Invisible Man

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For the H.G. Wells novel, see The Invisible Man. For other uses, see The Invisible Man (disambiguation).
Invisible Man
Invisible Man.jpg
First edition
Author Ralph Ellison
Country United States
Language English
Genre bildungsroman, African-American literature, social commentary
Publisher Random House
Publication date
Media type Print (hardcover and paperback)
Pages 581 pp (second edition)
ISBN 978-0-679-60139-5
OCLC 30780333
813/.54 20
LC Class PS3555.L625 I5 1994

Invisible Man is a novel by Ralph Ellison about an African American man whose color renders him invisible, published by Random House in 1952. It addresses many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-Americans early in the twentieth century, including black nationalism, the relationship between black identity and Marxism, and the reformist racial policies of Booker T. Washington, as well as issues of individuality and personal identity.

Invisible Man won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1953.[1] In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Invisible Man nineteenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.[2] Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005, calling it "the quintessential American picaresque of the 20th century," rather than a "race novel, or even a bildungsroman."[3] Malcolm Bradbury and Richard Ruland recognize an existential vision with a "Kafka-like absurdity".[4] According to The New York Times, U.S. president Barack Obama modeled his memoir Dreams from My Father on Ellison's novel.[5]


Ellison says in his introduction to the 30th Anniversary Edition[6] that he started to write what would eventually become Invisible Man in a barn in Waitsfield, Vermont in the summer of 1945 while on sick leave from the Merchant Marine. The letters he wrote to fellow novelist Richard Wright as he started working on the novel provide evidence for its political context: the disillusion with the Communist Party that he and Wright shared. In a letter to Wright August 18, 1945, Ellison poured out his anger toward party leaders for betraying African American and Marxist class politics during the war years. "If they want to play ball with the bourgeoisie they needn't think they can get away with it.... Maybe we can't smash the atom, but we can, with a few well chosen, well written words, smash all that crummy filth to hell." In the wake of this disillusion, Ellison began writing Invisible Man, a novel that was, in part, his response to the party's betrayal.[7]

The book took five years to complete with one year off for what Ellison termed an "ill-conceived short novel."[8] Invisible Man was published as a whole in 1952. Ellison had published a section of the book in 1947, the famous "Battle Royal" scene, which had been shown to Cyril Connolly, the editor of Horizon magazine by Frank Taylor, one of Ellison's early supporters.

In his speech accepting the 1953 National Book Award,[9] Ellison said that he considered the novel's chief significance to be its experimental attitude. Rejecting the idea of social protest—as Ellison would later put it—he did not want to write another protest novel, and also seeing the highly regarded styles of Naturalism and Realism too limiting to speak to the broader issues of race and America, Ellison created an open style, one that did not restrict his ideas to a movement but was more free-flowing in its delivery. What Ellison finally settled on was a style based heavily upon modern symbolism. It was the kind of symbolism that Ellison first encountered in the poem, The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot.[10][not specific enough to verify] Ellison had read this poem as a freshman at the Tuskegee Institute and was immediately impressed by The Waste Land's ability to merge his two greatest passions, that of music and literature, for it was in The Waste Land that he first saw jazz set to words. When asked later what he had learned from the poem, Ellison responded: imagery, and also improvisation—techniques he had only before seen in jazz.

Ellison always believed that he would be a musician first and a writer second, and yet even so he had acknowledged that writing provided him a "growing satisfaction." It was a "covert process," according to Ellison: "a refusal of his right hand to let his left hand know what it was doing."[11]

Invisible Man is narrated in the first person by the protagonist, an unnamed African American man who considers himself socially invisible. Ellison conceived his narrator as a spokesman for African Americans of the time:

So my task was one of revealing the human universals hidden within the plight of one who was both black and American...[12]:xviii

Ellison struggled to find a style appropriate to his vision. Wanting to avoid writing "nothing more than another novel of racial protest," he settled on a narrator "who had been forged in the underground of American experience and yet managed to emerge less angry than ironic." To this end, he modeled his narrator after the nameless narrator of Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, which similarly applies irony and paradox toward far-reaching social criticism.[12]:xv

Ellison biographer Arnold Rampersad, however, feels that the character of the narrator "resembles no one else in previous fiction so much as he resembles Ishmael of Moby-Dick." Ellison signals his debt in the prologue to the novel, where the narrator remembers a moment of truth under the influence of marijuana and evokes a church service: "Brothers and sisters, my text this morning is the 'Blackness of Blackness.' And the congregation answers: 'That blackness is most black, brother, most black...'" In this scene Ellison "reprises a moment in the second chapter of Moby-Dick", where Ishmael wanders around New Bedford looking for a place to spend the night and enters a black church: "It was a negro church; and the preacher's text was about the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there." According to Rampersad, it was Melville who "empowered Ellison to insist on a place in the American literary tradition" by his example of "representing the complexity of race and racism so acutely and generously" in Moby-Dick.[13]

The story is told from the narrator's present, looking back into his past. Thus, the narrator has hindsight in how his story is told, as he is already aware of the outcome.

