Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison

BACKGROUND

This book is not about the invisible man who wore body paint or gauze tape in order to be seen. Itís also not about how fun it would be to play jokes on people if they couldnít see you. Invisible Man is about racism and the basic human need to feel like you have a place in the world. We all, at some point, have felt like we arenít being treated well Ė not heard or not understood. The Invisible Man tells this story about being black in a white society and how he is so ignored, he is almost unseen Ė or invisible. Get it? Anyone could feel invisible if they donít have an idea of who they are, so this is also about self-discovery.

MAIN CHARACTERS

The Invisible Man (IM): Heís the main guy in the book and the narrator. He doesnít have a name, which fits right in with his whole "who am I/no one sees me" deal.

Dr. Bledsoe: The president of the college the IM goes to. He basically thinks that all black people have to lie to whites to get what they want. He lets the IM down in a big way.

Mr. Norton: A white trustee who gives money to black colleges. He thinks heís really down with the black communityís struggle, but heís not.

Mary Rambo: She nurses the IM back to health after heís hurt in an accident. She conforms to white society.

Mr. Emerson, Jr.: The son of a rich Northerner, he tells the IM about Bledsoeís betrayal.

Brother Jack: Head of the Brotherhood. He also betrays the IM.

Brockway: An old black dude who works in the paint factory. He has a special secret about how to make paint very white. Heís a control freak and kinda mean.

Tod Clifton: Heís smart, good looking, and, at first, in control of his environment. At the start, heís all about the Brotherhood. Then, heís all about selling offensive racist dolls.

Ras, the Exhorter: Also called Ras, the Destroyer. Heís a very serious black guy who hates any black that associates with a white person.

Brother Wrestrum: Part of the Brotherhood, he is jealous of the IM.

Brother Tarp: A friend of the IM. He escaped from prison in the south and his story affects the IM.

Rinehart: Even though he doesnít come into the story, Rinehart is important because heís some dude that the IM is mistaken for.

Trueblood: A black sharecropper who gets his wife and his daughter pregnant.

The Vet: He thinks Nortonís ways are questionable. He tells the IM that there are good things about being invisible.

Brother Jack: A member of the Brotherhood.

PLOT

In the prologue, the narrator (the IM) talks about being unrecognized and ignored, invisible. Thereís a lot of symbolism in this book. When the IM talks about living in some hole underground, heís also talking about the kind of hole he lived in emotionally when no one cared about his happiness or let him have a voice in the world. The IMís view of life is that it all works in cycles, like the seasons, so coming out of the cave might be like spring and being reborn. Some dude bumped into the IM above ground and the IM was really pissed and knocked him over, but then realized that, since heís invisible, the guy didnít see him. Again, this is not so much about the actual event, but about being invisible and therefore out of normal society. The IM addresses some of the issues that black people have had to face in America.

The IM goes to college on a scholarship he was given by some white guys who treated him like dirt. At school, he gets to know Mr. Norton, a white trustee who gives the school a lot of money to make himself feel better. He knows and then is crapped on by the head of the school, Dr. Bledsoe, who expels him and gives him bad letters of recommendation so the IM doesnít get a job with the fancy trustees. Instead, he gets a job at a paint company Ė one that makes really special white paint. Go figure. Then heís in an accident there. He winds up in the hospital. Heís totally out of it and doesnít know what the hell is going on or who he is.

He leaves the hospital but is still ill. Some lady named Mary helps him. Sheís really nice and wants him to be his own guy. But the IM gets involved with a group called the Brotherhood. Unlike Mary, they donít want individuals to be important, they want group identity and power. The IM get sucked into that life and then that doesnít work out either. He shags some white woman but sheís just using him. The whole individual/group thing is a constant struggle.

The IM is betrayed by a whole bunch of people, even in the Brotherhood. Finally, he leaves, and runs off into the night (kinda clever, since heís invisible and all). He ends up living in a hole and burning all the stuff from his past. He questions being invisible and wonders about coming out of his hole and being reborn.

CHAPTER BY CHAPTER

CHAPTER 1

  • At first, the IM didnít know there was a difference between blacks and whites.
  • Before he dies, the IMís grandfather tells the IM to "keep up the good fight" but doesnít really explain what that means. This affects the IM.
  • The IM feels like stuff is missing from his life. He has to go on a journey of self-discovery.
  • At a boxing match, a naked blonde woman is both attractive and repulsive to the IM. He is also blindfolded and attacked by other boxers. A big time fight follows. Afterwards, the blacks are made to crawl on the floor for their prize money.
  • The IM is told to recite a speech Ė itís about social responsibility. He mentions equality but then has to take it back or he knows heíll get in trouble.
  • The white guys give the IM a briefcase. Inside it is a scholarship to college.
  • The gold pieces the IM crawled around for on the floor are actually just brass tokens.
  • The IM has a dream that he gets an award that reads "Keep this Nigger-boy running."
  • The IM says he didnít get what the dream meant until he went to college

