A mere glance at the title of Ralph Ellison’s book, Invisible Man, stimulates questions such as, “Who is this man?” and, more importantly, “Why is this man invisible?” The anonymous narrator of Ellison’s novel begins by assuring the reader that he is, in fact, a real person and is not invisible in the Hollywood sense of the term, but, rather, invisible “simply because people refuse to see” him for who he really is (3). The actions of both blacks and whites toward the anonymous narrator of the novel during his search for identity lead him to this conclusion.
The narrator begins the story of his realization of his invisibility at the end of his high school days, as an intelligent and diligent student in an unidentified southern U.S. state in the early part of the 20th century. Upon giving an excellent speech about the role humility plays in progress, prominent members of the community invite him to recite the speech once again “at a gathering of the town’s leading white citizens” (17). At the meeting, though, the high-ranked members of the community force the narrator and other black boys to participate in what the narrator terms a “battle royal,” in which they fight each other and attempt to pull fake plastic coins from an electric rug. The narrator proceeds to win the “battle royal,” and presents his speech to the wealthy men (17). Throughout the delivery of his speech, they mock and harass him, failing to see who he really is. The school’s superintendent then rewards him with a scholarship to college. Because of the great reward and the doors the reward opens up, the narrator accepts the subhuman treatment as normal. Still a weak character, he allows people to treat him poorly and shrugs off the inhumane treatment he receives because of his southern black heritage. The narrator’s poor childhood relations with the white race bring him into adulthood with preconceived notions that eventually lead to the realization of his invisibility.
The narrator continues his arguably successful path in college until a point toward the end of his junior year. While taking Mr. Norton, one of the white trustees, out for a drive in the area of the college, Mr. Norton asks the narrator to stop the car so he can talk with Jim Trueblood, the infamous black man who had gained sympathy from whites, but enmity from blacks because he got his daughter pregnant. Mr. Norton begins to feel sick from the heat of the sun, so the narrator takes him to Golden Day, a home for black veterans. Neither destination shows the best of the black race, but in stopping at Trueblood’s home, the narrator simply obeys Mr. Norton, taking him where he so desires. Then, when Mr. Norton feels sick, the narrator takes him where he can, which just so happens to be Golden Day. Though the narrator does what he deems proper, Dr. Bledsoe, president of the narrator’s college, expels the narrator because he, as president, concerns himself too greatly with his own position and possesses no concern for the people of his own race. He explains to the narrator before expelling him, “This is a power set-up, son, and I’m at the controls” (142). Dr. Bledsoe acts not on behalf of the black race or the school, but on his own behalf, to maintain his own position. Shortly thereafter, he explains, “You’re nobody, son. You don’t exist-can’t you see that?” (143). Though, in actuality, the narrator is somebody and exists, Dr. Bledsoe brings up a very good point. The white people of the nation, especially in the South, see the narrator as subhuman – to them, the narrator is a worthless piece of trash. What better representation of invisibility than subsisting on a level equivalent with the wastes of which people dispose in the garbage. Regardless of the fact that Dr. Bledsoe speaks in very blunt, straightforward terms in his conversation with the narrator, the narrator only gets upset and fails to recognize society’s perceptions of him.
After his expulsion, the narrator ends up working for Liberty Paints, a paint company in New York whose slogan proclaims, “If It’s Optic White, It’s the Right White.” Immediately after hearing the slogan the narrator recalls a slogan he heard while growing up, “If you’re white, you’re right” (218). Just the fact that the narrator recalls this slogan reveals to the reader the horrible conceptions of himself and his race the narrator learned at an early age. What will a black child think if, while growing up, the slogan, “If you’re white, you’re right” becomes embedded in his mind? It is almost impossible for him to not feel inferior, to feel that he must always obey whites because they are right. The narrator grows up in a society in which whites treat him as inferior because of his skin. He comes to accept that as reality, as what must occur and does not see any wrong in it. Back to Liberty Paints’ slogan, though – the irony exists in the fact that their Optic White paint requires a very important element the narrator describes as a “dead black” liquid (200). Likewise, in the story, blacks and whites coexist in society. They blend together, statistically speaking – a town with a population of one million can consist of equal numbers of blacks and whites – and yet appear to white society as an all-white population. The people judge one another based on race.
