The nameless protagonist of the novel. The narrator is the “invisible man” of the title. A black man in 1930s America, the narrator considers himself invisible because people never see his true self beneath the roles that stereotype and racial prejudice compel him to play. Though the narrator is intelligent, deeply introspective, and highly gifted with language, the experiences that he relates demonstrate that he was naïve in his youth. As the novel progresses, the narrator’s illusions are gradually destroyed through his experiences as a student at college, as a worker at the Liberty Paints plant, and as a member of a political organization known as the Brotherhood. Shedding his blindness, he struggles to arrive at a conception of his identity that honors his complexity as an individual without sacrificing social responsibility.
The white and blindly loyal leader of the Brotherhood, a political organization that professes to defend the rights of the socially oppressed. Although he initially seems compassionate, intelligent, and kind, and he claims to uphold the rights of the socially oppressed, Brother Jack actually possesses racist viewpoints and is unable to see people as anything other than tools. His glass eye and his red hair symbolize his blindness and his communism, respectively.
A black member of the Brotherhood and a resident of Harlem. Tod Clifton is passionate, handsome, articulate, and intelligent. He eventually parts ways with the Brotherhood, though it remains unclear whether a falling-out has taken place, or whether he has simply become disillusioned with the group. He begins selling Sambo dolls on the street, seemingly both perpetrating and mocking the offensive stereotype of the lazy and servile slave that the dolls represent.
A stout, flamboyant, charismatic, angry man with a flair for public agitation. Ras represents the black nationalist movement, which advocates the violent overthrow of white supremacy. Ellison seems to use him to comment on the black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, who believed that blacks would never achieve freedom in white society. A maverick, Ras frequently opposes the Brotherhood and the narrator, often violently, and incites riots in Harlem.
A surreal figure who never appears in the book except by reputation. Rinehart possesses a seemingly infinite number of identities, among them pimp, bookie, and preacher who speaks on the subject of “invisibility.” When the narrator wears dark glasses in Harlem one day, many people mistake him for Rinehart. The narrator realizes that Rinehart’s shape-shifting capacity represents a life of extreme freedom, complexity, and possibility. He also recognizes that this capacity fosters a cynical and manipulative inauthenticity. Rinehart thus figures crucially in the book’s larger examination of the problem of identity and self-conception.
The president at the narrator’s college. Dr. Bledsoe proves selfish, ambitious, and treacherous. He is a black man who puts on a mask of servility to the white community. Driven by his desire to maintain his status and power, he declares that he would see every black man in the country lynched before he would give up his position of authority.
One of the wealthy white trustees at the narrator’s college. Mr. Norton is a narcissistic man who treats the narrator as a tally on his scorecard—that is, as proof that he is liberal-minded and philanthropic. Norton’s wistful remarks about his daughter add an eerie quality of longing to his fascination with the story of Jim Trueblood’s incest.
A preacher from Chicago who visits the narrator’s college. Reverend Barbee’s fervent praise of the Founder’s “vision” strikes an inadvertently ironic note, because he himself is blind. With Barbee’s first name, Ellison makes reference to the Greek poet Homer, another blind orator who praised great heroes in his epic poems. Ellison uses Barbee to satirize the college’s desire to transform the Founder into a similarly mythic hero.
An uneducated black man who impregnated his own daughter and who lives on the outskirts of the narrator’s college campus. The students and faculty of the college view Jim Trueblood as a disgrace to the black community. To Trueblood’s surprise, however, whites have shown an increased interest in him since the story of his incest spread.
An institutionalized black man who makes bitterly insightful remarks about race relations. Claiming to be a graduate of the narrator’s college, the veteran tries to expose the pitfalls of the school’s ideology. His bold candor angers both the narrator and Mr. Norton—the veteran exposes their blindness and hypocrisy and points out the sinister nature of their relationship. Although society has deemed him “shell-shocked” and insane, the veteran proves to be the only character who speaks the truth in the first part of the novel.
The son of one of the wealthy white trustees (whom the text also calls Emerson) of the narrator’s college. The younger Emerson reads the supposed recommendation from Dr. Bledsoe and reveals Bledsoe’s treachery to the narrator. He expresses sympathy for the narrator and helps him get a job, but he remains too preoccupied with his own problems to help the narrator in any meaningful way.
A serene and motherly black woman with whom the narrator stays after learning that the Men’s House has banned him. Mary treats him kindly and even lets him stay for free. She nurtures his black identity and urges him to become active in the fight for racial equality.
A white woman whom the narrator attempts to use to find out information about the Brotherhood. Sybil instead uses the narrator to act out her fantasy of being raped by a “savage” black man.