Nope: this isn't H.G. Wells' sci-fi novel. And it has nothing to do with Harry Potter's invisibility cloak, or Violet Parr from The Incredibles, or the T-1000 from Terminator. In fact, it doesn't even have any actual vanishing-into-thin-air-style invisibility.
Dead wrong. So far from the truth. While this book has nothing to do with the kind of disappearing that magician's rabbits do, it has everything to do with a much more important, insidious and ominous kind of invisibility.
Published by Ralph Ellison in 1952 to instantaneous acclaim, Invisible Man is the story of a man in New York City who, after his experiences growing up and living as a model black citizen, now lives in an underground hole and believes he is invisible to American society.
Yeah—this kind of invisibility is far more upsetting than any "Now you see them, now you don't!" slight-of-hand. Because it's real.
Invisible Man is important not only in the literature world for its improvisational jazz-inspired style, but also in the political world for adding a new voice to the discussion about black in/visibility in America. Ellison depicts several ideologies in the novel that line up with the ideologies of Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and communism.
To equate the ideologies would be a big mistake, because the characters portrayed in the novel are only caricatures of their real-life inspirations (in the same way that Homer Simpson is not an accurate representation of a middle-class father). But the novel's rejection of ideology in general is a central theme, which explains why Invisible Man was super—and we mean incredibly—controversial among influential black thinkers from the civil rights movement in the 1960s... and even to this day.
Ellison drew heavy fire for being, in their view, politically disengaged and removed from the collective plight of black America. Invisible Man, in its efforts to transcend racial labeling, was criticized by those who wanted to keep those labels in place and use them as lighting a fire under political action.
Putting politics aside, Invisible Man is significant for its incredibly daring and manically innovative style. Ellison stated in his National Book Award acceptance speech that he viewed Invisible Man as exceptional precisely because it was so experimental: in Invisible Man, Ellison was trying to create the literary equivalent of jazz music.
Literature that reads like jazz and stirs up massive controversy? Hoo-boy.
No one would dare tell you that Invisible Man is easy or crowd-pleasing. It's not simple, straightforward or out to woo the masses. What it is, however, is a totally brilliant and provocative work of great literature.
"He's got an amazing lay-up, but he can't spell!"
"Why are drama geeks so weird?"
"She's a cheerleader—isn't she supposed to be hot?"
Within the first five minutes of meeting someone, we've got them sized up, categorized, and filed away under a billion different headings: girl next door, rebel, tough guy, femme fatale, flamboyant, rich, wallflower, punk, exotic, hippie, fashionista. You're labeled by what school you go to, your athletic prowess, your looks, where you shop, your zip code, what car you drive, what phone you use, where you went for vacation last summer—and, oh yeah, your race.
The narrator of Invisible Man gets labeled more frequently than a pack of cigarettes. Throughout the novel, he's mistaken for a reverend, a pimp, a gambler, a fink, a unionist, a "Southern N****," a "New York N****," a rapist, a lover, a doctor, and a good singer.
So what happens when we get slapped with that inevitable label (or two or three or four)? We can embrace or reject them, but either way, they're going to affect us, and, to some degree, determine our actions.
What makes Invisible Man so compelling is that its narrator recognizes this, reflects on it in great depth, and chooses to deal with and live in the world anyway. Not exactly an easy feat. How does he pull it off, you ask? Good question. Get on that, and tell us what you think.
A photo of Ralph Ellison (with a bow tie).
Judging A Book By Its Cover
The cover of first edition of Invisible Man.
"'Invisible Man' at 50"
Salon.com's article on Invisible Man's 50th anniversary.
Full online text of Herman Melville's Benito Cereno, which was quoted in the epigraph.
PBS: Ralph Ellison
This site has lots of information on Ralph Ellison, including biographical info, essays, and video footage.
This Ralph Ellison webliography is basically a compilation of a bunch of resources on Ellison, including citations for interviews, listings of his books and short stories, lists of his published presentations, and web links for more information on him.
The Ralph Ellison Project
Jerry Jazz Musician collects a variety of interviews with experts on Ralph Ellison.
Booker T. Washington National Monument Website
Learn more about Booker T. Washington, who is referenced many times in this novel.