The narrator introduces himself as an “invisible man.” He explains that his invisibility owes not to some biochemical accident or supernatural cause but rather to the unwillingness of other people to notice him, as he is black. It is as though other people are sleepwalkers moving through a dream in which he doesn’t appear. The narrator says that his invisibility can serve both as an advantage and as a constant aggravation. Being invisible sometimes makes him doubt whether he really exists. He describes his anguished, aching need to make others recognize him, and says he has found that such attempts rarely succeed.
The narrator relates an incident in which he accidentally bumped into a tall, blond man in the dark. The blond man called him an insulting name, and the narrator attacked him, demanding an apology. He threw the blond man to the ground, kicked him, and pulled out his knife, prepared to slit the man’s throat. Only at the last minute did he come to his senses. He realized that the blond man insulted him because he couldn’t really see him. The next day, the narrator reads about the incident in the newspaper, only to find the attack described as a mugging. The narrator remarks upon the irony of being mugged by an invisible man.
The narrator describes the current battle that he is waging against the Monopolated Light & Power Company. He secretly lives for free in a shut-off section of a basement, in a building that allows only white tenants. He steals electricity from the company to light his room, which he has lined with 1,369 bulbs. The company knows that someone is stealing electricity from them but is unaware of the culprit’s identity or location.
The narrator stays in his secret, underground home, listening to Louis Armstrong’s jazz records at top volume on his phonograph. He states that he wishes that he had five record players with which to listen to Armstrong, as he likes feeling the vibrations of the music as well as hearing it. While listening, he imagines a scene in a black church and hears the voice of a black woman speaking out of the congregation. She confesses that she loved her white master because he gave her sons. Through her sons she learned to love her master, though she also hated him, for he promised to set the children free but never did. In the end, she says, she killed him with poison, knowing that her sons planned to tear him to pieces with their homemade knives. The narrator interrogates her about the idea of freedom until one of the woman’s sons throws the narrator out on the street. The narrator then describes his experiences of listening to Armstrong’s music under the influence of marijuana and says that the power of Armstrong’s music, like the power of marijuana, comes from its ability to change one’s sense of time. But eventually, the narrator notes, he stopped smoking marijuana, because he felt that it dampened his ability to take action, whereas the music to which he listened impelled him to act.
Now, the narrator hibernates in his invisibility with his invisible music, preparing for his unnamed action. He states that the beginning of his story is really the end. He asks who was responsible for his near-murder of the blond man—after all, the blond man insulted him. Though he may have been lost in a dream world of sleepwalkers, the blond man ultimately controlled the dream. Nevertheless, if the blond man had called a police officer, the narrator would have been blamed for the incident.
The Prologue of Invisible Man introduces the major themes that define the rest of the novel. The metaphors of invisibility and blindness allow for an examination of the effects of racism on the victim and the perpetrator. Because the narrator is black, whites refuse to see him as an actual, three-dimensional person; hence, he portrays himself as invisible and describes them as blind.
The Prologue also helps to place the novel within larger literary and philosophical contexts. Especially apparent is the influence of existentialism, a philosophy that originated in France in the mid-twentieth century, which sought to define the meaning of individual existence in a seemingly meaningless universe. At the time of Invisible Man’s publication in 1952, existentialism had reached the height of its popularity; Ellison’s book proposes to undertake a similar examination of the meaning of individual existence, but through the lens of race relations in postwar America. In French existentialist works, physical infirmities (such as nausea in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre and disease in the work of Albert Camus) frequently symbolize internal struggles; Ellison locates the tension of race relations in similar conditions: invisibility and blindness.
The narrator’s central struggle involves the conflict between how others perceive him and how he perceives himself. Racist attitudes cause others to view him in terms of racial stereotypes—as a mugger, bumpkin, or savage. But the narrator desires recognition of his individuality rather than recognition based on these stereotypes. The “blindness” of others stems from an inability to see the narrator without imposing these alien identities on him. The narrator notes that, given this situation, it does not matter how he thinks of himself, because anyone—even the anonymous blond man on the street—can force him to confront or assume an alien identity, simply by uttering a racial insult. Thus confined, the narrator flees the outside world in search of the freedom to define himself without the constraints that racism imposes.
