Invisible Man by Ralph EllisonTable of Contents
1. Invisible Man: Introduction
2. Invisible Man: Overview
3. Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison Biography
4. Invisible Man: Summary
Invisible Man: Summary and Analysis
¨ Prologue Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 6 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 7 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 8 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 9 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 10 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 11 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 12 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 13 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 14 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 15 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 16 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 17 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 18 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 19 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 20 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 21 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 22 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 23 Summary and Analysis
Invisible Man 1
¨ Chapter 24 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 25 Summary and Analysis
¨ Epilogue Summary and Analysis
Invisible Man: Quizzes
¨ Prologue Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 1 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 2 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 3 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 4 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 5 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 6 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 7 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 8 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 9 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 10 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 11 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 12 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 13 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 14 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 15 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 16 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 17 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 18 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 19 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 20 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 21 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 22 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 23 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 24 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapter 25 Questions and Answers
¨ Epilogue Questions and Answers
7. Invisible Man: Themes
8. Invisible Man: Style
9. Invisible Man: Historical Context
10. Invisible Man: Critical Overview
11. Invisible Man: Character Analysis
Invisible Man: Essays and Criticism
¨ The Invisible Man’s Journey and the Larger American Experience
¨ Ellison’s Ambitious Scope in Invisible Man
¨ Ralph Ellison and the Birth of the Anti-Hero
13. Invisible Man: Suggested Essay Topics
14. Invisible Man: Sample Essay Outlines
15. Invisible Man: Compare and Contrast
16. Invisible Man: Topics for Further Study
17. Invisible Man: Media Adaptations
18. Invisible Man: What Do I Read Next?
19. Invisible Man: Bibliography and Further Reading
20. Invisible Man: Pictures
eNotes: Table of Contents 2
Invisible Man: Introduction
At its appearance in 1952, Invisible Man was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. A work both epic and
richly comic, it won the National Book Award for its author, Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man has been translated
into fourteen languages and has never been out of print. A 1965 Book Week poll of two hundred writers and
critics selected it as the most distinguished novel of the previous twenty years. Written in the style of a
bildungsroman, or novel of education, the book chronicles the sometimes absurd adventures of a young black
man whose successful search for identity ends with the realization that he is invisible to the white world.
Invisible Man is structurally complex and densely symbolic; some critics, in fact, faulted it for what they saw
as literary excess. A major controversy centered on the book's intended audience: some black critics argued
that it was or should have been a ‘‘race’’ novel, while white critics were relieved that it was not. It also
aroused the ire of black nationalists for sacrificing the broader concerns of black nationhood in the defense of
a narrow individualism. This contentiousness dissipated over time, however, and the novel's enduring
qualities are now undisputed. Invisible Man deals with themes of individuality, identity, history, and
responsibility. The protagonist is repeatedly exhorted to look beneath the surface of things. Although Ellison
freely acknowledged his debt to both European and African American literary traditions, he used an
astonishing range of African-American folk forms in constructing his protagonist's universe. Critics agree that
the influence of Invisible Man on American literature in general, and its role in bringing the blues and folklore
into the mainstream of black experience in particular, is incalculable.
Invisible Man: Overview
The Life and Work of Ralph Waldo Ellison
Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He died on April 16, 1994, in
Harlem, New York. He was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, a great nineteenth-century writer. When
Lewis Ellison thought of the future, he saw his son, the poet.
The narrator of Invisible Man shows an interest in Ralph Waldo Emerson. The young Ralph Ellison felt a
burden attached to this great name, a pressure to become great himself, and it made him uncomfortable.
Ralph Ellison did not grow up in the Deep South, as his parents had, and this made an important difference in
his life. Oklahoma was a new territory, offering a chance for a better life than in the former slave states,
despite the Jim Crow laws that white settlers brought with them.
Ellison went to Douglass High School (named after Frederick Douglass), and then to Tuskegee Institute, a
well-known historically black college in Alabama, in June 1933. He was unhappy at Tuskegee, and his
impressions of that college are reflected in the narrator’s experiences with Dr. Bledsoe in Invisible Man.
Ellison never finished his degree. Instead, he left for New York in the spring of 1936. The great promise of
Harlem was calling his name.
Once he arrived, Ellison took odd jobs and met the leading black artists and intellectuals of his day. The
atmosphere was vibrant, and Ellison, whose artistic abilities included music, sculpture, writing, and
photography, participated in what was later called the Harlem Renaissance. Soon, through the encouragement
of black American writer Richard Wright author of Native Son, Ellison was publishing book reviews and
Ellison worked on Invisible Man for five years. It was published in 1952 and won the National Book Award
for fiction. Ellison’s only novel, it established his literary reputation. He also published two collections of
essays: Shadow and Act in 1964 and Going into the Territory in 1986.
Invisible Man: Introduction 3
Ellison died in Harlem, New York, which had been his home for twenty years, and which he immortalized in
his masterpiece, Invisible Man.
The physical and emotional segregation of an earlier American society is a main subject of Invisible Man. It is
considered a classic because of its writing, and also for its portrayal of the experiences of African Americans.
At the same time, as Ellison himself had frequently asserted before his death, the book goes beyond specific
questions of race relations. It touches upon the dynamics of personal identity, and the ways and limits in
which people can know each other.
Though no specific years are given in the novel, there are clues for the reader. The shell-shocked men at the
Golden Day, a local tavern and halfway house, respond to the name of General Pershing, indicating that
World War I is part of their pasts. There is no mention of World War II. There is frequent mention of black
people who contributed to the American experience earlier in this century, such as Louis Armstrong, Paul
Robeson, and Joe Louis, as well as ideas that affected blacks, like Jim Crow laws.
One of the central themes of the novel is the extent to which its black characters feel free to express
themselves in what they are told is a “white man’s world.” Whether this has changed is a matter of
discussion and debate by trained professionals, such as sociologists and psychologists, and by students and
working people as well.
Invisible Man was published in 1952. Some of its scenes anticipate the civil rights protests that would alter
this country in that decade and the next. The first six chapters take place in the Deep South. Then, like many
black Americans who left the South for more hospitable places, the narrator departs for New York City. At
first, he finds it to be the better world that some have told him about, but his optimism is eventually shattered.
Master List of Characters
The Narrator—tells the story of his life, but remains unnamed throughout the novel
Grandfather—although not appearing in the novel, he is an important influence on the narrator because of the
Jackson—a particularly sadistic member of the audience at the battle royal; he tries to attack the blindfolded
boys, but is restrained from doing so
Tatlock—the very large, mean boy that the narrator is forced to fight at the battle royal
Mr. Norton—an important benefactor of the college that the narrator attends
The Founder—an almost mythical man, who founded the college the narrator attends; he is no longer alive; a
statue of him stands on the campus, and many different characters talk about him, but the reader never finds
out his name or the race to which he belonged
Dr. Bledsoe—president of the college the narrator attends
Jim Trueblood—a poor farmer on the land adjacent to the college
The Vet—the man who helps Mr. Norton at the Golden Day tavern and in the process tells some deep truths
about the narrator’s situation; the narrator talks with him again, on the bus
Big Halley—the bartender at the Golden Day
Invisible Man: Overview 4
Supercargo—the attendant at the Golden Day
Sylvester—a mental patient and client at the Golden Da
Edna—a prostitute at the Golden Day.
The Reverend Homer A. Barbee—the man who gives the address at the narrator’s college
Crenshaw—the man in charge of taking the vet from the Golden Day to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a
well-known mental institution in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Emerson’s son—the man who shows the narrator the contents of a letter written by Dr. Bledsoe
Mr. Kimbro and Mr. MacDuffy—the white men at the Liberty Paint Factory
Lucius Brockway—the man in charge of the boilers at the Liberty Paint Factory
Mary—the woman who finds the narrator on the street and gives him a home
Ras the Exhorter—a powerful leader of a major protest movement in Harlem; there is much conflict between
his ideology and that of the Brotherhood movement; near the end of the novel, Ras changes his name from
“Ras the Exhorter” to “Ras the Destroyer”
Brother Jack—the first member of “the Brotherhood,” a movement that the narrator becomes involved in after
his experience in public speaking
Emma—a friend of the Brotherhood; an attractive, affluent woman, she owns the apartment where the narrator
is introduced to the other members of the Brotherhood
Brother Hambro—the man who trains the narrator in the art of rhetoric (argumentation and speech-making)
Brother Tarp—a member of the Brotherhood’s Harlem office; an older man, he is friendly to the narrator; his
limp was caused by a traumatic incident in his past
Brother Tod Clifton—another member of the Brotherhood; a charismatic young man, he comes to a dramatic
and mysterious end
Brother Wrestrum—a member of the Brotherhood who seems to oppose the narrator’s career there
Brother Tobitt—a member of the Brotherhood’s Headquarters committee, whose sarcasm irritates the narrator;
he takes a lead role in the accusations against the narrator
Hubert’s wife—an unnamed woman, with whom the narrator has an affair
Rinehart—a shadowy local figure, both a criminal and a preacher, for whom the narrator is repeatedly mistaken
Brother Maceo—one of the missing brothers; when the narrator finally finds Brother Maceo, he doesn’t
recognize him, because the narrator has on his “Rinehart disguise”
Sybil—the wife of one of the men in the organization; she and the narrator have an abortive affair
Invisible Man: Overview 5
Dupre—the leader of a bunch of looters, whom the narrator meets during the riots
Scofield—one of the looters in the group
Summary of the Novel
Invisible Man is a first-person novel. It concerns an unnamed narrator, whom the reader meets in the
Prologue. In the Epilogue, the narrator seems to “rejoin” the reader once again.
Other than his memories of his grandfather’s death, the narrator reveals nothing about his childhood. After
the humiliating battle royal (a chaotic boxing match, along with sundry torments, in which high school boys
competed), he goes to college, where he has an experience in betrayal that changes his life.
Having inadvertently taken an important visitor to the wrong places, the narrator is left exposed to the harsh
judgment of Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the college. The narrator is emotionally scarred by what has
Forced to leave the college that he loved, the narrator takes a bus to New York City to find work. There he
tries to use letters of recommendation, but to no avail. He eventually takes a job in a paint factory. Another
unpleasant lesson ensues there, for the narrator is untrained for the work. He is placed under the thumb of a
bitter and distrusting man, who maneuvers the narrator into an industrial accident.
The narrator is once again torn loose from his moorings. After the accident, the narrator endured a bizarre
experience, in which medical personnel tortured him. Mary, a stranger, finds the narrator in the street, and
offers him a home. Soon afterward, a protest of the eviction of an old couple leads the narrator to join a
political group called the Brotherhood.
The narrator seems to advance in the organization, but the petty politics and machinations of those around him
ensure the narrator’s instability. Eventually, the narrator is betrayed by the Brotherhood. Not long after one of
the members is killed by a policeman, a riot begins. In the growing confusion, the narrator takes to the
Estimated Reading Time
The average silent-reading rate for a secondary student is 250 to 300 words per minute, making the total
reading time for this novel about 19 hours.
Invisible Man can be a challenging novel. Teachers will no doubt be sensitive to Ellison’s subject matter and
technique, and divide their assignments accordingly. Allow plenty of time to enjoy this great work. Reading
the book according to the natural chapter breaks is the best approach, although most of the longer chapters
have their own divisions.
Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison Biography
As a boy, Ralph Waldo Ellison announced that his ambition was to become a Renaissance man. ‘‘I was
taken very early,’’ he would write, ‘‘with a passion to link together all I loved within the Negro community
and all those things I felt in the world which lay beyond.’’ Ellison was born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma
City, Oklahoma, to Ida Millsap and Lewis Ellison, who died when Ralph was three. Ellison’s mother worked
tirelessly to provide a stimulating environment for Ralph and his brother, and her influence on the writer was
Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison Biography 6
In 1933, at the age of nineteen, Ellison hopped a freight train to Tuskegee Institute in Macon County,
Alabama, where he majored in music. In the summer of 1935, he traveled north to New York City to earn
money for his last year in college; he never returned to Tuskegee. Instead, he stayed in New York and worked
for a year as a freelance photographer, file clerk, and builder and seller of hi-fi systems, still intending a career
in music. But then Richard Wright the noted author of Black Boy and Native Son, invited him to write a book
review for the 1937 issue of New Challenge, and Ellison's career was decided.
In 1938 Ellison joined the Federal Writers Project, which gave him opportunities to do research and to write,
and helped to build his appreciation of folklore. Like other black intellectuals in the 1930s, he found the
Communist party's active anti-racist stance appealing, but Ellison was also a fervent individualist, and he
never became a party member. During 1942 Ellison was managing editor of the Negro Quarterly, but
thereafter he turned to writing stories. Two of his most acclaimed stories before the publication of Invisible
Man were ‘‘Flying Home’’ (1944) and ‘‘King of the Bingo Game’’ (1944); both dealt with questions of
identity. Ellison met Fanny McConnell in 1944, and the couple married in 1946.
During World War II Ellison served as a cook in the merchant marines. He returned to the United States in
1945 and began Invisible Man. The novel appeared in 1952 and was a commercial and critical success,
winning the National Book Award in 1953, although some black nationalists felt the novel was not political
enough. Ellison continued to write short stories, and in 1964 he published Shadow and Act, a collection of
essays and interviews about the meaning of experience. Many awards and lecture and teaching engagements
followed, both at home and abroad, and Ellison became regarded as an expert on African-American culture
and folklore, American studies, and creative writing.
The major question of Ellison's later life was whether and when he would publish another novel. He had
reportedly been working on a book since 1955, but his progress was slow, and in 1967 a fire at Ellison's home
destroyed about 350 pages of the manuscript. The novel was left unfinished at his death, although eight
excerpts from it have been published in literary journals. In 1986 Ellison published Going to the Territory, a
collection of previously published speeches, reviews, and essays. He died of pancreatic cancer on April 16,
Invisible Man: Summary
Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man chronicles the life of an unnamed, first-person narrator from his youth in the
Invisible Man: Summary 7
segregated American South of the 1920s to a temporary ‘‘hibernation,’’ twenty years later, in a ‘‘border
area’’ of Harlem. From his ‘‘hole in the ground,’’ this invisible man responds to his ‘‘compulsion to put
invisibility down in black and white’’ by telling his story. He begins by attempting to explain his own
invisibility: ‘‘I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.’’ The tendency of others
to distort what they see or to see ‘‘everything and anything’’ except him leads the narrator to question his
own existence. As a result, he feels resentment toward those who refuse to acknowledge his reality. When he
bumps into one such person on the street, the narrator responds to the man's slurs with swift violence. He is
kept from killing him only by the unnerving realization that his victim did not, in fact, see him as another
human being but rather as a ‘‘phantom’’ or a mirage. The narrator notes one curious advantage of
invisibility, a ‘‘slightly different sense of time’’ that allows one to ‘‘see around corners.’’ After
accidentally smoking a "reefer’’ and experiencing a hallucinogenic journey back through history to slave
times, the narrator recognizes that his awareness of invisibility alone gives him a more useful sense of sight.
He has, as he puts it, ‘‘illuminated the blackness of my invisibility,’’ and it remains for him to explain, in
the rest of the novel, what has brought him to this newfound understanding of his own identity and of his role
in American society.
The narrator begins his story with his memories of youth and adolescence in a small southern town. He recalls
first, as the most baffling but powerful memory of his childhood, the final instructions of his dying
grandfather that he must live as a ‘‘traitor’’ and ‘‘a spy in the enemy's territory.’’ These words become
‘‘like a curse’’ to the narrator as he grows older, for he finds reward in living a life of outward humility and
he doesn't understand how such a life might be called ‘‘treachery.’’ Asked by the leading white citizens of
the town to repeat his graduation speech extolling submissiveness, the narrator finds himself required to
participate in a battle royal, a blindfolded boxing match with one of his schoolmates. Bloodied from the fight
and humiliated by the racist jeers of the white men, the narrator still delivers his speech about ‘‘social
responsibility’’ and receives, as a ‘‘badge of office,’’ a brief case and a college scholarship.
The narrator's education at the ‘‘state college for Negroes’’ comes to an abrupt end during his junior year,
when he shows a wealthy white benefactor of the college, Mr. Norton, parts of the South that the college
wishes to hide from its northern visitors. Mr. Norton is horrified by what he hears from Jim Trueblood (a
black sharecropper who has impregnated his own daughter) and by what he sees in the Golden Day (a
‘‘slave-quarter’’ brothel). Because he has thus embarrassed the school and threatened its reputation, the
narrator is temporarily expelled by the president of the college, Dr. Bledsoe. After listening to an impassioned
speech about the school's mission by Homer A. Barbee, the narrator is advised by Bledsoe to go to New York
to earn his fees for the following year. Provided with sealed letters to several of the school's ‘‘friends’’ in
the North, the narrator boards a bus, optimistic that he will soon return to complete his education.
The narrator's confidence soon wavers, when a veteran from the Golden Day heading north on the same bus
urges him to ‘‘come out of the fog’’ and ‘‘learn to look beneath the surface’’ of his life. Once in New
York, the narrator feels alternately confident and frightened, more free than in the South but more confused.
His doubts increase after his first six letters yield no job opportunities. With his seventh letter, the narrator
meets Young Emerson, the disillusioned son of one of the college's wealthy benefactors, from whom he learns
that Bledsoe's letters of introduction in fact bar him from ever returning to the school. Stunned by this
discovery, the narrator abandons his loyalty and submission to the college and knows that he will ‘‘never be
Finding work at the Liberty Paint factory, the narrator is branded a ‘‘fink’’ by the unionized workers, then
moments later is accused of being a unionizer by Lucius Brockway. Before the end of the day he contributes
to a boiler-room explosion that leaves him seriously injured and unconscious. He awakes in the factory
hospital, where, in order to assure that ‘‘society will suffer no traumata on his account,’’ doctors attempt to
Invisible Man: Summary 8
‘‘cure’’ him with an electric-shock lobotomy. After his release from the hospital, the narrator is unsure of
who he is, feeling disconnected from both his mind and his body. Drifting back to Harlem, he is taken in by
Mary Rambo, an elderly black woman he meets coming out of the Lenox Avenue subway. Here his search for
identity becomes an ‘‘obsession,’’ and he roams the city without purpose until he comes across an eviction
in progress. Speaking to the angry crowd in defense of the elderly black couple, the narrator comes to the
attention of a member of the politically radical Brotherhood. Recruited as a spokesperson for their cause, the
narrator accepts a new name and a ‘‘new identity’’ and resolves once again to ‘‘leave the old behind.’’
