Invisible Man is a novel written by Ralph Ellison,and the only one that he published during hislifetime (his other novels were publishedposthumously). It won him the National Book Awardin 1953. The novel addresses many of the socialand intellectual issues facing African-Americansin the early twentieth century, including blacknationalism, the relationship between blackidentity and Marxism, and the reformist racialpolicies of Booker T. Washington, as well asissues of individuality and personal identity.In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Invisible Mannineteenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time magazineincluded the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
Historicalbackground In his introduction to the 30th Anniversary Edition of Invisible Man, Ellison says that he started writing the book in a barn in Waitsfield, Vermont in the summer of 1945 while on sick leave from the Merchant Marine and that the novel continued to preoccupy him in various parts of New York City. In an interview in The Paris Review 1955, Ellison states that the book took five years to complete with one year off for what he termed an "ill-conceived short novel." Invisible Man was published as a whole in 1952; however, copyright dates show the initial publication date as 1947, 1948, indicating that Ellison had published a section of the book prior to full publication. That section was the famous "Battle Royal" scene, which had been shown to Cyril Connolly, the editor of Horizon magazine by Frank Taylor, one of Ellisons early supporters.
Ellison states in his National Book Award acceptance speech that heconsidered the novels chief significance to be its experimentalattitude. Rejecting the idea of social protest—as Ellison would laterput it—he did not want to write another protest novel, and also seeingthe highly regarded styles of Naturalism and Realism too limiting tospeak to the broader issues of race and America, Ellison created anopen style, one that did not restrict his ideas to a movement but wasmore free-flowing in its delivery. What Ellison finally settled on wasa style based heavily upon modern symbolism. It was the kind ofsymbolism that Ellison first encountered in the poem The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot. Ellison had read this poem as a freshman at theTuskegee Institute and was immediately impressed by The Waste Landsability to merge his two greatest passions, that of music andliterature, for it was in The Waste Land that he first saw jazz set towords. When asked later what he had learned from the poem, Ellisonresponded: imagery, and also improvisation—techniques he had onlybefore seen in jazz.Ellison always believed that he would be a musician first and a writersecond, and yet even so he had acknowledged that writing provided hima "growing satisfaction." It was a "covert process," according toEllison: "a refusal of his right hand to let his left hand know whatit was doing."
Plotintroduction Invisible Man is narrated in the first person by the protagonist, an unnamed African American man who considers himself socially invisible. His character may have been inspired by Ellisons own life. The narrator may be conscious of his audience, writing as a way to make himself visible to mainstream culture; the book is structured as if it were the narrators autobiography although it begins in the middle of his life. The story is told from the narrators present, looking back into his past. Thus, the narrator has hindsight in how his story is told, as he is already aware of the outcome.
In the Prologue, Ellisons narrator tellsreaders, "I live rent-free in a buildingrented strictly to whites, in a section ofthe basement that was shut off and forgottenduring the nineteenth century." In thissecret place, the narrator createssurroundings that are symbolicallyilluminated with 1,369 lights. He says, "Myhole is warm and full of light. Yes, full oflight. I doubt if there is a brighter spot inall New York than this hole of mine, and I donot exclude Broadway." The protagonistexplains that light is an intellectualnecessity for him since "the truth is thelight and light is the truth." From thisunderground perspective, the narratorattempts to make sense out of his life,experiences, and position in Americansociety.
In the beginning, the main characterlives in a small town in the South. Heis a model student, even being named hishigh schools valedictorian. Havingwritten and delivered an excellent paperabout the struggles of the average blackman, he gets to tell his speech to agroup of white men, who force him toparticipate in a series of degradingevents. After finally giving his speech,he gets a scholarship to an all-blackcollege that is clearly modeled on theTuskegee Institute.
During his junior year at the college, thenarrator takes Mr. Norton, a visiting richwhite trustee, on a drive in the country. Heaccidentally drives to the house of JimTrueblood, a black man living on thecolleges outskirts, who impregnated his owndaughter. Trueblood, though disgraced by hisfellow blacks, has found greater support fromwhites. After hearing Truebloods story andgiving Trueblood a hundred dollar bill, Mr.Norton faints, then asks for some alcohol tohelp his condition, prompting the narrator totake him to a local tavern.
At the Golden Day tavern, Norton passes inand out of consciousness as World War Iveterans being treated at the nearby mentalhospital for various mental health issuesoccupy the bar and a fight breaks out amongthem. One of the veterans claims to be adoctor and tends to Mr. Norton. The dazedand confused Mr. Norton is not fully awareof what’s going on, as the veteran doctorchastises the actions of the trustee and theyoung black college student. Through all thechaos, the narrator manages to get therecovered Mr. Norton back to the campusafter a day of unusual events.
Upon returning to the school he isfearful of the reaction of the daysincidents from college president Dr.Bledsoe. At any rate, insight intoBledsoes knowledge of the events andthe narrators future at the campus issomewhat prolonged as an importantvisitor arrives. The narrator views asermon by the highly respected ReverendHomer A. Barbee. Barbee, who is blind,delivers a speech about the legacy ofthe colleges founder, with such passionand resonance that he comes vividlyalive to the narrator; his voice makesup for his blindness. The narrator is soinspired by the speech that he feelsimpassioned like never before tocontribute to the colleges legacy.However, all his dreams are shattered asa meeting with Bledsoe reveals hisfate.
