The narrator tells it like it is—or, at least, how he perceives it. And although his story could easily have turned into something way more melodramatic (not that that would be unwarranted: there's so much racial injustice, anger, and hate, guys) the narrator's frank and thoughtful tone allows for a more reflective edge to the story:
I had no desire to destroy myself even if it destroyed the machine; I wanted freedom, not destruction. It was exhausting, for no matter what the scheme I conceived, there was one constant flaw – myself. There was no getting around it. I could no more escape than I could think of my identity. Perhaps, I thought, the two things are involved with one another. When I discover who I am, I'll be free. (11.103)
It probably helps that he's telling his story from hibernation, allowing him some distance from the insane moments that have made up his life.
Invisible Man is one of the big daddies of coming-of-age stories. Not only does our narrator physically grow up during the duration of The Invisible Man, but he also matures psychologically. After being presented with about a million and a half variations of what he's supposed to be, how he's supposed to act, and how he comes across to both colleagues and random people... he opts out.
When we leave him, he's kicking it in a manhole waiting to emerge with a distinct idea of his own identity. (How very caterpillar-in-chrysalis of him, eh?) And if deciding to ignore others' opinions of who you're supposed to be in favor of your own sense of self isn't coming-of-age personified... well, we don't know what is.
The invisible man is the narrator and protagonist of the story. We never learn his name, but this is his show—the novel chronicles his path to realizing his invisibility. This is not some weird take on Heroes or X-Men, because the protagonist/narrator isn't talking about literal invisibility, but figurative/metaphorical/societal invisibility.
When people look at him, they see simply "a black man" and project various stereotypes onto him. In other words, no one sees the narrator for who he truly is. On a more positive note, being invisible allows the narrator greater freedom and mobility. While remaining under society's radar, he can cultivate his true persona.
Bonus: he can also steal things (such as electricity to supply his light bulbs).
The narrator is born and raised in the American South, only to wind up in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem, which is a major center of African-American culture. The narrator finds the contrast between the North and the South incredible—he is amazed to find white drivers obeying the directives of a black policeman, on the subway he stresses out about being in close proximity to a white woman, and in the diner he wonders if it's insulting to tip a white waiter. In the North, then, the narrator experiences a certain amount of unprecedented racial freedom.
Or does he? His race is still the primary determinant in how he is perceived by others, whether by the higher-ups in an organization called the Brotherhood or by Sybil, a white self-proclaimed nymphomaniac who fantasizes about being raped by a black man. In his quest to uncover his identity, then, neither South nor North is particularly helpful.
Ultimately, it is only by descending into a manhole and remaining literally invisible to society that the narrator is able to operate in a setting that allows him to uncover the full range of his individuality.
"You are saved," cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; "you are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?"
Herman Melville, Benito Cereno
Harry: I tell you, it is not me you are looking at,
Not me you are grinning at, not me your confidential looks
Incriminate, but that other person, if person,
You thought I was: let your necrophily
Feed upon that carcase…
T.S. Eliot, "The Family Reunion"
With the way that quotation from Benito Cereno ends, we might think Captain Delano is asking a rhetorical question—or maybe he's appearing on Jeopardy!.
But if we thumb to the end of Melville's short novel (or just hit "find" on ye olde computer), we learn that Benito Cereno, a Spanish captain whom Delano has just rescued from a slave insurrection, replies pretty directly: "The N****," he says.
Why would Ellison leave that part out? Did he get up for tea and just forget to finish the sentence? Or is he trying to say something about the way that African Americans can become invisible and yet still cast the long shadows that trouble Benito after Delano rescues him? Lots to chew on, that's for sure.
As for the excerpt from the Eliot verse play, we should get some terms straight first. To start with, necrophily is synonymous with necrophilia, or the terrible affliction some people have when they're obsessed with corpses, often in a sexual way. ("Carcase" is just a fun British way of saying carcass.)
To make matters clear, Invisible Man is definitely not about sex with dead carcasses. Nor is the Eliot play. In the play, Harry argues that the people looking at him aren't really seeing him, and he gets so angry about this that he compares their vision of his identity to necrophilia—what they see when they look at him, what they're so obsessed with, isn't a real human being at all, but a carcass. As such, the people looking at him are necrophiliacs.
