Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man Summary and Analysis

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  • 0:07 Invisible Man
  • 0:48 Underground Narrator
  • 1:50 Plot Overview
  • 4:52 Major Theme
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeff Calareso

Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.

If people only see you as a part of a race, and not as an individual, are you still a person? In this lesson, we'll analyze Ralph Ellison's important and critically acclaimed novel, 'Invisible Man.'

Invisible Man

Invisible Man is Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel about race in America.

Ellison was the grandson of slaves. He attended the Tuskegee Institute, which was founded by Booker T. Washington. He both studied and played jazz, which informed the improvisational style of Invisible Man. He then moved to Harlem, where he befriended people like Langston Hughes and Richard Wright.

The novel won the National Book Award in 1953 and is regarded as one of the greatest American novels of all time. Amazingly, this was Ellison's first and only novel published during his life. One more novel, Juneteenth, was published after his death.

The Underground Narrator

The story is told by an unnamed African American narrator. This is the title's invisible man. He says:

  • 'I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan 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.'

Why don't people see him? Because of their prejudices and racism. It's fitting, then, that we never learn his name.

The story is a Bildungsroman, which means it tells about his formative years. As a symbol of his invisibility, he's writing his story while living underground. He lives in a shut-off part of the basement of a whites-only building in New York. Though he's underground, his space is illuminated by 1,369 lights, which he says makes it perhaps the brightest place in the city.

Plot Overview

Let me start by noting that this novel's breadth is significant. This brief plot overview touches on the key points.

In the late 1920s or early '30s, the narrator is a young man in the South. He's a gifted orator, which leads to him speaking before a group of his community's leading white men. Yet he ends up being forced into a battle royal with other young black men, where they're all blindfolded and told to viciously fight. They're then humiliated when the men place money on the ground and they must lunge across an electrified rug for it.

Later, the narrator is at college. He's employed as a driver for Mr. Norton, a white trustee. Norton is superficially supportive, but truly condescending. At Norton's request, the narrator drives Norton through the most downtrodden black areas of the town, including a visit to Jim Trueblood. He's a poor, uneducated local black man who impregnated his own daughter. Norton never sees the narrator as an actual person - it's one of the many instances of the narrator being 'invisible.'

After his misadventures with Norton, the narrator is chastised by Dr. Bledsoe, the college president. Bledsoe, it turns out, has risen to power by manipulating white people's understanding of him. He's played a role that serves his purposes, rather than being true to himself.

After college, the narrator ends up in Harlem working at Liberty Paints. Here, they manufacture white paint by adding a black substance to it. They say: 'Our white is so white you can paint a chunka coal and you'd have to crack it open with a sledgehammer to prove it wasn't white clear through.'

If your symbolism warning lights are going nuts right now, they should be. People want to cover up anything non-white with white paint that's dependent on black ingredients and black workers.

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