The narrator prepares to tell us how he became aware of his invisibility. He remembers getting high and falling into Louis Armstrong's music.
He tells us his story. Welcome to present tense now.
After graduating from high school, the narrator is invited to give a speech to prominent town leaders. Instead, he's thrown into the battle royal, where he (along with nine other young black men) is blindfolded, thrown into a rink, and told to beat one another into a pulp. Told they're going to get paid, the white men watch and laugh as the boys electrocute themselves on the electric rug covered in fake gold coins.
Finally, the narrator is called to give his speech, to which none of the men actually listen.
The narrator is awarded a scholarship to the school for Negros. He is also given a briefcase. The narrator remembers his grandfather's words that obedience was a betrayal and has a nightmare that the scholarship is given with malicious intent.
The narrator goes off to college and is given the honor of driving around Mr. Norton, one of the school's founders, for the day. Mr. Norton has the narrator promise to tell him of his fate when he learns it.
The narrator drives off campus and takes Mr. Norton to former slave quarters, where they listen to a man named Trueblood tell them the long story about having sex with his daughter.
The narrator takes Mr. Norton to the Golden Day asylum/bar when he asks for alcohol. With the help of one of the vets in particular, the narrator gets Mr. Norton conscious again. But not before he's told off by the vet.
The narrator rushes Mr. Norton back to school and worries that his actions will get him expelled.
The narrator goes to chapel and listens to Barbee's speech on the biography of the school's Founder. Barbee praises the Founder and his achievements, moving the crowd by saying that his spirit lives on in the school.
Then, the narrator gets expelled by Dr. Bledsoe, the college president. He orders the narrator to work in Harlem for the time being and gives him seven letters of recommendation.
The narrator goes to Harlem and meets the vet from the Golden Day on the bus. The vet tells him that the world is possibility, if he can discover it for himself.
The narrator is overwhelmed by the new racial dynamic in New York. He has a quick glimpse of Ras the Exhorter.
The narrator diligently drops off his letters of recommendation, but no dice. Finally, he tries a different approach with his last letter, addressed to a man named Emerson. He goes to the man's office, only to talk with his son. Emerson Jr. tells the narrator that Bledsoe is working against him, showing him the supposed letter of recommendation that clearly says the narrator will not be allowed back at the college.
Upon Emerson's recommendation, the narrator applies for and takes a job at Liberty Paints, where he mixes black ink to make white paint and then watches gauges in the basement with a guy named Lucius Brockway. He gets in a fight with Brockway, which distracts them from watching the boilers. Something explodes and he gets beat up and knocked unconscious.
When the narrator comes to, people are experimenting on him by sending electrical currents through him and performing the noninvasive equivalent of lobotomies. He is kept in an operating cage.
The narrator is rescued by Mary Rambo and Ralston when his legs falter in the subway station. He finds comfort, encouragement, and companionship by renting a room in Mary's apartment complex.
The narrator walks out in the night to vent his heated thoughts. He buys a couple of baked yams from a street vendor and rejoices in his irreverent display of eating home food in public. He adopts a new slogan: I yam what I am.
The narrator stumbles across a street scene of an elderly black couple getting evicted from their apartment. The narrator stands up for them, making an impromptu speech in front of a crowd. Everyone rushes to help move the Provos' belongings back inside. When the police arrive, the narrator makes a run for it through the roof. He senses that someone's following him.
The stalker is a man named Brother Jack, who offers the narrator a position in the Brotherhood. Although he's opposed to the idea of joining at first, he accepts the job offer, figuring that he has got to find a way to pay Mary back for her hospitality and food.
The narrator goes to the Chthonian and schmoozes with people in the Brotherhood. When he accepts, he is given a new name and enough money to pay back Mary and buy new clothes. He is directed to a new apartment of his own and ordered not to be in contact with friends or family.
The narrator accompanies some of the brothers to make a speech in a warehouse. He feels a sense of passion go into his speech and enjoys feeling like he can move the community. He is less thrilled when the brothers criticize the speech.
The narrator goes to train with Brother Hambro for four months, during which time we don't hear anything about him. He is to learn the scientific and rational Brotherhood theories.
The narrator meets Brother Jack for a drink and learns he has been promoted to Chief Spokesman of the Harlem District. They go together to the headquarters to see the narrator's new office and to meet Brother Tarp.
At a committee meeting, the narrator meets Brother Tod Clifton. They work together to initiate street speeches, but their first one is crashed by Ras. The narrator wrestles a knife away from Ras as the black nationalist fights with Clifton.
The narrator receives an anonymous letter warning him not to move too quickly, lest people get jealous and suspicious of him.
Brother Tarp reminds the narrator of his grandfather. Brother Tarp tells the narrator a little bit about his past, including the fact that he was in a chain gang for nineteen years. He gives the narrator a piece of his broken shackle as a gift for good luck.
The busybody Brother Wrestrum talks to the narrator about some of his ideas for creating pins and such. While Wrestrum is present, the narrator reluctantly takes an interview from a magazine writer.
The Brotherhood is upset with the narrator and restricts him to work on the Woman Question downtown, if he chooses to stay with the Brotherhood.
The narrator has sex with a woman who attends his speeches and is a real fan of the Brotherhood ideology. He goes over to her place and is surprised when her husband sees them in bed together and doesn't even bat an eye.
The narrator returns to Harlem when he gets a call from Brother Jack and learns that Clifton has been missing for weeks.
The narrator finds that he has fallen out of touch with Harlem, and wonders why he wasn't invited to the Brotherhood's strategy meeting.
The narrator wanders the streets and is horrified to find Clifton on a street corner selling Sambo dolls to the passing public. He is even more horrified when he watches Clifton die right before his eyes.
The narrator is determined to do something about Clifton's shooting by the police, so he organizes and publicizes a funeral.
Jack and the rest of the committee confront the narrator, criticizing his foolishness in acting on his personal responsibility instead of the Brotherhood's wishes. In the excitement of the argument, the narrator learns that Jack has a false left eye. The narrator is instructed to learn the new program from Brother Hambro.
On the way to Brother Hambro's, the narrator is confronted by Ras the Exhorter. To protect himself, he dons sunglasses and then a hat. He is mistaken for a man named Rinehart, and enjoys the freedom of being someone else.
Brother Hambro tells the narrator that Harlem is being sacrificed in the name of bigger aims.
Infuriated, the narrator pretends to be obedient to the Brotherhood wishes but secretly decides to learn its true aims. He makes up a list of fake new members, and then decides to seduce a woman who may have access to the higher ranks of the Brotherhood. Choosing a woman named Sybil as his target, the narrator invites her over and plies her with drink, only to realize that she knows nothing about the Brotherhood and she is just as oppressed by white male patriarchy as he was.
The narrator gets a call to go to Harlem, and he eventually succeeds in getting Sybil in a cab back home.
The narrator navigates his way through Harlem, trying to stay alive amidst all the chaos and violence. He meets Dupre and Scofield and lights a tenement building on fire with them. He encounters Ras the Destroyer. When he is threatened with hanging, he takes Ras's spear and plunges it through his cheeks. Pursued by a crowd seeking to lynch him, he makes a run for it and falls into a manhole filled with coal.
The narrator shares what he has learned and decides that the time has come for him to come out of hibernation.