A misguided, mis-educated young man whose quest for meaning and identity as a black man in white America leads him into numerous dangerous situations. Although he undoubtedly has a name, he remains nameless and “invisible” throughout the novel.
The narrator’s ancestor and spiritual guide whose deathbed revelation haunts the narrator throughout the novel and serves as a catalyst for his quest. He appears in the novel only through the narrator’s memories.
The school superintendent
The nameless white man who invites the narrator to give his high school graduation speech at the smoker, where he acts as master of ceremonies. After tricking him into participating in the battle royal, he rewards him with a calfskin briefcase and “a scholarship to the state college for Negroes.”
The most brutal, sadistic white man at the battle royal. Jackson’s overt racism and vicious — albeit thwarted — attack on the narrator foreshadows Brother Jack’s covert racism and equally vicious attack on the narrator’s psyche.
The largest of the ten black boys forced to participate in the battle royal. Tatlock and the narrator are final contestants in the bloody boxing match, which results in a temporary deadlock. In the end, Tatlock defeats the narrator and proudly accepts his $10 prize.
white and blindly loyal leader of Brotherhood
seem compassionate, intelligent and kind
has racist view points, unable to see people as anything other than tools
glass eye + red hair = blindness and communism
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black member of brotherhood in Harlem
passionate, handsome, articulate and intelligent
part way with brotherhood, sell Sambo dolls on the street
got killed by police
Ras the Exhorter
Stout, flamboyant, charismatic, angry man
black nationalist movement, violent to overthrow white supremacy
(mock after Marcus Garvey)
surreal figure never appears, except by reputation
has multiple identities
pimp, bookie, preacher who speaks on subject of “invisibility”
narrator was mistakes to be this guy when he wear dark glasses
life of extreme freedom, complexity and possibility —>cynical and manipulate inauthenticity —->
Rinehart thus figures crucially in the book’s larger examination of the problem of identity and self-conception.
The president at the narrator’s college.
selfish, ambitious, and treacherous. He is a black man who puts on a mask of servility to the white community. Driven by his desire to maintain his status and power, he declares that he would see every black man in the country lynched before he would give up his position of authority.
One of the wealthy white trustees at the narrator’s college.
Mr. Norton is a narcissistic man who treats the narrator as a tally on his scorecard—that is, as proof that he is liberal-minded and philanthropic. Norton’s wistful remarks about his daughter add an eerie quality of longing to his fascination with the story of Jim Trueblood’s incest.
A white Northern liberal and multi-millionaire who provides financial support for Dr. Bledsoe’s college. A “smoker of cigars [and] teller of polite Negro stories,” Mr. Norton is a covert racist who hides his true feelings behind a mask of philanthropy.
Reverend Homer A. Barbee
A preacher from Chicago who visits the narrator’s college. Reverend Barbee’s fervent praise of the Founder’s “vision” strikes an inadvertently ironic note, because he himself is blind. With Barbee’s first name, Ellison makes reference to the Greek poet Homer, another blind orator who praised great heroes in his epic poems. Ellison uses Barbee to satirize the college’s desire to transform the Founder into a similarly mythic hero.
An uneducated black man who impregnated his own daughter and who lives on the outskirts of the narrator’s college campus. The students and faculty of the college view Jim Trueblood as a disgrace to the black community. To Trueblood’s surprise, however, whites have shown an increased interest in him since the story of his incest spread.
Kate and Matty Lou
Jim Trueblood’s wife and daughter, respectively.Kate and Matty Lou Jim Trueblood’s wife and daughter, respectively.
Mr. and Mrs. Broadnax
The white couple who appear in Jim Trueblood’s dream. Mr. Broadnax, like Mr. Norton, is a racist who hides behind a mask of philanthropy.
An institutionalized black man who makes bitterly insightful remarks about race relations. Claiming to be a graduate of the narrator’s college, the veteran tries to expose the pitfalls of the school’s ideology. His bold candor angers both the narrator and Mr. Norton—the veteran exposes their blindness and hypocrisy and points out the sinister nature of their relationship. Although society has deemed him “shell-shocked” and insane, the veteran proves to be the only character who speaks the truth in the first part of the novel.
The warden/attendant who transports the veterans from the hospital to the Golden Day once a week. The veterans hate him because he represents the white power structure.
Younger Mr. Emerson
Mr. Emerson’s presumably homosexual son. Because he himself is alienated from society, young Emerson empathizes with the narrator and shows him the contents of Dr. Bledsoe’s letter, addressed to his father. He also tells him about the job opening at the Liberty Paint Factory.
The black man in charge of mixing paints and regulating the pressure on the boilers in the basement of the Liberty Paint Factory. Terrified of losing his job, Brockway causes the explosion that lands the narrator in the factory hospital. Like Dr. Bledsoe, Brockway is a “gatekeeper” who jealously guards his position and does his best to keep other blacks — whom he views as potential competitors for his job — out of the company.
A serene and motherly black woman with whom the narrator stays after learning that the Men’s House has banned him. Mary treats him kindly and even lets him stay for free. She nurtures his black identity and urges him to become active in the fight for racial equality.
Sister and Brother Brovo
The elderly couple evicted from their Harlem apartment.
Brother Tod Clifton
The handsome, charismatic young black brother assigned as Harlem’s Youth Leader. Noted for his commitment to black youth, his idealism, and his Afro-Anglo-Saxon features, Brother Clifton is killed by a white policeman who arrests him for selling Sambo dolls on a Harlem street corner.
An elderly black man who spent nineteen years in prison for saying “No” to a white man. He gives the narrator a link from the iron chain he was forced to wear on his leg as a prisoner and portrait of Frederick Douglass for his office.
