Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version
PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
Ellison plots The Invisible Man along the lines of an allegory, a literary style that presents an abstract meaning thorough concrete or material forms, usually for the purpose of teaching a lesson. In other words, it is a figurative treatment of a subject. It is an ancient form of writing, which is fairly rare in modern writing. In the novel, all the characters and incidents have a symbolic meaning in addition to their own figurative existence and occurrence. The plot depends upon a layering of symbol upon symbol. In fact, Ellison has described the novel's structure as that of a jazz composition. It has a central theme with harmonic variations made upon it.
The central theme that unifies the novel is the narrator's search for identity. Initially, the young black man tries to understand his grandfather, who lived like an Uncle Tom on the surface while believing in his mind that he was a resistance fighter who battles the white establishment by agreeing with them. Throughout the novel, the narrator recalls the philosophy of his grandfather and the words he spoke on his deathbed. For a while, the narrator even tries to live out the philosophy of working within corrupt systems and agreeing to their standards in order to get what he needs. In the end, he realizes that his grandfather's philosophy does not work in modern times.
Another important symbol of the novel, which is repeated allegorically over and over and which refers the narrator's search for his identity is the symbol of the veil and blindness. The statue at the school, which represents a blindfold being removed or placed firmly on the eyes of a slave figure, is echoed many times in the novel and refers to the narrator's sense of losing illusions and falling back into them. Closely related to the theme of blindness is the central symbol of invisibility. Throughout the story, the narrator tries to deal with being an invisible man, a person that the white man can simply ignore. Besides the narrator, there are many other invisible characters in the book, including the grandfather, Dr. Bledsoe, and Reverend Rinehart. By the end of the book, the narrator has learned to use his invisibility to his advantage.
The novel is also plotted on the principle of ascension and submersion. The narrator begins with the idea that he can ascend from his lowly position in society by the American Dream of hard work and perseverance. Time after time he is pushed back down, submersed because of his color. As a result, he is symbolically often found in basements and finally ends up in a man-hole; he hides underground for awhile, hibernating in order to withdraw into himself, to find meaning in his invisibility, and to come up with his true identity. The novel ends on a promise of ascension, as the narrator states he is ready to come out of hibernation and face a life of multiplicity.
Structurally, the novel is developed in classical form. The epilogue serves as an introduction where the protagonist, the narrator, is presented and the problem, racism, is identified. Most of the story is comprised of rising action, where the narrator has one frightening experience after another; each teaches him about life and helps to remove some of his blindness to reality. Gradually, he begins to come to grips with his own identity in a racist world and accepts the fact that the Brotherhood has used him and his blackness, like so many other white organizations have done.
When he is caught up in the Harlem riots, the racism almost kills him, as he is being sought by Ras and other enemies. Fortunately for him, the narrator falls into a manhole, which offers him protection in the total darkness of an underground world. In this "blind" environment, the climax occurs, for the narrator finally puts his life into perspective and sees his invisibility and his identity in a new light. The true moment of climax occurs when he burns the tokens of his past, which he has carried in his briefcase; once freed from this "excess baggage," he can think clearly about his true self and his future. The falling action centers on his coming to grips with a philosophy of the multiplicity of life, which is not all black or all white, all good or all bad, all weak or all strong, all agreeable or all disagreeable.
The narrator also accepts that he has all of these things within himself. The epilogue then serves as the final conclusion to the plot, revealing why the narrator has written the book and explaining that he is ready to emerge from underground and live life as a changed and more hopeful man.