After parting from Mary and moving into an apartment provided by the Brotherhood, the narrator delivers his
first speech at a political rally. Encouraged by his own performance and the emotional reaction of the crowd,
he resolves to find a meaningful identity in the Brotherhood that is ‘‘not limited by black and white.’’ After
the narrator meets Tod Clifton, another young black man active in the Brotherhood, the two are involved in a
street fight with the black nationalist Ras the Exhorter. Although denounced by Ras for working side by side
with white men, the narrator is ‘‘dominated by the all-embracing idea of Brotherhood’’ and convinced that
he plays a ‘‘vital role’’ in the work of the organization. His confidence is momentarily shaken by an
anonymous warning that he not ‘‘get too big,’’ but he is reminded of what he is working for by Brother
Tarp's gift of a leg link that he had filed open to escape from a southern chain gang.
The narrator begins to question the aims of the Brotherhood after he is denounced by Brother Wrestrum and is
transferred out of Harlem to lecture downtown on ‘‘the Woman Question.’’ When he returns to Harlem
after Tod Clifton's disappearance, he finds the movement weakened and disorganized and discovers Clifton on
the street hawking paper Sambo dolls. Moments later, the narrator watches as Clifton is gunned down by a
police officer. With his eyes opened to aspects of Harlem and of the Brotherhood that he had never seen
before, the narrator leads a funeral march for Clifton at which he abandons ‘‘scientific’’ political arguments
for honest emotional expression. Roaming the streets of Harlem after again being denounced by the
Brotherhood, the narrator discovers a world of contradiction and ‘‘possibility’’ that causes him to see his
past experiences in a new light:
… leaning against that stone wall in the sweltering night, I began to accept my past and, as I
accepted it, I felt memories welling up within me. It was as though I'd learned suddenly to
look around corners; images of past humiliations flickered through my head and I saw that
they were more than separate experiences. They were me; they defined me. I was my
experiences and my experiences were me, and no blind men, no matter how powerful they
became, even if they conquered the world, could take that, or change one single itch, taunt,
laugh, cry, scar, ache, rage or pain of it. They were blind, bat blind, moving only by the
echoed sounds of their own voices.… They were very much the same, each attempting to force
his picture of reality upon me and neither giving a hoot in hell for how things looked to me. I
was simply a material, a natural resource to be used. I had switched from the arrogant
absurdity of Norton and Emerson to that of Jack and the Brotherhood, and it all came out the
same—except I now recognized my invisibility.
After this powerful recognition, the narrator resolves to undermine the Brotherhood. But before he can
discover their plans for him and for Harlem, he is swept up in a riot initiated by Ras, now called ‘‘the
Destroyer.’’ Narrowly escaping death at the hands of Ras and his henchmen, the narrator falls into an open
manhole where he sleeps, dreams, and eventually decides to ‘‘take up residence.’’
From his ‘‘hole in the ground,’’ the narrator ends his story by reflecting on his painful past, his present
uncertainty and anger, and the possibility that he may yet emerge from his ‘‘hibernation’’ and—though still
an invisible man in American society—find ‘‘a socially responsible role to play.’’
Invisible Man: Summary 9
Invisible Man: Summary and Analysis
Prologue Summary and Analysis
The narrator: tells the story of his life, but remains unnamed
The Prologue introduces the narrator with a monologue set inside the narrator’s head. After having many
adventures, which the reader will discover more about in the chapters to come, the narrator is resting and
isolated. He uses the word “hibernation” to describe his status.
The Prologue begins with the narrator announcing that he is an invisible man. But he is also a man of
substance—“flesh and bone, fiber and liquids”—not a creation of books or movies. In making clear that he is
not literally invisible, the narrator proceeds to discuss what his invisibility is like, and how he has come to
The narrator describes his life, and the ways he interacts with others. One night, when the narrator feels that a
man has refused to recognize his existence, he uses violence to force the man to admit that the narrator is
there. Irrational as this scene may seem, it has its own logic. The narrator is convinced that the man never
really saw him. The next day’s newspaper seems to confirm his view. It calls the incident a mugging, even
though the narrator hadn’t tried to rob the man.
The narrator observes that there are also certain advantages to being ignored by white people. He lives in the
basement of a whites-only building and diverts free electricity for the many (1,369) lightbulbs he has plugged
At the same time, the narrator is aware of his aloneness, and no amount of irony and cynicism will conceal his
loneliness. He talks about “re-entering” society. He makes no distinction between white society and black
society, having proved to himself that his invisibility is equally effective in both.
The narrator mentions characters such as Brother Jack, Ras, and Rinehart, whom the reader will meet later in
The Prologue introduces a sharp mind that has suffered a great deal. The reader may think that the narrator is
not sane, considering he attacks a man for not noticing him. However it is too early to tell, and we must judge
him by his words, actions, and past.
The narrator tends to express himself indirectly. His fantastic imagination provides a crucial clue to his
unhappiness. At one point, he says that his feelings of ambivalence are the cause of his being where he is.
The narrator’s estrangement from society has made him an observer rather than a participant. He views
people from a distance, from his alienated vantage point, often seeing in human behavior what other people do
not notice. Unfortunately, learning about people in this way does not seem to help the narrator find what he
spends the novel searching for. The humor that the narrator uses is dark and cynical.
Invisible Man: Summary and Analysis 10
Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
Grandfather: not an actual character, although his dying words greatly disturb the narrator
Jackson: a particularly sadistic member of the audience at the battle royal
Tatlock: a large and vicious boy whom the narrator is forced to fight during the battle royal
A brief anecdote about the narrator’s grandfather begins the chapter. Through his childhood and early
adulthood, the narrator is confused by his grandfather’s “deathbed curse.” After the narrator gives his high
school graduation speech on humility, he is invited to give his speech before a special audience. At this event,
the narrator realizes that young men from the local black high school have been brought together for the
sadistic amusement of white men.
First, a naked white woman dances in front of the high school students. The strong emotions generated by
such a forbidden sight are channelled into a free-for-all boxing match. The narrator faces Tatlock, who is
filled with rage. The distribution of prize money provides more torture.
Finally, the narrator makes his speech. The audience, at first not really listening, changes when the narrator
says “social equality” instead of “social responsibility.” Despite this difficulty, the narrator finishes with
applause and a prize. The superintendent presents him with a new briefcase, containing a scholarship to an
all-black state college.
The story of the narrator’s grandfather frames the narrator’s central struggle: the line between honesty and
insanity. The adults react to the grandfather’s “deathbed curse,” as the narrator sometimes calls it, by saying
that the grandfather was crazy. This is hardly the only possibility. The question of whether or not many of the
characters are crazy runs through the entire novel.
The fact that the whole of the narrator’s life before college is reduced to one evening suggests that the story
of that evening, which he calls the battle royal, can serve as an indication of something greater. Although the
characters in the first chapter do not reappear in the novel, the battle royal provides the reader with crucial
insights. Similarly, though Jackson and Tatlock are flat characters, they embody important facets of home to
The whites look at their victims as entertainment, not individuals. Tatlock represents the distortions of
relationships between blacks in the presence of whites. Why does Tatlock fight so hard? Most likely because
his situation with the whites makes him angry, and the narrator is the only person on whom Tatlock can vent
An intense atmosphere of malice and instability pervades the battle royal. Ellison effectively blends comedy
and fantastical imagery with drama and pathos. For example, the description of the blond dancer suggests a
fragile, magical being, instead of the sordid pawn that torments them. At the same time, many of the details of
the battle royal are highly realistic.
Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis 11
Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis
Mr. Norton: the rich, white, northern benefactor whom the narrator chauffeurs in a college-owned car
Jim Trueblood: the poor sharecropper who tells Mr. Norton a story
The narrator drives Mr. Norton along the quiet roadways of the campus where the narrator attends college.
The nervous narrator is reassured by Mr. Norton’s confidence and curiosity about the narrator’s future. Mr.
Norton and the narrator also talk about Mr. Norton’s daughter, who died suddenly and mysteriously.
After a few chance turns, they reach an area of old cabins. The narrator repeats what is told about Jim
Trueblood, owner of one of the cabins—that he had had a child with his own daughter. Despite the narrator’s
reluctance, Mr. Norton insists on talking with Jim Trueblood.
Jim Trueblood tells them the story, saying that he never meant to sleep with his daughter, Matty Lou. As he
fell asleep in their single bed, he had been thinking about a woman he’d known years before. This, combined
with his strange and erotic dream, made him lose control of himself. When his wife saw the “accident” taking
place, she tried to kill him for his sin.
The narrator is repulsed and disgusted by the story. Mr. Norton is transfixed, and so dangerously upset that the
wondering narrator must suddenly fear for Mr. Norton’s health.
This chapter’s opening paragraphs focus on the quiet beauty of the campus, communicating a sense of loss.
The reader cannot be sure that the narrator was successful there.
Even at this black college, indebtedness to whites is present. One of the benefactors of the college, Mr.
Norton, is there for Founder’s Day; ironically, the whiteness or blackness of the Founder is never disclosed.
Assigned to chauffeur Mr. Norton, the narrator, despite his awe of Mr. Norton, allows a truth-related
catastrophe to occur. The fact that Mr. Norton hears, and is deeply upset by, Jim Trueblood’s story is sure to
have its consequences for the narrator.
Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis
Big Halley: a bartender at the Golden Day
Sylvester: a mental patient and a patron of the Golden Day
Supercargo: the attendant/warden at the Golden Day
The vet: a strange little man who tends to Mr. Norton’s condition upstairs; the talk that the two of them have
puts the vet in a vulnerable position
Edna: a prostitute at the Golden Day; she shows great interest in spending more time with Mr. Norton
Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis 12
The car arrives at the Golden Day, a bar and whorehouse. Mr. Norton requires “a stimulant,” in the form of
alcohol, to overcome the shock of Jim Trueblood’s story. Mr. Norton’s condition is unknown, but his
aristocratic constitution implies a certain delicacy.
The stumbling men in front of the car are the veterans and mental incompetents that make the Golden Day a
rowdy place. The narrator knows that this was not a good place to bring Mr. Norton, but going to town would
have taken too long.
The narrator tries to get Halley, the bartender, to give him a drink for Mr. Norton. When Halley refuses, the
narrator goes out to the car and finds that Mr. Norton has fainted. Sylvester and another man help bring Mr.
Norton inside. Someone slaps Mr. Norton across the face to revive him, and a drink is administered.
Just after Mr. Norton awakens, Supercargo enters the scene. Being the attendant in charge of these men, he is
accustomed to being in command. Now, however, everyone is affected by alcohol, and Supercargo’s
threatening presence so angers the men that they attack him.
Supercargo is overcome and severely beaten. It is soon clear that Mr. Norton would be safer upstairs. Once
there, the vet continues treating Mr. Norton, and the three of them engage in a long conversation, which
continues until the narrator’s and Mr. Norton’s angery departure.
Whether or not he intends to, the narrator continues to do what he did in the previous chapter—to confront Mr.
Norton with the day-to-day realities of black life in the South. He has brought Mr. Norton to two places that
those in the college react to with embarrassment and anger.
While the chaos in this chapter is as intense as the battle royal in Chapter One, the reasons behind it are
different. The Golden Day has its own strange sense of logic; the men do not have to deal with white people,
and their “craziness” keeps them out of trouble. The situation with Supercargo, however, angers them. They
say they cannot speak freely when he is present, which means that he treats them the way a white man would.
They make him pay dearly for that crime. They are not afraid of Mr. Norton, but they have no desire to hurt
him; that would mean real trouble.
The vet’s short speeches may seem confusing. Some of what he says is indirectly stated, as the narrator
himself has done in the Prologue. The vet says that he had forgotten things he never should have forgotten; the
whites might have said that the Vet “forgot his place.” In learning medicine and healing, the vet neglected to
keep in mind the realities of American racism. Other statements the vet makes sound completely crazy, but, as
usual, this is not necessarily the case.
Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis
Dr. Bledsoe: the president of the college
Upon returning to campus, the narrator drops Mr. Norton off and goes to see Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the
college. Feeling certain that he will be blamed for having subjected Mr. Norton to both Jim Trueblood’s story
and the events at the Golden Day, the narrator is in an agony of nervousness.
Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis 13
Dr. Bledsoe is greatly disconcerted by the course of events and, despite Mr. Norton’s words to the contrary,
does indeed blame the narrator. The narrator is ordered to see Dr. Bledsoe later that evening, after attending a
campus church service. Both on the way to his room, and once having arrived there, the narrator is accosted
by fellow students, whose blithe chatter further strains the narrator’s nerves.
In this chapter, the narrator becomes aware of the danger he faces. Having broken unwritten rules, he expects
a severe penalty for what he has done, although this is unconfirmed. The narrator does not realize that his not
having done anything will not make any difference.
Ellison makes good use of suspense. Although the character telling the story has already lived through it and
knows what happened, the resolution of the narrator’s fears are withheld from the reader, who is kept in
suspense along with the young man in the memory.
This is far more effective than if the narrator had told us what happened, and then explained how that
conclusion came into being. The chronology of the day’s events (remember that this day started in Chapter
Two and is not yet over) is meticulously followed.
There is little large-scale drama here, as we saw at the Golden Day. Instead, more subtle clues tell the reader
about the characters. For example, the narrator notices the extent to which Dr. Bledsoe changes when he is
with Mr. Norton. The reader has an opportunity to see how Dr. Bledsoe acts toward the narrator.
Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis
The Reverend Homer A. Barbee: the man who gives the sermon the narrator hears in this chapter; Barbee
provides a perspective of hollow pride and rhetoric
As ordered by Dr. Bledsoe, the narrator goes to the college chapel. Before the evening’s guest speaker begins
his sermon, the narrator meditates upon his own precarious status. He then recalls the times that he spoke
publicly at the college.
He returns to the present scene, describing the people there, including Dr. Bledsoe. There is a choir solo and
the sermon begins, praising the lives and visions of those who built the college.
The sermon is delivered by Reverend Homer A. Barbee, of Chicago. Its topic is the great work of making the
college, accomplished by the godlike yet entirely humble personalities of the Founder and Dr. Bledsoe.
Barbee works the crowd and uses techniques of oratory to make the story into an epic saga of heroism. The
narrator, moved and demoralized, is left feeling like a traitor. He dreads all the more his imminent talk with
This is a difficult chapter because little actually happens. Instead, the first half of the chapter takes place
entirely inside the narrator’s head. Moreover, the narrator is doing two things at once: he is reliving the
evening, as well as remembering the evening from the perspective of a grown man.
The narrator sits in the college chapel, waiting for both the guest speaker to deliver his sermon and, more
importantly, for an answer from Dr. Bledsoe about the consequences of the day’s unfortunate events.
Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis 14
While waiting for the sermon, the narrator examines his situation, savoring all its exquisite details of beauty
and anguish. The meditation on his life in college, which he looks upon as lost, leads him to recall moments
when he too stood upon the church-stage and spoke oratorically. This is the section printed in italic type,
where the narrator throws words around in a sort of celebration of their uselessness.
One might say that there are three sermons in the chapter. The narrator gives two personal sermons before the
official one commences.
The chapter begins with descriptions of nature and landscape in which all the senses are invoked. It is
reminiscent of the start of the second chapter; the narrator is holding onto details in a loving fashion.
Also, the beginning of the chapter contains a shift in tense, from past to present. This shift, in the second
sentence of the chapter, makes the narrator’s perceptions more immediate and dramatic. It indicates that these
perceptions are frozen in time; the narrator we met in the Prologue is reliving the event.
Chapter 6 Summary and Analysis
After some last-minute panic and forestalling, the narrator has his interview with Dr. Bledsoe. Though the
conversation begins pleasantly, it changes suddenly when the college president heaps abuse upon the narrator.
Then Dr. Bledsoe tells the narrator his decision. The narrator is dismissed from college.
The narrator’s first response is outrage and anger. This shocks and then amuses Dr. Bledsoe, who says the
narrator is powerless. When it comes right down to it, the narrator does not really exist, because he does not
matter. The college president tells the narrator about how a person gets power, and what it means to have it.
Dr. Bledsoe tells the narrator that he will give him some letters to help him find work, and that the narrator
has a short period of time to end his affairs.
The narrator leaves the office and vomits. He thinks about going back home, and the reactions he would face
from those still there. He decides that Dr. Bledsoe’s decision was correct, and that he must accept his fate. He
gets ready to leave.
Dr. Bledsoe is displeased to see the narrator the next morning, until the narrator says that he would like to get
going and asks for the letters that Dr. Bledsoe had mentioned the night before. After collecting them, the
narrator catches a bus.
The reader has long been anticipating the confrontation between the narrator and Dr. Bledsoe. It is very
dramatic, but not highly surprising. The narrator was expecting to be expelled.
Ellison is very skilled at capturing the tension of this meeting. The narrator receives a lesson on how power
involves deception. The reader is getting a similar lesson on the forces that made the narrator into the invisible
man who introduced himself in the Prologue.
The narrator feels powerless in front of Dr. Bledsoe. He does not leave the office immediately, as he had been
ready to do. Instead, he stays and listens, angry at himself for doing so, and filled with an agony of hate and
Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis 15
One of the issues in this chapter is honesty. Dr. Bledsoe accuses the narrator of lying to him, and castigates
the narrator for not lying to Mr. Norton. At the same time, Dr. Bledsoe tells the narrator not to treat him like a
white man, even while calling the narrator a “nigger.” This puts the narrator in a sort of double bind, for Dr.
Bledsoe is exerting power over the narrator just as a white man would do, even while telling the narrator that
he has pulled the race down into the mud.
Chapter 7 Summary and Analysis
Crenshaw: the man in charge of getting the vet to his new home
Ras (later known as “Ras the Exhorter”): the leader of a political group in Harlem
The narrator takes a bus from campus, beginning the next part of his life. He carries letters of introduction
from Dr. Bledsoe. Two other men are traveling that day—the Vet (the inmate from the Golden Day that
provided medical aid to Mr. Norton) and Crenshaw (the Vet’s attendant).
Before the two transfer to another bus, the Vet again comments on the narrator’s situation. Once in New
York, the narrator sees the very different lives that blacks can lead in a big northern city.
Once again, the reader comes to the question of whether or not the Vet is crazy. Actually, he seems quite lucid
and makes a lot of sense. Then why is he going off to a mental institution?
Although the narrator has just recently been torn away from the life he knew and loved, he is no longer
depressed by the end of the chapter. We have the feeling that everything is new for the narrator. His confusion
holds far more excitement than fear.
