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Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

Compare and contrast the ideologies of the Brotherhood and the college. How does each ideology breed blindness and invisibility? What conflicts do they cause for the narrator?

The college’s ideology is based on the ideas of Booker T. Washington, who is represented by the figure of the Founder; through a near-religious devotion to the legend of the Founder’s life, students at the college are taught to work hard and seek economic advancement while not clamoring for equal rights or equal treatment from whites. The college encourages students to reject black culture to the extent that it seems ignorant and rural, and to pattern their behavior on the white middle class. The Brotherhood adheres to an ideology based on that of American communist groups in the 1930s, a sort of authoritarian socialism that relies on a Marxist theory of history—which holds that those of lower social status must submit themselves to the unavoidable class struggles on the path to equality. The Brotherhood thus prizes clinical, scientific exposition over the sort of emotional appeal on behalf of the individual that the narrator makes after Tod Clifton’s death.

The ideology of the college limits the narrator’s identity in that it forces him to reject the black culture that shaped his early identity and forces him to accept a position of inherent inferiority to whites. The ideology of the Brotherhood limits the narrator’s identity in that it requires blind adherence to the collective attitude of the organization and allows no room for individual thought, expression, or action—the very things that the narrator craves. By limiting the narrator’s identity, these ideologies effectively render him invisible, as they force him to bury his real self beneath the roles that those around him require him to play.

2.

Who is Rinehart? What does he represent? What does he mean to the narrator?

Rinehart is a mystery and a source of deep ambiguity in Invisible Man. He never appears in the novel, and the narrator only learns of his existence when other people mistake him for Rinehart while he is in disguise. Rinehart seems to be all things to all people—pimp, bookie, and preacher, among other things. Ultimately, Rinehart is an extremely surreal figure of Ellison’s creation, designed not to be realistic or believable but rather unsettling and confusing. Rinehart represents a protean conception of identity—the idea that a person’s identity can change completely depending on where one is and with whom one interacts, an extreme version of the narrator’s conundrum throughout the novel. At first, the narrator feels that Rinehart’s adaptability enables a kind of freedom, but he quickly realizes that Rinehart’s formlessness also represents a complete loss of individual selfhood. In the end, the liquidity of Rinehart’s identity is one of the forces that compel the narrator to discover his own more solid identity.

3.

What is the role of treachery in the novel? Who betrays whom? How does treachery relate to the motifs of blindness and invisibility?

The two major betrayals in the novel are the narrator’s betrayals at the hands of the college (in the figure of Dr. Bledsoe) and the Brotherhood (in the figure of Brother Jack). Bledsoe poses as a figure representing the advancement of black Americans through education. In reality, however, he deliberately subordinates himself to whites and says that he would see every black man in America lynched before giving up his power. That he sends the narrator away with letters of supposed recommendation that, in reality, explicitly criticize the narrator demonstrates his objectionable desire to suppress black identity. The members of the Brotherhood betray the narrator in a number of insidious ways, ranging from curtailing his individuality to turning their backs on the plight of the poor blacks in Harlem. Jack, specifically, betrays the narrator by posing as a compassionate and helpful friend while secretly harboring racist prejudice against him and using him as a tool for the advancement of the Brotherhood’s ends.

This sort of treachery generally contributes to the novel’s creation of a bewildering, malevolent world in which an unexpected blow can come at any time, reinforcing the novel’s characterization of the social effects of racial prejudice. Treachery also reinforces the ideas of blindness and invisibility, because any betrayal is essentially a sign that the betrayer willfully refuses to see his victim. Additionally, the novel’s betrayals function through deceit and secrecy—for the most part, they are invisible, and the narrator is blind to them until it is too late.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. How does the division between how the narrator perceives himself and how others perceive him relate to the motifs of blindness and invisibility? Consider the role of racial stereotypes in the novel.

2. How does the narrator’s briefcase encapsulate his history? Consider the contents of the briefcase. Consider also the dream that he has about the briefcase after the “battle royal.” How does the briefcase relate to the narrator’s position as a fugitive? What might the briefcase tell us about the narrator’s identity?

3. What does the extended metaphor of dolls (the Sambo doll, for example) mean? What do they say about the power of racial stereotypes?

4. What does the veteran mean when he tells the narrator, “Be your own father”? What is the role of fathers or father figures in the novel? Think about the narrator’s accusation that Jack wants to be the “great white father” and the description of the Founder’s statue.

5. How does Ellison use irony to underline the difference between surface appearances and what lies beneath them? Consider Ellison’s literary treatment of Reverend Barbee as one example. What are other examples?

6. What is the relationship between individual identity and community identity? Is it possible to remain true to both? Must the two always conflict? How does the narrator fail or succeed to assert his individuality amid communities such as the college, the Brotherhood, and Harlem?

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