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As a student, Ellison aspired to be a musician, playing various instruments, and “eventually became his school bandmaster.”2 His skills with the trumpet garnered him a scholarship to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama––an all-back university founded by Booker T. Washington––where he would play trumpet in the university's orchestra.
While attending Tuskegee, Ellison became interested in literature, and in 1935 he discovered T. S. Eliot's long poem The Waste Land. Ellison worked in the university library and became interested in the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner, studying their narrative strategies and their sentence structures.
Ellison soon met fellow African American novelist Richard Wright, who was an editor at the New Challenge magazine. Wright encouraged Ellison to write book reviews and short stories for the magazine, which became the beginning of Ellison's literary career. When World War II broke out, Ellison enlisted as a cook in the Merchant Marine corps and served in the War. After returning home, he attained a grant to write a novel.
It took Ellison most of a decade to write Invisible Man, but after its publication in 1952, it received a wide readership, earned a National Book Award, and got Ellison entry into the US literary sphere. His writing proved sparse throughout the rest of his life, though he did publish a book of essays titled Shadow and Act in 1964. The rest of his life was spent teaching at various universities. His final novel––an unfinished draft of over 2,000 pages––was edited and published in 2010 with the title Three Days Before the Shooting.... A shorter version was released a decade earlier, titled Juneteenth (1999).
Published in 1952, Invisible Man became a well-known work of art and was often cited by readers throughout the 1950s and 60s as one of the greatest American novels of the century. With this novel, Ellison brought Black literature to a mainstream audience. For much of the white literary establishment, Invisible Man was the first novel about the Black experience they had read.
Invisible Man is made up of three major sections. The Prologue and Epilogue are the frame (The first and third major sections), and take place years after the events of the body of the novel. The novel's body (the second major section) is divided into 25 chapters which we have broken into four major parts: the University, Liberty Paints, the Brotherhood, and the Harlem Riots.
We have broken the novel into these four parts and named them based on the "institutions" that the narrator joins. This has been done by many novel critics to better explain and summarize the events of the novel.
The most famous part of Invisible Man is the opening Prologue, which begins with the oft-quoted line:
In his junior year, the narrator is given the task by the president of the university, Dr. Bledsoe, to chaperone one of the white trustees, named Mr. Norton, around the nearby neighborhoods of the university. Mr. Norton tells the narrator that he believes his own "destiny" is tied together with the destiny of the Black population. Emerson asks the narrator to see the log cabin of the town outcast, Jim Trueblood, and the narrator reluctantly agrees, though he knows that a conversation with Trueblood will be a disaster.
Trueblood's story of how he impregnated his own daughter leaves Mr. Norton sick. He asks the narrator to take him to get a drink of alcohol, but the only bar nearby is the Golden Day––an infamously rowdy tavern located near an insane asylum. At the Golden Day, the narrator and a group of people from the asylum tend to Mr. Norton, but while there a Black veterinarian reveals his disdain for rich, white men like Mr. Norton.
To some, you are the great white father, to others you are the lyncher of souls, but for all, you are confusion" (Chapter Three).
The narrator returns Mr. Norton to the university with a slight head injury, and the president, Dr. Bledsoe, is outraged at the narrator's decision to show Mr. Norton the community outside of the university. This results in the narrator's expulsion. Dr. Bledsoe gives the narrator eight envelopes with letters to various business owners in New York City to help him find a job, save money, and eventually return to finish his studies.
Unable to secure a job with any of the men recommended by Dr. Bledsoe, the narrator visits the company of the name on the last envelope, a Mr. Emerson. He meets with Mr. Emerson's son who reveals that Dr. Bledsoe's letters of recommendation actually tell the bosses not to hire the narrator, that he will not be re-admitted to the university in the future, and that it is in everyone's best interest for the narrator to remain unaware of these decisions. Mr. Emerson's son recommends the narrator to look for work at a plant called Liberty Paints, which is vaguely connected to the company.