The reader is introduced to a new stage of the narrator’s life and may well feel a similar kind of excitement.
The introduction of Ras is important to this chapter. He illustrates a new response to the white America
portrayed in the novel and a new kind of politics.
Chapter 8 Summary and Analysis
The narrator starts to get to know the city, and begins his search for a job, using the letters. He is plagued by
his expectations and fears, but is still fascinated by this new world.
In the first of the huge offices where he delivers his letters, the narrator talks with a receptionist. The narrator
wonders whether the reactions he is getting are racially motivated, but decides that they are not. Alone and
worried, the narrator hopes for a change.
The narrator’s energies, which were high when he first arrived in New York, are flagging. His feelings of
isolation and persecution are increased by his poor prospects for a job.
He dreams about his bright future and the ways that he will conduct himself as a successful man. The narrator
has done this before—retreat into a fantasy world when he is in doubt—in the Prologue.
Chapter 6 Summary and Analysis 16
The day dreams, and the movies to which he goes to keep himself cheerful, do not work. He begins to feel that
there is something about him that people notice. He says that his clothes feel ill-fitting.
Chapter 9 Summary and Analysis
Mr. Emerson’s Son: the man with whom the narrator has an unsuccessful interview
On his way to an important interview, the narrator meets with people who shake his sense of identity. At Mr.
Emerson’s office, the narrator delivers his letter and is asked to wait. After a pause, the narrator converses
with the man who took the narrator’s letter.
The conversation begins amicably, but deteriorates as the narrator grows uneasy. After much confusion, the
man shows the narrator the letter from Dr. Bledsoe. Stating that the narrator was an embarrassment to the
college, the letter asks Mr. Emerson to please shun the narrator and his request for employment.
The narrator is devastated, but maintains his composure. The man’s offers of employment are politely
declined, and the narrator leaves.
Soon after, the narrator finds his anger. After considering that young Emerson might have been lying
somehow, he broods on the subject of Dr. Bledsoe. His emotions run between laughter and blind rage.
Although the narrator’s encounters with the blueprint man and the counterman are only momentary, they
nonetheless signify a great deal. Both men show their feelings that the narrator might be acting to conceal
what they consider his “true self.”
The narrator acknowledges this possibility, and senses that to deny his heritage would be dishonest. Yet this is
a gray area, in which no one is right or wrong. After all, are the men right to have these expectations? Is the
narrator obligated to have certain preferences, or to behave in a certain way, because of where and how he
grew up? The narrator may or may not be stifling who he is. Questions regarding the honest expressions of
identity remain unanswered.
In the narrator’s conversation with Mr. Emerson’s son, the reader sees the potential for dialogue between the
races. Both the narrator’s mistrust and the young Emerson’s inner conflictedness prevent any real
Chapter 10 Summary and Analysis
Mr. MacDuffy: an inconsequential little man who sends the narrator to work for Mr. Kimbro
Mr. Kimbro: a demanding boss who tells the narrator what to do with the paint
Lucius Brockway: the man in charge of the boilers; an old black man, Brockway is wise in the workings of
both the people and machinery of the paint factory
The narrator goes to a paint factory in Long Island. He uses Emerson’s name to get the job, and he is nervous
Chapter 8 Summary and Analysis 17
about it. The narrator is sent to Mr. Kimbro, who gives him directions for adding an ingredient to the paint.
This begins well, until the narrator draws his mixing material from the wrong tank. This taints the buckets,
and incurs Kimbro’s wrath. The narrator seems to get another chance, but this only forestalls the inevitable.
The narrator is ready to leave the factory. Instead, he is sent to the boiler room, as a new assistant to Lucius
Brockway. The narrator sees that Brockway is an unpleasant boss. Distrustful, sarcastic, and abusive,
Brockway does not wish to share his realm or his power. Yet he allows the narrator to stay.
The narrator learns that Brockway is the unofficial chief engineer of the entire factory, manufacturing the
foundation of the paint, and is intimately familiar with all of the physical plant.
What the narrator is not aware of, but finds out, is that association with Brockway is dangerous. The young
blacks active in the unions condemn Brockway’s isolationist position, while Brockway himself is put in a
rage to hear that the narrator has had anything to do with the union men.
The fight that the narrator and Brockway have over this subject is based on a misunderstanding, yet its
violence escalates. Brockway escapes just before the huge explosion that ends the chapter. The narrator is not
The narrator begins work feeling that he has made a move of his own to improve his life. Yet he finds that he
has taken someone else’s job, and benefited from a misunderstanding about his having been to college.
After his initial problems, his move to the boiler room proves to be a small improvement. The relationship
between Brockway and the other black laborers at the factory provides the narrator with yet another lesson in
the politics of race and power.
What Brockway shows the narrator, and the reader, is how he has kept his position and his power.
Brockway’s career and survival are remarkable. He is perfectly aware of this, as we see in the anecdote about
Mr. Sparland, the rich owner, who visited Brockway in person to convince him not to retire.
What has allowed Brockway to succeed, especially in his later years, is a complete conviction in what he
does. He has no time to be, or interest in being, ambivalent. This has kept him focused on living his life,
which involves a lot of responsibility and self-satisfaction.
Everyone who comes into Brockway’s world represents a potential threat, including the narrator. At first,
Brockway decides that the narrator is harmless. When that perception changes, then Brockway must act to
protect himself, which he does.
Some of the conversation between Brockway and the narrator recalls what the Vet had said in Chapter Three.
Both of the men have spent far more time around white people than the narrator has at that point in his life,
and they have learned the truths to which the narrator alluded in the Prologue.
Twice in this chapter, the narrator’s name is spoken. It represents the first confirmation that he has a name,
but does not shed light on why that name is never shared with the reader.
Chapter 11 Summary and Analysis
This chapter is reminiscent of Chapter Five, in that not much happens. The scene is static, and the action is
Chapter 10 Summary and Analysis 18
internal. We gather that the narrator is receiving medical treatment from doctors, as a result of the explosion in
the boiler room. Yet what begins as compassion turns first to ambiguousness and then swiftly to frightening
malice. The doctors are actually torturing him, and his agony is more than simply physical; the questions they
ask him, or he asks himself, concern his origins and identity.
At the end of the “medical treatment,” the narrator is not completely lucid. After more conversation, during
which he asks nonsense questions, he leaves. He shows little awareness of his surroundings.
If any one part of the novel suggests the possibility that the narrator is not mentally sound, it is this chapter.
The questions of the “doctors,” and the thoughts that those questions provoke, clearly show the deep
confusion inside the narrator. This confusion manifests itself toward the end of the chapter, in both the
questions he asks and the descriptions of the world around him.
One possibility to consider is that, in addition to his recent accident at the factory, the narrator is probably
very tired. The incident at Jim Trueblood’s cabin took place not many months before, and in that time the
narrator has had a lot of exhausting adventures.
Chapter 12 Summary and Analysis
Mary (Mary Rambo) (Miss Mary): the woman who finds the narrator on the street and brings him to her home
Having left the place where he spent Chapter Eleven, the narrator is very disoriented. After fainting in the
street, he is found by Mary Rambo, who insists that he comes home with her to recuperate from his troubles.
After a long sleep, he feels better. Although reluctant at first, the narrator decides to accept Mary’s offer of
low rent, especially once he realizes that the Men’s House is not a home.
Believing that he sees Bledsoe, the narrator commits a serious faux pas by dumping something (probably a
spittoon) on the head of a Baptist preacher.
As he settles into his new home, the narrator is aware of new feelings of intense anger inside him.
This chapter contains the first act of kindness in the novel, and the first period of rest for the narrator. Though
the narrator regains the equilibrium he lost in the previous chapter, he feels that he has lost his direction. At
the same time, he discovers new feelings deep inside himself; we can tell that he is still learning about
himself. This is an important time for the narrator.
The narrator’s comprehensive description of the residents of the Men’s House contains many observations
he had not made earlier, and highlights his growing ability to notice.
Chapter 13 Summary and Analysis
Brother Jack: the first member of the Brotherhood, a group the narrator becomes involved with
While walking the streets, the narrator finds a man selling yams (sweet potatoes) from a cart. The moment the
Chapter 11 Summary and Analysis 19
narrator bites into one, he feels homesick. Yet he also feels far better than he had before, and he returns to buy
two more yams. Immediately afterward, the narrator becomes involved in a dispute when he sees the eviction
of an old black couple. To avoid violence, the narrator gives an impromptu speech, which has a great impact
on the crowd. When many police arrive, and a riot looks imminent, the narrator escapes with the help of a
Soon afterward, a man approaches the narrator and suggests that they talk. Although quite suspicious, the
narrator meets with Brother Jack, as the man calls himself. The narrator learns that the movement is interested
in universal brotherhood, yet the narrator himself is not at all sure that he shares this point of view—his
loyalties are determined by race.
The narrator is left to consider his options.
The narrator shows more emotion, especially positive emotion, in this chapter. Having endured many
misfortunes, he is learning more and more about himself. He feels a new vitality when he pursues what he
cares about—foods that he enjoys eating, and public speaking, a subject with which the narrator has had
several important experiences.
The narrator spoke to avoid violence, and was able to speak movingly because he cared deeply about his
subject. The narrator’s success in public speaking reaches back to the first chapter; it is the one subject where
his natural talent has been recognized by others. The fact that his talent in this area was immediately
recognized opens new doors for the narrator.
Chapter 14 Summary and Analysis
Emma: an attractive woman involved in the Brotherhood; she lives well and hosts Brother Jack and others for
a combination business-meeting/party.
Despite some reluctance, the narrator decides to call Brother Jack, who asks the narrator to join him
immediately. The narrator meets other members of the Brotherhood, including Emma, the affluent hostess of
that evening’s meeting.
The narrator is still suspicious and apprehensive, and the reactions from the party members do not relieve
these feelings. They talk in a grand manner, and at first almost seem to disregard the narrator’s presence.
They discuss making him into a great speaker, like Booker T. Washington. They have plans to change his
life—a new place to live, new clothes, and even a new name, which Emma gives to the narrator for him to
Before the narrator can get used to such a barrage of information, he is introduced to a crowd having gathered
for a party. There are many important people there, all of whom are eager to talk. Also at the party is a drunk
man, who loudly asks that the narrator sing a song. This provokes an angry reaction from Brother Jack, and
the drunk man is thrown out. The narrator is amused, yet his reactions are conflicting. After staying at the
party for a while longer, the narrator goes home to Mary, wondering about the changes ahead of him.
Just as the narrator has shown signs of living a settled life, he becomes involved in a new “adventure.” His
speech at the eviction led directly to the Brotherhood, and now he has a new job, around white people who are
Chapter 13 Summary and Analysis 20
specifically interested in him and what he can do.
The tense moment regarding the narrator’s singing touches on a major theme in this novel: the difficulty of
being true to one’s self when all those around one make assumptions about one’s identity. While it may not
be right to assume that all black people enjoy singing, it is also not right to avoid singing merely because
people will expect it.
The narrator is frequently worried by the expectations of others. This confuses him and makes him feel
ambivalence. The dynamics of the situation with the drunk man are echoed in the narrator’s thoughts, in
Chapter Thirteen, about eating fried sweet potato pies. He realizes that it is a waste of time to be concerned
with what other people expect him to do or say, yet escaping from these feelings is difficult for him.
Chapter 15 Summary and Analysis
The narrator wakes up on his last morning in Mary’s place. It is a cold morning, and the heat has gone out.
Other tenants of the building protest by banging on the pipes, and this enrages the narrator. He grabs a
ceramic “piggy bank” shaped like a caricatured black man and smashes it against the pipes. It shatters, and
the narrator feels guilty. He resolves to take the mess away with him and throw it out, regardless of the
The narrator joins Mary for a brief breakfast. He gives her a hundred-dollar bill, which she nervously accepts.
A horde of roaches comes out of the floor, and Mary and the narrator smash them with their feet and a broom.
Once on the street, the narrator drops the package in a garbage can, but is instantly commanded to take it
back. The woman of the house lectures him on bad manners and will not listen to his reasonable appeals. He
soils his arm in retrieving the package. Next he leaves it on the sidewalk, yet a man follows him for two
blocks to give it back to him, amid ludicrous accusations that the narrator was trying to plant incriminating
evidence of some kind.
The narrator’s mood turns as he buys the clothes that Brother Jack demanded. The narrator sees an article on
the eviction protest, which refers to him in passing. After selecting his new clothes, the narrator finds his new
This chapter is filled with symbols of the narrator’s change, from Mary’s friend to whatever role the
Brotherhood has in store for him. The little home he had with Mary turns from cosy to grimy on his last
morning. Not only does everything go wrong, but much of what happens is full of significance.
First of all, the narrator smashes a representation of the old black man, an object he had lived with but never
noticed. Next, in the midst of his guilt about abandoning the life he had at Mary’s, the roaches make their
Upon leaving Mary’s apartment, the narrator has great difficulty in discarding the package of coins and
smashed ceramic. Local black people remind him of his burden and refuse to let him hide it from view, as
would be convenient for him.
Having made a real life for himself with Mary, the narrator is trying to change into something else. The world
sends its little comments on this day, much like certain catastrophes are interpreted as signs of a god’s
displeasure. While this may seem an overly dramatic reading, consider all of the odd details of the chapter, in
which the narrator is faced with yet another shift in identity.
Chapter 14 Summary and Analysis 21
Chapter 16 Summary and Analysis
Brother Wrestrum: the chief speaker of the Brothers present when the narrator gives his speech
The narrator accompanies Brother Jack and other Brotherhood members to the rally mentioned at the end of
the previous chapter. When they arrive, the narrator is instructed to pay close attention to the other speakers,
as the narrator himself will be speaking last.
The rally takes place in a sports arena, and the narrator notices the picture of a well-known boxer. The
narrator is reminded of the stories about this boxer, whose career ended in a scandalous fight that left him
blind. The narrator then begins to think about the person he is becoming, in his new suit and new name. He
ponders whether or not he knows this new person.
One set of thoughts leads to the next, until the Brotherhood group finally enters the arena. The narrator
stumbles while walking, but then regains his balance. The speeches blend into each other, without making
much impression on the narrator, until it is his turn to speak.
Although the narrator feels he started off badly, his ability to move a crowd comes to him, and he finishes
amid the roars of the audience. Moments after the congratulations of the crowd, some members of the
Brotherhood severely criticize the narrator’s performance, using forms of disapproval from “unsatisfactory”
to “hysterical.” Although there is division on whether or not the speech was damaging, it is decided that the
narrator will study with Brother Hambro and be trained to “speak scientifically.”
The narrator goes home and broods on the evening. Memories of his grandfather recur, as do memories of
Woodbridge, an English professor from college. This thought leads to Bledsoe and Norton, and the harm that
they did to the narrator. The narrator resolves to learn from Hambro and then be done with him, the better to
do his own work.
Despite the catty remarks in Emma’s apartment, this chapter holds the first real indications of reversals and
instability that the narrator faces in the Brotherhood. After a seemingly powerful and certainly successful
speech, the narrator is confronted with disgust and disdain from certain members of the organization.
Added to this is the narrator’s recurrent questions about identity. While waiting to go into the arena, he asks
himself about the person he is becoming. After the speech, when the narrator has time to reflect on both the
speech itself and on the different receptions it received, he again wonders about what is real, in his life and
within his personality. This vulnerability will not serve him well in surroundings that are already
Notice that one image early in the chapter is significant—that of the boxer who was beaten into blindness.
Moreover, references to blindness show up in the narrator’s speech. The question of sightlessness is linked to
invisibility, since boxers generally fight for the profit and entertainment of others and are less likely to be
perceived as true individuals. Also, it is hard to avoid invisibility when one cannot even see both one’s self or
the people around one.
Chapter 16 Summary and Analysis 22
Chapter 17 Summary and Analysis
Brother Tarp: an older man who works at the Harlem Brotherhood office
Brother Tod Clifton: another member of the Brotherhood’s Harlem office, a charismatic young man
Four months have passed, during which the narrator has studied rigorously with Brother Hambro. The narrator
and Brother Jack go to a bar in Harlem, where the narrator learns that he is the new chief spokesman for the
Brotherhood’s Harlem office. Brother Jack cautions the narrator about the uses and misuses of what he has
learned. Then the two go to the Harlem office, where they meet Brother Tarp. An old, physically disabled
man, he shows the narrator his new office.
The next morning, Brother Jack calls a meeting in the Harlem office. Brother Tod Clifton is late; his entrance
is understated and somewhat dramatic. The narrator describes him as very black and handsome, with a
curiously Anglo-Saxon face.
Brother Clifton tells Brother Jack he was late due to a doctor’s appointment. He is bandaged, having fought
with Ras the Exhorter and his men. The narrator does not recall the name, yet it turns out that the narrator
does remember when he first came to New York City, in Chapter Seven, and saw a man speaking from a
ladder. That man was Ras.
Brother Jack reminds them that the Brotherhood is opposed to violence. Then Brother Jack leaves, and
discussions on strategy and future activities continue. They compare their efforts to galvanize the people to
the work of Marcus Garvey, a political activist from many years before who was deported by the U.S.
The narrator and Brother Clifton are speaking to a youth group when Ras and his men arrive. A street fight
ensues. Ras defeats Clifton and is poised over him with a knife. Seeing in Clifton a color-traitor, Ras says that
he should kill him. Yet Ras is moved to tears, and the narrator sees that Ras is indeed an exhorter.
Ras says that black pride is sapped by whites, that the dregs of white womanhood are offered up as a reward
for the essence and the sweat of black men, and that working for the Brotherhood is a fool’s paradise. The
narrator is held as if by magic, yet both the narrator and Clifton call Ras crazy. The spell is broken only when
Clifton knocks Ras out. Clifton and the narrator leave, discussing Ras further.
The next morning, Brother Tarp gives the narrator a picture of Frederick Douglass. The two converse about
the great work being done. The narrator calls community leaders regarding plans to protest evictions and
gradually notices that his new Brotherhood name is becoming well-known in Harlem.
The responsibility that the narrator has been seeking is finally his. Having learned the Brotherhood’s platform
and ideology, he is ensconced as head of the Harlem office. Yet despite the ways in which black and white
people are working together, the narrator’s ambivalence remains.
Along with Mary, Brother Clifton is one of the most admirable characters the reader has met. His charisma is
reflected in the way the narrator describes him, and even in what Ras says to him. This also seems to be a time
when the narrator is acting with the noblest of intentions as well. Yet what both Clifton and the narrator say to
Ras may cause us to wonder whether or not either of them are such heroes after all.