After an accident at the paint plant, the narrator heads to the Men’s House, where he had been staying, but the men there take one look at him in his white overalls, representative of Liberty Paints, and ban him from there for 99 years plus one day. Rather than looking at the narrator for his worth as a person, the men at the house look at his clothes and kick him out.
Each of these events, though, merely sets the stage for the larger ones in his future. Without his experiences in the South, the narrator never would have felt invisible. Likewise, without the larger events, the narrator never would have realized his invisibility and never felt the need to go underground, as fits one who is invisible. The smaller events from the narrator’s childhood and the larger events from his early adulthood combine to lead him to the conclusion that he is invisible.
Shortly after the accident at the paint factory, the narrator walks down a street where he sees a government official evicting an older black couple. The treatment of the people deeply moves the narrator to give a speech to the others watching the eviction occur. After giving the speech and leaving the scene, a man who identifies himself as Brother Jack introduces himself to the narrator. Jack, the first person who perceives the narrator for who he truly is, looks at more than the narrator’s race. He recognizes the narrator as another human, as someone concerned with the treatment of the African American race, as someone willing to speak against discrimination. At the same time, though, Jack sees the narrator as little more than a tool and cares only that he can assist his organization, the Brotherhood. He also explains to the narrator, “You made an effective speech. But you mustn’t waste your emotions on individuals, they don’t count” (291). If Jack has no regard for the elderly of whom he speaks here, the narrator should question why Jack would care about him as an individual. His failure to do so enables the Brotherhood to take advantage of him with ease.
Right from the beginning, before joining the Brotherhood, the narrator has the opportunity to see its true perspective – it does not care about the individual, but only about the group as a whole. But, after deciding to join the Brotherhood, the narrator explains, “They [people like Mary, a woman with whom the narrator boards] usually think in terms of ‘we’ while I have always tended to think in terms of ‘me’ – and that has caused some friction…Brother Jack and the others talked in terms of ‘we,’ but it was a different, bigger ‘we'” (316). Although the Brotherhood thinks in terms of “we,” which the narrator generally does not like, he sees hope in participating in the Brotherhood – he explains, “For the first time…I could glimpse the possibility of being more than a member of a race. It was no dream, the possibility existed” (355). At this point in time, the narrator fails to comprehend the fact that they will not consider him as a fellow human being, but as a tool to accomplish what they want. Just as the narrator blindly ignores the abuse in the battle royal because of the prospect of an all-expenses-paid further education, this “bigger we,” the hope, the prospect of being more than a looked-down-upon black person also blinds him to the fact that the Brotherhood controls his identity.
Upon joining the brotherhood, Brother Jack assigns a new name (also unknown to the reader), a new residence, and so forth to the narrator. The narrator explains, “The new suit imparted a newness to me. It was the clothes and the new name and the circumstances. It was a newness too subtle to put into thought, but there it was. I was becoming someone else” (335). Indeed, the narrator is becoming someone else – the man the Brotherhood wants him to be. The narrator talks about those topics on which the Brotherhood tells him to speak. In essence, the Brotherhood controls his public identity; they define who he is, as he explains when he says, “there were two of me: the old self…the self that flew without wings and plunged from great heights; and the new public self that spoke for the Brotherhood and was becoming so much more important than the other that I seemed to run a foot race against myself” (380). The narrator, at this point in the story, is no more than the Brotherhood’s puppet. When the narrator gives his first speech, even though he forgets the information contained within the Brotherhood’s literature out of nervousness, he explains that the ideas he had presented came out “as though another self within me had taken over and held forth” (353). This only begins the Brotherhood’s transformation of the narrator into the person they desire to possess.
The narrator gains popularity in the district in which he works. Even the director of Men’s House, the same man who had kicked the narrator out on account of his wearing the typical Liberty Paints outfit, deals with him respectfully because the Brotherhood has made the narrator into the person they want him to be. The narrator explains, “They [the people with which he works] believe that to call a thing by name is to make it so” (379). For this very reason, the narrator never mentions his name to the reader. Doing so would cause the reader to judge the narrator based on his name and any events or beliefs associated with that name, thus restraining the reader from looking at him for who he actually is.
