Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Probably the most important motif in Invisible Man is that of blindness, which recurs throughout the novel and generally represents how people willfully avoid seeing and confronting the truth. The narrator repeatedly notes that people’s inability to see what they wish not to see—their inability to see that which their prejudice doesn’t allow them to see—has forced him into a life of effective invisibility. But prejudice against others is not the only kind of blindness in the book. Many figures also refuse to acknowledge truths about themselves or their communities, and this refusal emerges consistently in the imagery of blindness. Thus, the boys who fight in the “battle royal” wear blindfolds, symbolizing their powerlessness to recognize their exploitation at the hands of the white men. The Founder’s statue at the college has empty eyes, signifying his ideology’s stubborn neglect of racist realities. Blindness also afflicts Reverend Homer A. Barbee, who romanticizes the Founder, and Brother Jack, who is revealed to lack an eye—a lack that he has dissimulated by wearing a glass eye. The narrator himself experiences moments of blindness, such as in Chapter 16 when he addresses the Black community under enormous, blinding lights. In each case, failure of sight corresponds to a lack of insight.
Because he has decided that the world is full of blind men and sleepwalkers who cannot see him for what he is, the narrator describes himself as an “invisible man.” The motif of invisibility pervades the novel, often manifesting itself hand in hand with the motif of blindness—one person becomes invisible because another is blind. While the novel almost always portrays blindness in a negative light, it treats invisibility much more ambiguously. Invisibility can bring disempowerment, but it can also bring freedom and mobility. Indeed, it is the freedom the narrator derives from his anonymity that enables him to tell his story. Moreover, both the veteran at the Golden Day and the narrator’s grandfather seem to endorse invisibility as a position from which one may safely exert power over others, or at least undermine others’ power, without being caught. The narrator demonstrates this power in the Prologue, when he literally draws upon electrical power from his hiding place underground; the electric company is aware of its losses but cannot locate their source. At the end of the novel, however, the narrator has decided that while invisibility may bring safety, actions undertaken in secrecy cannot ultimately have any meaningful impact. One may undermine one’s enemies from a position of invisibility, but one cannot make significant changes to the world. Accordingly, in the Epilogue the narrator decides to emerge from his hibernation, resolved to face society and make a visible difference.
The Narrator’s Grandfather
While he passes away before the primary events of the novel take place, memories of the narrator’s grandfather appear again and again as a means of pushing the narrator to continually reevaluate his identity and emphasizing his family’s legacy of fighting for justice. Ellison introduces this motif at the beginning of Chapter 1 as he establishes that the narrator’s lifelong journey of self-discovery is one steeped in history. The narrator explains that his gentle grandfather, once enslaved and later freed, spoke on his deathbed about being a traitor and spy in the war of their lives and advised his family to “overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, [and] agree ‘em to death and destruction.” This paradoxical mantra continually haunts the narrator as he moves through different stages of his life, evoking a constant wondering about whether his own polite behavior around whites is desirable or, in fact, a form of ‘treachery.”
As the narrator gains more life experience, he begins to find new layers of meaning in his grandfather’s words. His time in the Brotherhood, which positions him among white men differently than he had been in college, helps him to understand that the push for justice is ongoing, much like his grandfather’s notion that “our life is a war.” When the narrator realizes that the Brotherhood plans to abandon the needs of its Harlem members, he tries to undermine them by being overly agreeable and finds yet another meaning in his grandfather’s words when this literal interpretation fails. The fact that the narrator is still ruminating on the mystery in the Epilogue suggests that the push for an equal place in American society remains ongoing. By using memories of the narrator’s grandfather as a motif, Ellison can structurally mirror the notion of ongoing exploration and development that the mysterious last words evoke.