Why does the narrator call himself an “invisible man”?

The narrator calls himself an “invisible man” not because others literally cannot see him, but because others fail to see him for who is really is. The narrator links his invisibility to his skin color. Although his dark skin makes him stand out in a culture that remains very vigilant about racial difference, the narrator’s hypervisibility paradoxically blinds others to his internal life. That is, they see only his skin color, not his inner character. Like everyone else, the narrator has complex emotional, intellectual, and existential responses to the world. However, others tend to treat him like a pawn and subordinate his desires to their own.

Why does the narrator’s grandfather tell him to “overcome ’em with yeses."?

Throughout the novel the narrator ruminates on his grandfather’s suggestion that he subvert those in power with affirmation: “I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death.” The old man never explained his words, so the narrator must interpret his grandfather’s meaning for himself. For much of the book the narrator feels disturbed by these words, because he thinks they mean he should abandon his own agency and simply act servile. At the end of the novel, however, he decides that his grandfather meant he should take an affirmative stance toward the world in all its problematic complexity. Only then can he hope to effect change.

What happens to Tod Clifton after he leaves the Brotherhood?

After he leaves the Brotherhood, Tod Clifton turns to selling “Sambo” dolls on the street. These dolls perpetuate the harmful stereotype of Black servility. Like puppets, the Sambo dolls can be manipulated by invisible strings and made to dance, referencing the way Black slaves were forced to provide entertainment for their controlling white masters. The narrator feels shocked that a Black man like Clifton would sell such a racist toy. However, he never learns his former colleague’s reasons for doing so, since the police kill Clifton in the street. 

Who is Rinehart?

Rinehart is a man the narrator learns about through encounters with various people who mistake the narrator for him. To each of these people, Rinehart appears to be a different person. Some know him as a pimp, whereas others know him as a gambling bookie, and yet others know him as their preacher. Because the men never meet, the narrator is not sure whether Rinehart really exists. Even so, the name comes to symbolize a freedom of identity for which the narrator longs, and which he attempts to achieve by donning a disguise comprised of sunglasses and a hat.

Why does the narrator turn against the Brotherhood?

The narrator turns against the Brotherhood because he realizes the organization’s leadership never really valued his contribution to their collective work. Despite his sincere desire to help organize the Black and white working-class community of Harlem, the narrator increasingly comes up against resistance from the Brotherhood. Eventually he learns that the Brotherhood helped engineer a race riot, effectively tearing Harlem apart rather than uplifting it. Ultimately, the narrator sees that his own loyalty to the Brotherhood has made him betray his own community.

Why is the narrator expelled from college?

Dr. Bledsoe, the university president, expels the narrator from school upon learning that he drove Mr. Norton, a white trustee, out to the old slave-quarters and a bar on the outskirts of campus. During this excursion, Mr. Norton sees a very different part of the Black community than what he had previously seen on campus, and Dr. Bledsoe admonishes the narrator for jeopardizing the support of a trustee. The narrator tries to explain that he simply fulfilled the requests of his passenger, but Dr. Bledsoe refuses to listen and insists that expulsion is the only appropriate punishment for someone who threatened the Founder’s “dream” and “dragged the entire race into the slime.” While Dr. Bledsoe tells the narrator that he may return to school the following semester if he earns enough money to do so, the letters he writes to his connections up North reveal that he has no intention of ever letting the narrator back on campus.

What is the significance of the 1,369 lightbulbs?

During the novel’s Prologue, the narrator explains that he has installed exactly 1,369 lightbulbs into the ceiling of his basement dwelling and uses them to take money from the electric company. When considered in the context of the line “the end is in the beginning,” the bright lights of the narrator’s underground abode symbolize the personal enlightenment that he experiences at the end of the novel. He achieves a heightened level of self-awareness, or metaphorical light, when he discovers his true, invisible identity. The emphasis on the lightbulbs works to foreshadow this ending in a more literal manner and lays the groundwork for the novel’s thematic emphasis on truth and self-discovery.

Why does Mr. Norton give Trueblood $100?

Mr. Norton speaks with Trueblood when the narrator drives him through the old slave quarters near campus, hearing the story of how he impregnated both his wife and daughter firsthand. When the narrator first introduces the scenario to Mr. Norton, he seems horrified at the notion. After listening to Trueblood tell his own tale and seeing that he faced no true punishment, Mr. Norton responds “with something like envy and indignation,” a sign that he simultaneously condemns the action and finds it intriguing. As they prepare to leave the cabin, Mr. Norton hands Trueblood $100 and asks him to use it to buy the children some toys. While this gift seems like some philanthropic effort, the fact that it occurs in tandem with his “envy” and expression of his own daughter’s beauty suggests that he may be rewarding Trueblood for his behavior.

Why is the narrator never given a name?

By not giving the narrator a name, Ellison is able to reinforce the notion of his invisibility. Various characters ask the narrator for his name throughout the text, and he even receives a new name upon joining the Brotherhood. These references to a name never explicitly stated tease the reader regarding his identity. At the same time, however, they also work to guide the reader’s attention to the development of the narrator’s character. The fact that the narrator has no name, or fixed symbol of identity, seems to raise the stakes of his search for a clear sense of self. While he gains an understanding of who he is, his name remains a mystery and renders him invisible to the reader, an effect which mimics the way in which those in the novel fail to truly see him.

How are women portrayed in the novel?

Overall, the women in Invisible Man are hypersexualized and serve merely to support the needs of male characters. This objectification evokes a number of stereotypes about female sexuality, white womanhood, and their relationship to men, all of which depict women as yet another marginalized social group within a white, patriarchal world. From the naked white woman at the battle royal to women like Emma and Sybil, a majority of the novel’s female characters only appear in sexual situations and are lacking in substance. This appeal to a seductress stereotype not only flattens their characters but enables Ellison to highlight another stereotype, that of the sexual predator, which plagues Black men like the narrator. One of the few women able to escape this hypersexual depiction is Mary Rambo, although her maternal nature aligns her with a stock female character as well.