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Setting is always important in Invisible Man, because Ellison is both a realistic writer and a symbolist. He puts events in real settings, but these settings always stand for something beyond themselves.
The largest and most significant element in setting is the contrast between South and North. Chapters 1 to 6 take place in the South, Chapters 8 to 25 in the North, with Chapter 7 as a transition. In Ellison's words, the narrator "leaves the South and goes North; this, as you will notice in reading Negro folktales, is always the road to freedom." Thus one major pattern of the novel is a move from the restricting bonds of the South, symbolized by the rigid distinctions between black and white, to the greater flexibility of the North as symbolized by life in Harlem. But the existence of that pattern should not lead you to view North and South simply as symbols for restriction and freedom. In Ellison's popular short story, "King of the Bingo Game," the anonymous narrator finds himself in the cold, unfriendly North missing the warmth and easygoing quality of southern life. Do you find, as you read Invisible Man, that North and South are mixed symbols, representing a variety of things? Is the South both restrictive and friendly, the North freer yet more impersonal?
There are several significant settings within each geographic area. The settings in Chapters 1 to 6 include the hotel ballroom where the battle royal takes place (Chapter 1), Jim Trueblood's farm (Chapter 2), the Golden Day (Chapter 3) and the college (Chapters 4 to 6). Each of these settings allows you to see black life in the South from a different perspective. Chapter 1 represents blacks in their most demeaning situation-on public display in the white world. Chapters 2 and 3 show blacks acting more freely in more natural settings, but these are settings outlawed for the college boys. The college boys are being educated on a tree-lined campus with brick buildings. It is a neat and orderly world, a world in which blacks are restricted to the kind of behavior that suits those black leaders who would please wealthy whites. The campus is an Uncle Tom world, a world of blacks trying to act like whites.
To grow, the narrator must stop idealizing this world and its leaders. He must accept the freer and yet more dangerous world symbolized by New York. New York is a microcosm of the North. Though not rigidly segregated like the South, it is divided into predominantly black Harlem and predominantly white downtown. Downtown is where the Brotherhood has its main office. It is where the narrator visits white "brothers and sisters." It is where Tod Clifton is killed by a white policeman. It is significant that when the narrator joins the Brotherhood, he leaves his rooms at Mary Rambo's boarding house in Harlem to take more expensive rooms in a white part of town. Harlem is the center of black life and culture, the place where Ellison himself lived for a number of years after leaving Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The black must know and understand Harlem in order to find his identity. By rejecting Harlem, the narrator has rejected his own blackness. He has spent most of the novel trying to become white.
The final significant setting is the underground cave of the Prologue and Epilogue. Here, the narrator is in a "border area," not associated with either black or white. Here he has retreated into himself to think out his identity, to come to some self-understanding. Here, alone, apart from those who try to force identity on him, he is able to arrive at some genuine self-knowledge. The cave is a place of contemplation, a place to grow a new skin and be protected from the harsh realities of the outside world until he is strong enough to go outside. The novel ends, significantly, with the narrator's decision to leave the cave, to go up and out into the real world again, a world of both blacks and whites.