Fearing that the colleges funds will bejeopardized by the incidents that occurred,Bledsoe immediately expels the narrator.While the Invisible Man once aspired to belike Bledsoe, he realizes that the man hasportrayed himself as a black stereotype inorder to succeed in the white-dominatedsociety. This serves as the first epiphanyamong many in the narrator realizing hisinvisibility. This epiphany is not yetcomplete when Bledsoe gives him severalletters of recommendation to help him get ajob under the assumption that he couldreturn upon earning enough money for thenext semester. Upon arriving in New York,the narrator distributes the letters withno success. Eventually, the son of one ofthe people to whom he sent a letter takespity on him and shows him an opened copy ofthe letter; it reveals that Bledsoe neverhad any intentions of letting the narratorreturn and sent him to New York to get ridof him.
Acting upon the sons suggestion, the narratoreventually gets a job in the boiler room of apaint factory in a company renowned for its whitepaints. The man in charge of the boiler room,Lucius Brockway, is extremely paranoid and thinksthat the narrator has come to take his job. He isalso extremely loyal to the companys owner, whoonce paid him a personal visit. When the narratortells him about a union meeting he happened upon,Brockway is outraged, and attacks him. Theyfight, and Brockway tricks him into turning awrong valve and causing a boiler to explode.Brockway escapes, but the narrator ishospitalized after the blast. While recovering,the narrator overhears doctors discussing him asa mental health patient. He learns through theirdiscussion that shock treatment has beenperformed on him.
After the shock treatments, the narrator attempts toreturn to his residence when he feels overwhelmed bya certain dizziness and faints on the streets ofHarlem. He is taken to the residence of a kind, old-fashioned woman by the name of Mary. Mary is down-to-earth and reminds the narrator of his relatives inthe South and friends at the college. Mary somewhatserves as a mother figure for the narrator. Whileliving there, he happens upon an eviction of anelderly black couple and makes an impassioned speechdecrying the action. Soon, however, police arrive,and the narrator is forced to escape over severalbuilding tops. Upon reaching safety, he is confrontedby a man named Jack who followed him and implores himto join a group called The Brotherhood that is athinly veiled version of the Communist Party andclaims to be committed to social change andbetterment of the conditions in Harlem. The narratoragrees.
The narrator is at first happy to bemaking a difference in the world,"making history," in his new job. Whilefor the most part his rallies gosmoothly, he soon encounters troublefrom Ras the Exhorter, a fanaticalblack nationalist in the vein of MarcusGarvey who believes that theBrotherhood is controlled by whites.Ras tells this to the narrator and TodClifton, a youth leader of theBrotherhood, neither of whom seem to beswayed by his words.When he returns to Harlem, Tod Cliftonhas disappeared. When the narratorfinds him, he realizes that Clifton hasbecome disillusioned with theBrotherhood, and has quit
Clifton is selling dancing Sambo dollson the street, mocking the organizationhe once believed in. He soon dies. AtCliftons funeral, the narrator ralliescrowds to win back his former widespreadHarlem support and delivers a rousingspeech. However, he is criticized in aclandestine meeting with Brother Jackand other members for not beingscientific in his arguments at thefuneral; angered, he begins to argue inretaliation, causing Jack to lose histemper and accidentally make his glasseye fly out of one of his sockets. Thenarrator realizes that the half-blindJack has never really seen him either.
Clifton is selling dancing Sambo dollson the street, mocking the organizationhe once believed in. He soon dies. AtCliftons funeral, the narrator ralliescrowds to win back his former widespreadHarlem support and delivers a rousingspeech. However, he is criticized in aclandestine meeting with Brother Jack andother members for not being scientific inhis arguments at the funeral; angered, hebegins to argue in retaliation, causingJack to lose his temper and accidentallymake his glass eye fly out of one of hissockets. The narrator realizes that thehalf-blind Jack has never really seen himeither.
He buys sunglasses and a hat as a disguise,and is mistaken for a man named Rinehart ina number of different scenarios: first, asa lover, then, a hipster, a gambler, abriber, and, finally, as a reverend. Hesees that Rinehart has adapted to whitesociety, at the cost of his own identity.Hedecides to take his grandfathers dyingadvice to "overcome em with yeses,undermine em with grins, agree em todeath and destruction. . ." and "yes" theBrotherhood to death, by making it appearthat the Harlem membership is thriving whenin reality it is crumbling. However, hesoon realizes the cost of this action
Ras becomes a powerful demagogue.After escaping Ras (by throwing aspear Ras had acquired through theleaders jaw, permanently sealing it),the narrator is attacked by a coupleof people who trap him inside a coal-filled manhole/basement, sealing himoff for the night and leaving himalone to finally confront the demonsof his mind: Bledsoe, Norton, andJack.At the end of the novel, the narratoris ready to resurface because "overtaction" has already taken place. Thiscould be that, in telling us thestory, the narrator has already made apolitical statement where change couldoccur. Storytelling, then, and thepreservation of history of theseinvisible individuals is what causespolitical change.