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Free Barron's Booknotes-Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison-Free Online Summary
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You begin with a problem. The novel's central character has no name. Some readers refer to him as the Invisible Man, others call him the narrator. Some regard him as the protagonist or the hero. You may call him by any of these titles, because he has all these roles.

"I am an invisible man," he tells you in the first sentence of the novel. When he calls himself invisible, he means that other people don't see him, that no one recognizes him as a person, as an individual. A helpful way to understand the Invisible Man as a character is to use the ideas of the noted twentieth-century Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber. Buber distinguishes between I-Thou relationships and I-It relationships. When we love someone, there is an I-Thou relationship, one between two individuals who truly care for one another as persons. In an I-It relationship we use others as things. We like people for what we can get out of them.

If you apply this idea to Ellison's central character, you may conclude that he is invisible because people always see him as an "It," never as a "Thou." He is used by the college officials and the wealthy white trustees in the first half of the novel and by the leaders of the Brotherhood in the second half. Once he is no longer useful to these people, he is discarded like trash. It is particularly interesting to note that, when people want to use him, they give him a name. He is named in Chapter 11 by the doctors at the factory hospital before being released. He is renamed by the Brotherhood in Chapter 14. Notice that you are never told these names. The. only name he is ever called is "Rinehart," and that is in Chapter 23 when he puts on a pair of dark glasses, and, later, a hat, to disguise himself from Ras the Exhorter's men. Throughout the chapter, he is mistaken for a variety of "Rineharts"- Rinehart, the gambler; Rinehart, the lover; Reverend Rinehart, the minister. Eventually the protagonist discards the glasses, but it is significant that it is his choice, not someone else's. When the main events of the novel are over, he chooses to stay underground, to remain literally invisible-out of circulation-until he has thought through who he is and who he wants to be rather than accepting other people's definitions of him. At the end he decides to come out of his hole and rejoin society. Maybe he will still be invisible. That is an interesting point for you to consider. Ellison certainly seems ambiguous about it in the Epilogue. But the narrator is a different person from the young man who experienced the adventures in the main body of the novel.

The Invisible Man is not only the chief actor in the novel-the protagonist-he is also its narrator. The story is told in the first person, and for that reason you have to be careful about the way you interpret it. In this guide's section on Point of View you will find additional material on the problems of interpreting first-person narratives. For now, you need to be aware of the way in which first-person narration affects your analysis of the Invisible Man as a character. The Invisible Man is what is known as a naive narrator. Throughout most of the novel, he is young, inexperienced, and gullible. You cannot take what he says at face value because there are many, many occasions when he misses the irony of a situation or the true import of people's words and actions. Sometimes he simply misinterprets things. So he is not only a naive narrator, he is an unreliable narrator in the sense that you cannot trust his version of the story to be entirely accurate. He tells it as he sees it, but he doesn't always see it very well.

But, before you judge the narrator too quickly, be careful. He is not the same person at the end of the novel that he is at the beginning. He is a character who grows. The German word Bildungsroman is often used to describe the novel of education, the story of a person's growth to maturity. Invisible Man is a Bildungsroman, and the narrator changes a good deal during the course of the story. You will follow his development step by step in The Story section of this guide. For now, you should be aware that the protagonist is a developing rather than a static character. The only tricky thing to watch out for is that the Prologue represents a stage of development after the events of Chapters 1 to 25. Thus, if you are tracing the narrator's development, the order would be Chapters 1 to 25, Prologue, Epilogue. Between the Prologue and the Epilogue the narrator is actually writing the novel, and in the Epilogue he is trying to understand the meaning of what he's just done.

One final point: The narrator is an Afro-American. Part of the reason he's invisible is that Ellison feels white people do not see black people. Much of what he suffers comes at the hands of white people and those blacks who work for white people. From this point of view the narrator may be interpreted as a symbol for the black person in America. And if you are black or Hispanic, or a member of another minority that suffers from prejudice, you may identify especially with this character, who seems to be treated so unjustly at the hands of prejudiced men and women. But Ralph Ellison, when asked about the narrator, frequently emphasized the point that his hero was universal-he was any person searching for identity in the chaos and complexity of contemporary America.


Invisible Man is, in a sense, a one-character novel. The narrator himself is the only figure whose life you are concerned with from the beginning to the end of the novel. Other people enter the novel, live in it for a few chapters as they influence the narrator, then vanish. We will look briefly at the most important of these figures in the order that they appear in the book. Each of these characters is also discussed in some detail in the appropriate chapters of The Story section. You should consult those chapters for more complete treatment. The minor figures are considered briefly in the Notes in The Story section.


Mr. Norton (his name suggests northern) is the first figure to influence the narrator's destiny. He is a white-haired, red-faced multimillionaire from Boston who serves on the black college's Board of Trustees. He looks and acts like Santa Claus, seeing himself as a good-natured benefactor of black people. Norton tells the narrator that he was one of the college's founders and that his success as a man depends on the success of the college's students. He seems to mean by this that black people ought to try and rise up from the effects of slavery and illiteracy in the way prescribed by the white power structure.

The narrator drives Mr. Norton out to the country, where they stop at the home of a black sharecropper named James Trueblood, who has committed incest with his daughter. Norton seems both horrified and fascinated by Trueblood's story and is so shocked by hearing it that he must be taken to a bar named the Golden Day for a drink to revive him. Here he is injured in a scuffle, eventually revived, and finally returned to the college, but not before the damage has been done-Norton has been educated to the realities of black life in the South. He has seen not what Dr. Bledsoe, the college president, wants him to see but what black people like Jim Trueblood and the veterans at the Golden Day really think and feel about themselves and whites. In the process he is exposed as a vulnerable old man who is himself near death and needs care. Who cares for him? A prostitute and a supposedly crazy black veteran. Has the narrator intentionally taken Mr. Norton on a journey to self-knowledge?


On his way back from the Golden Day, the narrator says, "Here within this quiet greenness I possessed the only identity I had ever known, and I was losing it." That identity is associated with Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the college. "He was the example of everything I hoped to be," the narrator tells us. Bledsoe is rich, he has a beautiful wife, and he owns two Cadillac automobiles. He is a successful and powerful black man in a white man's world.

Do you see the two sides of Bledsoe that the narrator misses? There is the surface Bledsoe humbly attending to his white guests and doing exactly what white people expect of a black man. You can see this Bledsoe especially in Chapter 5, the vespers sequence. There is also the Bledsoe who bitterly attacks the narrator for taking Mr. Norton to Jim Trueblood's and the Golden Day, the Bledsoe who will attack anybody and anything to hold on to the power which he has. This is the Bledsoe who "bleeds his people so," as his name suggests-the Bledsoe that the narrator can't let himself believe in. Ellison depicts Bledsoe as a man who rather than really helping his race is actually holding it back. Do you agree?

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