The episode with the blond man and its subsequent treatment in the newspaper serve to illustrate the extent of the narrator’s metaphorical slavery. The man’s insult, which we can assume was a derogatory racial epithet, dehumanizes the narrator, who attacks the man in order to force him to recognize the narrator’s individuality. The newspaper’s labeling of the incident as a mugging marshals the narrator’s act of resistance against racism into the service of racism: the blond man becomes the victim rather than the assailant, while the narrator and his motives become invisible to the public. Others have again managed to define the narrator’s identity according to their own prejudices.
The narrator also uses his invisibility to his advantage, however; he can exert a force on the world without being seen, without suffering the consequences. The narrator speaks to us through his written text without revealing his name, shrouding himself in another form of invisibility in order to gain the freedom to speak freely. We find ourselves confronted by a disembodied voice rising from underground, the voice of one whose identity or origin remains a secret. Invisibility also affords the narrator the opportunity to steal electricity from the power company. By illegally draining their resources—both electrical and otherwise—he forces the company to acknowledge his existence yet preempts any response from them, including any racist response. By remaining metaphorically and literally invisible to them, he announces himself as a presence but nonetheless escapes the company’s control.
The excessive lighting of the narrator’s underground hole (he uses 1,369 bulbs) not only emphasizes the narrator’s presence to the electric company authorities; the narrator also attempts, with this light, to “see” himself clearly without the clouding influence of outside opinion. Notably, 1,369 is the square of thirty-seven—Ellison’s age at the time of writing—which ties the narrator’s experience to Ellison’s own sense of self.
Stylistically, Ellison’s Prologue makes use of a great deal of ambiguity, both emotional and moral. The former slave woman whom the narrator encounters in his jazz daydream has mixed feelings toward her former master, loving him as the father of her sons but hating him for enslaving her and her children. Other ambiguities arise around the question of betrayal: one wonders whether the slave woman betrayed her master by poisoning him or whether she saved him from a worse fate at the hands of her sons. One may even ask whether the woman saved her sons by preventing them from becoming murderers or betrayed them by robbing them of their revenge. Similar questions arise regarding guilt in the narrator’s own act of violence against the blond man. Such inquiries come to the forefront as Ellison examines the question of moral responsibility in a racist society. Ellison asks how a woman can owe love or gratitude to a man who considered her a piece of property, devoid of any emotional life. Similarly, he questions how the narrator can have any responsibility to a society that refuses to acknowledge his existence.
Ellison works blues and jazz—specifically that of Louis Armstrong—into the novel to complement the narrator’s quest to define himself. Because jazz depends on the improvisational talents of individual soloists and because it developed primarily among African-American musicians, it serves as an elegant and apt metaphor for the black struggle for individuality in American society. It also makes an appropriate soundtrack, as it were, for a novel about the search for such individuality. Armstrong, widely considered the most important soloist in the history of jazz, almost single-handedly transformed jazz—which originally evolved as a collective, ensemble-based music—into a medium for individual expression in which a soloist stood out from a larger band.
In the Prologue, the narrator listens specifically to Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.” This track relates directly to Invisible Man on a thematic level, as it represents one of jazz’s earliest attempts to make an open commentary on the subject of racism. Fats Waller originally wrote the song for a musical comedy in which a dark-skinned black woman would sing it as a lament, ruing her lighter-skinned lover’s loss of interest in her. Later, however, Armstrong transformed the piece into a direct commentary on the hardships faced by black people in a racist white society. Like Invisible Man, the song’s lyrics emphasize the conflict between the singer/speaker’s inner feelings and the outer identity imposed on him by society. The narrator listens to Armstrong sing that he feels “white inside” and that “my only sin / is in my skin.” By placing this song in the background of his story without directly commenting on it, Ellison provides subtle reinforcement for the novel’s central tension between white racism against black people and the black struggle for individuality.