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Throughout the course of the novel, our nameless narrator is 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. That's not to mention the three names he goes by: his own (which we never learn), the one the Brotherhood gives him (which we never learn), and a man named Rinehart (who is responsible for at least the gambler/reverend/pimp combination). All this raises the question… who is he really?
The answer is contained in the title: he's invisible. But not by choice:
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. (Prologue.1)
I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. (Prologue.2)
The thing is that, for the longest time, his identity has been dictated by white-dominated society. First he tried a humble "I'm a N**** who knows my place" attitude, which got him expelled from his college. Once in Harlem, he joins an organization called the Brotherhood, which is all for racial integration, but ultimately much too far removed from the actual realities of being black in America.
Just check out a "helpful" letter he gets from one of the members of the Brotherhood:
Brother, This is advice from a friend who has been watching you closely. Do not go too fast. Keep working for the people but remember that you are one of us and do not forget if you get too big they will cut you down. You are from the South and you know that this is a white man's world. So take a friendly advice and go easy so that you can keep on helping the colored people. They do not want you to go too fast and will cut you down if you do. Be smart… (18.2 – 18.3)
It turns out the Brotherhood was using the narrator as a token black man, or a way of saying, "Hey, look! We like racial equality!"
Ellison writes in his introduction that one of the problems with most literary portrayals of black people in his time was "the question of why most protagonists of Afro-American fiction (not to mention the black characters in fiction written by whites) were without intellectual depth. Too often they were figures caught up in the most intense forms of social struggle, subject to the most extreme forms of the human predicament but yet seldom able to articulate the issues which tortured them."
Invisible Man is Ellison's attempt to fill that gap. More than anything else, the story's narrator is thoughtful and eloquent about his experiences, which lead him into a space (both literal and metaphorical!) where he rejects society's constant attempts to label or pigeonhole him:
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)
So, the narrator goes underground to "find himself." Of course, this begs the question(s): By the end of the novel, has he found himself? Why is he ready to return to society? Ball's in your court.