CHAPTERS 2 Ė 6

  • The IM goes to college.
  • The college grounds are really nice, green grass, sculpted gardens, and vine-covered buildings.
  • On the outskirts of the grounds are the black huts and crappy living conditions Ė some are old slave quarters.
  • The statue of the founder of the college is covered in bird crap. Again, symbolism.
  • The IM drives Mr. Norton around campus. Norton thinks he gets the black way of life and how great the college is, but all he does is dump a butt-load of money into the place to make himself feel good. He talks about Ralph Waldo Emersonís writings.
  • At Jim Truebloodís cabin, the IM explains how Truebloodís wife and daughter are pregnant and how they donít look kindly on the blacks from the college. Mr. Norton is horrified by Truebloodís actions.
  • Trueblood tells his story of incest and poverty. Itís made to seem like his situation is to blame.
  • The IM has to find whiskey for Norton. He can only get it at the Golden Day (a run-down gambling-whatever house)
  • At the Golden Day, itís chaos Ė people are drinking, fighting, and crazy people being violent. Norton gets messed up. The Vet talks about society and how the IMís blindness to how crappy everything is will help him, but in a sad way. The IM is scared about how the Vet talks to Norton as an equal.
  • Norton faints a bunch of times and some chick thinks heís be good in bed, and how white guys are so sexy. This is opposite of the stereotype of the black manís sexual prowess.
  • On the ride back to campus, the IM doesnít have great control over the car. He has trouble following the "white line." How symbolic.
  • The IM is shocked by how insulting Dr. Bledsoe is about black people only showing whites what they want to see. Dr. Bledsoe fakes his life and his words and expressions just to gain power.
  • The IM doesnít want to see how superficial Dr. Bledsoe is since before that, he thought he was cool.
  • The Founder of the college was a man who wanted to see the right things happen to people who had to deal with so much crap, like blacks. Unlike Dr. Bledsoe, the Founder was honest in his goal.
  • Reverend Barbee gives the sermon about the Founder, but tells the story in an empty way and doesnít seem to get all the important stuff behind the Founderís views on life. Barbee tells Bledsoe he thinks heís cool and how much heís like the Founder. Um, not quite.
  • Then it turns out that Barbee is blind. Really blind not symbolically blind. But this does make you go back and question Barbeeís view of Bledsoe.
  • At this point, the IM doesnít see (like, he is also blind!) how wrong the sermon is.
  • In Bledsoeís office, the IM is dissed again because he hasnít learned to lie to white people. Bledsoe really hates whites and just messes with the truth and with them to get whatever he wants.
  • Even though he told Norton he wouldnít, Bledsoe expels the IM. The IM is totally unhappy about this but Bledsoe says heíll get a bunch of letters of recommendation together and give them to the IM to take to NYC.
  • The IM is only just getting a clue that his life might be sucking hard core, but is blind enough to think the letters will help him.
  • Bledsoe writes letters to powerful guys in NYC. The IM goes to get the letters and notices that Norton didnít write a letter for him.

