|Country United States|
Publication date 1952
Originally published 1952
Publisher Random House
|Media type Print (hardcover and paperback)|
Pages 581 pp (second edition)
Characters Tod Clifton, Ras the Exhorter, Brother Jack, Invisible Man, Rinehart
Genres Bildungsroman, African-American literature, Social commentary
Awards National Book Award for Fiction, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award
Similar Ralph Ellison books, Novels, African Americans books
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Invisible Man is a novel by Ralph Ellison about an African American man whose color renders him invisible, published by Random House in 1952. It addresses many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-Americans early in the twentieth century, including black nationalism, the relationship between black identity and Marxism, and the reformist racial policies of Booker T. Washington, as well as issues of individuality and personal identity.
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- Plot summary
Invisible Man won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1953. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Invisible Man nineteenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005, calling it "the quintessential American picaresque of the 20th century," rather than a "race novel, or even a bildungsroman." Malcolm Bradbury and Richard Ruland recognize an existential vision with a "Kafka-like absurdity". According to The New York Times, U.S. president Barack Obama modeled his memoir Dreams from My Father on Ellison's novel.
Invisible man thug notes summary and analysis
Ellison says in his introduction to the 30th Anniversary Edition that he started to write what would eventually become Invisible Man in a barn in Waitsfield, Vermont in the summer of 1945 while on sick leave from the Merchant Marine. The letters he wrote to fellow novelist Richard Wright as he started working on the novel provide evidence for its political context: the disillusion with the Communist Party that he and Wright shared. In a letter to Wright August 18, 1945, Ellison poured out his anger toward party leaders for betraying African American and Marxist class politics during the war years. "If they want to play ball with the bourgeoisie they needn't think they can get away with it.... Maybe we can't smash the atom, but we can, with a few well chosen, well written words, smash all that crummy filth to hell." In the wake of this disillusion, Ellison began writing Invisible Man, a novel that was, in part, his response to the party's betrayal.
The book took five years to complete with one year off for what Ellison termed an "ill-conceived short novel." Invisible Man was published as a whole in 1952. Ellison had published a section of the book in 1947, the famous "Battle Royal" scene, which had been shown to Cyril Connolly, the editor of Horizon magazine by Frank Taylor, one of Ellison's early supporters.
In his speech accepting the 1953 National Book Award, Ellison said that he considered the novel's chief significance to be its experimental attitude. Rejecting the idea of social protest—as Ellison would later put it—he did not want to write another protest novel, and also seeing the highly regarded styles of Naturalism and Realism too limiting to speak to the broader issues of race and America, Ellison created an open style, one that did not restrict his ideas to a movement but was more free-flowing in its delivery. What Ellison finally settled on was a style based heavily upon modern symbolism. It was the kind of symbolism that Ellison first encountered in the poem, The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. Ellison had read this poem as a freshman at the Tuskegee Institute and was immediately impressed by The Waste Land's ability to merge his two greatest passions, that of music and literature, for it was in The Waste Land that he first saw jazz set to words. When asked later what he had learned from the poem, Ellison responded: imagery, and also improvisation—techniques he had only before seen in jazz.
Ellison always believed that he would be a musician first and a writer second, and yet even so he had acknowledged that writing provided him a "growing satisfaction." It was a "covert process," according to Ellison: "a refusal of his right hand to let his left hand know what it was doing."
Invisible Man is narrated in the first person by the protagonist, an unnamed African American man who considers himself socially invisible. Ellison conceived his narrator as a spokesman for African Americans of the time:So my task was one of revealing the human universals hidden within the plight of one who was both black and American...
Ellison struggled to find a style appropriate to his vision. Wanting to avoid writing "nothing more than another novel of racial protest," he settled on a narrator "who had been forged in the underground of American experience and yet managed to emerge less angry than ironic." To this end, he modeled his narrator after the nameless narrator of Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, which similarly applies irony and paradox toward far-reaching social criticism.
Ellison biographer Arnold Rampersad, however, feels that the character of the narrator "resembles no one else in previous fiction so much as he resembles Ishmael of Moby-Dick." Ellison signals his debt in the prologue to the novel, where the narrator remembers a moment of truth under the influence of marijuana and evokes a church service: "Brothers and sisters, my text this morning is the 'Blackness of Blackness.' And the congregation answers: 'That blackness is most black, brother, most black...'" In this scene Ellison "reprises a moment in the second chapter of Moby-Dick", where Ishmael wanders around New Bedford looking for a place to spend the night and enters a black church: "It was a negro church; and the preacher's text was about the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there." According to Rampersad, it was Melville who "empowered Ellison to insist on a place in the American literary tradition" by his example of "representing the complexity of race and racism so acutely and generously" in Moby-Dick.
The story is told from the narrator's present, looking back into his past. Thus, the narrator has hindsight in how his story is told, as he is already aware of the outcome.
In the Prologue, Ellison's narrator tells the audience, "I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century." In this secret place, the narrator creates surroundings that are symbolically illuminated with 1,369 lights from the electric company Monopolated Light & Power. He says, "My hole is warm and full of light. Yes, full of light. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway." The protagonist explains that light is an intellectual necessity for him since "the truth is the light and light is the truth." From this underground perspective the narrator attempts to make sense out of his life and experiences and his status in American society.
The narrator, an unnamed black man, begins by describing his living conditions: an underground room wired with hundreds of electric lights, operated by power stolen from the city's electric grid. He reflects on the various ways in which he has experienced social invisibility during his life and begins to tell his story, returning to his teenage years.
