catalyst he needs to
save the dying organization. He organizes a public funeral
for Clifton and gives a speech denouncing the shooting.
When the Council finds out what the narrator has done, they
threaten to expel him. They say that it was wrong to treat
Clifton as a hero since he had betrayed the organization
before being shot, and it was also wrong to act without the
authorization of the Council. The narrator argues that it
was justified by the need to rebuild support for the
organization in the community. At this, Jack becomes
infuriated and his glass eye comes out. When the narrator
learns that Jack only has one eye, it is symbolic of his
realization that the people who head the organization are
essentially blind to the real needs of the community. They
are more interested in arguing philosophy than really doing
what is right. In essence, they are like the one-eyed men
that the narrator spoke of in his first speech for the
Brotherhood. Becoming further disillusioned, he decides to
go visit Hambro. On the way there, he narrowly escapes
being assaulted by black nationalists. He decided to buy a
disguise so that he will be safe in the future. Wearing the
disguise, he is stopped several times on the street by
people that think he is a man named Rinehart. Eventually,
he discovers that Rinehart is a lover, a gambler, a briber,
and a reverend. The knowledge that such a man could truly
exist opens up a new perspective for the narrator. This new
perspective causes him to decide to follow his
grandfather's advice and undermine the brotherhood with the
illusion of complete submission. He falsifies all of the
branch's records and reports, while pretending that
everything is perfectly fine. Meanwhile, the people of
Harlem are becoming increasingly angry, and there is no one
left to organize their anger into productive activities.
Eventually, riots break out, and the narrator realizes that
he has been fooling himself the whole time, he has been
betraying his community. The Brotherhood had planned it
all, but now it's too late for him to do anything about it.
So instead of trying to organize the people, he simply
observes what happens. He finds that the people have the
ability to organize and take action for themselves. "And
now I was seized with a fierce sense of exaltation. They've
done it, I thought. They organized it and carried it
through alone; the decision their own and their own
action." He realizes that the real forces of history are
not political organizations, but the common people. 

During the riots, the narrator is recognized by black
nationalists, led by Ras the Destroyer. They chase him
until he falls down a manhole, landing on a pile of coal.
He searches for an exit by burning the contents of his
briefcase, one by one. Each item he burns represents
freedom from an aspect of his past. First he burns his high
school diploma, then a doll made by Clifton. Next he burns
the anonymous letter and the new name given to him by Jack.
He discovers that the handwriting is the same on both
documents. He now understands the complete truth about the
Brotherhood. Exhausted, and without light, the narrator
collapses into the darkness. He soon falls asleep and
begins to dream. In this dream he has a final confrontation
with Jack, Emerson, Bledsoe, Norton, and Ras. He discovers
that they are all the same and that all they want to do is
to keep him running. None of them really cares about him
and they just want to use him for their own gain. He
finally sees beyond all the illusions and realizes that
history will vindicate his invisibility.
The style in which " Invisible Man" is written, is very
introspective and personal. Every detail of the narrator's
emotions and logic are exposed, thus allowing us to more
fully comprehend his development over time. In parts of the
book, introspection takes over almost completely, sending
us deep within the spiraling abyss of the invisible man's
consciousness. Unlike most other books, the ideas that the
author wishes to express are conveyed more through thoughts
than by dialog or actions. The book also uses dream scenes
quite frequently, often as a foreshadowing of events to
Many parts of the book are quite graphic and disturbing,
thus reflecting the horror of the true nature of society.
The most blatant example of this is Trueblood's incest
account. It tells of how he awakens to find himself
violating his own daughter and yet he refuses to stop since
he believes that would be an even greater sin. He
contemplates severing his genitals with a knife, but
doesn't have a knife nearby. When his wife finally
discovers what he has done, she cuts his face with an ax.
Other examples of graphic or disturbing scenes include
Sophia trying to get the narrator to rape her, Jack
removing his glass eyeball, and the narrator throwing a
spear through Ras' jaw. Emerson is a true realist, never
sparing any image, no matter how graphic.

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