Invisible Man

by: Ralph Ellison

Key Facts

full title  · Invisible Man

author  · Ralph Ellison

type of work  · Novel

genre  · Bildungsroman (a German word meaning novel of personal “formation,” or development), existentialist novel, African-American fiction, novel of social protest

language  · English

time and place written  · Late 1940s–1952, New York City

date of first publication  · 1952, although the first chapter was published in the English magazine Horizon five years earlier

publisher  · Random House

narrator  · The narrator is an unnamed black man who writes the story as a memoir of his life.

point of view  · The narrator writes in the first person, emphasizing his individual experience and his feelings about the events portrayed.

tone  · Ellison often seems to join the narrator in his sentiments, which range from bitterly cynical to willfully optimistic, from anguish at his sufferings to respect for the lessons learned from them. Ellison seems to write himself into the book through the narrator. However, Ellison also frequently portrays the narrator as blind to the realities of race relations. He points out this blindness through other, more insightful characters (most notably the veteran) as well as through symbolic details.

tense · Past, with present-tense sections in the Prologue and Epilogue

setting (time) · The 1930s

setting (place)  · A black college in the South; New York City, especially Harlem

protagonist · The narrator

major conflict · The narrator seeks to act according to the values and expectations of his immediate social group, but he finds himself continuously unable to reconcile his socially imposed role as a black man with his inner concept of identity, or even to understand his inner identity.

rising action · Dr. Bledsoe expels the narrator from college; the narrator gets into a fight over union politics with his black supervisor at the Liberty Paints plant and enters the plant hospital, where he experiences a kind of rebirth; the narrator stays with Mary, who fosters his sense of social responsibility; the narrator joins the Brotherhood.

climax · The narrator witnesses Clifton’s racially motivated murder at the hands of white police officers; unable to get in touch with the Brotherhood, he organizes Clifton’s funeral on his own initiative and rouses the black community’s anger against the state of race relations; the Brotherhood rebukes him for his act of independence.

falling action  · Riots break out in Harlem, releasing the pent-up anger that has gathered since Clifton’s funeral; the narrator encounters Ras, who calls for him to be lynched; running from Ras and the police, the narrator falls into a manhole and remains underground in “hibernation.”

themes · Racism as an obstacle to individual identity; the limitations of ideology; the danger of fighting stereotype with stereotype

motifs · Blindness; invisibility; jazz and blues music; masks and subterfuge; puppets and marionettes

symbols  · The black Sambo doll; the coin bank; the Liberty Paints plant; the Brotherhood

foreshadowing  · The narrator dreams that the scholarship given him by white community members in fact reads “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.” This prefigures the damaging influence on the narrator of his future college’s lessons in ideology. When the narrator joins the Brotherhood, Brother Jack’s mistress doubts aloud that the narrator is “black enough” to be the organization’s black spokesperson. This hints at a latent racism within the Brotherhood, which will eventually end in the group’s betrayal of the narrator.