Invisible Man Characters: Analysis & Quotes

Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson introduces and analyzes the main characters of Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel, Invisible Man. The book is about an African American man who is rendered invisible because of the color of his skin.

Overview of the Novel

Invisible Man is African American author Ralph Ellison's only novel. It was published in 1952 and is about an African American man who is rendered invisible by the color of his skin. The book is considered one of the most important texts of the twentieth century, as Ellison presents a diverse array of characters, through which he comments about racial matters.

The Narrator

'I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.'

The narrator begins his story by claiming that he is an invisible man. He clarifies that he does not mean he is literally invisible, like a ghost or spirit. He is invisible in the sense that the dominant white society does not acknowledge his personhood.

The passage is significant because it expresses the sense of disenfranchisement that African Americans experienced in the 1950s, when the novel was written. This passage is also significant because it foreshadows the narrator's hiding. As he tells his story, the narrator is hiding underground syphoning power from an electric company. He has isolated himself from the world in order to reflect on his life as an outcast of society.

Brother Jack

'Our job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them!'

Brother Jack, a white man, speaks these words in Chapter 21 about blacks. As the quote suggests, this character does not really care about what Africans Americans want. He is the leader of the Brotherhood, a political organization that claims to defend minority rights.

Brother Jack initially seems kind and caring, but his racist nature is eventually exposed. Brother Jack is incapable of seeing African Americans as human beings. His glass eye symbolizes his blindness, and his red hair symbolizes his communist sympathies. Through this character, the narrative suggests that communism has failed to liberate African Americans.

Tod Clifton

'His name was Tod Clifton, he believed in Brotherhood, he aroused our hopes and he died.'

The narrator speaks these words about Clifton in Chapter 21. This passage explains that, while Clifton is passionate about helping the black community, he is ultimately unsuccessful. Initially, Clifton is a member of the Brotherhood and is very intelligent. He eventually leaves the Brotherhood when he begins to sense that the organization is not really working to advance the best interests of African Americans. He winds up on the streets selling Sambo dolls, which perpetuate the offensive stereotype of the lazy slave.

Ras the Exhorter

'I looked at Ras on his horse and at their handful of guns and recognized the absurdity of the whole night and of the simple yet confoundingly complex arrangement of hope and desire, fear and hate, that had brought me here still running, and knowing now who I was and where I was and knowing too that I had no longer to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine.'

In this passage, the narrator reflects on the crazed passions of a man whose conflict with the white community dramatizes the absolute absurdity of the state of relations between whites and blacks. Ras is a passionate, angry man who likes to cause conflict. Ras is associated with the Black Nationalist movement, which advocates the violent overthrow of white supremacy. This character is based off the real-life Marcus Garvey, a radical who argued for the complete destruction of white society. Ras, like Garvey, incites a lot of riots in Harlem.

Dr. Bledsoe

'The white folk tell everybody what to think--except men like me. I tell them; that's my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about.'

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