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Book Review #76 – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Background Information

The Invisible Man was authored and published by Ralph Waldo Ellison in 1952. Ralph was born in 1913 and rose to become one of the most renowned American novelists and literary critics.

One of Ralph’s inspiration for Invisible Man was his experience at the Tuskegee Institute. After applying to the institute twice without success, he was later accepted but not for status. Rather, he was only accepted because the institute lacked a trumpet player in its orchestra and they admitted Ralph to fill the position.

Although Tuskegee was an all-black university, it was class-conscious just like the white institutions. Ralph’s status led him to be viewed as an outsider among other black students, which although not directly implied, denotes his earlier invisibility even when at an all-black university.

The institution was also significant in sparking his writing prowess. Ralph acknowledged his English teacher as the one who opened his eyes to the possibilities of literature and led him to embrace a literary life.

Brief Plot Summary

The book focuses on an unnamed African American “narrator” recounting his life while searching for his identity and position in society. The narrator finds out that his “invisibility” is not physical. Rather, it is a figurative element that signifies other people’s refusal to see him and the societal dissociation.

“The narrator is “invisible” in a figurative sense, in that “people refuse to see” him, and also experiences a kind of dissociation.”

As a child, the narrator lived in the South. His public speaking prowess lands him a chance to address important white men and get a scholarship to a prestigious black college. However, the reward is not delivered on a silver platter, as they forced him to engage in a blindfolded battle royal. Despite the humiliation, he joins the college and three years later gets a mandate to chauffer a wealthy trustee of the college, Mr Norton. The touring turns into a nightmare after Mr Norton, who speaks incessantly about his daughter, listens to the story of Jim Trueblood who impregnated his own daughter. To cool down his mind from the story, as it seems to give him fainting episodes, the narrator takes him to a bar where a war breaks and Norton is hurt.

The college president, Dr Bledsoe expels the narrator for having driven Mr Norton to the low-life areas instead of those showing an idealized version of black life. Dr Bledsoe gives the narrator seven recommendation letters and asks him to go to New York City to get a job. The narrator goes to Harlem but fails to get work since the sealed recommendation letters portrayed him as unreliable and dishonourable. Later, he secures a job at the Liberty Paints plant but it does not end well after his supervisor developed mistrust for the narrator. During a blast in the paint factory, they take him to the factory’s hospital where the white doctors use him for their electric shock experiments.

After leaving the hospital, Mary takes him in, and he regains his health. After witnessing an elderly black couple being evicted, he addresses the crowd that captures the attention of a member of the brotherhood which is aimed at helping the socially disadvantaged. The narrator is inducted into the Brotherhood, gets trained, and experiences some ups and falls in the Brotherhood. During a riot in Harlem, the narrator survives lynching from Ras. He then encounters two police officers and falls into a sewer hole when escaping, and the police cover the sewer hole.

Towards the end, the narrator pronounces that he has been staying underground since then. However, he claims he has attained the full realization of self and does not need to sacrifice for the community but rather honour his identity. He feels that he is ready to emerge from the underground!

“What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do?”

The narrator is “invisible” in a figurative sense, in that “people refuse to see” him, and also experiences a kind of dissociation.

Main Ideas and Themes

The main focus of the novel is racism and its endless impacts on individual identity. The narrator faces hardships and uncertainties that cloud his ability to discern his own identity. The intense racism and discrimination press hard on the narrator and seemingly takes hold of his destiny. The experience is made worse by the realization that racism is not just emanating from the Whites. Rather, even the Blacks are being racist and discriminatory among themselves. Due to the racial prejudice, the author’s identity is rendered invisible, and the people only perceive him in terms of how they can exploit him.

The book also touches on the limitations of ideology and its failure in addressing the entirety of human identity. The most notable ideologies in the novel are that of Booker T. Washington, Ras the Exhorter, and the Brotherhood. The ingratiating ideology of Booker T. Washington is used in the author’s college while the Ras and Brotherhood ideologies are experienced when the author embarks on his public speaking path in Harlem. Ras’s ideology is filled with violence and separatist aspects, and the narrator is almost lynched by the Ras gang towards the end of the narration. The Brotherhood ideology was initially pure to the narrator, but later he comes to the realization that he is just being used as a black pawn as they limit his individual freedom.

The author despises how some blacks counter stereotype by stereotype. Such an approach fails to uplift the identities of the African Americans, and on the contrary, shifts them from one limiting role to another limiting role. This category of Blacks formulates a defence strategy that all African Americans are expected to uphold. Each of the new defence strategies is considered to be the right and true representation of the African Americans, and anybody who dares to go against these prescriptions is considered a betrayer. The Blacks are therefore forced to follow certain prescriptions and formulaic roles, rather than destroy the existing stereotypical views and embrace individual identity freedom.

Wrap Up

I loved how the author embraced an honest and raw strategy in presenting the issue of racism, visibility, and individual identity. Most individuals and institutions gloss over the issues of racism and only embraces a shallow approach that fails to show the pure extent of the unfair and unjust treatment that African Americans faces in the 20th century. The author leaves nothing on the table and digs deeper to reveal the extent of atrocities faced by the Blacks.

But is there some light being illuminated by the story? Is there some hidden meaning that seems to be slowly sprouting and releasing its potential? Well, there are two scenarios that I think means more than just words.

The first one revolves around the Optic White colour company where the author worked. The company is known for its purely white colour. However, the author reveals that to achieve this pure white colour, 10 black drops of toner must be added to each bucket. So, to achieve the pure white colour, a black toner must be added. Is this symbolism to show the contribution of the Blacks to countries dominated by the whites? Would countries such as the United States be the same without the contributions of Black people?

The second issue revolves around how the story ends. Throughout the narration, the author tries to find his individual identity but society forces him to adhere to the set identities. When the police officers lock him in a manhole, the author decided to live underground. Initially, he was invisible not physically but rather literary. However, when he decided to stay in the manhole, he now becomes invisible both literary and physically. Towards, the end, the author reveals that he is ready to emerge from hiding. Does this denote his ability to overcome invisibility based on self-realization or lack of an alternative?

The Invisible Man has survived the trial of time and remains a core text in today’s literature world. Coincidentally, most of the themes and issues covered in the book are still a sizeable portion of our contemporary society. For instance, police brutality on African Americans has sparked global debates in the last few years, a reflection on how the narrator of Invisible Man is treated by the two police officers. The institutional racism depicted in the novel, such as in the narrator’s school, have also remained rampant in many social institutions. Perhaps, the inability of people to find their individual identity is the most widespread concern of the contemporary world, and to make it worse, it remains highly ignored.

Reviewed by;

Tonny Rutakirwa,


Tonniez Group Holdings,

Serving since 28th December 2008.


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