Invisible Man

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By John Hunter Allgood

Ralph Waldo Ellison: Born in Oklahoma City in 1914. Trained as a musician at Tuskegee Institute from 1933-1936. Settled in Harlem in 1936. Invisible Man won the National Book Award and the Russwurm Award. A fellow of the American Academy in Rome. Died in 1994.

Setting: Begins with the narrator in a small town in the south. He receives a scholarship to a black university where he goes for three years until he is expelled. Travels to Harlem where he lives first with Mary and then in an apartment. Ends up living underground in a manhole.

Plot: The Narrator says he is invisible from society because it refuses to see him. Receives a scholarship to college, but is expelled for involvement with Golden Day. Goes to NY and tries to find a Job, works short while at Liberty Paints. Becomes a speaker for the Brotherhood, but has opposing views that result in conflict. Harlem goes into a riot and IM disappears by living underground in order to be true to himself without the pressure of society.

Narrator: Nameless protagonist. Call him IM. He is Naďve in youth, but through the experiences of life, he comes to an understanding of himself and society. He says that society refuses to see him, so he becomes “invisible” to society and ends up living underground. He is a speaker for the Brotherhood and greatly changes the feeling of the people in Harlem.

Dr. Bledsoe: Black president at IM’s college. IM first looks up to him, but he proves to be power hungry and cruel. He expels IM and sends him to NY with false letters of recommendation.

Mr. Norton: Wealthy white trustee come to visit the college. Interested in Trueblood’s story and afterwards needs a drink. IM takes him to the Golden Day. Treats IM as a tally.

Rev. Homer Barbee: Blind preacher from Chicago comes to speak at IM’s college, praises The Founder’s wisdom.

Jim Trueblood: Black man in poor area near college. He impregnates his own daughter. College sees him as a disgrace, but he receives much support from whites.

Brother Jack: White and extremely dedicated leader of the Brotherhood. Works for the socially oppressed. He actually holds racist views and Communist values.

Tod Clifton: Young, handsome, and black member of the Brotherhood. He eventually leaves and sells Sambo dolls on the street, where a policeman shoots him.

Ras the Exhorter: Leader of the Black Nationalist movement. Very loud and flamboyant and is constantly fighting against white supremacy. Uses violence and is IM’s big opponent.

Mary: Motherly black woman in Harlem who takes IM into her home after his Liberty Paint accident. She is very kind and lets IM stay with very little rent. Wants IM to become involved in the community.

Motifs/Symbols: Blindness- how people avoid seeing what they do not want to see. Shows a lack of understanding. Invisibility-IM feels that he is invisible to society. It can bring freedom and mobility, but IM finally realizes that nothing significant can come from being invisible. Liberty Paints symbolizes the false liberty of society for non-whites. Sambo Doll/Coin Bank symbolizes the stereotype that whites have towards blacks and the injustices the blacks experience.

Themes: Racism as an obstacle to individual identity ( IM trying to survive society). Conflicting stereotypes.

Quotes: “To Whom It May Concern….Keep This Nigger –Boy Running” (33). “The trouble is that there is little the dead can do; otherwise they wouldn’t be dead” (306). “Who knows but that on the frequencies, I speak for you?” (581).

Style/Structure: Divided into twenty-five chapters. Written as a story that progresses over the first twenty something years of IM. Begins with the ending. Full of symbols and motifs and very descriptive. Complex and short sentences with complex thought.

Tone: From realism to sarcasm to comedy. The tone changes throughout the book, but maintains a resentment of social oppression.

Point of View: First person point of view.

By Mackenzie Amis

Author: Ralph Ellison ( one of the most influential black writers of the twentieth century

Setting: 1930s in an all black college (Chapters 1-6) and New York City (Chapters 7-25)

Plot Summary: The unnamed Invisible Man earns a scholarship to an all-black college.  After driving a white trustee of the college, Mr. Norton, around his town and taking him to what the school's president, Dr. Bledsoe, considers inappropriate places, the Invisible Man is expelled from college. He goes to New York City to find work, but end up involved in a communist organization. The story tells of his struggles as a black man in New York City and his dilemma in a communist group.

Outstanding/Memorable Characters:

The Invisible Man is a young man who wants to be accepted as an equal in the white world. He his expelled from college and travels to New York City to find work. He eventually finds a position in a communist organization (the Brotherhood). The group at first treats him as an equal, but as his influence and power in the organization increase, members of the group start discriminating against him. The Invisible Man becomes frustrated and tries to deal with this new discrimination.

Mr. Norton is a white trustee of the all-black college that the Invisible Man attends. The Invisible Man takes Mr. Norton on a car ride around the town, and Mr. Norton was not happy with where he went.  His dissatisfaction contributes to the Invisible Man being expelled.

Dr. Bledsoe is the president of the college the Invisible Man attends. After Dr. Bledsoe expels the Invisible Man and deceives him, the Invisible Man hates Dr. Bledsoe.

Brother Jack is one of the leaders of the Brotherhood and invites the Invisible Man to join the group. He later becomes jealous of his leadership and helps to turn the rest of the group against him.

