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Literature / Invisible Man

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"Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"

"My God, boy! You're black and living in the South—did you forget how to lie?"
Dr. Bledsoe

The first and only completed novel by the American critic and reviewer Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man was published in 1952 and has remained very popular ever since, especially among English teachers and students of African American literature.

The plot revolves around a young, unnamed black man who is determined to rise to a position of influence, but is ignorant of the amount of lying and scheming that will take. As he bounces from one situation to another in search of power, he both hears the words and sees the actions of the various people and groups who are manipulating the racial divide.

Considered to be one of the most important American novels, not only of its time but of all time, it has been heralded for its portrayal of the horrific atrocities of racism and the rampant repression of African-American culture, in both the post-Reconstruction South and in New York City. It has also been noted for its extensive use of symbolism.

In 2017 Hulu acquired the rights to make a TV series adaptation.

Not to be confused with The Invisible Man, the Science Fiction novel by H. G. Wells, much to the disappointment of many a high school student.


  • The All-Concealing "I": We never do get the protagonist's name. All he does use is "I".
  • Bar Brawl: The battle royal, where the black protagonist must fight for the amusement of prominent white members of society, is a definite qualifier. The Golden Day degenerates into one as the mental patients overpower the orderly assigned to keep them under control.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Dr. Bledsoe. Outwardly, he's a humble administrator promoting Black American advancement. In reality, he is a self-serving jerk whose humbleness masks a desire for power.
  • Blackface-Style Caricature: While renting a room from Mary Rambo, the narrator finds a coin bank shaped like a Golliwog-style statue of a caricatured black person, with huge red lips and a wide open mouth. The bank isn't commented on directly but likely symbolizes her assimilationist nature and internalized racism.
  • Bling of War: After becoming the Destroyer, Ras dons the garb of an African tribal chief, complete with headdress, leopard-print clothing, and numerous rings and bracelets.
  • Body Motifs: The eyes are referred to often.
  • Broken Aesop: Intentionally; Ellison thought there was something deeply wrong in society, but had no idea what to do to fix it. He interrogates Washingtonian self-help, Communism, and black nationalism, but they all come up short for one reason or another.
  • Character Filibuster: The main character leads political rallies, so this is kind of a given.
  • The Chessmaster: Both Bledsoe and Brother Jack qualify. Each is also a Villain with Good Publicity.
  • Clingy MacGuffin: The Sambo doll-shaped cast-iron bank.
  • Covered in Gunge: The narrator inflicts this on a man he sees from behind and mistakes for Bledsoe, dumping a full spittoon over his head. The victim turns out to be a prominent religious leader, and the incident gets the narrator permanently banned from the rooming house where he has been staying.
  • The Cuckoolander Was Right: The doctor in the asylum may be insane, but his rant to Mr. Norton about how he represses black culture and doesn't actually care that much about the students of the school is completely correct.
  • Dark Messiah: Ras the Exhorter, later known as Ras the Destroyer, is almost a deconstruction of this—he thinks he's a grand leader, but he's really just a fat, absurd fellow whom the Powers That Be have no trouble manipulating.
  • The Ditz: Trueblood is duller than a sack of hammers, which is the only explanation possible for accidentally raping your daughter (then recount the story in all of its gory details to a complete stranger). The narrator is this to a lesser extent, but is more naive than ditzy.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Anything and everything that appears in the novel is a metaphor, from the recipe for the paint the main character helps to make, to the Sambo dolls he attempts to destroy. At times, it gets more than a little Anvilicious.
  • Driven to Madness: By the end/beginning, the protagonist is siphoning electricity just so that he can turn on a bunch of scavenged lights to feel good, and taking full advantage of his "invisibility."
  • Dumbass No More: The end/beginning. Downplayed in that the narrator was never exactly stupid, just completely clueless about himself and society at large.
  • Elephant in the Living Room: The racial divide. Very much Truth in Television for the 1940s.
  • Evil All Along: Practically everyone the narrator interacts with, but most notably Dr. Bledsoe and Brother Jack.
  • Flat "What": The main character's mental response to Todd Cliffton's Sambo dolls.
  • Gainax Ending: In the final scene of the final numbered chapter of the novel, after witnessing a horrific scene of a race riot virtually reducing his native Harlem to a hellscape with roving gangs of looters, riot police, and a very insane Ras the Destroyer, the protagonist slips into a dream state in which he sees the other characters who most notably influenced him throughout the novel castrating him, which he treats as a form of spiritual enlightenment. Nowhere else in the text does anything this out there ever happen.
  • The Ghost: Mr. Emerson, the only person Dr. Bledsoe sent a letter to whose offices the narrator goes to. He remains a reminder that society has cast him aside and doesn't care about him despite the fact that he never even met him.
