Introduction of Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison, one of the best authors wrote Invisible Man. It was published in 1952 and set new trends in the American African literature of those times. The novel created a furor, winning the National Book Award in 1953 and creating a niche among the best English fictional works of the previous century. Invisible Man outlines the story of an African American first-person narrator who narrates his college ordeal of the battle royal and the attitude of the white elite of the town toward the African American students. The novel instantly proved a hit and became the best among the 20th century’s 100 novels and an excellent bildungsroman (a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist coming of age).
Summary of Invisible Man
The storyline presents an anonymous African American young man who happens to live in a basement with stolen electricity from the local grid station. Fed up of the discrimination, he thinks about social invisibility and ways to tackle it. He reflects upon his life as a teenager when living in a Southern town after winning a scholarship for an African American college. However, he has to participate in the battle royal to entertain the white dignitaries in order to receive that scholarship against other African American students.
It happens that he gets admission to that college and takes Mr. Norton, a trustee of that college, to the slave apartments beyond the campus area. By chance, he stops by the cabin owned by some Mr. Jim Trueblood who has already created a brouhaha by impregnating both his wife and daughter in his sleep. Norton shook by this scandalous issue, asks the narrator to find him a drink. The narrator hurriedly drives him to the nearest bar filled with prostitutes and mental patients. When they enter the bar, Mr. Norton confronts mentally unsound people and prostitutes enjoying life. The pandemonium forces him to take assistance from the orderly who, while saving Mr. Norton, is injured due to the melee created by the people. The young man, however, musters up the courage to pull Mr. Norton out of this mess and take him back to the college campus.
When he returns to the college, he finds Dr. Bledsoe, the president, fuming at his home for showing insolence in taking Mr. Norton to that part of the campus. Therefore, he thinks it better to expel the narrator who, though gets many recommendation letters from him to assist him in the job market yet he does not succeed in laying his hands upon anything. Later, he learns that Mr. Bledsoe has rather ruined his entire career in both education and the job market when it was revealed by young Mr. Emerson to the narrator that the so-called recommendation letters contained nothing good about the narrator, also stating that he’s unfit for work and had no intention of re-enrolling him in the college. So, the son of Mr. Emerson suggests he seek work in a paint factory where he works in different departments temporarily.
During that time, he comes across Lucius Brockway, a paranoid chief, in the boiler operating room. He comes to know that Lucius is obsessed with the idea that the young man is after his job. This mistrust widens the chasm between them, leading Brockway to exploit him and framing him in setting an explosion in the boiler section. When he comes to his senses after this episode, he finds himself in the hospital overhearing the doctors’ words that he was a mental patient and subject to shock treatment. mental patient.
When the young man gets out of the hospital he heads for Harlem. While walking on the streets of Harlem he faints and finds himself being taken in by a kind old-fashioned lady Mary Rambo. She cooks for him, nurses him back to health, and adopts him as her surrogate son. After this, he delivers an impassioned speech that incites the crowd to attack the law enforcement officials when an African American couple faces forced eviction. When he flees, the Brotherhood leader, Jack chases him and urges him to join hands with the group to help African Americans. His joining the Brotherhood helps him understand his background. This takes him into the politics of the Brotherhood but he comes to know that it is also a white ploy from Ras the exhorter, though he feels unconvinced. Yet he faces accusations of the same group for being over-ambitious. Again, he faces criticism when the narrator delivers a rousing speech at Tod Clifton’s funeral who went missing and was found selling dancing Sambo dolls on the street. He was killed by the police while resisting the arrest.
Suspecting a chase by the Ras’s men, the narrator disguises by wearing a hat and pair of sunglasses. As a result, he is repeatedly mistaken for a man named Rinehart. Soon unrest takes on Harlem and the riots break out which was detrimental to the Brotherhood to further its own aims. Seeing no way out, he joins the gang of looters to find now Ras, the Destroyer. When the young man sees Ras attacking him and urging others to lynch him, he rather attacks Ras and escapes into an underground coal bin. Although two white men catch and seal him in. Giving him enough time to ponder over the racism he has experienced. During his hibernation inside the coal bin, he states that the reason he is telling his story is that “who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”. Finally, the narrator realizes that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.
