Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison – Summary, Characters, and Themes
Invisible Man is a novel by an American writer, Ralph Ellison, published in 1952 and won the U.S. National Book Award for fiction in 1953, making the author the first black writer to win the award. In 1998, Invisible Man was ranked 19th on the list of best English-based novels of the 20th century by Modern Library.
The novel emphasizes the social and intellectual problems confronting the black race in the wake of black assimilation with the dominant white community in America.
The story begins with the narrator describing himself as an ‘invisible man ‘; moreover, his identity remains unknown throughout the story. When he proclaims he is invisible, he is saying that the world has refused to see him and his plights, forcing him to live underground in the Southern city where he steals light from the Monopolated Light and Power Company.
The narrator lines his underground room with bulbs and plays Louis Armstrong’s “What Did I Do To Be So.” The narrator solely chooses to live in isolation to enable him to write his life story as an invisible man.
A young black man living underground in the Southern city of America around the 1930s or 20s, the invisible man is blessed with the power of speech; he’s somewhat intelligent.
The narrator made a living out of his ability to make a rousing speech. He was aware of his potential and bothered about how to emerge visible. The neighbourhood admired him, and his oratory skills were in demand.
On one occasion, he got invited to give a speech at an event organized by a group of prominent white people in his city. After delivering an applaudable speech at the event, leaving the white men stunned, he was presented with a scholarship to a prominent but all-black college in a briefcase. However, he can only have it on the condition he participates in the disgraceful and brutal” battle royal” to entertain the white elites. In the battle royal, the narrator will fight his fellow blacks, all blindfolded, to entertain the wealthy white lords. After the fight, gold coins are thrown onto an electrified rug, and they would scramble for them.
Three years later, the narrator makes it as a college student at the all-black college, which its name is also not stated in the story. The narrator was designated to a white trustee of the college, Mr. Norton as a chauffeur. In one of their drives, the narrator, out of curiosity, drives Mr.Norton around the college environment where he’s not supposed to see. The narrator mistakenly stops at Jim Trueblood’s cabin, who’s taunted for committing incest— he had impregnated both his wife and daughter in a wild sexual dream.
On learning the Trueblood’s acts, Mr.Norton is down and begins to crave drinks to regain himself. The narrator takes him to Golden Days, a bar on the outskirts of the college filled with prostitutes and mentally deranged people from a nearby hospital. Soon, chaos breaks out at the bar, and the psychiatric patients descend on the narrator and Mr.Nortorn.
Norton fainted and was resuscitated by one of the mentally deranged persons in the bar who claimed to be a doctor. Immediately after that, the narrator takes him out of the bar.
In the college, the narrator begins to nurture a sense of guilt over his action after listening to the emotional and poetic sermon of blind Homer Barbee on the black founder of the college.
The college’s president, Dr. Bledsoe, criticizes the narrator’s mishap of showing Mr. Norton the dark side of black people instead of showing him the idealized side. Consequently, Dr. Bledsoe ejects the narrator from the college and hands him seven recommendation letters he’s advised not to open to dispatch to the college’s trustees in New York, who will help him get a job and re-enroll in the college in the future.
After distributing the letters, saving one, and not getting feedback from the receivers, the narrator began to worry. He held back one of the letters for Emerson, one of the college’s trustees, in fear of not getting contacted by any of the recommended people. In the end, he reconciles to deliver the last letter. Fortunately for him, he meets Young Emerson – Emerson’s son, who opened the recommendation letter and reads it to the narrator’s face. He was shocked to learn the brutal manner in which the letter described him; no wonder none of the trustees had contacted him since.
Emerson’s son resurrected his hope of getting a job and enrolling back in college. He directs him to the Liberty Paint Plant, reputed for its pure white paint; this is where he finally got a job.
He entered the company as an assistant to Lucius Brockway, a black paintmaker for the company. Soon after, Brockway began suspecting that the narrator was planning to take over his position in the company, and his suspicion worsens when the narrator bumps into the union, making him engage the narrator in a fight that turns out deadly. One of the unattended tanks exploded while they fought in the paint-making room, leaving the narrator half-dead.
The narrator was taken to the hospital and was treated with an electric shock. The white doctors see his arrival as the opportunity to conduct their shock treatment. After leaving the hospital, he collapsed on his way home out of weakness, and the black people around rushed him to the nearby home of a benevolent and old-styled woman named Mary Rambo.
The narrator is unknown in Harlem till an opportunity presents itself. On such a day, an elderly couple was evicted disgracefully from their apartment in Harlem. The narrator was shocked by the act. For this reason, he excoriates it in his passionate speech in front of the black crowd drawn by the eviction. His rousing speech attracts the attention of Brother Jack, who runs after him after the police showed up.
Jack requests the narrator join the Brotherhood, a social organization that fights for the rights of the less privileged, as the organization’s spokesperson. Initially, he refuses the offer but accepts it after Jack’s continuous persuasion.
The Brotherhood requested him to change his name, have a break from his past, and finally, change his apartment before induction into the Brotherhood. The narrator agrees and uses his salary to compensate the Harlem woman he lived in her apartment.
The narrator begins to meet some prominent members of the Brotherhood, like Brother Hambro, who taught him the group’s rhetoric, and Ras The Exhorter, who was unapologetically black. Ras stands against the interracial of the Brotherhood and thinks the black should stand and fight for their rights against the white. The narrator earned respect with speech-making skills.
At one point, the narrator receives a letter from an unknown person, reminding him of his black origin. And soon after that, Wrestrum, an old member of the Brotherhood, accuses the narrator of exploiting the privilege the group offers for personal again.
The group investigated the allegation leveled at him and consequently transferred him to another position to manage women’s affairs.
While away working on probation, the narrator was recalled to Harlem after Clifton and numerous other black members of the Brotherhood desert it for failing to attend to their interests. This caused the organization’s relevance to wane drastically in Harlem. Surprisingly, the narrator finds Clifton selling Sambo dolls on the street. Despite his having no such right to sell his wares, the police approach him. He fought the cops and fiercely resisted arrest from them, leading him to be shot dead while the narrator and several other black people watched.
The narrator holds a public burial for Clifton without seeking permission from the Brotherhood and addresses the crowd, hailing Clifton as a hero and turning the people against the authority.
The Brotherhood fumes against the narrator’s holding up of burial for a member of the Brotherhood without permission. Jack specifically jeered at him and castigated him over his unscientific speech at Clifton’s burial ceremony.
Jack sends the narrator away to learn the new principles and strategies of the Brotherhood from Hambro in Harlem after tongue-lashing him. The narrator leaves frustrated and determined to undermine the group, hence seeking to learn the group’s secret from any woman having an affair with the top officials of the Brotherhood. He woos Sybil, who turned out to know nothing about the group but wishes to use the narrator to practicalize her sexual fantasy of a black man raping her.
In Harlem, Ras hunts for the narrator with his aggressive men. He narrowly escapes their wrath by wearing sunglasses and a hat that makes him look like Rhinehart. While with Sybil, he learns about the pandemonium that breaks out in Harlem. So mingles with looters who set tenement buildings on fire. He walks down the way to find Ras, who spots the narrator amidst the gangs and orders them to lynch him, but he, fortunately, escapes with a briefcase and bumps into white officers who think he’s carrying looted stuff in the case. The narrator avoids getting arrested by sliding into a coal bin, and the white officers close him underground, leaving him to think about his relationship with racism right from birth and reverse to living in isolation.