In the Prologue, Ellison's narrator tells the audience, "I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century." In this secret place, the narrator creates surroundings that are symbolically illuminated with 1,369 lights from the electric company Monopolated Light & Power. He says, "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." The protagonist explains that light is an intellectual necessity for him since "the truth is the light and light is the truth." From this underground perspective the narrator attempts to make sense out of his life and experiences and his status in American society.

Plot summary[edit]

In the beginning, the narrator lives in a small town in the South. A model student, indeed the high school's valedictorian, he gives an eloquent, Booker T. Washington-inspired graduation speech about the struggles of the average black man. The local white dignitaries want to hear, too. First, however, in the opening "Battle Royal" chapter, they put him and other black boys through a series of self-abusive humiliations. Are these the white folk whom Washington thought blacks could look to as neighbors? Probably not—but they do give the narrator a scholarship to an all-black college clearly modeled, in spite of disguises, on Washington's Tuskegee University[citation needed].

One afternoon during his junior year, the narrator chauffeurs Mr. Norton, a visiting rich white trustee, out among the old slave-quarters beyond the campus, stopping by chance at the cabin of Jim Trueblood, who unintentionally—in his sleep—committed incest with his daughter, who's now pregnant. After hearing Trueblood's scandalous story, and giving him a $100, Norton feels faint and calls for a "stimulant," meaning alcohol. The narrator realizes that he does not have the time to take Mr. Norton to the bars at the edge of town, and instead takes him to the Golden Day, a local tavern patronized by black World War I veterans who, presumably suffering from war-related disorders, are patients at a nearby mental hospital. It's a brutal, riotous scene, and Norton is carried out more dead than alive.

Small wonder that the narrator worries about the college president Dr. Bledsoe's reaction: white trustees aren't supposed to know about the underside of black life beyond the campus. What the campus stands for—the vision of the unnamed Founder (Washington)--comes out in a sermon by the Reverend Homer A. Barbee, a blind but fervently dedicated upholder of that vision. The narrator is uplifted, but unfortunately, Bledsoe expels him for having mismanaged Norton's afternoon. This is an important stage in the narrator's understanding. Bledsoe goes so far trying to please the white power brokers that people like him, the narrator, are sacrificed—rendered invisible. Nonetheless, Bledsoe gives him several letters of recommendation, which should help him get a job that will earn him the money he'll need to return to school.

Upon arriving in New York, the narrator distributes the letters with no success. Eventually, the son of one of "possibilities" takes pity on him and shows him an opened copy of the letter; it reveals that Bledsoe never had any intentions of letting the narrator return and sent him to New York to get rid of him. On the son's suggestion, the narrator eventually gets a job in the boiler room of a paint factory in a company renowned for its "Optic White" paint (used to render any object, from coal to monuments to buildings, blindingly white). The man in charge of the boiler room, Lucius Brockway, is extremely paranoid and thinks that the narrator has come to take his job. He is also extremely loyal to the company's owner, who once paid him a personal visit. When the narrator tells him about a union meeting he happened upon, the outraged Brockway attacks him. They fight, and Brockway tricks him into turning a wrong valve and causing a boiler to explode. Brockway escapes, but the narrator is hospitalized after the blast. While recovering, the narrator overhears doctors discussing him as a mental health patient. He learns through their discussion that shock treatment has been performed on him.

After the shock treatments, the narrator attempts to return to his residence when he feels overwhelmed by dizziness and faints on the streets of Harlem. He is taken to the residence of Mary, a kind, old-fashioned, down-to-earth woman who reminds him of his relatives in the South and friends at the college. Mary somewhat serves as a mother figure for the narrator. While living there, he happens upon an eviction of an elderly black couple and makes an impassioned speech decrying the action. But when the police arrive soon after, the narrator is forced to escape over several building-tops. Upon reaching "safety," he is confronted by a man named Jack, who implores him to join a group called the Brotherhood—a thinly veiled version of the supposedly color-blind Communist Party—that claims to be committed to the betterment of conditions in Harlem, and the entire world. The narrator agrees.

At first, the rallies go smoothly and the narrator is happy to be "making history" in his new job. Soon, however, he encounters trouble from Ras the Exhorter, a fanatical black nationalist similar to, but not based on Marcus Garvey who believes that the Brotherhood is controlled by whites. Ras tells this to the narrator and Tod Clifton, a youth leader of the Brotherhood, neither of whom seem to be swayed by his words.

The narrator continues his work in Harlem until he is called into a meeting of the Brotherhood. Believing that he has become too powerful an "individual"—this in a movement where individuals count for nothing—they reassign him to another part of the city to address the "women question." After the narrator gives his first lecture on women's rights, he is approached by the wife of another member of the Brotherhood. She invites him to her apartment where she seduces him. The narrator is soon called to return to Harlem to repair its falling membership in the black community.