  • Groin Attack: Near the end of the book, the narrator has a dream where Dr. Bledsoe, Brother Jack, Mr. Emerson, Mr. Norton, Ras, and the Founder castrate him.
  • How We Got Here: Everything up until the interrogation scene is the main character reflecting on his life so far.
  • I Am What I Am: The protagonist has come to accept that he is "invisible" — not literally so, but that mainstream society ignores him for being a minority, and that the nasty, bizarre events that plagued his life have shaped him.
  • Invisible Jerkass: The protagonist considers himself this. Not literally invisible, but socially invisible and thus able to evade the police after assaulting a man. He lampshades it a little, by predicting that the reader will want to grab him and angrily shout at him.
  • Jade-Colored Glasses: The main character winds up with them by the end. In fact, he buys them. Bledsoe seems to have always had them.
  • Lady in Red: Sybil, who is almost certainly playing this up to seduce the narrator.
  • Love Freak: The main character fluctuates between this and messiah, but is ultimately more the former than the latter. Also something of a Pollyanna and a Horrible Judge of Character, and has elements of The Fool, but he's more of a Butt-Monkey than that makes him sound. We might as well call him an Idiot Hero, too. Need it be stated that he's a Wide-Eyed Idealist?
  • Malcolm Xerox: Ras the Exhorter - although this is before Malcolm X came to prominence, so more like Marcus Garvey Xerox.
  • No Name Given: If a complex character is introduced before their personality is fully explained, they're often not given a full name until we learn their true nature. Some characters go without a name throughout (most notably the narrator, who doesn't quite understand himself.) This is also used with such characters as the Founder to show that No Celebrities Were Harmed.
  • "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization: The main character comes across a man who had sex with his daughter by accident (he was sleepwalking/dreaming). When he came out of the dream and realized what was happening, his daughter refused to let him stop.
  • One-Book Author: While other books were published, they all were posthumous.
  • Parental Incest: The main character runs across a man who got his wife and daughter pregnant at the same time. This leads him to disaster.
  • Powder Keg Crowd: One of the main character's few skills is to manipulate these. Ras can do so, too.
  • Scary Black Man: Supercargo is a gigantic black attendant assigned to keep the mental patients under control when they visit the Golden Day. He does it with help from his sheer size, his starched white uniform, and a straitjacket he carries with him. Subverted when he shows up drunk and dressed only in his underwear; the patients quickly overwhelm him and beat him unconscious.
  • Seemingly-Wholesome '50s Girl: Sybil is a funny case in that she would qualify as The Ingenue if it weren't for her rape fantasies. (As the victim, mind you, not the rapist—she's utterly smothered by her life, and wants something wild.)
  • Self-Made Man: Bledsoe is one — or at least pretends to be one, given how much he lies and schemes — while the title character tries to become one.
  • Stepford Smiler: There are so many black characters to whom this applies, and an awful lot of the Brotherhood fits it too.
  • Straw Hypocrite: The Brotherhood is this in spades. Even the lower-ranking officials don't realize just how much the organization focuses on gaining power, and how little its highest-ranking members really care about helping the poor and downtrodden.
  • Take That!: Just about every character and organization in the book is a bitingly satirical echo of some feature of Ellison's real life experiences.
    • The university's mythical Founder is a double-whammy, a send up of Horatio Alger's optimistic "self-made-man" stories and of Booker T. Washington. Dr. Bledsoe is this to a lesser extent, but reflects a more general swipe at the administrators of Black colleges, particularly the Tuskegee Institute — founded by Washington — which Ellison attended.
    • The Brotherhood is a very unflattering reference to the American Communist Party, particularly their decision to abandon the struggle for race equality in favor of getting America into World War II — a decision which, not coincidentally, occurred when the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany — which disillusioned most of its Black membership, including Ellison himself.
    • Ras the Exhorter/Destroyer is one for Black Nationalists in general, but his West Indian origins and hatred of the Brotherhood are probably indicative of Marcus Garvey.
  • The Unreveal: It appears at many points that the narrator's name is about to be revealed, only for it to bait-and-switch at the last second (such as "He said my name", "I told him my name", or "Written on the card was a name").
  • Unwitting Pawn: The narrator. He is used by the Brotherhood to drum up business with more blacks without actually accomplishing anything. Dr. Bledsoe uses him to make the school look good.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Sybil, a very, very strange white socialite who is obsessed with being raped by a black man.
  • Uncle Tomfoolery: Trueblood is literally paid (in the form of gifts) for being a walking, talking stereotype.
  • Who Would Be Stupid Enough?: How Bledsoe feels about the main character and his general refusal to soft-shoe for white people. Obviously, given the context, this is meant to be ironic; the "stupidity" that Bledsoe condemns is authenticity.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: Any and every time the main character thinks he's finally found a decent life for himself.