Chapter 17 Summary and Analysis 23
One of the most telling moments of the chapter is when the narrator says to Clifton that Ras is crazy, to which
Clifton agrees. This epithet of “crazy” is clearly a response based on what a listener is hearing, but does not
wish to hear. This has occurred before, in the grandfather’s deathbed speech and from Mr. Norton regarding
the Vet at the Golden Day. But the narrator himself has never pronounced anyone “crazy” until now. This
suggests that the narrator is finally in a position to realize when someone is telling him more truth than he is
comfortable with hearing.
Chapter 18 Summary and Analysis
The narrator finds an anonymous letter on his desk, warning him about “moving too fast,” considering that he
is now in “a white man’s world.” Upset, the narrator calls in Brother Tarp. In that moment, the narrator sees
his grandfather staring at him from Tarp’s face.
Once over that shock, the narrator asks Brother Tarp about the letter and about what others think of him. Tarp
says he knows nothing about the letter, and has not heard any negative reports on the narrator. Tarp reminds
the narrator about a controversial poster, depicting people brought together in universal Brotherhood, which
had been the narrator’s idea. Tarp says that while some Brotherhood members were against the idea at first,
they are now bragging about it.
Tarp then tells the narrator about how he got his limp. There is nothing physically wrong with his leg, but the
trauma from dragging a chain (having escaped from a work-gang for some unnamed crime) stayed with him
ever since. Tarp unwraps a package from his pocket, revealing the ankle link he forced open to escape. Tarp
gives the narrator the link he kept for so long.
Tarp leaves, and the narrator decides that the letter was sent to confuse him, and he must stay focused on his
work. Yet he wonders who sent the letter.
Brother Wrestrum visits the narrator and takes exception to the exposed link. Brother Wrestrum says the
Brotherhood has enemies from both without and within. He says he continually questions himself, to make
sure that he is serving the Brotherhood properly. That way, he says, Brother Tod Clifton’s accident will not
be repeated. Clifton was at a rally when a fight began, and he started beating one of the white brothers by
A magazine editor calls, asking for an interview. The narrator begs off at first, but as he sees Wrestrum giving
his views on what the narrator should do, the narrator decides to give the interview after all. Two weeks later,
the narrator goes to a Brotherhood meeting. The agenda begins with charges that the narrator has been guilty
of acting to focus attention on himself, rather than serving the Brotherhood selflessly.
Brother Wrestrum shows the brothers a magazine with the narrator’s face on the cover with the interview
inside. The brothers discuss whether or not the narrator was right to give the interview, and the narrator’s
position of fame in Harlem. The narrator says he has no need to defend himself, since he was acting in the
interests of the Brotherhood.
The narrator is asked to step outside while the committee sifts the information. He is called back and told that
no wrongdoing was found. But there are other charges to investigate, and the committee has decided that the
narrator is to leave Harlem and take up a new assignment: lecturing on “the woman question.” The only
alternative is for the narrator to leave the Brotherhood. Overwhelmed by this reversal, where he least expected
it, the narrator leaves Harlem quietly, without saying good-bye to his co-workers.
Chapter 18 Summary and Analysis 24
This chapter shows more of the Brotherhood’s inner workings. Considering that universal cooperation is a
tenet of the Brotherhood, the reader finds many instances of misunderstanding and suspicion from most of the
brothers. Given what we have seen from other characters, such as the Vet and Emerson’s son, these feelings
may well be the inevitable result of whites and blacks working together.
The “hearing” to determine whether or not the narrator acted improperly is a good example of this. Order is
lacking, and the cold words increase the strong emotions.
The meeting is different from other confrontations in the novel, in that the narrator is on the same level with
his attackers. When facing Bledsoe, or Lucius Brockway, the narrator was younger, a student or worker. Now
he is an equal, yet the machinations of others defeat him.
Also significant is Brother Clifton’s attack on a white brother. While it is likely that the attack was a mistake,
it is also possible that Clifton saw his chance to hit a white man and get away with it. Given what Ras said in
the previous chapter, and the reactions his words received, hearing that Clifton attacked a white man may
make the reader wonder about Clifton’s motives.
Chapter 19 Summary and Analysis
Hubert’s wife: an unnamed woman with whom the narrator has an affair
The narrator begins the lectures he was assigned in the previous chapter. He senses that the women, having
heard all about him, simply see him before them and are entranced by whatever he says.
At the end of the first lecture, one woman approaches the narrator with a request for further explanations of
the Brotherhood’s position regarding women. The narrator offers to discuss her questions privately, and she
invites him to her apartment. Once there, she explains that her husband, Hubert, is out of town; otherwise, she
says, he would have loved to meet the narrator.
It becomes clear to the narrator that the woman’s interests are not all intellectual in nature. His feelings are
conflicted. He is about to leave when he is overcome by the moment, and he stays.
In the middle of the night, the narrator hears a sound. Looking up from the woman’s bed, he sees her husband
looking at them. The husband and wife exchange a few brief, pleasant words, and the husband goes off,
presumably to sleep in another room.
The narrator, angry with himself, dresses and leaves. The woman has gone back to sleep. The narrator
considers whether he was set up in a compromising situation, and waits for words of censure and dismissal
from the Brotherhood. Nothing happens, and the narrator arranges to meet the woman again. His lecture series
continues, and he is more aware of the dynamics between himself and his audiences.
Some time later, the narrator is summoned to a meeting. There, Brother Jack asks the narrator if the latter has
seen Brother Tod Clifton. When the narrator says he has not, he is informed of Clifton’s disappearance. The
narrator is ordered back to Harlem immediately, to find Clifton and to rebuild the Brotherhood’s image in the
community. The narrator has been gone from Harlem for only one month, but it seems clear that many
changes have occurred in that time.
Chapter 19 Summary and Analysis 25
As he usually does, the narrator begins a new experience with enthusiasm and energy, without thinking about
what misadventures could accompany his actions. Although he claims (in the middle of this chapter’s second
paragraph) to have a suspicious nature, it does not occur to him that any of the women might be interested in
The reader can tell that the woman is seducing the narrator not only through what she does but also by what
she says. The first part of the chapter contains many words and phrases that have double meanings. The
classic game of flirtation and suggestive language is being played here.
We are given the distinct impression that the woman is white. The narrator’s frame of mind, containing
anger, excitement, and a little fear echoes the viewing of the naked blond woman in the first chapter’s battle
royal. The commentary about servants and Pullman attendants trysting with white women also suggest the
significance of interracial sexual relationships.
The narrator can see that this extramarital affair is of no importance to the married couple, and this is just a
fling of the moment. Yet he elects to see the woman again. He feels off balance again with his white
co-workers, yet the unpleasant surprise at the meeting is not the result of any perceived failure on his part. The
narrator remains at the mercy of others.
Chapter 20 Summary and Analysis
The narrator begins searching for both the missing Brother Tod Clifton and Brother Maceo. In the process, the
narrator realizes the extent of the damage done to the Brotherhood’s reputation and position in Harlem.
Stopping in a well-known bar, the narrator finds out how little the Brotherhood is now liked. Only the defense
of the friendly bar owner keeps the narrator from an argument with those who decry the Brotherhood, thinking
The narrator next tries the Harlem office, to seek out Brother Tarp, who is not there. In the morning, however,
a number of Brotherhood members show up. The narrator, in addition to asking about Clifton, hears about the
Brotherhood’s fall from grace in Harlem.
The narrator needs to confer with the downtown committee. When he is not asked to join their daily meeting,
he travels downtown in an effort to ascertain the situation. Shut out and furious, he is on a separate errand
when he sees a friend of Clifton’s. The narrator is about to ask the man about Clifton when he spies an object
in the corner of his vision; it is a Sambo doll, like a marionette. The offensive object is being sold on the
street, dancing puppet-style on a flat cardboard square. A sing-song spiel accompanies the pathetic dance, and
then the narrator recognizes the man selling the Sambo dolls. It is Clifton.
The narrator, utterly aghast, can hardly believe his eyes. Clifton sees him and smiles awfully, but before the
narrator can confront Clifton, the latter vanishes around a corner, running from a policeman. His head
swimming with confusion and unanswered questions, the narrator witnesses a short, brutal fight, that ends
with Clifton shot by the policeman’s gun.
Other police appear, keeping the narrator away from the dead Clifton. There is no one the narrator can talk
with, since no one else saw the killing, and the narrator knows of no other friends of Clifton’s to seek out. He
is trapped with his own thoughts and perceptions, and these shed no light on the situation. The narrator takes
to the subways, without a clear destination. He watches the people around him, all strangers.
Chapter 20 Summary and Analysis 26
It is hard to reconcile how the Harlem office lost such strength in just a month. The narrator and the reader are
in similar positions of wonder and bewilderment.
The latest move from the Brotherhood’s central committee is clearly one of exclusion. They have no interest
in including the narrator in their meeting, even when the narrator shows up at their headquarters. This can
only increase the narrator’s paranoia.
The narrator finds Clifton and loses him without first getting any explanation. Selling Sambo dolls in the
street seems insane. There is a lot of mystery as to why Clifton fights with the policeman, but the narrator
explains it to himself. He thinks about what it is to fall outside of history, as Ras had once talked about. The
narrator is finding in this lesson something to grasp and remain true to—the importance of showing history to
Although the story line remains strong, and has even picked up momentum now, the lack of answers is
disturbing, to both the narrator and the reader.
Chapter 21 Summary and Analysis
The narrator returns to the Harlem district. There are indications that the Brotherhood’s position is already
improving somewhat, but all the narrator can do is mull over the details of the death and ask himself why he
did not do something. He tosses the inert doll on his desk and addresses it bitterly. He then realizes that,
distasteful though it might be, a public funeral for Clifton would serve a great purpose.
The youth members, the members of the Brotherhood with whom Clifton had spent the most time, have heard
the news and approach the narrator. He confirms the report of Clifton’s death. The district begins to respond
with organization and anger, and the narrator is kept very busy.
The funeral takes place on a hot Saturday afternoon and draws a great crowd. People from all social circles
march, and the police watch carefully. The narrator observes all the details of the spectacle: the cheap gray
coffin that seems to float above the heads of the mourners, the people looking on from the streets, the look of
the clouds and the birds, and the sound of Tod Clifton’s name. Finally, the procession arrives at a local park.
There, the narrator is given a signal to begin.
The narrator gives Clifton’s funeral address without any pre-written speech or notes. The novel includes all
of the speech, which seems to harangue the crowd and sum up all of the narrator’s weariness and cynicism.
As he speaks, the narrator feels that he is not doing it right, that the speech is not political and therefore not
When the narrator is finished, he feels that he has failed. A preacher reads from the Bible, and then the Irish
gravediggers bury the casket. The narrator walks the streets, taking in every detail, remaining deeply unhappy.
While the narrator is highly aware of the unpleasantness associated with Clifton’s death, he also realizes the
opportunity for regaining the Brotherhood’s lost status in the Harlem district. Whether or not he has forgiven
Tod Clifton is not the point any longer.
The community seems to have done the same. Whether or not they have heard how Clifton died, and whether
or not they actually came to mourn his death, they did come, and this bodes well for the Brotherhood’s
Chapter 21 Summary and Analysis 27
position in Harlem.
The narrator took the only constructive approach regarding the funeral, in deciding that the manner of
Clifton’s death is not nearly as important as what Clifton did as an activist for the Brotherhood. Yet despite
this, and despite his anger and eloquence, his speech does not galvanize the crowd in any visible way.
The narrator did not pause to consider (but given what has happened in his extremely unstable relationship
with the Brotherhood’s central committee, perhaps should have realized) that giving a speech at Clifton’s
funeral would make him vulnerable to future accusations and attacks. Not knowing the Brotherhood’s
position on Clifton, the narrator acts on his personal beliefs.
Chapter 22 Summary and Analysis
Brother Tobitt: the Brotherhood member who leads the attack upon the narrator in this chapter
The narrator goes to the central committee, which is waiting for him. Brother Jack asks about the event, and
Brother Tobitt asks why the narrator organized the funeral and the eulogy. The narrator answers reasonably,
but emotions escalate immediately.
The committee feels that a traitor such as Clifton did not deserve a hero’s burial. But more than this, the
committee will not tolerate any member acting alone, as the narrator did. They act as if they concur with
Brother Wrestrum’s earlier accusation that the narrator is acting selfishly, rather than as part of a machine.
The maintenance of discipline is their main focus.
The narrator feels that the situation called for immediate action, rather than for board meetings. The
community needed to see that the Brotherhood still cared and was still a presence for change. That could only
be accomplished by doing what the narrator did. He operated out of consideration of the community.
Other factors come into play, such as who knows more about the people of Harlem. It transpires that Brother
Tobitt is married to a black woman.
The conflict is not easily solved. The parties have no interest in appreciating views other than their own. Since
the narrator is outnumbered and without power, he is obliged to acquiesce to the committee’s point of view.
He is sent to Brother Hambro for further instructions.
This chapter contains more sarcasm than any other chapter. The biting and cruel language exposes what the
reader may have suspected all along—the realization that there is not very much brotherhood in the
Brother Jack opens the conversation with what seems to be quiet good humor, but is actually sarcasm in
repose. Brother Tobitt’s method is almost the same. Their techniques are reminiscent of the narrator’s
confrontation with Bledsoe in Chapter Six.
The narrator’s moods swing somewhat, but he tries hard to keep control of himself. Many themes appear in
this chapter: the individual versus the collective, the definition of a traitor, the question of who best knows the
people of Harlem (and from where they derived this knowledge), and whether or not complete discipline and
sacrifice are worthwhile goals.
Chapter 22 Summary and Analysis 28
Think of this chapter as a play. Much of its action is given in dialogue.
Chapter 23 Summary and Analysis
Rinehart: a shadowy local figure, both a criminal and a preacher, for whom the narrator is repeatedly mistaken
Brother Maceo: one of the missing brothers; when the narrator finally finds him, Brother Maceo doesn’t
recognize him because the narrator has on his “Rinehart disguise”
Brother Hambro: the narrator’s “instructor”
The narrator goes to Harlem. He avoids conversation, listening instead to the general talk about Clifton’s
death. Ras is speaking at a street corner, from a ladder, and picks out the narrator for special scrutiny. The
crowd is sullen, but the narrator defends the Brotherhood and himself, and gets the crowd on his side. Soon
afterward, the narrator is attacked by men loyal to Ras and realizes that Ras is becoming bolder.
Seeing the hipster dress of some men nearby, the narrator ducks into a drugstore and, despite the darkness,
gets a pair of sunglasses. The world is different now, and so, it seems, is the narrator. He is immediately
mistaken for someone named Rinehart. This happens a total of nine times in the chapter. Wherever the
narrator goes, people call him Rinehart or simply assume that he is Rinehart, as long as he wears the dark
glasses and the hat he buys. Also, it seems that Rinehart holds many jobs, for police, prostitutes, local toughs,
and even churchgoers stop the narrator in the street.
The mistaken identity has its advantages, since Ras has continued his rhetoric and is motivating the crowd to
vent its anger on whites and members of the Brotherhood. The narrator decides to go to Barrelhouse’s bar,
where he finds Brother Maceo, whom the narrator had been seeking earlier. Unfortunately, both Maceo and
Barrelhouse assume that the narrator is Rinehart, and a simple misunderstanding leads to sudden problems and
Finally, the narrator goes to see Hambro, in Manhattan. In response to the narrator’s concerns about the
Harlem district, Hambro says that the membership must be sacrificed. True to the Brotherhood’s rigid
adherence to discipline and “scientific objectivity,” Hambro agrees that, for the purposes of expediency,
those people who have already left the Brotherhood must be considered expendable. According to this view,
the committee has a plan that it will announce at the proper time, and there is nothing more to say.
Hambro goes further, saying that it is impossible not to take advantage of the people. The trick was to take
advantage of them in their best interests, which would be decided by the committee, using scientific
The narrator has heard enough. He leaves and spends the rest of the chapter wrestling with himself. He feels
that he has failed the community, that the best he could offer them is the wretched maneuverings of small
minds. The narrator resolves to agree with them all, to fool them by acting the fool.
The tension in Harlem is mounting steadily. The narrator is becoming more aware of the gulf between the
people and the Brotherhood. As if confirming the public’s views of the Brotherhood, Brother Hambro’s
prounouncements about the relationship between the masses and the Brotherhood repulse the narrator. He sees
himself as an actor in a play. The Brotherhood’s program of utilizing “scientific objectivity” to manage and
Chapter 23 Summary and Analysis 29
manipulate people reinforces the Brotherhood’s notion that individual people do not matter, as Brother Jack
had told the narrator when the two first met. It seems that the Brotherhood is full of people that cannot really
see other people for who they are.
That the narrator is mistaken for Rinehart is yet another example of what the narrator comes to believe: that
when people look at him, they don’t really see him. They simply see what they are expecting to see, whether
that’s an ignorant southern hayseed, a college boy, a factory worker, a fink, a speech giver, a criminal, a
preacher, or a sexual object. The narrator becomes whatever the observer thinks he or she is seeing.
One of the journeys of this book has been the narrator’s realization that not only was his grandfather not
crazy, but that what his grandfather said made perfect sense. At the end of the chapter, the narrator is ready for
his new course of action.
Chapter 24 Summary and Analysis
Sybil: the wife of one of the men (George) in the organization; she and the narrator have an abortive affair
The narrator begins to agree with whatever he hears at the Brotherhood, recognizing what it is that the
committee wishes to hear and telling them nothing but that. He planned to seduce the wife of one of the
Brotherhood’s men, and Brother Jack’s birthday party is the perfect place for the narrator to select a woman.
But the narrator finds that his efforts with Sybil only depress him.
She is interested only in fantasies born out of racism. The narrator seems menacing to the white woman, and
Sybil finds this prospect highly titillating. She sees the narrator as a form of entertainment, and longs to
satisfy her assumption that his sexual prowess is far greater than her husband’s. Having gotten tipsy, she
wants the narrator to rape her, and this disgusts him. Yet he must endure Sybil’s inanities when she becomes
too intoxicated to leave, and his questions about the Brotherhood lead nowhere. Only a phone call urging the
narrator to get up to Harlem ends their tryst.
