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.