Major Themes in Invisible Man
- Invisibility: Invisible Man shows the assumed or real invisibility of the narrator who assumes that he is invisible because people have refused to see him. In the quest to prove his assumptions true, he takes up this unique identity through constant self-denial. Despite belonging to the Southern part, he covers his African heritage through passing in terms of habits and ideological thinking. Later, when he takes Rinehart as his name, he takes another turn in his life, finding that staying invisible has its bonuses. However, his meeting with that person shows him that he can pursue his goals without thinking about invisibility. It is because invisibility has robbed him of his identity that he vows to create.
- Racial Identity: The theme of racial identity emerges in the character of the anonymous narrator, who despite his efforts to stay invisible, wants some type of identity about his race and ethnicity. Wherever he goes, he needs something to make himself a figure to be reckoned with. People expect that he should either follow Booker T. Washington or Southern cultural-rich heritage instead of staying invisible. When he finally comes to terms with life, he feels that he must meet the expectations of the people to show his true Southern heritage.
- Slavery: Slavery and its baggage is another thematic strand that pervades the novel. Although the anonymous narrator demonstrates that by keeping himself invisible, he may escape this curse, it still stays with him as without this he does not have his true identity. The briefcase that he wins in the battle royal becomes a symbol of this heritage that he needs to carry with him. However, he is fed up with this symbolic heritage. He gets rid of it by the end and throws it away in return for some type of his self-identity.
- Racism: Racism and racial discrimination hamper the progress of an individual in a way that it becomes difficult for him to assume an identity. The anonymous narrator stays invisible for some time to see how the people around him react and later joins the Brotherhood to show his heritage and escape this racism. However, each time he finds that it is they, the African Americans, who should learn to behave. Finally, he seems that his attempt for his own definition would earn dividends if he has his self-identity as joining organizations is useless unless the person has his identity.
- Identity: Invisible Man presents the theme of identity that if a person has no self-identity, society disregards his role whether it is invisibility or some tangible role. When the narrator assumes his invisibility, he seems to have been lost in the maze of society but when he starts joining organizations, he sees that all organizations use individuals for their own interests. Even the Brotherhood does not holdup behind. Therefore, he comes to the point that he should have his own identity instead of staying in the assumed invisibility.
- Ideology: The anonymous narrator has shown through his story that organizational ideology cannot represent a multidimensional individual who has his own identity that does not merge in such monolithic entities. He has experienced it it is like him who has been unable to merge in the Brotherhood. Although Booker T. Washington’s ideological background and the relationship with the Brotherhood make it clear to him, he does not take these things at face value and seeks his identity to demonstrate his rich Southern heritage and ideology.
- Power: The novel shows that power lies in organizations, collections, and institutions. When the anonymous narrator stays alone, he thinks that his invisibility will bless him with some advantage yet he sees that the power lies somewhere else at the top. The same goes for the Brotherhood that works for the interests of the elite class, white, while the ideology of Booker T. Washinton, too, has been hijacked. Therefore, he comes to the conclusion that he needs power and for this needs his own identity.
- Stereotyping: Although the thematic strand of the limitations of race is too apparent, the anonymous narrator shows it amply when he could not progress through his invisibility as well as through his participation in the racial-specific organization. However, he soon comes to know that he belongs to the African American heritage and this stereotyping has hampered his progress not only in education but also in the job market, for he is expelled on the same ground on which his progress has been hampered through reference letters.
- Dreams: The anonymous narrator shows harboring several dreams when he vies to join the college, get admission but is expelled on the flimsy ground of taking Mr. Norton to the wrong place. His dreams further face downfall when the reference letters prove another roadblock. When he sees the vision of Armstrong, his slave memory takes it to another level, making him slave to his own past, destroying his dreams.