When he returns to Harlem, Tod Clifton has disappeared. When the narrator finds him, he realizes that Clifton has become disillusioned with the Brotherhood and quit. He is selling dancing Sambo dolls on the street, mocking the organization he once believed in. Soon after, Tod, resisting arrest, is fatally shot by a police officer. At his funeral, the narrator delivers a rousing speech, rallying a crowd to reclaim his former widespread Harlem support. He's criticized in a clandestine meeting with Brother Jack and other members for not being scientific in his arguments at the funeral; he angrily retaliates and Jack loses his temper to the extent that a glass eye flies out of its socket. The narrator realizes that the half-blind Jack has never really seen him either, and that the Brotherhood has no real interest in the black community's problems.

He is trailed by Ras the Exhorter's men as he returns to Harlem; buying sunglasses and a hat, he's mistaken for a man called Rinehart in several scenarios: a lover, a hipster, a gambler, a briber, and finally, a reverend. He sees that Rinehart has adapted to white society at the cost of his own identity. He decides to take his grandfather's dying advice to "overcome'em with yeses, undermine'em with grins, agree'em to death and destruction...." and "yes" the Brotherhood to death by making it look like the Harlem membership is thriving when it's actually crumbling. He seduces Sybil, the wife of one of the Brothers, in an attempt to learn of the Brotherhood's new activities.

Riots break out in Harlem and the narrator gets mixed up with a gang of looters. Wandering through a ravaged Harlem, he encounters Ras, who now calls himself Ras the Destroyer. After escaping Ras's attempt to have him lynched (by throwing a spear Ras had acquired through the leader's jaw, permanently sealing it), the narrator is attacked by a couple of white boys who trap him inside a coal-filled manhole/basement, sealing him off for the night and leaving him alone to finally confront the demons of his mind: Bledsoe, Norton, and Jack.

At the end of the novel, the narrator is ready to resurface because "overt action" has already taken place. This could mean that, in telling us the story, the narrator has already made a political statement about how change could occur. Therefore, it is storytelling and the preservation of the history of these invisible individuals that cause political change.


Critic Orville Prescott of The New York Times called the novel "the most impressive work of fiction by an American Negro which I have ever read," and felt it marked "the appearance of a richly talented writer."[14] Novelist Saul Bellow in his review found it "a book of the very first order, a superb is tragi-comic, poetic, the tone of the very strongest sort of creative intelligence"[15] George Mayberry of The New Republic said Ellison "is a master at catching the shape, flavor and sound of the common vagaries of human character and experience."[16] In The Paris Review, literary critic Harold Bloom referred to Invisible Man, along with Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, as "the only full scale works of fiction I have read by American blacks in this century that have survival possibilities at all."[17]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "National Book Awards – 1953". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-31.
    (With acceptance speech by Ellison, essay by Neil Baldwin from the 50-year publication, and essays by Charles Johnson and others (four) from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  2. ^ "100 Best Novels". Modern Library. Retrieved 19 May 2014. 
  3. ^ Invisible Man (1952), by Ralph Ellison | All-TIME 100 Novels |
  4. ^ Malcolm Bradbury and Richard Ruland, From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature. Penguin, 380. ISBN 0-14-014435-8
  5. ^ Greg Grandin, "Obama, Melville, and the Tea Party." The New York Times, 18 January 2014. Retrieved on 17 March 2016.
  6. ^ Ellison, Ralph Waldo. Invisible Man. New York: Random House, 1952.
  7. ^ Carol Polsgrove, Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement (2001), pp. 66-69.
  8. ^ "Ralph Ellison, The Art of Fiction No. 8, The Paris Review, Spring 1955, p. 113.
  9. ^ "Ralph Ellison, Winner of the 1953 Fiction Award for Invisible Man". National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches. NBF. Retrieved 2012-03-31.
  10. ^ Eliot, T. S. (1963). Collected Poems, 1909–1962. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. ISBN 978-0-15-118978-6
  11. ^ Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act
  12. ^ a b Ellison, Ralph (1952). Invisible Man. New York: Vintage. ISBN 0-394-71715-5. 
  13. ^ Arnold Rampersad (1997), "Shadow and Veil: Melville and Modern Black Consciousness." Melville's Evermoving Dawn: Centennial Essays. Edited by John Bryant and Robert Milder. Kent, Ohia, and London, England: The Kent State University Press, p. 172-173. ISBN 0-87338-562-4
  14. ^ Prescott, Orville. "Books of the Times". The New York Times. Retrieved 6 November 2013. 
  15. ^ Bellow, Saul. "Man Underground". Commentary. Retrieved 6 November 2013. 
  16. ^ Mayberry, George. "George Mayberry's 1952 Review of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man". New Republic. Retrieved 6 November 2013. 
  17. ^ Weiss, Antonio. "Harold Bloom, The Art of Criticism No. 1". The Paris Review. Retrieved 6 November 2013. 
  18. ^ "Winners by Year". Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Retrieved 7 November 2013. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
From Here to Eternity
James Jones
National Book Award for Fiction
Succeeded by
The Adventures of Augie March
Saul Bellow