The narrator not only tells the story of Invisible Man, he is also its principal character. Because Invisible Man is a bildungsroman (a type of novel that chronicles a character’s moral and psychological growth), the narrative and thematic concerns of the story revolve around the development of the narrator as an individual. Additionally, because the narrator relates the story in the first person, the text doesn’t truly probe the consciousness of any other figure in the story. Ironically, though he dominates the novel, the narrator remains somewhat obscure to the reader; most notably, he never reveals his name. The names that he is given in the hospital and in the Brotherhood, the name of his college, even the state in which the college is located—these all go unidentified. The narrator remains a voice and never emerges as an external and quantifiable presence. This obscurity emphasizes his status as an “invisible man.”
For much of the story, and especially in the chapters before he joins the Brotherhood, the narrator remains extremely innocent and inexperienced. He is prone to think the best of people even when he has reason not to, and he remains consistently respectful of authority. The narrator’s innocence sometimes causes him to misunderstand important events in the story, often making it necessary for the reader to look past the narrator’s own interpretation of events in order to see Ellison’s real intentions. Ellison uses heavy irony to allow the reader to see things that the narrator misses. After the “battle royal” in Chapter 1, for instance, the narrator accepts his scholarship from the brutish white men with gladness and gratitude. Although he passes no judgment on the white men’s behavior, the men’s actions provide enough evidence for the reader to denounce the men as appalling racists. While the narrator can be somewhat unreliable in this regard, Ellison makes sure that the reader perceives the narrator’s blindness.
Further, because the narrator supposedly writes his story as a memoir and not while it is taking place, he also comes to recognize his former blindness. As a result, just as a division exists between Ellison and the narrator, a division arises between the narrator as a narrator and the narrator as a character. Ellison renders the narrator’s voice as that of a man looking back on his experiences with greater perspective, but he ensures that the reader sees into the mind of the still-innocent character. He does so by having the narrator recall how he perceived of events when they happened rather than offer commentary on these events with the benefit of hindsight.
The narrator’s innocence prevents him from recognizing the truth behind others’ errant behavior and leads him to try to fulfill their misguided expectations. He remains extremely vulnerable to the identity that society thrusts upon him as an African American. He plays the role of the servile black man to the white men in Chapter 1; he plays the industrious, uncomplaining disciple of Booker T. Washington during his college years; he agrees to act as the Brotherhood’s black spokesperson, which allows the Brotherhood to use him. But the narrator also proves very intelligent and deeply introspective, and as a result, he is able to realize the extent to which his social roles limit him from discovering his individual identity. He gradually assumes a mask of invisibility in order to rebel against this limitation.
The narrator first dons the mask after his falling-out with the Brotherhood, in Chapter 22. He becomes even more invisible in Chapter 23, when, escaping Ras’s henchmen, he disguises himself behind dark glasses and a hat, unintentionally inducing others to mistake him for the nebulous Rinehart. Finally, in Chapter 25, he retreats underground. Yet, in the act of telling his story, the narrator comes to realize the danger of invisibility: while it preempts others’ attempts to define him, it also preempts his own attempts to define and express himself. He concludes his story determined to honor his own complexity rather than subdue it in the interest of a group or ideology. Though most of the narrator’s difficulties arise from the fact that he is black, Ellison repeatedly emphasized his intent to render the narrator as a universal character, a representation of the struggle to define oneself against societal expectations.
Ellison uses Brother Jack, the leader of the Brotherhood, to point out the failure of abstract ideologies to address the real plight of African Americans and other victims of oppression. At first, Jack seems kind, compassionate, intelligent, and helpful, a real boon to the struggling narrator, to whom he gives money, a job, and—seemingly—a way to help his people fight against prejudice. But as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the narrator is just as invisible to Jack as he is to everyone else. Jack sees him not as a person but as a tool for the advancement of the Brotherhood’s goals. It eventually becomes clear to the narrator that Jack shares the same racial prejudices as the rest of white American society, and, when the Brotherhood’s focus changes, Jack abandons the black community without regret.
The narrator’s discovery that Jack has a glass eye occurs as Jack enters into a fierce tirade on the aims of the Brotherhood. His literal blindness thus symbolizes how his unwavering commitment to the Brotherhood’s ideology has blinded him, metaphorically, to the plight of blacks. He tells the narrator, “We do not shape our policies to the mistaken and infantile notions of the man in the street. Our job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them!” Throughout the book, Jack explains the Brotherhood’s goals in terms of an abstract ideology. He tells the narrator in Chapter 14 that the group works “for a better world for all people” and that the organization is striving to remedy the effects of too many people being “dispossessed of their heritage.” He and the other brothers attempt to make the narrator’s own speeches more scientific, injecting them with abstractions and jargon in order to distance them from the hard realities that the narrator seeks to expose.
To many black intellectuals in the 1930s, including Ellison, the Communist Party in particular seemed to offer the kind of salvation that Jack appears to embody—only to betray and discard the African-American cause as the party’s focus shifted in the early 1940s. Ellison’s treatment of the Brotherhood is largely a critique of the poor treatment that he believed the black community had received from communism, and Jack, with his red hair, seems to symbolize this betrayal.
One of the most memorable characters in the novel, Ras the Exhorter (later called Ras the Destroyer) is a powerful figure who seems to embody Ellison’s fears for the future of the civil rights battle in America. Ras’s name, which literally means “Prince” in one of the languages of Ethiopia, sounds simultaneously like “race” and “Ra,” the Egyptian sun god. These allusions capture the essence of the character: as a passionate black nationalist, Ras is obsessed with the idea of race; as a magnificently charismatic leader, he has a kind of godlike power in the novel, even if he doesn’t show a deity’s wisdom. Ras’s guiding philosophy, radical at the time the novel was published, states that blacks should cast off oppression and prejudice by destroying the ability of white men to control them. This philosophy leads inevitably to violence, and, as a result, both Ellison and the narrator fear and oppose such notions. Yet, although Ellison objects to the ideology that Ras embodies, he never portrays him as a clear-cut villain. Throughout the novel, the reader witnesses Ras exert a magnetic pull on crowds of black Americans in Harlem. He offers hope and courage to many. By the late 1960s, many black leaders, including Malcolm X, were advocating ideas very similar to those of Ras.
Ras, who is depicted as a West Indian, has reminded many critics of Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican-born black nationalist who was influential in the early 1920s. Like Ras, Garvey was a charismatic racial separatist with a love of flamboyant costumes who advocated black pride and argued against integration with whites. (Garvey even endorsed the Ku Klux Klan for working to keep whites and blacks separate.) However, Ellison consistently denied patterning Ras specifically on Garvey. If any link does exist, it is probably only that Garvey inspired the idea of Ras, not that Ellison attempted to recreate Garvey in Ras.