The narrator lives in a small Southern town and, upon graduating from high school, wins a scholarship to an all-black college. However, in order to receive it, he must first take part in a brutal, humiliating battle royal for the entertainment of the town's rich white dignitaries.
One afternoon during his junior year at the college, the narrator chauffeurs Mr. Norton, a visiting rich white trustee, out among the old slave-quarters beyond the campus. By chance, he stops at the cabin of Jim Trueblood, who has caused a scandal by impregnating both his wife and his daughter in his sleep. Trueblood's account horrifies Mr. Norton so badly that he asks the narrator to find him a drink. The narrator drives him to a bar filled with patients from a nearby mental hospital, who rail against both of them and eventually overwhelm the orderly stationed there to keep the patients under control. The narrator hurries Mr. Norton away from the chaotic scene and back to campus.
Dr. Bledsoe, the college president, excoriates the narrator for showing Mr. Norton the underside of black life beyond the campus and expels him. However, Bledsoe gives several letters of recommendation to the narrator, to be delivered to friends of the college in order to assist him in finding a job so that he may eventually re-enroll. The narrator travels to New York and distributes his letters, with no success; the son of one recipient shows him the letter, which reveals Bledsoe's intent to never admit the narrator as a student again.
Acting on the son's suggestion, the narrator seeks work at a paint factory renowned for its pure white paint. He is assigned first to a testing lab, then to the boiler room, whose chief attendant, Lucius Brockway, is highly paranoid and suspects that the narrator is trying to take his job. This distrust worsens after the narrator stumbles into a union meeting, and Brockway attacks the narrator and tricks him into setting off an explosion in the boiler room. The narrator is hospitalized and subjected to shock treatment, overhearing the doctors' discussion of him as a possible mental patient.
After leaving the hospital, the narrator faints on the streets of Harlem and is taken in by Mary Rambo, a kindly old-fashioned woman who reminds him of his relatives in the South. He later happens across the eviction of an elderly black couple and makes an impassioned speech that incites the crowd to attack the law enforcement officials in charge of the proceedings. The narrator escapes over the rooftops and is confronted by Brother Jack, the leader of a group known as "the Brotherhood" that professes its commitment to bettering conditions in Harlem and the rest of the world. At Jack's urging, the narrator agrees to join and speak at rallies to spread the word among the black community. Using his new salary, he pays Mary the back rent he owes her and moves into an apartment provided by the Brotherhood.
The rallies go smoothly at first, with the narrator receiving extensive indoctrination on the Brotherhood's ideology and methods. Soon, though, he encounters trouble from Ras the Exhorter, a fanatical black nationalist who believes that the Brotherhood is controlled by whites. Neither the narrator nor Tod Clifton, a youth leader within the Brotherhood, is particularly swayed by his words. The narrator is later called before a meeting of the Brotherhood and accused of putting his own ambitions ahead of the group. He is reassigned to another part of the city to address issues concerning women, seduced by the wife of a Brotherhood member, and eventually called back to Harlem when the Brotherhood's membership and influence begin to falter.
The narrator can find no trace of Clifton at first, but soon discovers him selling dancing Sambo dolls on the street, having become disillusioned with the Brotherhood. Clifton is shot and killed by a policeman while resisting arrest; at his funeral, the narrator delivers a rousing speech that rallies the crowd to support the Brotherhood again. At an emergency meeting, Jack and the other Brotherhood leaders criticize the narrator for his unscientific arguments and the narrator realizes that the group has no real interest in the black community's problems.
The narrator returns to Harlem, trailed by Ras's men, and buys a hat and a pair of sunglasses to elude them. As a result, he is repeatedly mistaken for a man named Rinehart, known as a lover, a hipster, a gambler, a briber, and a spiritual leader. Understanding that Rinehart has adapted to white society at the cost of his own identity, the narrator resolves to undermine the Brotherhood by feeding them dishonest information concerning the Harlem membership and situation. After seducing the wife of one member in a fruitless attempt to learn their new activities, he discovers that riots have broken out in Harlem due to widespread unrest. He realizes that the Brotherhood has been counting on such an event in order to further their own aims. The narrator gets mixed up with a gang of looters, who burn down a tenement building, and wanders away from them to find Ras, now on horseback, armed with a spear and shield, and calling himself "the Destroyer." Ras shouts for the crowd to lynch the narrator, but the narrator attacks him with the spear and escapes into an underground coal bin. Two white men seal him in, leaving him alone to ponder the racism he has experienced in his life.
The epilogue returns to the present, with the narrator stating that he is ready to return to the world because he has spent enough time hiding from it. He explains that he has told his story in order to help people see past his own invisibility, and also to provide a voice for people with a similar plight: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"
Critic Orville Prescott of The New York Times called the novel "the most impressive work of fiction by an American Negro which I have ever read," and felt it marked "the appearance of a richly talented writer." Novelist Saul Bellow in his review found it "a book of the very first order, a superb book...it is tragi-comic, poetic, the tone of the very strongest sort of creative intelligence" George Mayberry of The New Republic said Ellison "is a master at catching the shape, flavor and sound of the common vagaries of human character and experience." In The Paris Review, literary critic Harold Bloom referred to Invisible Man, along with Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, as "the only full scale works of fiction I have read by American blacks in this century that have survival possibilities at all."