The narrator of Invisible Man faces a problem similar to Harry's. No one sees him properly. Does this mean Mr. Norton, Dr. Bledsoe, Brother Jack, Ras the Exhorter, etc. are basically trying to feed off the narrator's carcass? We'll leave the answer up to you.
A life-long lover of jazz, Ellison conceived of Invisible Man as jazz's literary equivalent. Even the idea of "invisibility," which is a sight-based (rather than sound-based) concept gets compared to jazz:
Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he's made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he's unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music. [...] Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you're never quite on the beat. Sometimes you're ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That's what you hear vaguely in Louis' music. (Prologue.8)
By turns sad, playful, shy, loud, fast-paced, drawing on different styles and traditions of writing, weaving constant refrains throughout the book, and creating a whole new aesthetic. The novel doesn't just have a style; it has styles.
The narrator's first job is in a highly patriotic paint company most famous for its Optic White paint color. In order to create this pure white, the narrator is instructed to add ten black drops of toner into each bucket. Could this possibly have anything to do with black/white relations in America? Great question. We think that this paint business demonstrates the necessity of the black contribution to white America – although America is often thought of as a white man's country, America would not be America without the contributions of black people. Taking another angle, the name "Liberty Paints" is ironic since it implies freedom for all, which is clearly not the experience of the narrator throughout this entire story.
When there's a lot of talk about eyeballs in a book called Invisible Man, you know something's up with sight. Reverend Barbee gives a crowd-pleasing speech praising the Founder of the college only to later reveal that he is a blind man. Then Brother Jack turns out to have a false left eye. This shows the flawed nature of their visions – Barbee gave a great speech praising an institution and man that are basically shams, and Jack espouses a horribly cold ideology.
As for the narrator, he comes to believe himself an invisible man because no one actually sees him for who he is – but as someone of whom they can take advantage. Realizing this social invisibility, the narrator decides to pair it with actual invisibility, and drops out of sight for an indeterminate amount of time.
When the narrator further examines the paper doll that Clifton was selling, he realizes that Clifton controlled the doll with a thin black string that was invisible to the audience. Clifton puppeteers the flimsy black doll in much the same way that the Brotherhood manipulated both Clifton and the narrator, or the way the narrator has been manipulated his entire life, or the way blacks have been manipulated for whites' entertainment (think of the battle royal, for example).
We think it's symbolic that the narrator receives the briefcase as a naïve kid, and then hangs onto it for the rest of the novel. Emblematic of his past vulnerability, eagerness to please, and youthful ambitions, his final loss of the briefcase suggests a complete severance of ties to his youthful past and a true rebirth.
The invisible man is our narrator throughout the entire novel, sandwiching the bulk of his story with a prologue and epilogue from his manhole. Since we hear his story from his point of view, we can't be sure whether all the memories are entirely true to life... but we do know they're true to him.
Instead, we understand the story to be his perception; he is speaking out about his experiences and, as he says in the epilogue, hopefully shedding light on things we might not have realized, or perhaps helping us feel more connected with similar experiences.
Even though the story is told with other readers in mind, this is very much our narrator's show—it's his personal development that we witness, and no one else's. This treatment of other characters actually mirrors the way he himself has been treated; aside from the narrator, everyone in Invisible Man is pretty one-dimensional. Instead of complex individuals, we have set types: a member of the black establishment, a wealthy white philanthropist, a black nationalist, a utopian visionary, and so on.
The narrator does his best to please the white and wealthy Mr. Norton, but screws up royally. Dr. Bledsoe, the college president, reprimands the narrator and banishes him to Harlem.
After the narrator gives a rabble-rousing speech at the Provos' eviction, he is recruited by an organization known as the Brotherhood. Excited about a regular paycheck and the chance to make real, lasting change for the better in Harlem, the narrator's career takes off as he leads Brotherhood activities in Harlem and becomes somewhat of a local celebrity with his speechmaking.
Away from Harlem and the Harlem community, the narrator is away from the people he is supposed to be helping and representing. Still, the narrator does his best to serve his new constituency (women) well.
