Broadly speaking, the antagonist of Invisible Man encompasses the entire racist society in which the narrator lives. Anti-Black racism is so pervasive that nearly everyone the narrator encounters seems like an enemy, whether they are white or Black. Consider the opening chapter, when the narrator finds himself involved in a battle royal. The white elites who arrange the battle royal are the narrator’s obvious foes. Yet the event itself places him in direct competition with several other Black boys his own age, turning those who should be allies into enemies. Elsewhere in the novel, Ellison makes it clear that whites in positions of authority have the most power over the narrator’s livelihood. Even in the Brotherhood, an organization supposedly devoted to uplifting Black men, gatekeeping by the leadership works to disempower the narrator and other Black “Brothers.” But the narrator also finds enemies in many Black characters. He feels ashamed of Jim Trueblood, whom he considers an embarrassing stereotype of poor Southern Black people. He spars with Lucius Brockway, the aging engineer at Liberty Paints who feels threatened by the narrator’s presence. He even feels disillusioned with Mary when he finds a racist coin bank in her apartment.
Although the world at large represents the main antagonist of the novel, several specific characters emerge as the narrator’s most concrete and urgent enemies. The first major antagonist to arise in the book is Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the narrator’s college. When Dr. Bledsoe mercilessly expels him, the narrator realizes that the man is more concerned with protecting his reputation among the college’s white donors than with supporting his Black students. The next major antagonist to appear is Brother Jack, one of the leaders of the Marxist-Leninist organization known as the Brotherhood. Despite his initial support, it eventually becomes clear that Brother Jack thinks of the narrator as little more than a pawn in a larger political game. Another major antagonist is the West Indian immigrant Ras the Exhorter, who preaches Black nationalism. When he fails to convince the narrator of the Brotherhood’s treachery, Ras turns against him and declares him an enemy of all Black people. Ras’s declaration proves somewhat prophetic. Indeed, the narrator eventually comes to see himself as so awash in the racist crosscurrents of society that he ended up betraying his own people. This realization leads him to retreat from the world.