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Free Barron's Booknotes-Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison-Free Online Summary
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THE NOVEL

THE PLOT - SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)

Invisible Man opens with a Prologue. The unnamed narrator tells you that he is an invisible man living in a hole under the streets of New York somewhere near Harlem. His hole is warm and bright. He has come here to hibernate, to think out the meaning of life, after the events he is about to narrate. What drove him to this state of hibernation? He begins to tell you.

The story starts when the narrator graduates from high school in a southern town. The leading white citizens invite him to give his graduation speech at a "smoker" in the ballroom of the local hotel. He arrives to find himself part of a "battle royal" in which local black boys are forced to fight one another blindfolded for the entertainment of the drunken whites. After the battle, the blacks are further humiliated by having to crawl on an electrified carpet to pick up coins. Finally, the hero is allowed to give his speech and is rewarded with a leather briefcase and a scholarship to the state college for blacks.

The narrator is a good student at college and is sufficiently well thought of to be allowed to drive distinguished white visitors around the campus and community. Near the end of his junior year he drives one of the trustees, a Mr. Norton, out into the country. They arrive by accident at the cabin of a black sharecropper named Jim Trueblood, who has caused a terrible scandal by committing incest with his daughter. Trueblood tells his story to Norton who is so overwhelmed that he nearly faints. In order to revive Norton, the narrator takes him for a drink to a nearby bar and house of prostitution called the Golden Day. A group of veterans who are patients at the local mental hospital arrive at the same time, and a wild brawl ensues during which Mr. Norton passes out. He is carried upstairs to one of the prostitute's rooms and revived by a veteran who was once a physician.


The horrified narrator finally returns Norton to the college, but the damage has been done. The young man is called into the president's office and dismissed from school. The president, Dr. Bledsoe, gives him letters of introduction to a number of the school's trustees in New York, and the narrator boards a bus the following day, hoping that the letters will help him succeed in the white world.

To his surprise the letters do not seem to help when he arrives in Harlem. No one offers him a job. Finally, young Mr. Emerson, the son of one of the trustees, explains why: The letters were not letters of recommendation at all but instructions not to help the boy, to keep him away from any further association with the college. The stunned narrator now has nowhere to turn, and so takes a job at the Liberty Paint Company at the recommendation of young Mr. Emerson. The experience is a bizarre one. He is sent to work with an old black man named Lucius Brockway. Brockway, a black man, is the real creator of the Optic White paint that Liberty is so proud of, but the naive young narrator doesn't understand the irony of the situation.

Later, when he fails to pay attention to Brockway's instructions, he is knocked out in an explosion. When he wakes up, he finds himself in a large glass and metal box in the factory hospital. He seems to be the object of some sort of psychological experiment. He is subjected to electric shock treatment, questioned, given a new name by a man in a white coat, and released. Dazed, he returns to Harlem like a newborn infant, unable to care for himself.

The confused protagonist is taken in by a compassionate black woman named Mary Rambo, who nurses him back to health. But what is he to do? Winter is coming and the money given him in compensation by the factory has all but run out. The narrator goes out into the icy streets and has the most important experience of his life. He sees an old black couple being evicted and spontaneously gets up before the gathered crowd and stirs the people to action. He has found a new identity-as a spokesman for blacks-but the police arrive and he is forced to flee across the rooftops, followed by a white man who introduces himself as Brother Jack. Brother Jack would like the narrator to work for his organization, the Brotherhood, as a speaker for the Harlem district. The narrator hesitates, then accepts the offer. He is given a new name and is moved from Harlem to a new location, where he will study the literature of the Brotherhood.

The next evening the narrator is taken to Harlem to begin his career as a speaker for the Brotherhood. He and several others sit on a platform in a large arena, and he is the last to speak. When he speaks, he electrifies the audience with his emotional power, but the Brotherhood is not pleased. They consider his style primitive and backward, and so he is barred from further speeches until he has been trained by Brother Hambro in the methods and teachings of the Brotherhood.

Four months later the narrator is made chief spokesman of the Harlem district. His committee, which includes Brother Tobitt, Brother Tarp, and the narrator's favorite, Brother Tod Clifton, is concerned about regaining the support of the community from Ras the Exhorter, a wild black-nationalist rabble-rouser who has drawn black people into a war with whites. The narrator and his new friend Clifton engage in a street fight with Ras, a fight that foreshadows the final battle in the novel between the Brotherhood and supporters of the black nationalist. Nothing is concluded, but at the same time Ras is unable to stop the Brotherhood, under the narrator's leadership, from making great progress in Harlem.

Brother Tarp, as a token of his support for the narrator's leadership, gives him a link of leg chain. But there are many in the Brotherhood who do not like the narrator. He is too successful and moving too fast. At a meeting of the committee, the narrator is removed from a leadership role in Harlem and ordered to lecture downtown on the Woman Question. He is stunned, but he obeys the Brotherhood and gives the lecture as ordered, whereupon a white woman, more interested in his sexuality as a black man than in the Woman Question, seduces him in her apartment after the lecture. His lectures downtown continue until he is suddenly and surprisingly returned to Harlem after the unexpected disappearance of Brother Tod Clifton.

The narrator returns to Harlem, hoping to reorganize the neighborhood, but things have deteriorated since he was sent downtown. He searches for Tod Clifton and finds him, pathetically selling Black Sambo dolls near the New York Public Library. A police officer nabs Clifton for illegal peddling and shoots him when he resists arrest. Suddenly the narrator, who has witnessed this, finds himself plunged into an historical event. A huge funeral is arranged for Clifton in Harlem, and the narrator speaks at the occasion, but his speech is very different from his earlier speeches. He can no longer rouse the crowd to action. He returns to Brotherhood headquarters and is severely criticized by Brother Jack for having acted without authority.

The angry narrator is frustrated at his inability to accomplish anything constructive. He puts on a pair of sunglasses to disguise himself and suddenly finds that he has taken on another new identity, that of Rinehart, a swindler. Not even Ras the Exhorter, now Ras the Destroyer, seems to recognize the narrator in this disguise. Concerned about the growing strength of Ras and his men, the narrator goes for advice to Brother Hambro's. Here he is told that international policies have temporarily changed directives. Harlem is no longer a priority for the Brotherhood. The narrator is astonished. Again he has been betrayed by an organization he trusted. He finally begins to see what a fool he has been and understands that he has, to white people, been invisible. He follows his grandfather's advice and starts "yessing them to death," meanwhile secretly planning his own strategy.

As a part of his revenge he spends a drunken evening with Sybil, the wife of one of the Brotherhood members, hoping to obtain useful information from her. But she is more interested in his body than in politics. A telephone call interrupts them. There is a huge riot in the district, and the narrator is needed. He hurries back to Harlem to find total chaos. Looters are everywhere, and Ras and his troops are out in force. Ras, on a black horse and dressed as an Ethiopian chieftain, is armed with spear and shield. The narrator narrowly escapes being killed by Ras. He dives into a manhole to avoid being mugged by a group of white thugs, and falls asleep.

He wakes up to find himself in a dark, underground passage from which he can't escape, and decides to stay. Here he will try to understand what has happened to him and then write his story. The novel ends with an Epilogue in which the narrator decides it is time to come out of his hole. He is ready to rejoin society, because he knows and understands himself now "The hibernation is over. I must shake off the old skin and come up for breath," he says. The novel ends as he makes a new beginning.

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