The narrator’s popularity leads a magazine to interview him about his work, but Brother Wrestrum falsely accuses the narrator of calling for the reporter and setting up the interview himself. The leaders of the Brotherhood then assign the narrator to a different area of the city to discuss “the Woman Question,” so they can investigate the magazine article dilemma further. Brother Jack ignores any defense the narrator attempts to present, again demonstrating his lack of care for the narrator’s ideas, his failure to recognize who the narrator is as an individual, and his use of the narrator as an implement instead. The narrator responds to the situation, explaining to the reader, “Though still inwardly affirming that belief [in the potential of the Brotherhood], I felt a blighting hurt which prevented me from trying further to defend myself” (406). Through this statement, the narrator foreshadows a slipping away from the Brotherhood.
A while later, after returning to Harlem, the location of his original assignment, the narrator witnesses the murder of Tod Clifton, ex-member of the Brotherhood. He explains to the reader, “And it was all my fault. I’d been so fascinated by the motion [of my work] that I’d forgotten to measure what it was bringing forth. I’d been asleep, dreaming” (444). Grieving over Clifton’s death, the narrator leads a funeral march and follows by giving a funeral speech that moves the people to action. Going back to the executive committee of the Brotherhood, the narrator urges the Brotherhood to take advantage of the fact that he stirred up the people, to use that anger to accomplish their goals. Brother Jack responds saying, “The committee makes your decisions” (472). The narrator repeatedly attempts to make his voice heard, but to no avail. The committee has made up its mind and tells the narrator to go see Brother Hambro to learn about their plan. In response to his argument with the committee and to the death of Clifton, the narrator explains, “But I would never be the same. Never…I’d lost too much to be what I was…Some of me, too, had died with Tod Clifton” (478).
After the argument with the committee, the narrator goes on his way and stumbles across Ras the Exhorter, a black, anti-Brotherhood extremist who advocates violence, speaking before a group of blacks, urging action in response to the murder of Tod Clifton. Upon seeing the narrator, Ras gives him grief and the narrator responds with a short speech. The narrator quickly leaves and purchases an archetypal white hat and sunglasses, which he uses to disguise himself. A number of people approach him, calling him by the name Rine or Rinehart. This fascinates the narrator – he realizes that the people he encounters look merely at his appearance – “They see the hat, not me” (485). The narrator questions who people really are, posing the question, “If dark glasses and a white hat could blot out my identity so quickly, who actually was who?” (493). He begins to question who really knows him – who really knows who he really is as a person. Sure, many people know the man who the Brotherhood has created, but “Who from my old life had challenged me?” (499). In addition, he ponders how much he really knows about Clifton, Jack, and the other members of the Brotherhood. This realization of the fact that he can travel around an area in which people know him without recognizing him hits home in the narrator’s mind and plays a huge part in his realization of who he really is.
The narrator goes to talk to Brother Hambro, excited about his new discovery. Hambro explains the necessity of sacrifice and, in this case, the fact that they must sacrifice the people with whom the narrator works. Just as Rinehart can have so many faces and yet be the same person inside, what “if they’re [the people with whom the narrator works] as willing to be duped by the Brotherhood as by Rinehart?” the narrator questions himself (502).
The narrator leaves Hambro’s place, sits down, and suddenly has “an idea that shook me profoundly” (506). This idea acts as another piece of the puzzle the narrator is slowly piecing together in his mind. The narrator reasons that he need not worry about the people since, if they can tolerate someone like multi-faced Rinehart, they will forget what he himself says and he will remain invisible to the people.
The narrator’s eyes continue to open and he realizes that the events that occurred in his past characterize who he is. He explains, “They were me; they defined me…and no blind men…could take that or change one single itch, taunt, laugh, cry, scare, ache, rage or pain of it” (508). He realizes that, while a member of the Brotherhood, they had used him as a tool, and that “by pretending to agree, I had indeed agreed” (553). The narrator realizes his invisibility to the world – not physically – but in the way others look at him. He now knows “who I was and where I was” (559). The narrator then decides to remain underground, explaining, “I had been as invisible to Mary as I had been to the Brotherhood” (571). “The end [of living in an ideal world] was in the beginning [of his life with the realization of his invisibility]” (571).
What advantage does the narrator have in the end over the beginning? In his high school graduation speech, the narrator focuses on social responsibility. In the end, the narrator admits, “Perhaps…I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play” (581). Though the narrator’s foci in the two parts of his life differ little, his perception of life in the end differs dramatically. He now realizes people do not and will not see him for who he is, and yet he is willing to play the part in society he feels he must play.