Major Characters in Invisible Man
- Narrator: The first-person narrator is the protagonist of the novel. He first gives a hint about himself and his invisibility in the Prologue and later narrates the events about his joining and leaving different groups such as the Brotherhood and others on one or the other pretexts. However, due to his African American lineage, he comes to the conclusion about the white supremacist superior structure they have built to keep them subservient, though, he believes in Armstrong and Booker T. Washington’s philosophy, yet he comes across as white conspiracy whatever he does or plans to do. His plan to study on scholarship fails when Mr. Norton creates issues for him after he takes him to the wrong places when taking to the areas beyond college premises. To keep his invisibility unharmed, he takes up different names during this entire process but finally comes to the conclusion that his underground life has not given him any benefit.
- Mr. Norton: This wealthy white trustee of the college, where the narrator gets admission with a scholarship, meets the narrator when he visits the college. The narrator takes him to the college visit driving his vehicle but mistakenly takes him to some places that he does not like despite his supposed kindness for the narrator and his race. Mr. Norton expels the narrator from the college as a part of revenge or disapproval against the narrator. Mr. Norton also demonstrates, his duplicity when he confronts him in the end.
- Ras the Destroyer or the exhorter: This second significant character appears when the narrator joins the Brotherhood. In the beginning, he’s known as Ras the exhorter, who incites race riots and creating hatred among other races with powerful speaking skills. He becomes the narrator’s sworn enemy for not taking part in the violence against the whites. His supporters appear here and there to thrash the opponents and make them submit to their demands of standing up to white superiority and domination. His domination of Harlem takes an upper hand when the Brotherhood retreats from the mainland.
- Dr. Bledsoe: Dr. Bledsoe is a very clever and shrewd president of the college reserved for the African American people. However, he keeps this shrewdness away from his public reputation and demonstrates subservience to his white masters whenever the situation arises. However, when it comes to the narrator, he does not feel any pity or conscience in destroying his future by expelling him after he shows Mr. Norton the reality of life around campus. His letters of reference for future employers prove disastrous for him.
- Grandfather: The Grandfather in the novel often creeps into the narrator’s thoughts, making him think about his last words that remind him about his presence and his place in the world of white domination. However, the narrator does not think his words, reflecting his lifelong wisdom of acquiescing to the demands of the white. He later feels that his Grandfather’s words about him have proven true.
- Jim Trueblood: A poor sharecropper, Jim’s fortune plummet when Mr. Norton visits him with the narrator. His harrowing tale of impregnating his own daughter has made him a notorious character in the vicinity though strangely the whites shower munificence on him after this notoriety.
- Tatlock: Tatlock and the narrator fall out after all the other boys are thrown out of the ring during the fight. As the biggest one, he does not resort to fake punching but does real punching and knocks out the narrator. He proves a symbol of raw force and courage.
- Superintendent: The superintendent in the novel invites the narrator for the speech but does not acknowledge his achievement. However, the narrator does not feel the bad taste, as he presents him a scholarship to the college.
- Mr. Emerson: Mr. Emerson is an important character, as he comes into contact with the narrator when he meets him with reference to the letter. It, however, happens that his son intervenes and points out to the narrator about the intention of Bledsoe by giving him reference letters.
- Reverend Barbee: This mobile speaker is all praise for the college founders and trustees for showing generosity toward the African American community through their donations. A buddha-like figure, he encourages the narrator to love his college despite facing humiliating expulsion.
Writing Style of Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison adopted the jazz style in this novel, proving it could be rendered into fiction. It is, however, based on sights as the narrator goes through the ordeals one by one. He has carefully chosen words, showing mastery of diction by putting the words at appropriate places, creating refrains after every few lines. In fact, this style shifts from the prologue to onward to another style with long and formal sentences and then again to informality and colloquialism of the Southerners. Constant use of wordplay, rhyme, slogan, and paradoxes has created Ellison’s own unique style that is hard to imitate and hard to ignore.