CHAPTERS 7 Ė 15

  • On the bus, the IM meets the Vet. The Vet has forceful words but isnít a violent guy. The Vet says New York is a dream and that it will be good for the IM. The Vet talks about freedom and how you have to go for it and tells the IM to get his head out of his ass. Thereís always struggle in the world.
  • In Harlem, the IM stays at the Menís House. He thinks about opening the letters, but trusts Bledsoe, so he doesnít.
  • The IM leaves the letters with all the trustees (except Mr. Emerson, whoís not in the city) in the hopes of getting a job.
  • He writes to Emerson and says he has a message from Bledsoe.
  • After he dreams about his grandfather, the IM gets depressed. He wants a job.
  • The IM goes outside Ė itís a beautiful day. At a diner, the IM doesnít get any grits or southern food. He feels good about this, like it symbolizes a change for him.
  • At Emersonís office, Mr. Emerson, Jr., his son, wants to know what the IM thinks about going to another college to finish up. He hints that the letter might have been bad. Emerson wants to get rid of all the bullshit, so he tells the IM just to be honest. Emerson, Jr. flirts a tiny bit and then backs off.
  • Emerson, Jr. says that Mr. Emerson wonít see the IM because of the sucky letter. He shows the letter to the IM.
  • The letter instructs everyone to forget about the IM.
  • Mr. Emerson, Jr. says he knows of a job at Liberty Paints but the IM is already out the door.
  • That night, the IM calls about the job and gets it.
  • He wants revenge.
  • The paint factory is on Long Island. All different types of people work there Ė itís set up to look like the outside society, with the higher-up dudes and the lower workers, some in unions, some against unions.
  • The paint at the factory is really strong. It will "cover" anything. Yeah, thereís that symbolism again.
  • The IM messes up some of the paint mixture and everyoneís pissed. They think he did it on purpose.
  • The IM works underground, in a hole, for a total dick, Brockway. Brockway is black, but doesnít give damn about protecting blacks. He knows the secret of keeping white paint really white.
  • The IM feels like heís treated badly.
  • After an accident at the factory, the IM feels weird in the hospital, itís all very white and cold.
  • At this point, the invisible man has shock treatment Ė it makes him "dance like a doll."
  • The doctors donít see the IM as a man, just a patient with little identity.
  • When the IM is asked for his name or who he is, he doesnít know what to say.
  • On the way back to Harlem, the IM faints. He is nursed by Mary Rambo. Mary Rambo is a big time mother figure helps people and wants them to be able to look after themselves.
  • When he sees a random Minster who looks like Bledsoe, the IM dumps a bunch of used chewing tobacco water on him.
  • Things are changing for the IM.
  • The IM buys a potato from a street vendor, eats it, and realizes itís okay to be black and eat certain foods and not worry about how you appear in a white society. Like when he wouldnít eat grits, he now realizes itís okay to be who you are.
  • Then he thinks about what a turd Bledsoe is.
  • After his self-discovery, the IM finds a black couple who are being thrown out of their home. He wants to help them. It turns out they were slaves. Both of these issues anger the IM.
  • Feeling like if he doesnít say something, heíll fall into a hole, the IM makes a speech.
  • After the passionate speech, the IM is confronted by Brother Jack, a one-eyed member of the Brotherhood, who wants the IM to use his speech powers for groups, not individuals like the old couple, since the Brotherhood believes that individuals donít exist.
  • The IM feels guilty about paying Mary back and feels crappy about being poor, so he goes to brother Jack to ask for a job.
  • At a Brotherhood party, there is a clash between the peace they talk about wanting and the violence that lurks underneath.
  • The Brotherhood wants business and pleasure to be one Ė they think this will happen by making work fun. Though they have a lot of ideas, and the ideas are nice and peaceful, they ignore the individual.
  • The Brotherhood makes the IM the main guy Ė they treat him like a big time hero but not for who he is, just what they want him to represent. This role gives the IM a new name.
  • The IM has to turn away from Mary, who is all about being your own person, so he doesnít deal.
  • Now that heís all different, the IM resents some the stuff Mary talked about, like the small ideas, the day to day stuff rather than the big ideas the Brotherhood talks about.
  • The IM leaves Mary. He puts the pieces of her broken clock (it was in the shape of a black man with big lips) in the briefcase he won from the white dudes at the beginning.
  • The rally for the evicted couple is rowdy. The IM is written up as an "unknown rabble-rouser", a trouble-maker, but again, one with no identity.

