Invisible Man – Themes

Themes in Invisible Man include responsibility, selfishness and power-mongering. The most outstanding of them all is the theme – identity.

Invisible Man - Themes


Invisible Man is a novel by an American writer, Ralph Ellison, published in 1953 and won several awards previously reserved for white writers of that time. Invisible Man is commended as one of the best English-based novels of the 19th century and has received praise from prominent individuals around the world.

The novel is a bildungsroman and chronicles the life of a black man from the South who hides underground for fear of the world filled with blind people. 

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison explores the themes of social identity, racism, responsibility, and conflict of ideologies. Below is the discussion of the themes:

The theme of Selfishness and power-mongering

Invisible Man is riddled with characters who betray others or live in pretense to gain or retain power at the expense of the people. In the narrator’s stay in Harlem, the narrator walks into several characters who try to use others to advance their objectives. When he decides to emerge visible after years of living lonely underground of the South, he encounters Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the college where he studied on scholarship. As a president of a prestigious, strictly black college, Bledsoe was tasked to impart knowledge to the students and utilize his position to champion the cause of the black and other oppressed communities in the world. 


However, the narrator bitterly learns the true nature of Dr. Bledsoe. Bledsoe is dangerously treacherous, and his allegiance is to the white trustee and not to the black college students. He could sacrifice a fellow black man to advance his objectives or that of the college. To restore his perceived lost glory, Dr. Bledsoe expels the narrator from the college for exposing the unappealing surroundings of the college to a white trustee of the school, Mr. Norton. He gave the narrator sealed letters of recommendation that described him badly to distribute to white friends of the college in Harlem, New York, aiming to trick the narrator out of the school forever.

Themes of Responsibility 

The narrator learns to accept his mistakes while he works to get visible to the world. While he meets different communities, each with its distinct philosophy, he makes terrible choices or mistakes that go against the tenets of each organization. While he acutely recognizes the consequences of his actions, he claims responsibility to keep living his career.


When Dr. Bledsoe roughly excoriates him for driving the college’s trustee, Mr. Norton, around the poor neighborhood of the college, he tries to convince Dr. Bledsoe that he’s faultless in the case, even with the support of Mr.Norton. However, Dr. Bledsoe, who’s bent on expelling him, turns a deaf ear to his explanation and hence accepts the responsibility of the mistake to save his career. While he tries to follow the steps Clifton likes, he hints it’s his responsibility.

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Ideology conflict and limitation 

While the narrator, the invisible man, struggles to forge an identity for himself in racial America as he stumbles with different groups, each with ideologies conflicting with the ones he has escaped, he finds his potential limited by the ideologies of others. 


Each prominent character he encountered had an idea of how the black race will get over the white subjugation. The words exuding from the mouth of the narrator’s dying father about the need for the black to exaggerate the white stereotype and racial prejudice to beat them add to the different approaches each individual have for the liberation of black people.


The Brotherhood preaches love and equal rights to every repressed group, which they believe will better the world. However, in the real sense, the narrator discovers he’s just a simple tool the group uses to achieve their objective. The ideologies of the group’s members tend to clash: Ras The Exhorter strictly opposes the integration of the white and black races, hence antagonizing the black Brothers who fail to buy into his ideology, influencing the Brotherhood to withdraw support for the Harlem Brotherhood. The narrator narrowly escapes lynching by Ras’ mobs at the end.



The narrator – the invisible man who is the protagonist, spent a large part of his life living underground in the South, trying to isolate himself from the dangerous and racial 1930s’ America. The narrator’s identity is concealed throughout his journey, from coming to terms with himself to emerging from the underground and finding a new life in Harlem. 

His bitter experiences – the insightful speech about his relations with Mr. Norton, his encounter with the uneducated but race-conscious Trueblood, and the Brotherhood influence him to live a life contrary to his life in the underground South. Each bitter experience in his quest to remain visible shaped his life. In the end, he inquires about his identity and begins to cast off the identities he acquired in his turbulent stay in Harlem.


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