The next day the narrator begins work at the plant as a paint mixer. On the main entrance of the plant is a plaque that reads "Keep America Pure with Liberty Paints" (Chapter ten), and the plant makes white paint (named "Optic White") exclusively for US government buildings. The narrator's job is to mix ten drops of a black substance into the white paint to make it a "glossy white" (Chapter ten). Because the trainer does not tell the narrator which substance to use, the narrator accidentally uses the wrong substance and ruins a batch of paint. As discipline, the narrator is removed from this job and is told to relocate to the basement and work as the assistant to the engineer, Lucius Brockway.
Brockway is an elderly Black man who solely runs the plant's machinery, and he begins teaching the narrator how to monitor the machines' pressure gauges. However, on a lunch break, the narrator runs into a group of fellow Black plant workers who have started a union and distrust the narrator because they think he is a "fink"––their word for someone hired by the company to spy on the union members.
Upon returning to Brockway and telling him about the union meeting, Brockway fires the narrator and threatens to kill him. Brockway believes that the union members are trying to take his job, and he claims they are ungrateful because the white men gave them work. After the two have a fight, Brockway allows the machines to explode, causing the narrator to be sent to the factory hospital, where he undergoes a series of electroshock treatments designed to make him passive.
After his time in the factory hospital, the narrator happens upon an eviction of an elderly Black family in Harlem, while a group of people watch. When the crowd begins to demand violence upon the eviction officials, the narrator steps up and gives a speech about how Blacks are a "law abiding people" (Chapter thirteen). He encourages the crowd to put the couple's things back in the house and asks the officials to allow the woman to pray. The crowd is roused to action, and when the police show up, the narrator escapes through a back alley. He is followed by a man named Brother Jack who asks him to join the labor group The Brotherhood as a speaker. Brother Jack says that the narrator will be "the new Booker T. Washington" (Chapter fourteen).
The narrator gives successful speeches at the Brotherhood's rallies, and Brother Jack tells the narrator that he has been appointed as the "chief spokesman for the Harlem district," taking him to a meeting with the Brotherhood's executive committee (Chapter sixteen).
The committee is cautious about making plans in Harlem because a radical Black nationalist named Ras the Exhorter considers Harlem his own territory. Ras is considered dangerous since his ideas are more aggressive than those of the Brotherhood, who are committed to non-violence. The narrator meets Tod Clifton, a member of the Brotherhood who is in charge of leading the youth. At a Brotherhood rally, Ras and members of his group show up, and a fight between the groups ensues. Ras holds Clifton at knife-point and accuses the Black members of the Brotherhood of selling out because they work with whites.
The narrator continues organizing rallies for the Brotherhood and gaining a favorable reputation in the community. He receives a letter from an editor asking for an interview, but when the committee finds out, they accuse the narrator of trying to use them to advance his own career. He gets reassigned as the group's spokesperson for Women's Rights.
The narrator is seduced by a woman in at a Women's Right rally and finds out that she is the unhappy wife of a negligent husband. When the narrator returns to a Brotherhood meeting, he finds out that the group membership has declined since they have begun to focus on national and international concerns. Tod Clifton goes missing, and the narrator finds him selling dancing Sambo dolls on the street.
In Harlem, the narrator is being followed by a group of Ras' men and acquires a disguise. He becomes mistaken for a man named Rinehart. Knowing that Rinehart has become enmeshed in white society, the narrator decides to report misleading information to the Brotherhood about the group's membership in Harlem.
Soon riots break out in Harlem and the narrator realizes that the Brotherhood has been wanting a crisis to occur for their own benefit. The narrator becomes wrapped up with a gang of violent rioters who set a building on fire. When he leaves the scene, he finds Ras riding a horse and carrying a spear and shield. Ras calls for the crowd to lynch the narrator, but the narrator responds by attacking Ras and escapes into an underground coal bunker. He gets locked inside by two white men.
The Epilogue returns to the frame tale of the Prologue, and the narrator has been considering his experiences. He plans to return from his hibernation, unsure of how to do so, but knowing that it must be done. He gives up trying to figure out what his grandfather meant by his dying words and, instead, opts to commit to the principles of freedom and love. The prologue ends with the narrator claiming that even though the reader may distrust him, the narrator could potentially be speaking for the reader (Epilogue).
