The narrator introduces himself as an “invisible man.” He explains that his invisibility owes not to some biochemical accident or supernatural cause but rather to the unwillingness of other people to notice him, as he is black. It is as though other people are sleepwalkers moving through a dream in which he doesn’t appear. The narrator says that his invisibility can serve both as an advantage and as a constant aggravation. Being invisible sometimes makes him doubt whether he really exists. He describes his anguished, aching need to make others recognize him, and says he has found that such attempts rarely succeed.
The narrator relates an incident in which he accidentally bumped into a tall, blond man in the dark. The blond man called him an insulting name, and the narrator attacked him, demanding an apology. He threw the blond man to the ground, kicked him, and pulled out his knife, prepared to slit the man’s throat. Only at the last minute did he come to his senses. He realized that the blond man insulted him because he couldn’t really see him. The next day, the narrator reads about the incident in the newspaper, only to find the attack described as a mugging. The narrator remarks upon the irony of being mugged by an invisible man.
The narrator describes the current battle that he is waging against the Monopolated Light & Power Company. He secretly lives for free in a shut-off section of a basement, in a building that allows only white tenants. He steals electricity from the company to light his room, which he has lined with 1,369 bulbs. The company knows that someone is stealing electricity from them but is unaware of the culprit’s identity or location.
The narrator stays in his secret, underground home, listening to Louis Armstrong’s jazz records at top volume on his phonograph. He states that he wishes that he had five record players with which to listen to Armstrong, as he likes feeling the vibrations of the music as well as hearing it. While listening, he imagines a scene in a black church and hears the voice of a black woman speaking out of the congregation. She confesses that she loved her white master because he gave her sons. Through her sons she learned to love her master, though she also hated him, for he promised to set the children free but never did. In the end, she says, she killed him with poison, knowing that her sons planned to tear him to pieces with their homemade knives. The narrator interrogates her about the idea of freedom until one of the woman’s sons throws the narrator out on the street. The narrator then describes his experiences of listening to Armstrong’s music under the influence of marijuana and says that the power of Armstrong’s music, like the power of marijuana, comes from its ability to change one’s sense of time. But eventually, the narrator notes, he stopped smoking marijuana, because he felt that it dampened his ability to take action, whereas the music to which he listened impelled him to act.
Now, the narrator hibernates in his invisibility with his invisible music, preparing for his unnamed action. He states that the beginning of his story is really the end. He asks who was responsible for his near-murder of the blond man—after all, the blond man insulted him. Though he may have been lost in a dream world of sleepwalkers, the blond man ultimately controlled the dream. Nevertheless, if the blond man had called a police officer, the narrator would have been blamed for the incident.
The Prologue of Invisible Man introduces the major themes that define the rest of the novel. The metaphors of invisibility and blindness allow for an examination of the effects of racism on the victim and the perpetrator. Because the narrator is black, whites refuse to see him as an actual, three-dimensional person; hence, he portrays himself as invisible and describes them as blind.