CHAPTERS 16 Ė 24

  • The IM is nervous before his Brotherhood speech. He feels like when he talks heís going to be someone else. The speech doesnít go too well since the IM talks about the individual rather than the group.
  • Thereís a guy with syphilis (a sexually transmitted disease) who lives near a big black ditch where a stadium used to be. Both of these things are symbols and bummers.
  • People have good and bad in them Ė and some of the bad stuff is good, like not evil, just sort-of questioning and kinda downer-producing.
  • The IM doesnít follow all of the Brotherhood rules.
  • The IM first started working for the Brotherhood for the money, but he also likes the place it gives him, even though he doesnít really fit in.
  • The Brotherhood makes the IM feel powerful.
  • The IM meets Tod Clifton, who is a cool dude.
  • The IM thinks that blacks need to find their place in society and can be helped by whites. Ras, the Exhorter, hates whites and is a violent guy. He canít tell where the IM is from by his accent, which says again how lost the IM has become.
  • The IM is good at being a leader. Since he does a good job, he never takes the time to think about why heís doing it.
  • The IM gets a letter that the best way to be in the white manís world is to be nothing. The letter is unsigned, but turns out to be from Brother Jack.
  • The letter goes against what IM feels is the correct way to live.
  • Brother Tarp makes the IM think about his grandfather.
  • The letter brings about an interview for a magazine. This makes people think that the IM is using the Brotherhood to get power.
  • Brother Tarp thinks the IM is cool. They are both on the run from stuff. The IM gets a piece of chain from Brother Tarpís old leg chain.
  • The IM thinks that the Brotherhood gives freedom.
  • Brother Wrestrum isnít into the idea of people as individuals. He wants the brothers to all wear some sort of symbol. The IM doesnít agree.
  • Wrestrum is jealous of the IMís attention.
  • When the Brotherhood turns against the IM, they listen to Wrestrum, who acts the way the Brotherhood wants him to.
  • The IM is on his own again.
  • There are problems between black and white men and women. Smart women try to deny themselves the same way black men go to the sexual extreme.
  • A woman wants the same freedom her husband has, so she goes for the IM. The husband could give a shit when he finds them in bed, so her plan didnít really work.
  • The IM feels sort of bad about the sex stuff, but the womanís okay with it.
  • Even though the IM had spoken about free ideas in the Brotherhood, he canít deal with the sex/duty issue in reality.
  • The IM is psyched to have a white woman want him but she uses him to feel superior.
  • Tod Clifton leaves the Brotherhood. He sells degrading black dolls on the street. He dies.
  • The IM feels that that the Brotherhood was wrong about life being all planned out. He thinks maybe itís more like the Vet said, more based on chances and luck.
  • The IM starts to "wake up" and see stuff.
  • He organizes Todís funeral, which isnít done in the Brotherhood.
  • At the funeral, a policeman is annoying Ė he uses the word "nigger" and tries to rhyme with "trigger." This makes the IM pissed.
  • When the IM says he wants his individuality, Brother Jackís glass eye pops out. Gross!
  • The IM defends Tod Clifton by saying it didnít matter that he sold offensive dolls, but that he was shot.
  • The IM knows that the Brotherhood means being blind to issues and individuality.
  • The IM canít deal with the brotherhood but thinks his life will suck without it.
  • When the IM wears a hat and glasses to be unnoticed, he is mistaken for Rinehart. This protects him from Ras the Exhorter but Rinehart is a dick who has no character, many disguises, and no identity.
  • The IM uses Rinehartís identity. This does not help in the IMís search for himself.
  • The IM explores Harlem and its identity. He sees the Brotherhood as separate from the Harlem culture.
  • The IM knows he uses the Brotherhood the way they used him.
  • The IM becomes a spy Ė since he was accused of this anyway, it makes sense to the IM.
  • Sybil, the wife of one of the white big guys in the Brotherhood, wants the IM do really humiliating sexual stuff, since she thinks heís a big, black stud. He tries to use her for info and doesnít do what she wants.
  • The whole Sybil deal makes the IM really feel invisible.
  • No one recognizes the IM for who he is, they just make him into something heís not.
  • The IM runs into the dark night.

CHAPTER 25 Ė Conclusion

  • As he walks in the dark city, the IM is caught in a riot/shoot-out. He is injured.
  • People are looting, some big lady drinks beer.
  • It turns out that the brotherhood is responsible for the riot, so the IM feels like itís his fault.
  • The IM gets away from Ras, who wants to kill him to give the Brotherhood some fuel.
  • Through all the action, the IM holds onto his briefcase.
  • So, the IM is really invisible. He goes into his cave, a basement, and burns all the stuff from his past to see the way down into the hole. He finds out that Brother Jack wrote the anonymous letter.
  • He knows he canít go back to his past.
  • At the very end, the IM says he might be coming out of his hole, ending his hibernation.
  • The IM fears that he tells more than just his own story, but everyoneís.

THINGS TO MAKE YOU LOOK SMART

  • This novel is full of symbolism.
  • The slogan for the paint company is symbolic, "If itís Optic White, itís the Right White." And how ironic (really ironic, not Alanis ironic Ė she might want to check out Schoolbytes in the future) is it that a black dude knows the secret to keeping the paint really white.
  • When Bledsoe betrays the IM with the letters, Norton is not among the recipients. This could mean that even though Norton might have been unrealistic with his outlooks on black life, he would have sided with the IM. Or it could reinforce Nortonís own blindness Ė he might not have been able to deal with a black man betraying another black man.
  • Mary is a motherly figure, she also has a religious name. Coincidence?
  • Brother Jack has one eye Ė think of the expression an eye for an eye.
  • The dolls that Tod Clifton sells move like the IM did when he was having shock treatment.
  • Ellison uses his language to get across the importance of identity and knowing oneself. Consider the hospital, where the IM is asked his name Ė he doesnít know who he is.
  • The way that Ellison writes in vague terms is significant. Any confusion on the part of the reader highlights the alienation of the IM.
  • Many characters in this novel have names which suggest a greater role Ė Mary Rambo sounds like "Sambo," an insulting name for a black person who tries to please whites, the Ďbrothers" arenít very brotherly, Brockway suggests a chicken, Bledsoe implies blood, etc.
  • Maryís bank, the black-faced one, says "feed me," Ė and it winds up broken. The IM looks at the pieces of it at the end as he looks at the pieces of his own life. Perhaps this represents the broken parts of the IMís life, or the black manís life in general.
  • The whole idea of being invisible creates an interesting situation in regards to society Ė how can we be ignored and yet still make a difference?
  • The novel spends much time addressing the issue of "blindness" as well as "invisibility."
  • The Invisible Man is about one manís personal journey to find himself, but speaks to the human need to be understood, appreciated, heard, and seen.