Let us take a look at the characters involved in the invisible man.
The narrator is the unnamed storyteller of the novel––telling the story in first person. Though the body of the novel illustrates the narrator's quest for an identity, in the frame the narrator reveals that this quest has been a failure. Many times throughout the novel he is asked his name, and he is given different names and identities throughout the events. These identities are never disclosed to the reader, and the narrator claims this is because he has never taken control of his identity. His embracing of "invisibility" is his first and only attempt to identify himself.
Dr. Bledsoe is the president of the all-Black university. At university events, Dr. Bledsoe plays the role of a servant and spokesperson to the white investors, eats his meals alone away from the crowd, and runs the university from a small office. At first, the narrator believes Dr. Bledsoe and the founder to be a hero, but once the events with Mr. Norton become known, Dr. Bledsoe calls the narrator a fool for not knowing what to hide from white people. When expelling the narrator from the school, Dr. Bledsoe reveals his cruelty.
You're nobody, son. You don't exist––can't you see that?...I've made my place in [the world] and I'll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am." (Dr. Bledsoe, Chapter six)
Brother Jack is the white leader of the Brotherhood. He sees the narrator give his speech at the old couple's eviction, follows him, and invites him into the group. Brother Jack is a Marxist revolutionary, and talks about the movement of history, claiming to represent all of the "common people." While in Jack's presence, the narrator feels like he's a part of the movement of history.
A youth leader within the Brotherhood, Tod Clifton is well-respected by the narrator. As membership in the Brotherhood diminishes, Clifton goes missing, and eventually becomes a street peddler of Black Sambo dolls. A policeman shoots Clifton in an event that sets off the Harlem riots.
Ras the Exhorter is the leader of a revolutionary Black nationalist group. The name Ras means "prince" in the Ethiopian language, and it is pronounced in a way that sounds like the word "race." Ras embodies the violent wings of the early civil rights movements, which make many people uncomfortable. He believes not in cooperation among Blacks and whites but in violent overthrows of white power by Black radicalism. Finally, by the end of the novel, Ras has renamed himself "Ras the Destroyer" and shows up to the riots on a horse with a spear and shield.
Invisible Man is an expansive novel, both in its length and in the vast number of themes that it discusses. However, many of its themes can be explained in relation to identity and violence.
Invisible Man is famous for its exploration of identity, especially in the context of race in the US.
In the narrative frame (the Prologue and Epilogue), the narrator gives himself numerous nicknames and comparisons––Jack-the-Bear, a "tinker-thinker," an orator, a rabble-rouser––all of which refer to him but never signal his "real" identity the way a proper name would. Throughout the novel, the narrator does not give the reader a clue to his given name. Instead, the narrator is given identities by the people in the novel. When he meets Brother Jack and the Brotherhood, Jack gives the narrator an envelope with his "new identity" (Chapter fourteen). In the frame tale, the narrator finally takes the initiative to give himself an identity, and he uses his invisibility to create unity in his identity.
Invisible Man's most famous scene is the Battle Royale scene in the novel's first chapter. The Black students are blindfolded and told to fight each other for the entertainment of the rich white dignitaries. On the fighting stage, the students are humiliated by being thrown coins and shocked when they try to pick them up. Also, in the factory hospital, the narrator is subjected to the grotesque violence of electroshock treatment given without his consent.
Violence is integral to one of the story's major messages. Ellison represents the violence done to the Black US population as a major feature of the US political system in the form of systemic violence (also known as structural violence). The novel makes a caricature of these types of violence and reveals how they operate.
Systemic violence or structural violence is a type of violence that is not perpetrated by an individual. Instead, systemic and structural violence are forms of violence where social structures or public institutions harm groups and individuals by preventing the meeting their basic needs. Vehicles for this type of violence are often the police, bureaucratic obstacles (in the form of licenses and certificates which are difficult and expensive to acquire), and economic structures.