A white brother married to a black woman who believes his marital relationship provides him with special insight into the psychology of black people.
The brother who tries to wrest power from the narrator by accusing him of being an opportunist. He finally succeeds in getting him transferred out of the Harlem district.
The missing brother whom the narrator eventually meets at the Jolly Dollar, a Harlem bar and grill.
The white brother who half-heartedly supports the narrator following his accusation by Brother Wrestrum.
The brother who appears to empathize with the narrator, but points out that his actions have endangered the Brotherhood.
A shrewd, intelligent, sophisticated woman who revels in her power as Brother Jack’s mistress. Although sexually attracted to the narrator, she realizes that getting involved with him could cause her to lose her favored position.
A white woman whom the narrator attempts to use to find out information about the Brotherhood. Sybil instead uses the narrator to act out her fantasy of being raped by a “savage” black man.
Dupre and Scofield
Looters/leaders of the Harlem Riot, duped into believing that violence and destruction are the answers to racism and hatred.
a type of novel that chronicles a character’s moral and psychological growth
“We do not shape our policies to the mistaken and infantile notions of the man in the street. Our job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them!”
Brotherhood’s ideology taught by Brother Jack
“for a better world for all people”
Brotherhood’s ideology taught by Brother Jack
that the organization is striving to remedy the effects of too many people being “dispossessed of their heritage.”
Brotherhood’s ideology taught by Brother Jack
Jack, with his red hair, seems to symbolize this betrayal of communism with the black
Racism as an Obstacle to Individual Identity
The Limitations of Ideology
The Danger of Fighting Stereotype with Stereotype
“I’s big and black and I say ‘Yes, suh’ as loudly as any burrhead when it’s convenient, but I’m still the king down here. . . . The only ones I even pretend to please are big white folk, and even those I control more than they control me. . . . That’s my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about. . . . It’s a nasty deal and I don’t always like it myself. . . . But I’ve made my place in it and I’ll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am.”
“Our white is so white you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn’t white clear through.”
. . . the cast-iron figure of a very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro . . . stared up at me from the floor, his face an enormous grin, his single large black hand held palm up before his chest. It was a bank, a piece of early Americana, the kind of bank which, if a coin is placed in the hand and a lever pressed upon the back, will raise its arm and flip the coin into the grinning mouth.
coin bank that the narrator finds at Mary’s just before he leaves to join the Brotherhood.
I looked at Ras on his horse and at their handful of guns and recognized the absurdity of the whole night and of the simple yet confoundingly complex arrangement of hope and desire, fear and hate, that had brought me here still running, and knowing now who I was and where I was and knowing too that I had no longer to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine. . . . And I knew that it was better to live out one’s own absurdity than to die for that of others, whether for Ras’s or Jack’s.
The narrator experiences this moment of epiphany during his confrontation with Ras in Chapter 25. This scene represents a key moment in the narrator’s existential breakthrough, as he realizes that his own identity is the source of meaning in his life and that acting to fulfill the expectations of others can only prove destructive. Ras’s threatening to kill the narrator makes the narrator see the world as meaningless and absurd and the complexity of American life as equally absurd. (Ellison borrows the word “absurd” directly from the work of the French existentialists, who characterized the universe as such and claimed that the only meaning to be found in existence is that with which the individual invests his own life.) The only motivation to which the narrator can cling is an affirmation that his own absurdity is more important to him than Jack’s or Ras’s. The action of hurling Ras’s spear back at him demonstrates the narrator’s refusal to be subject any longer to others’ visions and demands—he finally commits himself fully to an attempt to assert his true identity.
And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man.
In this quote from the Epilogue, the narrator very neatly encapsulates the main source of his difficulties throughout the twenty-five chapters of the novel. He has not been himself and has not lived his own life but rather has allowed the complexity of his identity to be limited by the social expectations and prejudices of others. He has followed the ideology of the college and the ideology of the Brotherhood without trusting or developing his own identity. Now, however, he has realized that his own identity, both in its flexibility and authenticity, is the key to freedom. Rinehart, a master of many identities, first suggests to the narrator the limitless capacity for variation within oneself. However, Rinehart ultimately proves an unsatisfactory model for the narrator because Rinehart’s life lacks authenticity. The meaning of the narrator’s assertion that he is “an invisible man” has changed slightly since he made the same claim at the beginning of the novel: whereas at the outset he means to call attention to the fact that others cannot not see him, he now means to call attention to the fact that his identity, his inner self, is real, even if others cannot see it.
Bildungsroman (a German word meaning novel of personal “formation,” or development), existentialist novel, African-American fiction, novel of social protest
POINT OF VIEW
The narrator writes in the first person, emphasizing his individual experience and his feelings about the events portrayed.
Ellison often seems to join the narrator in his sentiments, which range from bitterly cynical to willfully optimistic, from anguish at his sufferings to respect for the lessons learned from them. Ellison seems to write himself into the book through the narrator. However, Ellison also frequently portrays the narrator as blind to the realities of race relations. He points out this blindness through other, more insightful characters (most notably the veteran) as well as through symbolic details.
Past, with present-tense sections in the Prologue and Epilogue
he narrator dreams that the scholarship given him by white community members in fact reads “Keep This ******-Boy Running.” This prefigures the damaging influence on the narrator of his future college’s lessons in ideology. When the narrator joins the Brotherhood, Brother Jack’s mistress doubts aloud that the narrator is “black enough” to be the organization’s black spokesperson. This hints at a latent racism within the Brotherhood, which will eventually end in the group’s betrayal of the narrator.