Recurring Motifs/Symbols:

briefcase (This symbolizes the Invisible Man's desired connection to the "white world").

blindness (No one can see or understand the Invisible Man's struggles, and several people in the story have impaired vision. Jack has a glass eye, which shows he too is blind to the Invisible Man's struggles).

$100 bill (Mr. Norton gives this to Jim Trueblood which affirms that Mr. Norton thinks himself above blacks).

Tod's puppets (The Invisible Man thinks the puppets are like blacks being played with and controlled by whites).

whiteness and brightness (They put fear and invoke anger in the Invisible Man). 


Everyone is blind to something in their lives, and no one can see or understand the struggles of anyone else.

Human struggle vs. Society (The Invisible Man struggles to fit into what the world wants a young black man to be while trying to remain loyal to himself).

Quotes: “I am an invisible man…I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (3).

“Come out of the fog, young man. And remember you don't have to be a complete fool in order to succeed. Play the game, but don't believe in it” (153).

“Who knows but on the lower frequencies, I speak for you” (581).

Style/Structure: There are 25 chapters with syntax and diction variety, which shows off the Invisible Man's intelligence and defies a typical stereotype of that time of black people not being smart. The Invisible Man uses advanced vocabulary, too. Mostly narration, but some dialogue. Invisible Man speaks directly to the reader in order to get them involved in the story.

Tone: Angry and Spiteful (Invisible Man when discussing the injustices that white people have done to him and other blacks). Comical (Invisible Man when he outsmarts someone and when he discusses stealing electricity to power his 1369 light bulbs). Sarcastic (Invisible Man proving the stupidity of a person or thing, when he outsmarts someone, and in talking with people from the Brotherhood when they disapprove of his ways).

Point of view: The Invisible Man narrates the story, which allows the reader to get inside his mind and understand him better.

By Craig Kedrowski

Ralph Ellison (1914-1994): he was born in Oklahoma and trained as a musician at Tuskegee Institute. He moved to New York (Harlem) in 1936 and worked at Federal Writers' Project. He then served in War World II. After the war he won the Rosenwald Fellowship, which he used to publish Invisible Man.

Setting: The novel takes place in the 1930’s. It starts out at a black college in the south, but then moves up to New York City, mainly Harlem. This is important because during this time black rights activists were starting to show up, especially in New York City.

Plot: The IM makes a speech in front of the town’s important men and is honored by getting a scholarship to a black college. He is expelled from college for taking Mr. Norton to Jim Trueblood and the Golden Day. He moves to Harlem, where he gets a job at Liberty Paints. There is an accident at the factory, and he does not remember who he is. He moves in with Mary and joins the Brotherhood as their speechmaker. Clifton leaves the brotherhood. IM sees Clifton selling dolls and being shot by a police officer. He holds a big funeral and disguises himself as Rhinehart after that. Ras starts a riot for Clifton in which IM is almost killed. Then IM realizes that he was just used by Brother Jack and that he is invisible.

Invisible Man: The nameless main character of the novel. There are three stages of his life: life at college, life before Liberty Paints (he gets knocked out and never remembers who he is), and the brotherhood. He is invisible because of all the racism that is around him, so people really never see who he is. His journey through the novel is his realization that he is invisible.

Brother Jack: Is the white leader of the brotherhood and has a glass eye. He is the one that follows IM across the rooftop after his first speech. He is deceiving to IM. He pretends to be nice and friendly, when he is truly a racist and uses other people for his own well being.

Tod Clifton: One of IM’s friends. He is a member of the brotherhood, but drops out and nobody knows why or where he is. IM sees him in the street selling Sambo dolls, which represent the way blacks are treated like slaves. Clifton is arrested, but revolts against the police officer which causes his death. IM holds a big funeral for him. His death also is the reason for the revolt that Ras leads at the end of the novel.

Ras the Exhorter: Is the leader of the violent black moment in Harlem. He is constantly opposing the brotherhood and IM. He even tries to kill IM. He starts the riot at the end of the novel.

Dr. Bledsoe: The president of IM college. He expels IM after the incident with Mr. Norton and lies about the true extent of his expulsion. He is selfish and ambitious, always trying to please the white man.

Rinehart: He is the guy that IM dresses up like with sunglasses. He never really appears in the book, but he seems to have multiple personalities. His complex character adds to the theme of identity.

Sybil: Is a lady that IM uses to get information on the brotherhood, but she uses him to act out her fantasy of getting savagely raped. “SYBIL, YOU WERE RAPED / BY / SANTA CLAUS / SURPRIZE” (522).

Emerson: He is the son of a rich trustee that informs IM of the true extent of his expulsion, how Dr. Bledsoe double-crossed him, and helps IM get a job.

Mr. Norton: A rich white man that was a trustee of the black college. IM was his chauffeur while he was at the school. He went to Jim’s house and then The Golden Day. He was very nice to IM, but IM’s failure of taking good care of him gets IM expelled from school.

Jim Trueblood: An uneducated black man that lived on the outskirts of the campus. He impregnated his own daughter. When he told his story to Mr. Norton, Mr. Norton was so repulsed and moved by his story that he gave him $100 for kids toys; IM was expelled from school because he took Mr. Norton to him.