The narrator puts Sybil in a cab. As he says good-bye, the narrator learns that she does not know his name. A
few moments later, Sybil appears in the same cab. The narrator has to get rid of her again. Soon afterward, the
narrator finds her waiting for him at 110th Street. The narrator puts Sybil in yet another cab and learns that
Harlem is being torn apart. He asks her what the leaders of the Brotherhood have planned for him, but gets no
The narrator takes a bus to 125th Street, upset and lost in his own thoughts. He has to use his briefcase as a
shield against the pigeon droppings from the birds underneath a bridge.
The narrator’s unpleasant fling with Sybil occupies most of the chapter. The two characters are acting at
cross-purposes, each wanting something that the other cannot provide. Sybil acts very insensitively, but
without meaning to, because it never occurs to her that she is treating the narrator as less than a person. For
the first time in his life, the narrator decides, or realizes, that he is truly invisible. Sybil sees a black skin, not
the person inside of it. This tires and angers him, yet never does he consider doing her any harm, or even
trying to reason with her. The narrator is too smart for that.
The violence in Harlem that the narrator has been predicting seems to have arrived. Whether or not the
Brotherhood is involved (and it seems unlikely), the climax of the novel is approaching.
Chapter 24 Summary and Analysis 30
Chapter 25 Summary and Analysis
Dupre: the leader of a bunch of looters whom the narrator meets during the riots in this chapter
Scofield: one of the looters in the group
A full-fledged riot takes place in Harlem. Police shoot and the narrator is injured. Stunned, he wipes the blood
from his head and continues. He joins a group of looters stealing goods but not harming anyone. They take
clothes and various items; the narrator takes nothing, acting only as an observer. The narrator stays near
Scofield, who checks the narrator’s wound and offers him a drink of scotch.
The narrator feels sure that the riot started because of Clifton’s death, but various accounts of its origin are
circulating. There is widespread violence, blazing fires, and the unpredictability common to such situations.
A storeowner frantically persuades looters that he is colored, and his store is left undisturbed. At a hardware
store, the men take flashlights and full buckets of fuel oil. Moving down the street, they pause at the spectacle
of a milk truck topped with a singing fat lady offering free beer. They find this somewhat repellent.
Stopping at a tenement, the narrator sees that the oil was brought to burn it down. Dupre orders the men to
evacuate the building. The narrator does not consider protesting, but a young pregnant woman begs Dupre to
relent. He refuses.
The men douse the rooms, light their matches, and run down the stairs. The narrator, excited and impressed
with the vision and execution of the intention, almost leaves his briefcase behind.
He is suddenly put in danger when someone calls him by his Brotherhood name. Ras is searching for him, and
the narrator slips into the crowd. Soon afterward, more police arrive and are battered by bricks thrown from
the rooftops. The riot worsens and gets bloodier.
The narrator runs through the streets and sees more turmoil. He grows steadily angrier at the Brotherhood for
having offered false promises for so long.
When he faces Ras and his men, the narrator is exhausted yet determined. He feels that Jack, the committee,
and all the white powers in general are playing some game, and that he is one of the pieces moved across the
board of Harlem. The narrator knows that he faces death if Ras gets him, and that the Brotherhood might find
this to be very convenient.
However, Ras, now Ras the Destroyer, is acting like some kind of chieftain. He appears on horseback, dressed
outlandishly. He throws a spear at the narrator. The narrator rolls clear of the weapon and tries to reason with
Ras. When this fails, the narrator is ready to die, but instead takes the spear he has wrenched free and throws it
at Ras, piercing both of Ras’ cheeks.
The narrator flees, trying to reach Mary’s. A broken water main knocks him down, compounding his
weariness. He questions his perceptions, feeling unsure of reality. The narrator eavesdrops on two men
discussing Ras’s battles with the police.
Leaving them, the narrator is accosted by two white men who ask him about his briefcase. Strangely
embarrassed, the narrator runs away, and lifting a manhole cover, drops down into a new darkness. He hears
Chapter 25 Summary and Analysis 31
them talk high above and taunts them with words that seem to make no sense.
To see his surroundings, the narrator opens his briefcase and burns what papers he finds there. In the process,
he learns that Jack had written the anonymous letter the narrator received in Chapter Eighteen. The shock
stupefies the narrator and makes him scream, and he is soon plunged into fantasies in which Jack, Bledsoe,
and others ask him tormenting questions.
When the narrator awakens from this state, he is the narrator of the Prologue, telling the story of his
invisibility, which is the story of his life.
The landscape of Harlem is analogous to the narrator’s inner turmoil. Several things have been coming apart:
the Harlem community, the narrator’s relationship with the Brotherhood, and his ability to relate to other
The scene is completely chaotic, but different from the chaos in the Golden Day, which was jovial and
playful. Except for Mr. Norton, there were no whites there to regulate anyone’s behavior. Here, the mood is
deadly, and police are everywhere. How the riot started is unimportant, except for the fact that the
Brotherhood never “saved” the community, as the narrator had once envisioned.
It seems clear that the people of Harlem needed something in which to put their faith, and since the
Brotherhood abandoned that role, they turned to violence, which helped Ras.
The people show different responses to Ras. The language that the two men discussing Ras use in their stories
is vivid. They condemn his affected “King of Africa” attitude, but they are impressed with the power of his
The narrator’s sense of self and grasp on reality is slipping, or has slipped, away.
Epilogue Summary and Analysis
The narrator has told his story, and asks us what else he could have done. The narrator says that he has taken
some time out, drank liquor, dreamed, and read books. He uses the word “hibernation” to describe his current
He still thinks about his grandfather and the deathbed advice, wrestling with what the man meant, and with
how to put the advice into practice. The narrator says he is pondering the lessons of his life. He will leave it up
to others to decide whether or not he understood history correctly. He wonders about responsibility for
history, and about how people can save themselves.
The one specific incident that the narrator talks about is having met Mr. Norton in the subway. Their meeting
is brief and, at least for Mr. Norton, disturbing. He does not recognize the narrator, is confused about how the
narrator knows his name, and, most of all, has no idea what the narrator means by accusing Mr. Norton of
being this man’s destiny. Mr. Norton ducks into an available subway car, and the narrator gets a big laugh
from it. Then he goes back to his unnoticed home and continues being lost in his thoughts.
Like the Prologue, the Epilogue takes place inside the narrator’s head. It is his last chance to explain his life
and his choices. He gives the impression that he feels he made no choices, because history put him where he
Epilogue Summary and Analysis 32
If we were to meet the narrator, or someone like him, on a city street, we would be likely to assume that the
person is mentally disturbed. As we have seen, characters in the novel are frequently accused of being
“crazy” for what they say, when in fact there may be other explanations for their words.
Mr. Norton is perplexed by being told that he is the narrator’s destiny. Of course, the narrator is merely
referring to something that Mr. Norton himself had said. Time has passed, but when we think about it and try
to actually figure out time in the novel, we realize that not a great many years have passed since Mr. Norton
and the narrator were in the same car on that southern campus.
Towards the end of the Epilogue, the narrator mentions that he has been writing it all down, which explains
the book we have been reading. He goes on to predict that invisibility is universal, and to suggest that, in some
way, he is speaking for the reader.
Invisible Man: Quizzes
Prologue Questions and Answers
1. What does the narrator tell us about himself in the very beginning of the prologue?
2. To what does the narrator attribute his invisibility?
3. Why does the narrator attack a man in the street?
4. What is the name of the company with which the narrator claims to be “having a fight”?
5. What reason does the narrator give for his fight with this company?
6. Whose music does the narrator enjoy?
7. What is described in the first part of the narrator’s fantasy?
8. When the narrator talks to the old woman in his fantasy, what reason does she give for loving her old
9. Why does one of the old woman’s sons attack the narrator in the fantasy?
10. What has the narrator done to make his dwelling-place more livable?
1. The narrator says that he is an invisible man. He next says that he is a flesh-and-blood man, not a creation
of writers or film directors.
2. The narrator attributes his invisibility to the failure on the part of the eyes of other people to see him.
3. The narrator attacks a man in the street because the man fails to apologize for insulting him, thereby not
acknowledging the narrator’s existence.
Invisible Man: Quizzes 33
4. The name of the company with which the narrator is having a fight is Monopolated Light & Power.
5. The narrator says that he fights with Monopolated Light & Power to feel his “vital aliveness.”
6. The narrator enjoys the music of Louis Armstrong.
7. The first part of the narrator’s fantasy is a sermon.
8. When the narrator talks to the old woman in his fantasy, she says that she loved her old master because he
gave her several sons.
9. One of the old woman’s sons attacks the narrator in the fantasy because the narrator made the man’s
mother cry by asking her too many questions.
10. To make his dwelling-place more livable, the narrator has installed a great number of lightbulbs. He has
1,369, and says that he plans to put in many more.
Chapter 1 Questions and Answers
1. How do the adults respond to the grandfather’s deathbed speech?
2. Where does the battle royal take place?
3. What kinds of men does the narrator see in the audience?
4. What does the blond woman have tattooed on her belly?
5. How is the boxing match made more entertaining for the audience?
6. How does the narrator try to appease Tatlock when the two are boxing?
7. How do the whites first try to pay the young men for their boxing?
8. Are the coins real?
9. What happens when the narrator accepts the briefcase presented to him?
10. Who is in the dream the narrator has at the end of the chapter?
1. When the grandfather spoke his dying words, the adults around his deathbed rushed the young children
from the room, drew the shades, and lowered the flames on the oil lamps. They were frightened and
2. The battle royal takes place in the ballroom of a large hotel.
3. The narrator sees the town’s leading bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, teachers, and even a pastor in the
Prologue Questions and Answers 34
4. The blond woman has an American flag tattooed on her belly.
5. The audience makes the boxing match more entertaining by blindfolding the boxers.
6. The narrator tries to appease Tatlock by offering to split the prize money with him. This tactic does not
7. When the white men first offer “gold coins” to the boxers, they drop them on a piece of rug. The rug
carries electrical current, and all of the boys receive shocks.
8. No, the coins are not real. They turn out to be brass tokens, advertisements for a kind of automobile.
9. When the narrator accepts the briefcase, a liquid rope of blood and saliva leaves his mouth, dripping on the
10. The narrator’s grandfather is in the dream at the end of the chapter, laughing at the narrator.
Chapter 2 Questions and Answers
1. What writer does Mr. Norton talk about with the narrator?
2. Does the narrator tell Mr. Norton when the cabins were built?
3. What are Jim Trueblood and his family doing when the college car arrives?
4. Is there any point at which the narrator can avoid bringing Mr. Norton and Jim Trueblood together?
5. Who most wants to meet Jim Trueblood, the narrator or Mr. Norton?
6. Does Jim Trueblood say that he and his family have been mistreated by the local whites?
7. What does Jim Trueblood say the college has done for them?
8. Does Mr. Norton give Jim Trueblood any money?
9. What game are Jim Trueblood’s little children playing?
10. What does Mr. Norton ask the narrator for at the end of the chapter?
1. Mr. Norton talks about Ralph Waldo Emerson with the narrator.
2. Yes, the narrator tells Mr. Norton that the cabins were built in the time of slavery.
3. When the college car arrives, Jim Trueblood and his family are washing clothes in a large pot over a fire.
4. Yes, there were several moments in which the narrator, by simply not telling Mr. Norton the whole story
about Jim Trueblood, could have avoided the meeting.
Chapter 1 Questions and Answers 35
5. Mr. Norton insists on getting out of the car to meet Jim Trueblood. The narrator is not at all happy about the
6. No, Jim Trueblood does not say that he and his family have been mistreated by the local whites. In fact,
they have been helped out quite a bit by white people recently.
7. Jim Trueblood tells Mr. Norton and the narrator that the college has tried to push them off their land, and
make them move away.
8. Mr. Norton gives Jim Trueblood a hundred-dollar bill.
9. Jim Trueblood’s little children are playing “London Bridge is Falling Down.”
10. Mr. Norton asks the narrator to get him “a little stimulant,” meaning alcohol, at the end of the chapter.
Chapter 3 Questions and Answers
1. Whose car does the narrator claim to be driving, in order to get the veterans out of the way?
2. Why does Halley refuse to give or sell the narrator a drink?
3. Who does Sylvester claim that Mr. Norton was?
4. What kind of alcohol is given to Mr. Norton?
5. In his excitement, what does the narrator have an urge to do when he sees Supercargo being beaten?
6. Why does the vet send the narrator out of the room where he is treating Mr. Norton?
7. Where did the vet receive his medical training?
8. What surprises Mr. Norton about the vet’s medical knowledge?
9. How does Mr. Norton summarize the man who had tended his condition?
10. Do the narrator and Mr. Norton have any difficulties upon leaving the Golden Day?
1. In order to get the veterans out of the road, the narrator claims that he has General Pershing in the car.
2. Halley refuses to allow the narrator to bring a drink outside because there are some people who are trying to
shut his place down, he says.
3. As he helps bring Mr. Norton into the Golden Day, Sylvester claims that Mr. Norton is the former’s
4. Mr. Norton is given a drink from Halley’s private brandy stock.
Chapter 2 Questions and Answers 36
5. When he sees Supercargo being beaten, the narrator felt such a feeling of excitement that he wants to join
6. The vet sends the narrator out of the room to get a glass of water.
7. The vet received his medical training in France.
8. Mr. Norton is surprised to find that the vet reached the same diagnosis as the former’s own specialist.
9. Mr. Norton says that “the man is as insane as all the rest.”
10. Yes, the narrator and Mr. Norton do have some difficulty in leaving the Golden Day. First, Edna says that
she doesn’t want “white folks” to leave. Then Mr. Norton falls once again, scraping his head on the screen
Chapter 4 Questions and Answers
1. What do the narrator and Mr. Norton talk about on the way back to the college campus?
2. Whom does the narrator blame for his predicament?
3. Who does Mr. Norton ask the narrator to bring to him?
4. What is Dr. Bledsoe’s nickname?
5. What is Dr. Bledsoe doing when the narrator comes into his office?
6. Does Mr. Norton try to blame the narrator for what has happened?
7. What is the password that a young woman asks the narrator to carry to her boyfriend?
8. Does anyone try to kid around with the narrator?
9. In his extreme gratitude, whom does the narrator imagine Mr. Norton to seem like?
10. In a discussion of Emerson, what virtue is briefly mentioned?
1. The narrator and Mr. Norton do not talk about anything on the way back to the college campus.
2. The narrator blames Jim Trueblood for his (the narrator’s) predicament.
3. Mr. Norton asks the narrator to bring Dr. Bledsoe and the school physician to him.
4. Dr. Bledsoe’s nickname is “Old Bucket-head.”
5. Dr. Bledsoe is on the phone when the narrator comes into his office, presumably trying to find the narrator
and Mr. Norton.
Chapter 3 Questions and Answers 37
6. No, Mr. Norton does not try to blame the narrator for what happened. He specifically says that the narrator
was not at fault.
7. The young woman asks the narrator to carry the message “the grass is green” to her boyfriend.
8. Yes, someone does try to kid around with the narrator. While the narrator is waiting to go to chapel, his
roommate enters and tries to joke with the disconsolate narrator.
9. In his highly emotional state, the narrator imagines Mr. Norton to be like St. Nicholas (Santa Claus).
10. The virtue of self-reliance comes into the conversation about Emerson.
Chapter 5 Questions and Answers
1. What signal tells the narrator that it is time to go to the chapel?
2. What is Dr. Bledsoe wearing to the chapel on this evening?
3. What is Dr. Bledsoe able to do that fascinated the narrator?
4. To whom does Dr. Bledsoe give a secret signal?
5. How does the narrator describe the speaker of the sermon?
6. What catastrophe does the speaker say almost ended Dr. Bledsoe’s life?
7. Who tells the narrator the speaker’s name?
8. In what northern city does the Reverend Barbee preach?
9. What does the narrator notice about the Reverend Barbee at the end of his sermon?
10. Does the narrator stay to hear the other speakers?
1. The sound of the vesper bells is the signal that tells the narrator that it is time to go to the chapel.
2. Dr. Bledsoe is wearing striped trousers, a swallow-tail coat with fancy black-braided lapels, and an ascot
3. The narrator is fascinated by the way that Dr. Bledsoe touches the white visitors, shaking their hands or
putting his hand on their arms.
4. Dr. Bledsoe gives a secret signal to the organist.
5. The narrator describes the speaker of the sermon as “a man of striking ugliness; fat, with a bullet-head set
on a short neck.”
Chapter 4 Questions and Answers 38
6. The speaker says that an “insane cousin” splashed the infant Dr. Bledsoe with lye, and that he lay in a
coma for nine days before miraculously coming out of it.
7. A fellow student tells the narrator, in an annoyed, outraged manner, that the speaker is the Reverend Homer
8. The Reverend Barbee preaches in Chicago.
9. At the end of Reverend Barbee’s sermon, the narrator learns that the reverend is blind.
10. No, the narrator does not stay to hear the other speakers, but the service is over immediately after he
leaves the chapel.
Chapter 6 Questions and Answers
1. What is the narrator shocked and deeply hurt to hear Dr. Bledsoe call him?
2. What object does Dr. Bledsoe lift from the desk, from under a pile of papers?
3. How does the narrator respond when Dr. Bledsoe tells him that he will have to leave the college?
4. How does Dr. Bledsoe respond to the narrator’s response?
5. How much time does Dr. Bledsoe give the narrator to settle his affairs?
6. What does the narrator do as soon as he returns to his room?
7. How much money does the narrator have in his savings?
8. Why does the narrator return to Dr. Bledsoe’s office twice more at the end of the chapter?
9. What warning does Dr. Bledsoe give the narrator concerning the letters?
10. How many letters is the narrator given?
1. The narrator is shocked and deeply hurt to hear Dr. Bledsoe call him a “nigger.”
2. Dr. Bledsoe lifts an old iron shackle, the kind used in slavery days, from underneath the pile of papers on
3. When Dr. Bledsoe tells the narrator that he will have to leave, the latter responds very angrily, saying he
will go to Mr. Norton and tell him everything.
4. Dr. Bledsoe responds to the narrator’s response with great amusement.
5. Dr. Bledsoe gives the narrator two days to settle his affairs.
6. As soon as he returns to his room, the narrator counts the money in his savings.
Chapter 5 Questions and Answers 39
7. The narrator has about fifty dollars in his savings.
8. The narrator goes to Dr. Bledsoe’s office twice more, near the end of the chapter, first to tell Dr. Bledsoe
he plans to leave the next morning, rather than use the whole two days that were allowed him, and last to
receive the letters that Dr. Bledsoe promised him.
