Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
As the narrator of Invisible Man struggles to arrive at a conception of his own identity, he finds his efforts complicated by the fact that he is a black man living in a racist American society. Throughout the novel, the narrator finds himself passing through a series of communities, from the Liberty Paints plant to the Brotherhood, with each microcosm endorsing a different idea of how blacks should behave in society. As the narrator attempts to define himself through the values and expectations imposed on him, he finds that, in each case, the prescribed role limits his complexity as an individual and forces him to play an inauthentic part.
Upon arriving in New York, the narrator enters the world of the Liberty Paints plant, which achieves financial success by subverting blackness in the service of a brighter white. There, the narrator finds himself involved in a process in which white depends heavily on black—both in terms of the mixing of the paint tones and in terms of the racial makeup of the workforce. Yet the factory denies this dependence in the final presentation of its product, and the narrator, as a black man, ends up stifled. Later, when the narrator joins the Brotherhood, he believes that he can fight for racial equality by working within the ideology of the organization, but he then finds that the Brotherhood seeks to use him as a token black man in its abstract project.
Ultimately, the narrator realizes that the racial prejudice of others causes them to see him only as they want to see him, and their limitations of vision in turn place limitations on his ability to act. He concludes that he is invisible, in the sense that the world is filled with blind people who cannot or will not see his real nature. Correspondingly, he remains unable to act according to his own personality and becomes literally unable to be himself. Although the narrator initially embraces his invisibility in an attempt to throw off the limiting nature of stereotype, in the end he finds this tactic too passive. He determines to emerge from his underground “hibernation,” to make his own contributions to society as a complex individual. He will attempt to exert his power on the world outside of society’s system of prescribed roles. By making proactive contributions to society, he will force others to acknowledge him, to acknowledge the existence of beliefs and behaviors outside of their prejudiced expectations.
Over the course of the novel, the narrator realizes that the complexity of his inner self is limited not only by people’s racism but also by their more general ideologies. He finds that the ideologies advanced by institutions prove too simplistic and one-dimensional to serve something as complex and multidimensional as human identity. The novel contains many examples of ideology, from the tamer, ingratiating ideology of Booker T. Washington subscribed to at the narrator’s college to the more violent, separatist ideology voiced by Ras the Exhorter. But the text makes its point most strongly in its discussion of the Brotherhood. Among the Brotherhood, the narrator is taught an ideology that promises to save “the people,” though, in reality, it consistently limits and betrays the freedom of the individual. The novel implies that life is too rich, too various, and too unpredictable to be bound up neatly in an ideology; like jazz, of which the narrator is particularly fond, life reaches the heights of its beauty during moments of improvisation and surprise.
The narrator is not the only African American in the book to have felt the limitations of racist stereotyping. While he tries to escape the grip of prejudice on an individual level, he encounters other blacks who attempt to prescribe a defense strategy for all African Americans. Each presents a theory of the supposed right way to be black in America and tries to outline how blacks should act in accordance with this theory. The espousers of these theories believe that anyone who acts contrary to their prescriptions effectively betrays the race. Ultimately, however, the narrator finds that such prescriptions only counter stereotype with stereotype and replace one limiting role with another.
Early in the novel, the narrator’s grandfather explains his belief that in order to undermine and mock racism, blacks should exaggerate their servility to whites. The narrator’s college, represented by Dr. Bledsoe, thinks that blacks can best achieve success by working industriously and adopting the manners and speech of whites. Ras the Exhorter thinks that blacks should rise up and take their freedom by destroying whites. Although all of these conceptions arise from within the black community itself, the novel implies that they ultimately prove as dangerous as white people’s racist stereotypes. By seeking to define their identity within a race in too limited a way, black figures such as Bledsoe and Ras aim to empower themselves but ultimately undermine themselves. Instead of exploring their own identities, as the narrator struggles to do throughout the book, Bledsoe and Ras consign themselves and their people to formulaic roles. These men consider treacherous anyone who attempts to act outside their formulae of blackness. But as blacks who seek to restrict and choreograph the behavior of the black American community as a whole, it is men like these who most profoundly betray their people.