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Free Barron's Booknotes-Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison-Free Online Summary
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Invisible Man is a stylistic performance of the highest order, a delight and a constant series of surprises to anyone who loves words. That's one view. The other is that it is a confusing mass of shifting styles that only serves to keep the reader from knowing what's going on. Therefore, take this section of the study guide as a warning: Invisible Man is not an easy novel to read, and if you want to get the maximum pleasure and understanding from Ellison's dazzling use of language, you will have to work at it.

Ellison's first stylistic device is word play. He loves puns, rhymes, slogans, and paradoxes. "I yam what I am!" cries the narrator, after buying a hot buttered yam from a street vendor in Chapter 13. "If It's Optic White, It's the Right White" is a slogan for the Liberty Paint Factory coined by the black Lucius Brockway. It reminds the narrator of the old southern expression, "If you're white, you're right." "All it takes to get along in this here man's town is a little shit, grit, and mother-wit," says Peter Wheatstraw, a street blues singer in Harlem. What all these expressions and many others have in common is that they are not only funny and clever, they also embody folk wisdom that the narrator needs to hear and understand.

Ellison also has a fine ear for all kinds of speech-especially varieties of black folk dialect. All the black folk characters-Jim Trueblood, Burnside the Vet, Brockway, Wheatstraw, Mary Rambo, Brother Tarp, and at the end the two black revolutionaries Scofield and Dupree-speak in their own varieties of black folk dialect and exhibit a kind of knowledge that the more educated "white" characters seem to lack, a "street" knowledge that has passed from South to North, from generation to generation, and needs to be remembered.

Ellison's stylistic range is enormous. In Chapter 2 he writes a description of the college in the style of the poet T. S. Eliot. In Chapter 4 he writes a sermon modeled on the classic oratory of black preachers throughout the South in the early twentieth century. Influenced by a range of writers from Eliot and Joyce to Dostoevsky and Richard Wright, he can write in whatever style suits his purpose at the time. When asked about his changing styles in the novel, he said, "In the South, when he [the narrator] was trying to fit into a traditional pattern and where his sense of certainty had not yet been challenged, I felt a more naturalistic treatment was adequate.... As the hero passes from the South to the North, from the relatively stable to the swiftly changing, his sense of certainty is lost and the style becomes expressionistic. Later on during his fall from grace in the Brotherhood it becomes somewhat surrealistic. The styles try to express both his state of consciousness and the state of society."

You might underline the three words naturalistic, expressionistic, and surrealistic. If Ellison is right in his analysis, then these are the three major styles of the novel. "Naturalistic" means faithful to the small details of outward reality or nature. "Expressionistic" means characters and actions standing for inner states. "Surrealistic" means tending to deal with the world of dreams and the unconscious. Thus, the scenes at the college are naturalistic, the scenes at the paint factory are expressionistic, and the scenes from the Harlem riot chapters at the end are surrealistic. We will explore the significance of these stylistic shifts more fully in The Story section. For now you may want to think about why Ellison felt that realism alone was not enough. What could these other styles do for him that realism could not?


Invisible Man is a first-person narrative told by a developing character. That means you can trust his perceptions and judgments much more toward the end of the novel than you can at the beginning.

At the beginning (leaving out the Prologue, which we will look at later with the Epilogue) the narrator is young and naive. In Chapter 1 he is a high school graduate. In Chapters 2 to 6 he is a college junior. He has experienced little of the real world. As a result he misinterprets, misses ironies, and makes naive judgments about other characters. Your interpretation of the events of the first third of the novel must be colored by your awareness that the narrator is frequently missing the point. You must be more mature and perceptive than he is.

During Chapters 7 to 10, his first months in New York, he is not much better, but the accident in the paint factory at the end of Chapter 10 changes him. In Chapters 11 to 13 you see a more thoughtful narrator emerge from the machine in the paint factory hospital. He begins to ask questions about his identity, makes some connection with his black roots, and discovers his vocation when he makes an eloquent speech protesting the eviction of an old couple from their apartment. As the narrator becomes more concerned with social justice, you may find yourself identifying more strongly with him. But he still has a long way to go.

In Chapters 14 to 21, the period when he is working for the Brotherhood, he is mature in some ways but not in others. The narrator's sight begins to clear in Chapter 22, when he sees many of the Brotherhood members for what they really are for the first time. Chapter 23, in which he discovers the identity of Rinehart, marks another phase of his development, and the Prologue and Epilogue, which happen chronologically after the action of the novel proper, represent a final phase.

Your job as a reader is to sort out this progress as it occurs and to evaluate how much the ideas of the narrator at any particular stage of his development may be associated with those of the author. Is the narrator, as he nears maturity in the later chapters, speaking for Ellison? Do the Prologue and Epilogue, more than the main body of the novel, represent an identification between narrator and author? A look at Ellison's essays in Shadow and Act (1964) would help you answer these questions. "That Same Pain, That Same Pleasure" is particularly helpful. Some critics, Marcus Klein for one (see "The Critics"), feel that Ellison violates point of view in the Epilogue by making the narrator come to conclusions that are too optimistic, too affirmative for his character. These statements, say the critics, are really more Ellison's than the narrator's, and they belong in a different novel. You will have to make your own decision about these questions as you study the Epilogue to the novel.


Form and structure do not pose a problem in this otherwise complex novel. The form is simple: It is chronological narrative with no flashbacks and no confusing time switches. The only formal element that might give you any trouble is Ellison's use of the Prologue and Epilogue. The Prologue, which precedes Chapter 1, occurs in time after the action of Chapters 1 to 25 has been completed, but before the Epilogue. In the novel proper, Chapters 1 to 25, the narrator tells you what he did to end up in the "hole" which he describes in the Prologue. In the Epilogue he talks about leaving the hole and going back up into the world which he has temporarily abandoned. You don't know how long the narrator has been in the hole, but you may infer that his main activity there has been writing the novel. When he has completed that, he will then rejoin the world of action. Thus, the Prologue and Epilogue frame the novel, putting it in the context of the narrator's present thoughts about life and activity. The narrator is finally not just the person to whom these events have occurred but the person who is organizing them into a work of art that tries to explain their significance. In the process, he creates himself.

The main body of the novel is a straightforward chronological narration of the protagonist's development. It may be divided into two, three, or four parts, depending on where you think the main structural breaks are. Ellison gives you only chapters, so the division into larger units is up to you. One structural principle is the movement from South to North (see comments under Setting). A second is that of death and rebirth. If you look at the death and rebirth structure, the novel would break into four major sections. Section I (Chapters 1 to 6) takes place in the South, mainly at the college. The narrator is expelled and this way of life is literally dead for him. In Section II (Chapters 7 to 12) he is born again in New York, only to have that existence literally exploded by the accident in the paint factory. Section III (Chapters 13 to 22) tells the story of his life with the Brotherhood and its eventual destruction. Section IV (Chapter 23 to the Epilogue) reveals the narrator's brief existence as Rinehart followed by his decision to disappear and rethink his values from his underground hole. He says at the end, using the words of the German philosopher Nietzsche, "I must shake off the old skin and come up for breath." Life is a series of rebirths, a process of shaking off the old skin (rind) over and over.

Whatever pattern you think is the most essential, the novel is fundamentally a developmental novel, a Bildungsroman in which a young man goes through a series of difficult and confusing experiences on the way to his maturity. Your main job is to discover what each of those experiences contributes to his growth.

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