9. Dr. Bledsoe warns the narrator not to open the letters himself, or try to read them in any way.
10. The narrator is given seven letters.
Chapter 7 Questions and Answers
1. Does the narrator have much choice other than to sit with the Vet and Crenshaw?
2. To whom does the narrator compare Crenshaw?
3. What changes does the Vet imagine when he thinks of the narrator’s life in Harlem?
4. How does the Vet feel about his transfer?
5. What does Crenshaw say to the Vet to make him stop “showing off”?
6. How does the narrator feel when Crenshaw and the Vet transfer to another bus?
7. What disturbing experience does the narrator have in the subway soon after arriving in New York City?
8. Along with the revelation that blacks in Harlem have jobs and economic power, what specific event
completely shocks the narrator?
9. What does the narrator notice, and commment upon, regarding Ras?
10. What decision does the narrator come to about Harlem at the end of the chapter?
1. No, the narrator does not have much choice other than to sit with the Vet and Crenshaw. The back of the
bus is the only section available to them.
2. The narrator compares Crenshaw to Supercargo, the attendant at the Golden Day.
3. The Vet imagines the narrator going to lectures at the Men’s House and meeting more white
people—perhaps even a white girl.
4. The Vet is a little confused about his transfer. He says that he had been trying to get transferred for a long
time, and then it happens soon after meeting Mr. Norton.
5. Crenshaw, impatient with the Vet, accuses him of showing off his education. Crenshaw reminds the Vet
that he is still riding “in the Jim Crow,” the back of the bus, just as Crenshaw himself is.
Chapter 6 Questions and Answers 40
6. When Crenshaw and the Vet transfer to another bus, the narrator heaves a sigh of relief, but then feels sad
7. The narrator is crammed into a crowded subway car, soon after his arrival in New York City, and pressed
against a large, white woman.
8. Along with the revelation that blacks in Harlem have jobs and economic power, the narrator is completely
shocked to see a public demonstration of political protest by Ras. What also stuns the narrator is the fact that
two white police officers make no attempt to stop the protest.
9. The narrator notices and comments upon the West Indian accent in Ras.
10. At the end of the chapter, having registered in his room at the Men’s house, the narrator decides that he
will have to get used to Harlem a little at a time.
Chapter 8 Questions and Answers
1. What book does the narrator find in his room?
2. What memories does the book awaken?
3. What does the narrator briefly consider doing with the letters?
4. Where does the narrator ride the subway to the next morning?
5. To whose office does the narrator go?
6. What is the man’s receptionist like?
7. Is the narrator able to meet the man he went to see?
8. What are one or two of the narrator’s specific worries?
9. To which two people does the narrator write letters?
10. What ray of hope does the narrator receive at the end of the chapter?
1. The narrator finds a Gideon Bible in his room.
2. The Bible awakens memories of both Dr. Bledsoe quoting from it during speeches, and of family prayer
around the dinner table.
3. The narrator briefly considers trying to steam the letters open.
4. The narrator takes the subway to the Wall Street district.
5. The narrator first goes to Mr. Bates’ office.
Chapter 7 Questions and Answers 41
6. The receptionist at Mr. Bates’ office is a young woman, whom the narrator summarizes as “kind and
interested,” though he had expected that she would act antagonistically toward him.
7. No, the narrator is not able to meet Mr. Bates, who is too busy to see him.
8. The narrator is specifically worried about his lack of money, and by lingering thoughts that Dr. Bledsoe and
Mr. Norton were somehow acting against him.
9. The narrator writes letters to Mr. Emerson and to Mr. Norton.
10. The narrator receives a ray of hope at the end of the chapter in the form of a letter from Mr. Emerson.
Chapter 9 Questions and Answers
1. How does the narrator describe the day at the start of the chapter?
2. What does the blueprint man ask the narrator?
3. What does the short-order cook assume that the narrator would like to eat?
4. What book does the narrator see open in the office?
5. What does the narrator decide about the men who operate this firm, based on what he sees in their plush
6. What does the man ask the narrator that makes the latter’s mind “begin to whirl,” as the narrator puts it?
7. In the midst of talking with the man, whose words of advice and caution does the narrator remember?
8. Who does the man the narrator is talking with turn out to be?
9. At the end of their conversation, what does the man ask of the narrator?
10. What does the narrator decide to do at the end of the chapter?
1. The narrator describes the day at the start of the chapter as clear and bright.
2. The blueprint man asks the narrator if he has the dog.
3. The short-order cook assumes that the narrator would like pork chops.
4. The narrator sees a copy of Totem and Taboo (by Sigmund Freud) open in the office.
5. Based on their plush office, the narrator decides that the men who operate this firm are extremely powerful.
He calls them “Kings of the Earth.”
6. The narrator’s mind whirls when the man asks him if he has ever considered switching to another college.
Chapter 8 Questions and Answers 42
7. In the midst of talking with the man, the narrator remembers the words of advice that his grandfather once
8. The man the narrator is talking with turns out to be Mr. Emerson’s son.
9. At the end of their conversation, the man asks the narrator not to tell anyone about the conversation.
10. At the end of the chapter, the narrator decides to call the Liberty Paint company about a job that young
Emerson had mentioned.
Chapter 10 Questions and Answers
1. How does the narrator describe the paint factory?
2. What apparently embarrassing thing does the office boy call Mr. Kimbro?
3. Where does Kimbro say the paint is destined?
4. How does Lucius Brockway respond to the news that the narrator is to be Brockway’s new assistant?
5. What does the narrator do that satisfies Brockway?
6. Who thought up the factory’s slogan about the Optic white paint?
7. Why do the men at the union meeting react so negatively to the narrator?
8. How does Brockway react when the narrator tells him about his contact with the union men?
9. Although the narrator believes at first that Brockway had cut him with a knife, what does Brockway
10. How does the narrator describe Brockway as the latter is running away?
1. The narrator describes the paint factory as a small city.
2. The office boy calls Mr. Kimbro a “slave driver,” at which Mr. Kimbro turns slightly red.
3. Kimbro tells the narrator that the paint is destined for the national monument.
4. Lucius Brockway responds with dismissive annoyance to the news that the narrator is to be his new
5. The narrator manages to satisfy Brockway by reading a pressure gauge correctly.
6. Lucius Brockway thought up the slogan “If it’s Optic White, it’s the Right White.” When the narrator
hears this slogan quoted, it makes him think about a rhyme from his childhood, one that sounds similar but
means something very different.
Chapter 9 Questions and Answers 43
7. The men at the union meeting react negatively to the narrator because they believe him to be a spy (or
“fink”) from the management.
8. When he hears that the narrator was briefly detained at a union meeting, Brockway reacts with extreme and
unreasonable anger. It transpires that Brockway believes that the union is somehow trying to take his job
9. Far from cutting the narrator, Brockway bites him. This causes Brockway’s false teeth to fall out.
10. The narrator describes Brockway as looking “like a small boy who has thrown a brick into the air.”
Chapter 11 Questions and Answers
1. Do the people around the narrator tell him where he is or what has happened to him?
2. What piece of music is formed by the sounds the narrator hears in the beginning of the chapter?
3. What is the first actual “treatment” the narrator receives in the chapter?
4. Is the narrator lying on an operating table?
5. What childhood song does the narrator remember one of his grandparents singing to him?
6. What is the first of the written questions the author is asked?
7. What does the narrator realize regarding the first question?
8. When he is finally released, what is the narrator told?
9. Whom does the narrator ask the doctor if he knows?
10. What form of transportation does the narrator use at the end of the chapter?
1. No, the people around the narrator do not tell him where he is or what happened to him.
2. The sounds the narrator hears form the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
3. The first actual “treatment,” if that is an appropriate word for it, that the narrator receives in the chapter
takes the form of electric shocks. They are repeated later.
4. No, the narrator is not lying on an operating table. He realizes that he is inside a glass-and-metal box.
5. The narrator remembers a little rhyme that his grandmother sang to him.
6. The first of the written questions the narrator is asked is, “What is your name?”
7. Regarding that first question, the narrator realizes that he has forgotten his name.
Chapter 10 Questions and Answers 44
8. When he is finally released, the narrator is told that he will be compensated for his accident, but that he
must now look elsewhere for (less physically demanding) work.
9. The narrator asks the doctor if the latter knows Mr. Norton and “Bled,” meaning Dr. Bledsoe.
10. At the end of the chapter, the narrator uses a subway.
Chapter 12 Questions and Answers
1. Does the narrator attract much attention when he faints in the street?
2. How does Mary know that the narrator had been in a hospital?
3. What does Mary give the narrator to eat?
4. What does the narrator say when Mary asks him what he plans to make of himself?
5. What does Mary say the narrator should not do?
6. Does Mary tell the narrator to stay away in the future?
7. What impression does the narrator get when he goes back to the Men’s House?
8. What does the narrator do after dumping something on the wrong man?
9. What is the consequence of what the narrator had done?
10. How does the narrator describe the new emotion that he begins to recognize in himself at the end of the
1. Yes, the narrator does attract a crowd when he faints in the street.
2. Mary knows that the narrator has been in a hospital because she smelled ether in his clothes.
3. Mary gives the narrator a cup of hot soup to eat.
4. The narrator says that he had planned to be an educator, but that now he doesn’t know.
5. Mary says that the narrator should not forget the struggle, or become corrupted.
6. No, Mary does not tell the narrator to stay away in the future. On the contrary, she tells him that he is
welcome to rent a room at her home.
7. The impression that the narrator gets when he goes back to the Men’s House was one of alienation and
hostility. He feels that he is unwelcome there.
8. Upon dumping what was probably a spittoon on the man whom he felt sure was Bledsoe, the narrator ran
out of the Men’s House before anyone could stop him.
Chapter 11 Questions and Answers 45
9. The consequence of the narrator’s act is that he is barred from the Men’s House for “ninety-nine years
and a day.”
10. The narrator describes his new feelings of intense anger as the melting of long-frozen ice.
Chapter 13 Questions and Answers
1. Where does the yam seller guess the narrator is from?
2. Does the narrator say if he is from that place?
3. What is the crowd doing at the eviction?
4. Of the items the narrator describes coming out of a drawer, which is the oldest and most important?
5. Why does the old woman want to go back into her home for the last time?
6. What does the narrator first say that the people must do?
7. Does the crowd withhold its violence, as the narrator urges them to do?
8. What does the narrator do when police reinforcements arrive?
9. What is the narrator thinking about when the mysterious white man finds him?
10. What new food does the narrator eat in the cafeteria?
1. The yam seller guesses that the narrator is from South Carolina.
2. The narrator does not say whether or not he is from South Carolina.
3. The crowd at the eviction is silently watching the white men, wanting to attack them.
4. Of all the objects the narrator describes coming out of the drawer, the oldest and most important are the
“FREE PAPERS” of Primus Provo, signed by owner John Samuels in August, 1859.
5. The old woman wants to go back into her home for one last time in order to pray.
6. The narrator first says that the people must organize.
7. No, the crowd does not withhold its violence, as the narrator urges them to do. They charge up the stairs
and beat up the policemen.
8. The narrator escapes over the rooftops when the police reinforcements arrive.
9. The narrator is thinking about a baby just being born when the mysterious white man finds him.
10. The narrator eats cheesecake, which he never heard of before, in the cafeteria.
Chapter 12 Questions and Answers 46
Chapter 14 Questions and Answers
1. What changes the narrator’s mind about calling Brother Jack?
2. What is the name of the expensive-looking building to which Brother Jack takes the narrator?
3. How does the narrator describe the apartment where he meets the other Brotherhood members, including
4. What drink does the narrator ask for?
5. What does Emma say that offends the narrator?
6. With what was Brother Jack so impressed?
7. Describe the narrator’s reaction when Brother Jack suggests that the narrator could be the next Booker T.
8. To whom does the narrator compare Booker T. Washington?
9. What does Emma challenge the narrator to do?
10. About what does the narrator feel guilty at the end of the chapter?
1. Literally speaking, the smell of cabbage changes the narrator’s mind about calling Brother Jack. In the
larger sense, the realization that he needs money changes the narrator’s mind regarding whether or not to call
2. The name of the expensive-looking building to which Brother Jack takes the narrator is Chothian, which
means “of the underworld.”
3. The narrator describes the apartment where he meets the other Brotherhood members, including Emma, as
expensive. It holds many books, musical instruments, and fine furniture. In another room there are lush
draperies and a grand piano.
4. The narrator asks for and is given bourbon.
5. The narrator is offended to hear Emma ask whether the narrator should not, ideally, be a little blacker.
6. As he tells the Brotherhood members at Emma’s apartment, Brother Jack was very impressed by the
narrator’s “speech” at the eviction.
7. The narrator’s reaction to Brother Jack’s idea is one of incredulity, and the narrator looks for humor in
Brother Jack’s face.
8. The narrator compares Booker T. Washington to the Founder (the man who supposedly founded the college
that the narrator attended).
Chapter 14 Questions and Answers 47
9. Emma challenges the narrator to dance with her, and they dance.
10. At the end of the chapter, the narrator feels guilty about leaving Mary’s place. He feels that his decision
will seem like ingratitude for her kindness and generosity.
Chapter 15 Questions and Answers
1. What noises awaken the narrator at the start of the chapter?
2. What are Mary’s feelings about the pipe banging?
3. When Mary assumes that the narrator wants to apologize about unpaid rent, what does she say about it?
4. Where does Mary assume that the narrator got the money he gives her?
5. What does the unpleasant woman threaten to do when the narrator leaves his package in her garbage can?
6. For what two reasons does the man bring the narrator his package?
7. What was the narrator called in the newspaper article about the eviction protest?
8. How is the narrator greeted when he finds his new address?
9. What is the narrator’s reaction to his new home?
10. What does the narrator mention is still in his briefcase?
1. At the start of the chapter, the narrator is awakened by the sounds of his alarm clock and by the din of
tenants hammering on pipes.
2. Mary’s reaction to the pipe noises is that the tenants should know by now that the heat goes out when the
landlord is sleeping drunk, or looking for his woman, so that knocking the pipes serves no purpose.
3. When Mary assumes that the narrator wants to apologize about unpaid rent, she says she does not want the
narrator worrying, because there will be time to pay it when he has a job.
4. Mary assumes that the narrator got his money by playing the numbers.
5. The unpleasant woman threatens to call the police unless the narrator retrieves his package from her
6. When the man first stops the narrator in the street, he assumes that the narrator left his package behind by
mistake. Then, when the narrator says that he left nothing behind, the man becomes very suspicious and upset,
thinking that the narrator was ditching illegal goods.
7. In the newspaper article on the eviction protest, the narrator was called a “rabble rouser.”
8. The narrator is greeted in a very friendly fashion by his new super (superintendent of the building).
Chapter 15 Questions and Answers 48
9. The narrator’s reaction to his new home is that while it is much more room than he needs, it is clean and
neat, and he likes it immediately.
10. At the end of the chapter, the narrator mentions that the broken bank is still in his briefcase.
Chapter 16 Questions and Answers
1. How long does Brother Jack say they will wait before entering the main hall?
2. How did the narrator hear about the boxer and his blindness?
3. Of what does Brother Jack remind the narrator?
4. What members of the audience make the narrator apprehensive?
5. How does the narrator describe Brother Jack as a speaker?
6. What makes the narrator feel that he can begin his speech on a good footing?
7. How does the crowd respond when the narrator’s speech is over?
8. What do the Brothers (led by Brother Wrestrum) claim they have that the narrator does not have?
9. What conclusion do the Brothers reach regarding the narrator’s future as a speaker for the Brotherhood?
10. What is Brother Jacks’s reaction to what the Brothers say about the narrator’s speech?
1. Brother Jack says they will stay out of the main hall until the crowd has reached the height of their
2. The narrator’s father had told the narrator about the boxer and his blindness.
3. The narrator realizes that Brother Jack reminds him of Master, a bulldog the narrator knew when he was a
4. The policemen in the audience make the narrator apprehensive, until Brother Jack tells him that they are
there to protect the speakers.
5. The narrator describes Brother Jack as “dignified and benign, like a bemused father listening to the
performances of his children.”
6. The narrator feels he can begin his speech on firm footing when the audience responds to him. First the
crowd is patient with him with the microphone, and then someone encourages him. The narrator feels he has
made a contact.
7. The narrator describes the audience’s reaction as being “like a clap of thunder,” with the crowd shouting,
cheering, and whistling.
Chapter 16 Questions and Answers 49
8. The Brothers (led by Brother Wrestrum) claim they have a scientific approach to society, which the narrator
lacks. This is what made his speech so “damaging.”
9. Regarding his future as a speaker for the Brotherhood, the Brothers conclude that the narrator must study
under Brother Hambro, who will train the narrator to speak more appropriately.
10. Brother Jack responds first with angry sarcasm to the reactions of the other Brothers. Soon afterward, he is
more accepting of their position.
Chapter 17 Questions and Answers
1. What is the name of the Harlem bar in which the narrator and Brother Jack have their drinks?
2. What does the narrator answer when Brother Jack asks what he thinks of Brother Hambro as a teacher?
3. How does the narrator respond when Brother Jack tells him that he will be the chief spokesman for the
4. What idea does the narrator have to keep eviction protests important to the Brotherhood’s agenda?
5. What does one of the men with Ras call the narrator during the street fight?
6. What does the narrator do to Ras to protect Clifton?
7. What does Ras say that Clifton would have been in Africa?
8. After leaving behind Ras, what does the narrator say he is suddenly very glad that he found?
9. Of whose voice does the narrator remember echoes when he looks at the picture of Frederick Douglass?
10. What does the narrator remember that he has in common with Frederick Douglass?
1. The name of the Harlem bar in which the narrator and Brother Jack have their drinks is El Toro.
2. When Brother Jack asks the narrator what the latter thinks of Brother Hambro as a teacher, the narrator says
that Brother Hambro pushed him hard, and that he (the narrator) certainly has learned a few things.
3. The narrator had been impatiently waiting for the next phase of his career with the Brotherhood and is
surprised and elated.
4. The narrator’s idea for keeping eviction protests in the forefront of the Brotherhood’s agenda is to enlist
the help of community leaders.
5. During the street fight, one of the men calls the narrator an “Uncle Tom,” meaning a person who loves his
6. To protect Clifton, the narrator hits Ras with a pipe on the man’s knife hand.
Chapter 17 Questions and Answers 50
7. Ras says that, in Africa, Clifton would have been a chief, a black king.
8. After leaving behind Ras, the narrator says that he is suddenly very glad that he has found the Brotherhood.
9. When the narrator looks at the picture of Frederick Douglass he remembered and shut out the echoes of his
10. The narrator remembers that Frederick Douglass came from the South to the North, and changed his name,
just as the narrator himself has done.