Brother Clifton's death prompts the narrator to recognize the differences between himself and the Brotherhood—namely, that the narrator cares deeply about individuals and the Brotherhood most emphatically does not.
After disguising himself in order to avoid Ras the Exhorter's men, the narrator begins relishing his invisibility and the possibilities now open to him. "Independence" is achieved when he falls down a manhole and removes himself from society.
The novel ends with the narrator deciding to come out of hibernation and rejoin society. He will try to show himself as the complex individual he is, rather than being swayed by the labels people keep trying to attach to him. In other words, he's ready to show the world what a unique individual he is, but whether he succeeds, we don't know. That action takes place after the book ends.
…but we already know he doesn't stay a model young black man, because, as we learn in the Prologue the narrator is narrating from a hole in the ground.
Interestingly enough, the story he tells follows a classic plot analysis; he must be a good storyteller. In the initial situation, the narrator is an "ideal black man": humble, grateful, polite, clean, and intelligent without being "uppity." He has dreams of his own, but thinks that he must bow down to white authority in order to achieve them.
Getting expelled and going to New York? Sounds like a party to us. (Don't get expelled, kids.)
Although hurt and confused that Dr. Bledsoe expels him, the narrator still trusts that his college president has his best interests at heart. Full of dreams to work hard and prove himself in the big city, he arrives in Harlem only to realize that Dr. Bledsoe's letters of recommendation are, well, not letters of recommendation.
He takes a job at Liberty Paints, which turns out to be a job as a guinea pig. He's in a whole new world. He knows no one and has no source of income. This is the "conflict" stage because the narrator is kept from realizing his dreams of gainful employment and social change.
The narrator falls in with the Brotherhood and finally feels a sense of purpose. Except that the Brotherhood isn't exactly as it seems. Driven by ideology, method, and cold rationality, the Brotherhood is a positive force for the narrator because it gives him direction, but he unwittingly butts heads with many tenets of the Brotherhood. For instance, the narrator has trouble conceiving of society in broad-based terms; he focuses on the individual and the emotional rather than the collective.
Brother Clifton's death and subsequent funeral prompts the narrator's biggest epiphanies, namely, that the Brotherhood has been using him for unknown ends, and that he (the narrator) is invisible to those around him. Although hints of these ideas have been percolating throughout the novel, they finally come together here in the climax.
The narrator figures he needs to have an informant to find out the Brotherhood's true aims. He decides to seduce a woman and chooses the unhappy Sybil. However, the seduction doesn't go as planned because she wants him to rape her and she has no useful political information. The narrator ends up drunk, sad, and no closer to sabotaging the Brotherhood than before he got naked with a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac.
In some ways, this denouement is a bit counter-intuitive—shouldn't the narrator have exposed the Brotherhood for being a sham and gone on to champion black rights in Harlem?
Well, maybe, but only if this were a plot-driven, action-packed novel. Being the introspective psychological novel that it is, it makes sense that the narrator drops out of sight of the rest of society. Either way, we've never been able to look at a manhole the same way again.
So the manhole's great and all, since no one's there to try and define him, but there's also… no one there.
Since his social life has taken a hit after the whole falling-into-a-manhole business, the narrator is finally ready to come out of hiding after accepting that living in a manhole is no way to live. He leaves us on that note; we can only speculate what his post-hibernation life looks like.
The Bible: "Render unto Caesar that which was Caesar's…" (5.22)
Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (9.160)
James Joyce (16.133)
W. B. Yeats (16.133)
Sean O'Casey (16.133)
Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness (epilogue.26)
Although Invisible Man's focus on black identity in white America places the novel squarely in the genre of African-American literature, Ellison is very much operating in, and drawing on, the full Western canon. We thought this was cool and would shed greater light on certain passages, so without further ado:
Frederick Douglass (17.189 and recurring)
While Harlem is a real place historically linked to black culture, it's just about the only location that Ellison explicitly references. While the items below should not be considered exact or explicit references, we thought we'd highlight some things to help you put in context certain ideas presented by Ellison:
Dvorak's New World Symphony (5.81)