by Ralph Ellison
Invisible Man Prologue Summary
- We start with "I am an invisible man."
- Instead of introducing himself, the narrator introduces his invisibility. He explains that he is invisible only because others refuse to see him. (Does this mean he is visible to himself? Hmm.)
- The narrator describes how he almost killed a man one day after the guy hurled an insult at him. The invisible man was on the verge of slitting the offender's throat when he realized that the victim didn't even see him, but thought him to be a figment of his imagination.
- The narrator then tells us about ripping off Monopolated Light & Power by stealing electricity for his 1,369 light bulbs, which are on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. (Many learned scholars have surmised from this detail that the narrator likes light.)
- He lives in hibernation in a "warm hole" in the ground, waiting for a time to act.
- He listens to his radio-phonograph and tells us that he hopes eventually to have five radio-phonographs in total. He plays Louis Armstrong's "What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue." He respects Louis Armstrong for making art out of invisibility.
- The narrator remembers when he was given some pot and he went back to his hole to listen to some Louis Armstrong. He heard more of the nuances in the music because his sense of time was disoriented.
- He felt like he was reaching deeper levels of the music. The first level had an old woman singing a spiritual in a cave, the level under that was a white girl begging not to be bought by men, and the lowest level was a congregation of people reacting to a man's sermon.
- In an italicized section of the text, the narrator enters these hallucinations. He listens in on the congregation as people repeat thoughts about black being "bloody" and the sun being "bloody red."
- Then the narrator talks to the old woman who tells him to curse God and die. She shares her story with the narrator, claiming that she loved her slave master for being the father of her sons, but she hated him, too.
- She knew her sons were going to kill their father, so she poisoned him before they could. She says she loved him, but she loves freedom more.
- The narrator asks her what freedom is, but she cannot make up her mind. One of the woman's sons physically threatens him while ordering him not to ask his mom any more questions. The narrator thinks he hears Ras the Destroyer following behind him.
- The narrator is able to escape the music and comes out thinking how he was almost moved to act in the hallucinations. He decides not to smoke another reefer because, as an invisible man, he can stand seeing around corners, but hearing around them is something he just doesn't want to take on.
- The narrator concedes that he is irresponsible because he is invisible. But it's not entirely his fault that he's invisible—other people play a role in that, too.
- And he's ready to tell us all about how he became invisible. We suggest putting Louis Armstrong on your radio-phonograph for the rest of this plot summary.
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