Chapter 18 Questions and Answers
1. To whom does the narrator attribute his habit of looking at everything on his desk?
2. Why has the narrator’s Brotherhood poster gotten some of the Brotherhood’s youth members arrested?
3. How long has Brother Tarp had his limp?
4. According to the narrator’s memories, how is Tarp’s chain link different from the one on Bledsoe’s desk,
back at the college?
5. What is Brother Wrestrum’s big idea about which he wants to talk with the narrator?
6. In the committee meeting, what does Brother Wrestrum claim that the narrator wants to become?
7. How does the narrator feel while the committee is discussing Wrestrum’s charges?
8. In response to further charges against him, what does the narrator wonder if everyone’s been reading?
9. What is the narrator’s guide for his new lecture assignment?
10. How did the narrator leave Harlem?
1. The narrator attributes his habit of looking at everything on his desk to Bledsoe.
2. Some of the Brotherhood’s youth members were arrested for covering up advertisements with the posters,
in the subway system.
3. Brother Tarp has had his limp for nineteen years, six months and two days.
4. According to the narrator’s memories, the difference between the chain links is that while Bledsoe’s link
was smooth, Tarp’s link showed “the marks of haste and violence.”
5. Brother Wrestrum’s big idea that he wants to talk with the narrator about is the need for an emblem, a
special pin or button that Brotherhood members can wear and thereby recognize each other.
6. In the committee meeting, Brother Wrestrum claims that the narrator wants to become a dictator.
Chapter 18 Questions and Answers 51
7. The narrator is “boiling with anger and disgust” as the committee is discussing Wrestrum’s charges.
8. In response to further charges against him, the narrator wonders aloud if everyone has been reading a
cartoon strip concerned with plots and schemes of evildoing.
9. The pamphlet “On the Woman Question in the United States,” written by Brother Jack, will be the
narrator’s guide for his new lecture assignment.
10. The narrator left Harlem by simply slipping his papers into his briefcase (the same briefcase he was given
at the battle royal). He left as though going downtown to a meeting.
Chapter 19 Questions and Answers
1. To what famous black actor does the narrator compare himself?
2. How does the narrator describe the woman with whom he discusses ideology?
3. Once inside the woman’s spacious apartment, what does the narrator think to himself that he would do if
he were really free?
4. From whom does the woman receive a phone call?
5. What does the woman’s husband ask his wife to do in the morning?
6. How does the narrator feel when he arranges a second meeting with the woman?
7. Why is the narrator late to the meeting to which he has been summoned?
8. What is Brother Jack’s mood on the subject of Brother Clifton’s disappearance?
9. Whom does the narrator think might be connected to Clifton’s disappearance?
10. What image does the narrator use to describe his mood at the end of the chapter?
1. The narrator compares himself to Paul Robeson, a famous black actor (and political activist/author) of the
1930s and 1940s.
2. The narrator describes the woman with whom he discusses ideology as “a small, delicately plump woman
with raven hair.”
3. Once inside the woman’s spacious apartment, the narrator thinks to himself that if he were really free, he
4. The woman receives a phone call from her sister.
5. The woman’s husband asks his wife to wake him early in the morning because he has a lot of work to do.
6. The narrator feels a “mixture of relief and anxiety” when he arranges a second meeting with the woman.
Chapter 19 Questions and Answers 52
7. He is late to the meeting to which he has been summoned because he was working on some last minute
details regarding his lectures.
8. Brother Jack’s mood on the subject of Brother Clifton’s disappearance is one of anger and impatience; he
says that Ras the Exhorter and his men have taken advantage of the situation to step up their agitation work.
9. The narrator wonders if Ras the Exhorter might be connected to Clifton’s disappearance.
10. At the end of the chapter, the narrator says that he feels as though he has awoken from a deep sleep.
Chapter 20 Questions and Answers
1. What is the name of the bar and grill the narrator visits?
2. What does Barrelhouse say when the narrator asks him how business is going?
3. What reasons does Barrelhouse give for the Brotherhood’s fall in popularity?
4. On his way to the Brotherhood’s Harlem office, where does the narrator almost go?
5. Why does the narrator expect to find Brother Tarp at the office?
6. Why does the narrator wish to attend the downtown strategy meeting?
7. According to the narrator, when are the strategy meetings generally held?
8. What had the narrator decided to do downtown when he found Brother Clifton?
9. Just before they run around the corner, does Clifton say anything that suggests why the policeman might be
10. What final tribute does Clifton receive from a boy that saw his last fight?
1. The name of the bar and grill the narrator visits is Barrelhouse’s Jolly Dollar.
2. When the narrator asks Barrelhouse how business is going, the latter says that it’s really bad, and he
doesn’t want to talk about it.
3. The reasons that Barrelhouse gives for the Brotherhood’s fall in popularity are that there isn’t much
money in Harlem, and that those who got jobs through the Brotherhood are no longer working.
4. On his way to the Brotherhood’s Harlem office, the narrator almost goes to Mary’s place.
5. The narrator expects to find Brother Tarp at the office because Tarp sleeps there, or used to. The narrator
notes that the room where Tarp slept is empty, with even the bed missing.
6. The narrator wishes to attend the downtown strategy meeting because many of the policies that hurt the
Brotherhood’s credibility in Harlem seem to issue from the downtown office, and the narrator wanted an
Chapter 20 Questions and Answers 53
7. According to the narrator, the downtown strategy meetings are generally held at one o’clock.
8. The narrator decides to shop for a pair of new shoes downtown, just before he sees Brother Clifton.
9. Yes. Just before going around the corner and into an alley, Clifton says something about not having a
license for, and therefore not paying taxes on, his Sambo dolls. This suggests that Clifton might not have a
10. The final tribute that Clifton receives is that he sure knew how to use his dukes (fists). The compliment
comes from an apple-cheeked little boy who saw Clifton’s last fight.
Chapter 21 Questions and Answers
1. How does the narrator realize how the doll danced?
2. What does the narrator wish he had done to stop Clifton?
3. How do the youth members respond when the narrator tells them that Clifton is dead?
4. What is the name of the park to which the procession travels?
5. What do the black-bordered signs in the procession say?
6. To what does the narrator compare the coffin, visible in the procession?
7. What had a brother in the Parks Department done, to add to the ceremony?
8. What song does the duet of horn and baritone voice sing when the procession arrives at its destination?
9. What is the first question the narrator asks in his funeral address?
10. Whom does the narrator feel would not approve of the speech?
1. The narrator realizes that the doll dances by use of a nearly invisible black thread attached to the frilled
paper of the doll.
2. The narrator wishes he had hit Clifton, gotten into a fight with him. That way, the narrator reasons, Clifton
would not have gotten killed.
3. The youth members respond with tears and a desire to go home when the narrator tells them that Clifton is
4. The name of the park to which the procession travels is the Mount Morris Park.
5. The black-bordered signs in the procession say, “BROTHER TOD CLIFTON / OUR HOPE SHOT
Chapter 21 Questions and Answers 54
6. The narrator compares the coffin to a heavily loaded ship in a channel.
7. A brother in the Parks Department had opened up one of the towers, and set up sawhorses for the coffin.
8. A duet of horn and baritone voice sings, “There’s Many a Thousand Gone.” It moves the crowd greatly.
9. The first question that the narrator asks in his funeral address is, “What are you waiting for me to tell
10. The narrator feels that Brother Jack would not have approved of the speech.
Chapter 22 Questions and Answers
1. Is the narrator surprised to see the committee waiting for him?
2. To whom does Brother Jack compare the narrator, as regards tactical ability?
3. What does Brother Tobitt move that the committee do regarding the narrator’s views and remarks?
4. What does Brother Jack remind the narrator that he was not hired to do?
5. With whom does Brother Tobitt say the narrator might be in touch?
6. Midway through the argument with the committee, what does the narrator find and hold tightly in his
7. Where does Brother Jack put his glass eye the moment it pops out of his head?
8. How does the narrator react to Brother Jack’s glass eye coming out of his head?
9. What word does the narrator use to describe Brother Jack’s look?
10. What does Brother Jack call the narrator, based on the latter’s response to the glass eye?
1. No, the narrator is not at all surprised to see the committee waiting for him. He is strangely relieved.
2. Brother Jack compares the narrator to Napoleon, when commenting on the former’s knowledge of tactics.
3. Brother Tobitt recommends that the committee issue a pamphlet containing the narrator’s views and
remarks. He is being sarcastic, not sincere.
4. Brother Jack reminds the narrator that he was not hired to think.
5. Brother Tobitt says that the narrator is in touch with God, or at least “the black god.” Once again, he is
6. Midway through his argument with the committee, the narrator finds and grips the leg chain from Brother
Chapter 22 Questions and Answers 55
7. The moment Brother Jack’s glass eye pops out of his head, he grabs it in midair and plops it into a glass of
8. The narrator reacts to Brother Jack’s glass eye coming out of his head with shock and disgust.
9. The narrator uses the word “Cyclopean,” from the name of the one-eyed ogre in Greek mythology, to
describe Brother Jack’s look.
10. Brother Jack, noticing the narrator’s response to his glass eye, calls him a “sentimentalist.”
Chapter 23 Questions and Answers
1. Who aids the narrator when he is set upon by two men loyal to Ras?
2. What color are the lenses of the narrator’s dark glasses?
3. In the middle of his sermon against the Brotherhood, what new name does Ras the Exhorter take?
4. What does Barrelhouse call the narrator, thinking him to be Rinehart?
5. Why is Brother Maceo so ready to fight the narrator?
6. How does one woman recognize that the narrator is not Rinehart (or, as she calls him, Rine the Runner)
7. Where is Rinehart really from, according to one of the old church sisters?
8. What does Brother Hambro say his son is doing?
9. What does the narrator almost forget at Brother Hambro’s?
10. Other than deciding to use his grandfather’s tactics, what method does the narrator plan to use to get
1. The doorman at a movie theater aids the narrator when the latter is set upon by two men loyal to Ras.
2. The lenses of the narrator’s new, dark glasses are a very dark green.
3. In the middle of his sermon against the Brotherhood, Ras the Exhorter changes his name to Ras the
4. Thinking the narrator to be Rinehart, Barrelhouse calls him “Poppa-stopper.”
5. Brother Maceo is ready to fight the narrator because he thinks that he is Rinehart, and that Rinehart is about
to pull a knife on him.
6. One woman recognizes that the narrator is not Rinehart, or Rine the Runner, by the narrator’s shoes, which
are not the knob-toed shoes that Rinehart is known to wear.
Chapter 23 Questions and Answers 56
7. According to one of the old church sisters, Rinehart is from Virginia.
8. Brother Hambro says that his son is wasting time with fancy speeches against going to bed.
9. The narrator almost forgets his hat at Brother Hambro’s.
10. Other than deciding to use his grandfather’s tactics, the narrator plans to seduce some woman inside or
connected with the Brotherhood, in order to acquire more information.
Chapter 24 Questions and Answers
1. What does the narrator notice about life in Harlem?
2. Why does the narrator decide not to approach Emma?
3. When Sybil fantasizes about the narrator, whom does she put in his place, mentally speaking?
4. What does Sybil tell the narrator she thinks she is?
5. What does the narrator write on Sybil’s belly?
6. What is Sybil’s favorite word for the narrator?
7. Does the narrator succeed in making Sybil think he raped her?
8. What is the first thing the narrator wonders when he gets the phone call from Harlem?
9. What does Sybil call the narrator just before she leaves for the last time, and how does he respond?
10. What reason does the narrator give for taking the bus to Harlem?
1. The narrator notices that Harlem is, as he puts it, “coming apart at the seams.” He describes crowds and
2. The narrator decides not to approach Emma because, even if she would sleep with him, she would hardly be
likely to give him any information about the Brotherhood.
3. When Sybil fantasizes about the narrator, she puts Joe Louis and Paul Robeson in the narrator’s place.
4. Sybil tells the narrator she thinks she is a nymphomaniac.
5. The narrator writes, “SYBIL, YOU WERE RAPED BY SANTA CLAUS SURPRISE,” on Sybil’s belly.
6. Sybil’s favorite word for the narrator is “boo’ful,” which is short for “beautiful.”
7. Yes, the narrator succeeds in making Sybil think that he raped her, by pretending that he does not know her
Chapter 24 Questions and Answers 57
8. The first thing the narrator wonders when he gets the phone call from Harlem is whether it is a trick.
9. Just before leaving the narrator for the last time, Sybil calls him an “ole dictator,” to which the narrator
responds, “A game stud … a most game stud.”
10. The reason the narrator gives himself for taking the bus for Harlem is that if Sybil looks for him again, she
will not find him.
Chapter 25 Questions and Answers
1. To what does the narrator compare the sounds he hears when he arrives in Harlem?
2. Why does Scofield assume that the narrator also picked up some “loot”?
3. How does Dupre carry the items taken in looting?
4. What reason does Scofield give for how the riot started?
5. What does Dupre take from his boot to show his serious intention regarding the building?
6. What does Scofield say will be a surprise in the fire?
7. What medical treatment does the narrator render in the street?
8. When the narrator finds him, what is Ras telling the people to do?
9. Once inside the sewer system, what does the narrator tell the men he has in his briefcase?
10. At the end of the chapter, to where does the narrator realize he cannot return?
1. The narrator compares the sounds he hears when he arrives in Harlem to the Fourth of July.
2. Scofield assumes that the narrator also picked up some loot because of the narrator’s briefcase, which is
heavy with the smashed ceramic bank from Mary’s place.
3. Dupre carries the items he takes in his looting in a huge cotton sack he brought with him from the South.
4. The reason that Scofield gives for the riot is that a policeman slapped a kid for stealing a candy bar, and
then slapped the kid’s mother.
5. To show his serious intention regarding the building, Dupre takes a nickel-plated revolver from his boot.
6. Scofield says that the bedbugs in his bed will be getting a surprise in the fire.
7. The narrator tightens the tourniquet of a seriously bleeding man in the street.
8. When the narrator finds him, Ras is telling the people to leave off from their looting and to join him in
storming the armory for guns and ammunition.
Chapter 25 Questions and Answers 58
9. Once inside the sewer system, the narrator tells the men on the street that he has them in his briefcase.
10. At the end of the chapter, the narrator realizes that he cannot return to Mary’s, or the Brotherhood, or his
old campus, or to any part of his former life.
Epilogue Questions and Answers
1. To what does the narrator compare reality’s irresistibility?
2. To what does the narrator give credit for his invisibility?
3. Regarding his life and his future, what has the narrator often tried to find out?
4. Where does the narrator say that one goes when one steps outside the narrow borders of what men call
5. Whom does the narrator suggest should be asked about this?
6. Towards what does the narrator wonder if he must strive?
7. Why does the narrator feel sure that Mr. Norton will ask him for directions?
8. What street is Mr. Norton trying to find?
9. What answer does the narrator give himself to the question “why do I write”?
10. What possibility about himself does the narrator recognize at the end of the Epilogue?
1. The narrator compares the irresistibility of reality to a club.
2. The narrator gives credit to his invisibility to his having gone “in everyone’s way but [his] own,” and of
having “also been called one thing and another while no one really wished to hear what [he] called
3. Regarding his life and his future, the narrator has often tried to find out what is the next phase for him.
4. The narrator says that when one steps outside the narrow borders of what men call reality, one steps into
chaos or imagination.
5. The narrator suggests that one should ask Rinehart about this, since he is the master.
6. The narrator wonders if he must strive towards colorlessness.
7. At first, the narrator feels sure that Mr. Norton will ask him for directions, because the narrator imagines
that Mr. Norton might feel embarrassed by not knowing something in front of a fellow white man. Then, the
narrator feels sure that Mr. Norton will ask him because it is inevitable.
8. Mr. Norton is trying to find Centre Street.
Epilogue Questions and Answers 59
9. In answer to his question “why do I write,” the narrator says that he has learned some things, despite
10. At the end of the Epilogue, the narrator recognizes the possibility that his having overstayed his
hibernation was a social crime, and that, perhaps, even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.
Invisible Man: Themes
In Invisible Man, an unnamed protagonist sets out on a journey of self-discovery that takes him from the rural
south to Harlem. Learning who he is means realizing that he is invisible to the white world, but by the end of
his journey, the hero has the moral fiber to live with such contradictions. The overwhelming theme of the
novel is that of identity. While the novel has to do with questions of race and prejudice, most critics agree that
these ideas are subsumed under the broader questions of who we think we are, and the relationship between
identity and personal responsibility. The invisible man's moment of self-recognition occurs almost
simultaneously with his realization that the white world does not see him, but Ellison seems to be saying,
‘‘Well, don't worry about that.’’ Until the invisible man can see himself, he can only be passive, ‘‘outside
of history.’’ At the beginning of the novel, even Jim Trueblood has a stronger sense of himself than does the
hero: ‘‘And while I'm singen’ them blues I makes up my mind that I ain't nobody but myself and ain't
nothin’ I can do but let whatever is gonna happen, happen.’’ In fact, everybody but the invisible man seems
to be aware of his problem. The vet at the Golden Day sees it, remarking to Mr. Norton: ‘‘Already he
is—well, bless my soul! Behold! A walking zombie! Already he's learned to repress not only his emotions but
his humanity. He's invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, the most perfect achievement of your
dreams, sir! The mechanical man!’’ And Mr. Bledsoe, the college president, tells the hero, ‘‘You're
nobody, son. You don't exist—can't you see that?’’ Ironically, when the invisible man offers to prove his
identity to the son of Mr. Emerson, a white trustee, the son answers him in the careless manner of someone for
whom identity has never been a question, ‘‘Identity! My God! Who has any identity any more anyway?’’
When the invisible man joins the Brotherhood, Brother Jack gives him a ‘‘new identity.’’
Though he constantly stumbles, every misstep seems to bring the hero a little closer to solving the puzzle of
who he is. For example, after the operation at the hospital, when a doctor holds up a sign that reads ‘‘WHO
WAS BUCKEYE THE RABBIT?’’, the invisible man begins thinking about his identity. And in the wake of
Brother Clifton's murder, he remembers past humiliations and sees that they have defined him.