Analysis of Literary Devices in Invisible Man
- Action: The main action of the novel comprises the anonymous narrator’s narrative about his admission on scholarship, his expulsion, and then invisibility that ends when he learns things about living in reality.
- Anaphora: Invisible Man shows the use of anaphora. For example,
i. My hole is warm and full of light. Yes, full of light. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway. Or the Empire State Building on a photographer’s dream night. But that is taking advantage of you. Those two spots are among the darkest of our whole civilization — pardon me, our whole culture (an important distinction, I’ve heard) — which might sound like a hoax, or a contradiction, but that (by contradiction, I mean) is how the world moves: Not like an arrow, but a boomerang. (Beware of those who speak of the spiral of history; they are preparing a boomerang. Keep a steel helmet handy.) I know; I have been boomeranged across my head so much that I now can see the darkness of lightness. And I love light. Perhaps you’ll think it strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light. But maybe it is exactly because I am invisible. (Prologue)
The sentence shows the repetitious use of some phrases and words such as “full of light” “a boomerang” and “light.”
- Antagonist: Invisible Man shows Mr. Norton, Brother Jack, Dr. Bledsoe, and Ras the Exhorter as the antagonists who raise obstacles in the path of the narrator.
- Allusion: There are various examples of allusions given in the novel.
i. I am in the great American tradition of tinkers. That makes me kin to Ford, Edison and Franklin. Call me, since I have a theory and a concept, a “thinker-tinker.” (Prologue)
ii. I’d like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue” — all at the same time. Sometimes now I listen to Louis while I have my favorite dessert of vanilla ice cream and sloe gin. (Prologue)
iii. With Louis Armstrong one half of me says, “Open the window and let the foul air out,” while the other says, “It was good green corn before the harvest.” (Epilogue)
The first allusion is about the American founding fathers and scientists and the second and the third are about Louis Armstrong.
- Conflict: The are two types of conflicts in the novel. The first one is the external conflict that is going on between the whites and the African American community and the second is between the narrator and his mental thinking about his invisibility.
- Characters: Invisible Man presents both static as well as dynamic characters. The young narrator is a dynamic character as he faces transformation during his growth. However, the rest of the characters do Mr. Norton, Dr. Bledsoe, Rinehart, and Brother Jack.
- Climax: The climax takes place when the anonymous narrator loses his illusion about his success and invisibility.
- Foreshadowing: The novel shows the following examples of foreshadowing:
i. I spoke automatically and with such fervor that I did not realize that the men were still talking and laughing until my dry mouth, filling up with blood from the cut, almost strangled me. (Chapter-1)
ii. “Out of a sense of my destined role,” Mr. Norton said shakily. “I felt, and I still feel, that your people are in some important manner tied to my destiny.”(Chapter-3)
These examples from Invisible Man clearly foreshadow the coming events.
- Hyperbole: Hyperbole or exaggeration occurs in the novel at various places. For example,
i. Two men stood directly in front of me, one speaking with intense earnestness. “. . . and Johnson hit Jeffries at an angle of 45 degrees from his lower left lateral incisor, producing an instantaneous blocking of his entire thalamic rine, frosting it over like the freezing unit of a refrigerator, thus shattering his autonomous nervous system and rocking the big brick-laying creampuff with extreme hyperspasmic muscular tremors. (Chapter-3)
ii. Now, now, Hester.” “Okay, okay . . . But what y’all doing looking like you at a funeral? Don’t you know this is the Golden Day?” she staggered toward me, belching elegantly and reeling. (Chapter-3)
Not only are these sentences hyperbolic, but also they show how the narrator thinks.