Mary: She was the kind and caring woman that IM stayed with, and she did not make him pay rent. She urges IM to fight for black equality.

Motif / Symbols: Sambo dolls. The coin bank. Liberty paints. Blindness. The glass eye. Invisibility. Disguises. Puppets. Briefcase. Scholarship. Letter from Brother Jack. $100. Blindfold. Envelopes. Coal Cellar. Dreams.

Themes: Who you really are? Father figures.  Racism is dangerous. You should be yourself. The danger of fighting a stereotype. Invisibility. Who are your true friends? You can change throughout your life.

Quotes: “I am an invisible man … I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (3). “‘Brother, This is advice from a friend who has been watching you closely. Do not go too fast’” (383). “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak to you?” (581).

Style: The style gives the reader IM’s thoughts. Therefore, it is very descriptive, has an abundance of details, and has unity. Ellison also uses complex words, which I did not know at first glance. The style is also very casual, almost story telling or conversational like. There is also parallel syntax.

Tone: The tone of the novel is not consistent, because the tone is dependent on IM mood. It ranges from optimistic about events to pessimistic about what has occurred. Every once in a while there will be a humorous tone.

Point of View: The novel is written in first person. It is in the view of IM. Ellison uses this point of view so that IM can stress his feeling and emotion about the event happening around him.

Structure: The novel is structured in a precise and organized way. There are 24 chapters with a prologue and epilogue. Each of the individual chapters is a little miniature story (they each tell of a phase of IM’s life).

By Jaya Srivastava

Ralph Ellison- Born and raised in Oklahoma in 1914, Ellison was the grandson of slaves. As a teenager, Ellison became interested in jazz music and went to Tuskegee University in Alabama to pursue a music career. After school, he moved to New York, where he later left to serve in WWII. Upon returning, Ellison was awarded the Rosenwald Fellowship, with which he wrote the Invisible Man. Much of the novel was based on Ellison’s jazz background, was chiefly set in Tuskegee, and was rich in symbolism, which enhanced the fight for American individuality. After the success of the Invisible Man, Ellison did not publish another novel. He passed away in 1994.

Setting- In the South (Alabama) and in Harlem, in the late 1920’s and mid-1930’s

Plot Summary- The unnamed narrator of the novel begins his story by telling the reader of how his experiences in life have lead him to live underground and listen to Louis Armstrong’s “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue” as he writes about discovering his invisibility. He has experienced much pain and frustration- from the incidents at the battle royal, to Mr. Norton, Trueblood, The Golden Day, and Reverend Barbee, to his involvement with the Brotherhood.

The Narrator- As the principle character in the novel, the narrator tells the story so that it revolves around the growth and individuality of himself. The identity of the narrator is ambiguous and, therefore, adds his character adds to the discovery of his invisibility. As a young man, the narrator is kind and innocent and unfortunately suffers the cruel brutalities of the world. This innocence stages the narrator’s blindness, which results in the discovery of his invincibility. However, after his experience with the Brotherhood, the narrator deviates into a world of hiding, as another man. Because he finds a new identity behind dark glasses and a black hat, the narrator identifies himself for himself instead of others judging him.

Brother Jack- This character is introduced to the story as the leader of the Brotherhood who points out the fault of others to oppress the racism displayed towards African-Americans. He uses the narrator as a tool to complete the Brotherhood’s missions. However, Jack gains the narrator’s trust by being kind and compassionate at first, and then sees the narrator as invisible as Brother Jack is drawn into a world in which he partakes in the beliefs of the white world.

Ras the Exhorter- Ras is a powerful figure who fights for the civil rights of Black Americans. Though his tactics may be radical and threatening to white citizens, Ras holds a somewhat godlike power. The passion Ras held for retaining black pride drew many of his supporters.

Rinehart- As an ambiguous character, Rinehart takes on many identities, including that of a bookie and a preacher, who delivers sermons on invincibility. As the narrator attempts to hide from the world, many in Harlem mistake him for Rinehart. The narrator realizes that Rinehart represents individuality and positive prospects. However, Rinehart also is manipulative, as he leads many citizens to believe just one of his many faces. Ellison thus analyzes the general concept of identity and self-satisfaction.

Motifs-blindness; struggle; pieces of paper; authority; invincibility

Symbols- Sambo dolls; Liberty Paints (white); the Brotherhood

Themes- The fight between stereotypes and what is real

                The barrier of racism

                Discovery of Identity and Self

Quotes- “Poor fool, poor blind fool, I thought with sincere compassion, mugged by an invisible man!” (5). “A remote explosion had occurred somewhere…and it had caused the ice cap to shift the slightest bit. But that bit, that fraction, was irrevocable” (259). “And yet I am what they think I am…” (379).

Point of View- Written in first person, the encounters of the Invisible Man are accented, as they are experiences and feelings of his own. Ellison included much of his own ideas in the novel as he fought with his perception identity.

Structure- The novel contains some flashbacks to the narrator’s past. Chapter lengths are medium to long lengths and contain many ideas which instigate conflict and individual perception.