When interviewers and critics have questioned Ellison about Invisible Man's creation and significance, Ellison has been quick to remind them that his novel is a work of art.
Instead of being a "protest novel" or, as one critic called it, a "literary race riot," Ellison's main concerns are artistry, language, narrative, and the American literary tradition.
One function of serious literature is to deal with the moral core of a given society. Well, in the United States the Negro and his status have always stood for that moral concern" (Paris Review Interview)
A major early influence on Ralph Ellison was "The Waste-Lands" by T. S. Eliot, and most of Elliot's major inspirations were white authors. Therefore, Ellison has been criticized by many readers for his lackluster support of Black literature and Black politics generally. Even though Invisible Man had been a major novel of protest in the 1950s, Ellison kept a distance from the larger civil rights movements of the 1960s.
Critics have claimed that Ellison's diminished interest in Black writing resulted from a subtle "distaste for 'ordinary' blacks" (Als, "In the Territory"). Als speculates that Ellison's lack of interest in racial politics likely prevented him from finishing his second novel. Since he seemed more interested in producing work that focused on "artistic" rather than "social" questions, he was unable to develop the more profound social concerns of his unfinished work.
An outdated expression, "white is right" was a popular philosophy taught to African Americans in the Reconstruction era and the early 20th-century. Related to the concept of the "White Man's Burden," the "white is right" philosophy held that the white European tradition is the peak of human civilization, gentility, and sophistication, and the other races are childlike, brutish, and undeveloped, if not totally inferior.
The notion of the "white man's burden" comes from a poem of the same name by Rudyard Kipling in 1899. Kipling wrote his poem in support of the US's desire to annex the Philippine Islands. As a concept, the "white man's burden" assumes that European and American imperialism are essentially good for underdeveloped peoples who need to be educated and taught to be civilized by white imperialists. The "white man's burden" justified and rationalized the theft of land and the political subordination of non-white nations.
Much of the literature from the era––from the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s to the works written before the 1960s, especially those by Ellison, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright––were written in direct opposition to these more subtle ideas of white superiority.
Ellison's novel details how the various American institutions––corporations, the all-Black university and the Labor movement––operate under the assumption that "white is right," even if it is unconscious. Both Dr. Bledsoe at the university and Brockway at Liberty Paints hold the belief that whiteness is better than Blackness. Brockway himself invented the company's slogan: "If It's Optic White, It's the Right White" (Chapter ten).
1. Ralph Ellison, "The Art of Fiction: An Interview," The Paris Review, No. 8, 1955
2. Hilton Als, “In the Territory: A Look at the Life of Ralph Ellison,” The New Yorker, May 7, 2007
3. Jefferson Pinder, "Invisible Man," 2005
4. Luke D. Mahoney, “A Most Powerful Autoethnography: How Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man Retold the Story of the Black American Experience for the Cultural Mainstream,” Inquiries Journal, Vol. 7 No. 10, 2015
Invisible Man's primary message involves taking up the responsibility for one's identity; though society will force identities upon its subjects, this can and should be challenged.
Invisible Man is about the journey of an unnamed narrator through US culture and its institutions, learning how his race keeps him from being seen.
Invisible Man was written by the American author Ralph Ellison.
Invisible Man was published by Random House in 1952.
Invisible Man's plot involves the episodic journey of an unnamed narrator through US institutions after World War I. From a basement in New York City, the narrator retells the story of how he realized his invisibility after his experiences at university, the factor, a labor group, and after getting involved in the Harlem riots.
Invisible Man was the first novel by an African American to win the US National Book Award?
Invisible Man was published in which year?
The name of the labor organization that the narrator joins is _____.
Why is the narrator invisible?
People refuse to see him.
Who gets killed by a police officer near the end of the novel?
Who is the leader of the Brotherhood?
Ras' Black Nationalist group is committed to a policy of non-violence.
Who is the president of the all-black university?
A frame tale describes a story within a story.
Ralph Ellison was named after which famous American writer?
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