- Imagery: Imagery is used to make readers perceive things involving their five senses. For example,
i. The wheel felt like an alien thing in my hands as I followed the white line of the highway. Heat rays from the late afternoon sun arose from the gray concrete, shimmering like the weary tones of a distant bugle blown upon still midnight air. (Chapter-4)
ii. It was a clear, bright day when I went out, and the sun burned warm upon my eyes. Only a few flecks of snowy cloud hung high in the morning blue sky, and already a woman was hanging wash on a roof. I felt better walking along. A feeling of confidence grew. Far down the island the skyscrapers rose tall and mysterious in the thin, pastel haze. (Chapter-9).
iii. The elevator dropped me like a shot and I went out and walked along the street. The sun was very bright now and the people along the walk seemed far away. I stopped before a gray wall where high above me the headstones of a church graveyard arose like the tops of buildings. (Chapter-9)
These passages from the novel show that Ellison has used a variety of images such as the image of sound, color, and sight.
- Metaphor: Invisible Man shows good use of various metaphors. For example,
i. Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a bio-chemical accident to my epidermis. (Prologue)
ii. … this barren land after Emancipation,” he intoned, “this land of
darkness and sorrow, of ignorance and degradation, where the hand of
brother had been turned against brother, father against son, and son against
father; where master had turned against slave and slave against master;
where all was strife and darkness, an aching land.. (Chapter-5)
iii. Booker Washington was resurrected today at a certain eviction in Harlem. He came out from the anonymity of the crowd and spoke to the people. So you see, I don’t joke with you. Or play with words either. There is a scientific explanation for this phenomenon — as our learned brother has graciously reminded me — you’ll learn it in time, but whatever you call it the reality of the world crisis is a fact. ( Chapter-7)
The first example compares invisibility with his bodily situation, the second the land with different situations, and the third Booker T. Washington with a phenomenon.
- Mood: The novel presents a usual mood but turns to nightmares and dreams that the anonymous narrator sees but deep down it is tragic and serious.
- Motif: Most important motifs of the novel are invisibility, blindness, and jazz.
- Narrator: The novel is narrated in the first-person point of view and the narrator, who is a protagonist and an anonymous African American young man.
- Protagonist: The anonymous narrator is the protagonist of the novel. The novel starts with his entry into the world and moves forward as he gets admission to the college and then leaves it after his expulsion.
- Rhetorical Questions: The novel shows good use of rhetorical questions at several places. For example,
i. ‘The harder we fought the more threatening the men became. And yet, I had begun to worry about my speech again. How would it go? Would they recognize my ability? What would they give me? (Chapter-1)
ii. I have never seen, runs with liquid chalk – creating
iii. another ambiguity to puzzle my groping mind: Why is a bird-soiled statue more commanding than one that is clean? (Chapter-2)
iv. He gave the impression that he understood much and spoke out of knowledge far deeper than appeared on the surface of his words. Perhaps it was only the knowledge that he had escaped by the same route as I. But what had he to fear? I had made the speech, not he. That girl in the apartment had said that the longer I remained unseen the longer I’d be effective, which didn’t make much sense either. But perhaps that was why he had run. He wanted to remain unseen and effective. Effective at what? (Chapter-14)
This example shows the use of rhetorical questions posed by different characters not to elicit answers but to stress the underlined idea.
- Setting: The setting of the novel is the American South, the city of New York.
- Simile: The novel shows good use of various similes. For example,
i. A tomtom beating like heart-thuds began drowning out the trumpet, filling my ears. (Prologue)
ii. About eighty-five years ago they were told that they were free, united with others of our country in everything pertaining to the common good, and, in everything social, separate like the fingers of the hand. (Chapter-1)
iii. I remembered the admiration and fear he inspired in everyone on the campus; the pictures in the Negro press captioned “EDUCATOR,” in type that exploded like a rifle shot, his face looking out at you with utmost confidence. (Chapter-6)
These are similes as the use of the word “like” shows the comparison between different things.