Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man

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Invisible Man Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Invisible Man  by Ralph Ellison.

The narrator, an unnamed black man, claims he is an “invisible man.” Because of his color, other people refuse to see him. He lives rent-free in an underground room, wired with over a thousand electric lights powered by energy stolen from the electric grid. He tells his story through flashbacks, beginning with his teenage years.

Upon his graduation from high school in a small southern town, the narrator receives a scholarship to a prestigious, historically black college after delivering a speech to a group of important white men in town. In order to use the scholarship, however, he must participate in a humiliating “battle royal” against other young black men—all blindfolded—in a boxing ring. After the fight, the black men chase after fake gold coins the white men scatter on an electrified rug.

Three years later, as a student at college, the narrator is asked to chauffeur a wealthy white trustee of the college, Mr. Norton, around the campus. They visit the old slave quarters on the outskirts of campus. They visit the cabin of Jim Trueblood, who caused a scandal by impregnating both his wife and his daughter. The Trueblood story so deeply troubles Mr. Norton that he asks the narrator to take him to get a drink somewhere, so they go to a bar filled with mental patients from a nearby hospital, the Golden Day. The bar normally only serves black men, and when a fight breaks out between two unstable veterans, Mr. Norton passes out during the commotion. Another veteran, claiming to be a doctor, treats Mr. Norton and accosts the narrator and Norton for their lack of awareness regarding the state of race relations.

Returning to the school, the narrator is in the audience for a speech given by the blind Rev. Homer A. Barbee in which Barbee glorifies the school’s founder. Afterwards, Dr. Bledsoe, the university president, scolds the narrator for letting Mr. Norton see the harsh realities of the area near the school and expels him. Mr. Norton gives the narrator seven letters of recommendation from the school’s trustees, telling him the letters will help him find a job, and he can eventually re-enroll. The narrator goes to New York and is unsuccessful in his attempts to find a job. He learns why when, one day, the son of one business owner shows him the contents of the letter: the letters state that the narrator is untrustworthy, and Bledsoe has no intention of letting him re-enroll.

The son help the narrator secure a low-paying job at Liberty Paint, a company famous for its pure white paint color “Optic White.” For a short time, the narrator works with Lucius Brockway, the black man in charge of making the white paint. Brockway is paranoid that the narrator is trying to steal his job, however, and suspects the narrator has joined in on some of the union activities. The two fight and the boiler explodes, rendering the narrator unconscious.

The narrator regains consciousness in the factory’s hospital, without his memory and unable to speak. The white doctors see the unknown black man as an opportunity, and they perform electric shock therapy on him. The narrator recovers his memory and leaves the hospital, collapsing on the street. Members of the local black community take him to Mary Rambo’s house. Mary is kind and lets him stay there for free, provoking his interest in his own black heritage.

Later, the narrator witnesses the eviction of an elderly black couple, and he uses his speaking abilities to rouse the neighbors to attack the authorities in charge of the eviction. Making his escape from the situation on the rooftops, the narrator meets Brother Jack, the leader of a group called the Brotherhood. Brother Jack invites the narrator to serve as the Brotherhood’s spokesman. The narrator initially declines, but then decides to take the position so he can repay Mary for her generosity. The Brotherhood requires the narrator break with his past and take a new identity; he moves into a new apartment. He’s inducted into the Brotherhood and placed in charge of the group’s efforts in Harlem, where he meets the handsome and charismatic youth leader, Tod Clifton.

The rallies start off well, and the narrator receives indoctrination into the Brotherhood’s beliefs. Not long after he joins the Brotherhood, the narrator meets Ras the Exhorter, a fanatical black nationalist who has come to believe white people are actually controlling the Brotherhood. The narrator does well, improving his profile in the Brotherhood. He then receives an anonymous note warning him not to forget his place as a black man inside the Brotherhood. Then Brotherhood member Brother Estrum accuses the narrator of using his position selfishly. While the Brotherhood investigates the accusation, the narrator is moved to a new position, one that advocates for women’s rights. He gives a speech, and afterwards is seduced by the white wife of one of the members of the Brotherhood who uses him to explore her sexual fantasies.

The narrator is sent back to Harlem. Clifton has disappeared. After a short time, the narrator finds Clifton on the street selling Sambo dolls. Clifton has left the group. White policemen question Clifton, who does not have a permit to sell things on the street, and during a scuffle, the police shoot and kill Clifton. The narrator eulogizes Clifton, painting him as a hero, and his words shift public sentiment toward Clifton. But the narrator has staged the funeral without the Brotherhood’s permission, making Brother Jack very angry. Jack makes a speech about the Brotherhood’s positions, and as he does, a glass eye falls from one of his eye sockets. The Brotherhood sends the narrator to learn from Brother Hambro the organization’s latest strategies in Harlem.

Ras’s men pursue the narrator, so he uses sunglasses and a hat as a disguise. In disguise, he is mistaken for a man named Rinehart a number of times. Rinehart is known as a pimp, bookie, and reverend, seemingly all at once. The narrator finally arrives at Brother Hambro’s apartment and learns that the Brotherhood is starting to minimize Harlem. Brother Hambro says that the group is more important than any single person’s needs. The narrator decides to play along with the hope of undermining the Brotherhood from within.

He seduces another member’s wife to learn the group’s secrets, but his efforts fail. Riots have broken out in Harlem, and the Brotherhood intends to use these for their own ends. The narrator falls in with a group of looters who burn down a tenement building. Wandering away, he encounters Ras, who is now riding a horse, armed with a spear, and calling himself “The Destroyer.” Ras calls on the mob to lynch the narrator. The narrator flees and falls into a manhole. Two white policemen find him; assuming him to be in possession of looted property, they seal him in.

The novel ends with the narrator saying he’s been underground ever since, contemplating how he can stay true to his individuality while still maintaining his ties to the group. He’s told his story to help other people with their own invisibility.

The major theme of the novel is the relationship between race and individual identity, specifically how racism can impact an individual’s sense of self. The narrator must decide numerous times between his wants and needs and the needs of the Brotherhood. This is complicated by the fact that racial prejudice causes people to see him only as they want to see him, if they see him at all. Blindness is a recurring motif throughout the novel. Numerous characters are unable to see, blindfolded, or blinded during the course of the book.

Ultimately, the book is a commentary on racism in America, and the competing forces at work within the various systems that are harmed or improved through racism.

Invisible Man won the 1953 National Book Award for fiction, and is considered one of the greatest American novels. It is praised for its unflinching look at racism in America, and for its plot, which approaches surreal without tipping over to absurdity.