Another theme that pervades the novel is that of individuality. Although he may be uncertain of his identity,
the invisible man has never quite lost the sense that he is an individual. One of the superficial arguments he
uses for leaving Mary Rambo without saying goodbye to her is that people like her ‘‘usually think in terms
of ‘we’ while I have always tended to think in terms of ‘me’—and that has caused some friction, even with
my own family.’’ He rationalizes the Brotherhood's emphasis on the group by deluding himself into thinking
that it is a ‘‘bigger ‘we.’’’ But though he tries, the invisible man cannot fully suppress his individuality,
which continues to intrude on his consciousness. After his first official speech to the Brotherhood, he
remembers unaccountably the words of Woodridge, a lecturer at the college, who told his students that their
task was ‘‘that of making ourselves individuals…. We create the race by creating ourselves.’’ At the funeral
for Brother Tod Clifton, whose murder is one of several epiphanies, or moments of illumination, in the novel,
the invisible man looks out over the people present and sees ‘‘not a crowd but the set faces of individual men
Duty and Responsibility
The theme of responsibility has to do with making choices and accepting the consequences of our actions. The
Invisible Man: Themes 60
invisible man uses the term at several reprises, but it is only toward the end of his adventures that he is able to
match the word with its true meaning. In the course of the ‘‘battle royal,’’ he uses the words ‘‘social
responsibility’’ to impress the Board of Education, because ‘‘whenever I uttered a word of three or more
syllables a group of voices would yell for me to repeat it.’’ When he cannot get Dr. Bledsoe to see that what
has happened to Dr. Norton is not his fault, the hero believes that by taking ‘‘responsibility’’ for the mishap
he will be able to get on with his career. But what he means by taking responsibility is smoothing things over,
and he cannot control the result. As he moves from one troubling experience to another, however, a growing
maturity is evident, and people come to depend on him. When Brother Jack asks him by what authority he
organized the rally for the people following Brother Tod Clifton's funeral, the invisible man tells him it was
on his ‘‘personal responsibility,’’ and offers a coolly reasoned defense. At the end of the novel, when he is
about to leave his hole, he talks about the ‘‘possibility of action’’ and explains that even an ‘‘invisible
man has a socially responsible role to play,’’ echoing with mild irony the phrase he once used without
Blindness as a kind of moral and personal failing is a recurring motif, or theme, in the novel. Whether
inflicted by others, as in the ‘‘battle royal,’’ where the young men are forcibly blindfolded, or as evidence
of confusion, as when the invisible man describes stumbling ‘‘in a game of blindman's bluff,’’ the idea of
blindness is used to multiple effect. The Reverend Homer A. Barbee is literally blind, Brother Jack has a glass
eye, white people cannot see the invisible man, and the hero cannot see himself. A variation on the theme is
the idea of looking but not seeing, of not trying to see, which comes back to the theme of responsibility.
Various characters impress on the invisible man the importance of not accepting things as they are. ‘‘For
God's sake,’’ the vet from the Golden Day tells him, ‘‘learn to look beneath the surface. Come out of the
fog, young man.’’ And the son of the white trustee Emerson asks him, ‘‘Aren't you curious about what lies
behind the face of things?’’
History and Folklore
In Invisible Man, history and identity are inextricably bound: we are the sum of our history and our
experience. This message is brought home in the novel both overtly—‘‘What is your past and where are you
going?’’ Ras the Exhorter asks an uncomfortable Brother Tod Clifton—and indirectly, as in Mary Rambo's
advice to the invisible man that it is the young who will make changes but ‘‘something's else, it's the ones
from the South that's got to do it, them what knows the fire and ain't forgot how it burns. Up here too many
forgits.’’ That is, you are your history, but only if you remember it. An inventory of the sad belongings of
the couple the hero finds on the Harlem sidewalk reads like a synopsis of the story of blacks in America, and
the power of the associations the objects evoke inspires the invisible man to address a crowd for the first time.
Closely related to the theme of history is the motif of folklore as a link to the past, particularly folktales, jazz,
and the blues. The simple folk who appear in the book all seem rooted in a way the invisible man and others
are not, and have a sureness about them that is reflected in their names: Jim Trueblood, Mary Rambo, Peter
Wheatstraw, even Ras the Exhorter. Likewise, the hero's grandfather has a ‘‘stolid black peasant's face.’’
The vet at the Golden Day, who is a mental patient, but does not appear to be completely insane, tells Mr.
Norton that he had made a mistake in forgetting certain ‘‘fundamentals.… Things about life. Such things as
most peasants and folk peoples almost always know through experience, though seldom through conscious
Invisible Man: Style
Point of View
At the outset of Invisible Man, the unnamed hero is in transition. He has discovered that he is invisible and
has retreated from the world in defiance; but the reader senses that all is not resolved. In the adventure that the
invisible man proceeds to relate in the first person (‘‘I’’), his voice changes over time from that of a naive
Invisible Man: Style 61
young man, to someone who is clearly more responsible though still confused, to a person willing to deal with
the world whatever the risks. The novel is framed by a Prologue and Epilogue. The story opens in the present,
switches to flashback, and then returns to the present, but a step forward from the Prologue. Writing down the
story has helped the hero to make up his mind about things. Leonard J. Deutsch attributes the complexity of
the novel in part to this juxtaposition of perspectives of the ‘‘I’’ of the naive boy and the ‘‘I’’ of the
older, wiser narrator. Anthony West, on the other hand, writing in The New Yorker, called the Prologue and
the Epilogue ‘‘intolerably arty … the two worst pieces of writing in the work.’’
Invisible Man is set in an indeterminate time frame sometime between the 1930s and 1950s. The protagonist's
adventures take him from an unnamed southern town to New York City, mirroring the migration during the
period of the novel of over a quarter of a million African Americans from the rural South to the urban North
in search of jobs. The novel opens on the campus of a southern black college whose buildings and environs
are repeatedly described in honeyed terms. Nevertheless, in retrospect the hero remembers it also as a
flower-studded wasteland maintained by the money of white philanthropists blind to the surrounding poverty.
The action then moves to Harlem, a part of New York City associated with several political and cultural
elements of importance in the novel: the active recruiting of black intellectuals by the Communist party in the
United States, the rise of black nationalism, and the golden age of jazz.
Invisible Man is rich with symbols that have given critics fertile ground for interpretation. For example, the
‘‘battle royal’’ that opens the book represents the novel in a nutshell and serves as a microcosmic portrayal
of race relations in a socially segregated society. The narrator will clutch to him the briefcase the Board of
Education awards him throughout his adventures, though he will burn its contents—which symbolize his
middle-class aspirations—at the end. Ellison gives his characters names that often suggest something about
their personalities, for example, Dr. Bledsoe, Jim Trueblood, Brother Wrestrum, or equally significant, as in
the case of the protagonist, he does not name them at all. Songs figure significantly in the novel. In the
prologue, for instance, the hero remembers the words to a Louis Armstrong song, ‘‘What did I do / To be so
black / And blue?’’ and at the end of the catastrophic visit to the slave quarters, which will result in the
hero's expulsion from college, the children are singing, ‘‘London Bridge Is Falling Down.’’ The
lobotomy-like operation undertaken to make the hero more amiable backfires and instead brings him
somewhat to himself, constituting a symbolic rebirth.
The many stylistic elements used in Invisible Man are part of what make it such a literary tour de force.
Warren French, for example, has described the formal organization of the narrative as ‘‘a series of nested
boxes that an individual, trapped in the constricting center, seeks to escape.’’ Several critics cite the use of
varied literary styles, from the naturalism of the events at the college campus, to the expressionism, or
subjective emotions, of the hero's time with the Brotherhood, to the surrealism that characterizes the riot at the
end of the novel. Invisible Man can be classed as a bildungsroman, or novel of education, similar to Voltaire's
Candide, in which the hero moves from innocence to experience. It has also been called picaresque because of
the episodic nature of the hero's adventures, but this term implies a shallowness that the invisible man is
finally able to overcome. Comedy and irony are used to good effect in both the episode with Jim Trueblood
and the scene at the Golden Day. But most important, Ellison drew on the knowledge of African American
folklore he acquired in his days with the Federal Writers Project, and the influence of that tradition,
particularly jazz and the blues, is inextricably woven into the thought and speech of the characters. The
Reverend Homer A. Barbee's address, for example, is alive with gospel rhythms: ‘‘‘But she knew, she
knew! She knew the fire! She knew the fire! She knew the fire that burned without consuming! My God,
Invisible Man: Style 62
Invisible Man: Historical Context
The Great Migration
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s had its genesis in the Great Migration, the move north of
6.5 million black Americans from the rural South. This created large black communities like New York's
Harlem and Chicago's South Side. In the early 1900s, black migration increased dramatically with the
beginning of World War I in 1914, in response to the demand for factory workers in the North. While the
move did not bring social justice to blacks, it did provide some social, financial, and political benefits, and it
established the issue of race in the national consciousness. Both Ralph Ellison and his protagonist, like so
many before them, made the journey north. When the invisible man tells the vet from the Golden Day that he's
going to New York, the vet answers, ‘‘New York! That's not a place, it's a dream. When I was your age it
was Chicago. Now all the little black boys run away to New York.’’
Police arresting a man during the 1943 Harlem riots.
Northern black factory workers could expect to make two to ten times as much as their southern counterparts,
and thus newly arrived blacks from the South had an uneasy relationship with organized white labor. Their
reluctance to jeopardize their access to the industrial job market by taking part in labor agitation was exploited
by their employers to frustrate unions who hired black laborers to replace strikers. It was already clear by the
1930s that America's labor movement could only survive through integration, and between 1935 and the end
of World War II 500,000 blacks joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). But white opposition
to bringing blacks into the unions persisted up to the time Ellison wrote Invisible Man. At Liberty Paints, an
office boy tells the invisible man, ‘‘The wise guys firing the regular guys and putting on you colored college
boys. Pretty smart. That way they don't have to pay union wages.’’ And when Lucius Brockway mistakenly
thinks the invisible man has gone to a labor meeting, he fairly explodes. ‘‘‘That damn union,’ he cried,
almost in tears. ‘That damn union! They after my job! For one of us to join one of them damn unions is like
we was to bite the hand of the man who teached us to bathe in the bathtub!’’’
American communists strongly advocated racial tolerance, thereby winning the support of black leaders and
intellectuals, particularly during the Depression. Like Richard Wright Ellison leaned on the party for financial
support and because it offered him a way of getting published. Nevertheless, Ellison objected to what he
considered to be a kind of thought control, and he never became a party member. During World War II, when
the party advised against pushing issues of racial segregation in the U.S. armed forces, Ellison became
disillusioned. In Invisible Man, the hero returns from an absence only to discover that ‘‘there had been, to
my surprise, a switch in emphasis from local issues to those more national and international in scope, and it
was felt for the moment the interests of Harlem were not of first importance.’’
Invisible Man: Historical Context 63
Nationhood and Civil Rights
In 1916, Marcus Garvey came to the United States from Jamaica and founded the Universal Negro
Improvement Association (UNIA). Like Ras the Exhorter in Invisible Man, Garvey was an ardent and
flamboyant nationalist, and he electrified Harlem with his message of black pride and self-determination
through the recolonization of Africa. But Garvey's arguments for racial separation were at odds with the
integrationist efforts of communists, and the schism between the two groups would outlast Garvey's political
demise in 1921. Another significant black nationalist figure of the 1930s was Sufi Abdul Mohammed;
elements of his colorful personality turn up in Invisible Man in both Ras the Exhorter and Rinehart, the
mysterious numbers runner and preacher.
Some 400,000 black soldiers served in World War I, but they found that their devotion did not translate into
respect abroad during the war or at home after it. Once overseas, blacks were relegated to menial tasks, were
passed over for combat duty, and were subjected to continual harassment by whites. The society to which they
returned was even more conservative on issues of race than the one they had left. The black press, particular
W. E. B. Du Bois's influential magazine The Crisis, was loud in its condemnation of reports of discriminatory
treatment made by returning black soldiers. The outrage felt by black veterans is described in an incident in
Invisible Man, where a group of black World War I veterans cause a disturbance at a whorehouse and bar
called the Golden Day. One veteran describes how he had served as a surgeon in France under the Army
Medical Corps but was chased out of town on his return to America.
The prospect of a new draft in the wake of the eruption of conflict in Europe again in 1939 led to civil rights
protests in the early 1940s and violent racial incidents between white southerners and black northerners at
military bases across the United States. The issue was responsible for the Harlem riot of 1943. The climax of
Invisible Man is a riot in Harlem allegedly instigated by the Brotherhood; the event is based in part on a riot
that occurred there in 1935, which some commentators blamed on communist agitators.
Invisible Man: Critical Overview
Invisible Man was published to instant acclaim, though its complexity did not necessarily make it an easy
read. Writing in Commentary in 1952 Saul Bellow called it ‘‘a book of the very first order, a superb book,’’
praising in particular the episode in which Jim Trueblood tells his tale of incest to Mr. Norton. ‘‘One is
accustomed to expect excellent novels about boys, but a modern novel about men is exceedingly rare.’’
Anthony West wrote in The New Yorker that Invisible Man was ‘‘an exceptionally good book and in parts an
extremely funny one’’ and praised its ‘‘robust courage,’’ though he recommended skipping the Prologue
and Epilogue and ‘‘certain expressionist passages conveniently printed in italics.’’ Like Bellow, West
congratulated Ellison on having written a book ‘‘about being colored in a white society [that] yet manages
not to be a grievance book’’ and noted Ellison's ‘‘real satirical gift for handling ideas at the level of low
comedy.’’ In his study Native Sons, Edward Margolies noted the importance of jazz and the blues to the
narrative and commented that what Ellison ‘‘seems to be saying [is] that if men recognize first that existence
is purposeless, they may then be able to perceive the possibility of shaping their existence in some kind of
viable form—in much the same manner as the blues artist gives form to his senseless pain and suffering.’’
However, Margolies bemoaned the thematic weakness of the novel, which is that ‘‘Ellison's hero simply has
nowhere to go once he tells us he is invisible.’’ In a 1963 article in Dissent, Irving Howe called the novel a
brilliant though flawed achievement. ‘‘No white man could have written it, since no white man could know
with such intimacy the life of the Negroes from the inside; yet Ellison writes with an ease and humor which
are now and again simply miraculous.’’
Invisible Man: Critical Overview 64
Unemployed men in a Harlem neighborhood, Lenox Avenue, 1935.
The style of the novel has occasionally been criticized as excessive—Howe found Ellison ‘‘literary to a
fault’’—but even the novel's critics found much to praise in the symbolism, style, and narrative structure.
Opinion was divided over the section dealing with the Brotherhood. West called it ‘‘perhaps the best
description of rank-and-file Communist Party activity that has yet appeared in an American novel,’’ but
Bellow found it less than convincing, and Howe wrote that ‘‘Ellison makes his Stalinist figures so vicious
and stupid that one cannot understand how they could ever have attracted him or any other Negro.’’
The biggest controversy over the book has always had to do with whether or not it was intended for a
universal audience. Bellow praised Ellison for not having ‘‘adopted a minority tone. If he had done so, he
would have failed to establish a true middle-of-consciousness for everyone.’’ Howe felt rather that ‘‘even
Ellison cannot help being caught up with the idea of the Negro … for plight and protest are inseparable from
that experience,’’ though he did not say whether this was good or bad. Warren French asserts in Reference
Guide to American Fiction that the book has frequently been misread: it is neither unique to the black
experience nor ‘‘picaresque,’’ but both broader and more sophisticated. David Littlejohn straddled the
debate, called Invisible Man ‘‘essentially a Negro's novel … written entirely out of a Negro's experience, …
[b]ut it is not a ‘Negro novel.’ … It is his story, really, not the race's, not the war's, except insofar as he is of
the race and in the war.’’ Black nationalists argued that Ellison was not stringent enough, and John Oliver
Killens and Amiri Baraka were particularly vocal critics. Ellison's defense was that he had never been a
In 1953, Invisible Man was awarded the National Book Award for fiction. But controversy over what it meant
and to whom continued. In his preface to the 1981 commemorative edition of the novel, Charles Johnson,
whose Middle Passage won the National Book Award in 1990, remembers a time in the 1960s when ‘‘both
Ellison and poet Robert Hayden were snubbed by those under the spell of black cultural nationalism, and
when so many black critics denied the idea of ‘universality’ in literature and life.’’ This attitude was largely
reversed during the 1970s when white critics tired of waiting for Ellison's hypothetical second novel and black
readers began to be more appreciative of the book's portrayal of black experience. Whatever the nature of the
critical debate, Invisible Man has proved its staying power. Leonard Deutsch wrote that for all its brutal
realism and cynicism, Invisible Man ‘‘is basically a comic and celebratory work, for the hero is ultimately
better off at the end: he has become the shaping artist of his tale.’’
Invisible Man: Character Analysis
The Reverend Homer A. Barbee
Invisible Man: Character Analysis 65
A blind preacher from Chicago of substantial rhetorical skill who gives the Founder's Day speech at the
Dr. A. Herbert Bledsoe
Dr. Bledsoe is the president of the college attended by the invisible man. Called ‘‘Old Bucket-head’’ by the
students, he is a shrewd survivor who has spent his career humoring the white trustees in the hopes of
retaining his position. A person of considerable affectation, he can manage even in striped trousers and a
swallow-tail coat topped by an ascot tie to make himself look humble. He is aghast when the invisible man
tells him that he took Mr. Norton to see Jim Trueblood because that's what the trustee wanted to do: ‘‘My
God, boy! You're black and living in the South—did you forget how to lie?’’ His recipe for success is to
attain power and influence by making the right contacts and ‘‘then stay in the dark and use it!’’ His
self-interest makes him capable of betrayal, as when he lets the invisible man head off for New York City
thinking that the letters he is carrying addressed to various trustees are letters of recommendation.
The invisible man's irascible second supervisor at Liberty Paints. ‘‘Lucius Brockway not only intends to
protect hisself, he knows how to do it! Everybody knows I been here ever since there's been a here.’’ His one
worry is that the union will do him out of a job.
Brother Tod Clifton
Young and handsome, Clifton is the leader of the Brotherhood youth, ‘‘a hipster, a zoot suiter, a sharpie.’’
He has run-ins with Ras the Exhorter over their philosophical differences. He is friendly and helpful to the
invisible man, despite the hero's being made his superior. ‘‘I saw no signs of resentment,’’ says the
invisible man in admiration, ‘‘but a complete absorption in the strategy of the meeting…. I had no doubt that
he knew his business.’’ Brother Clifton has put his full faith in the brotherhood, and when he is abandoned
by it, his despair is total. He plunges ‘‘outside of history,’’ becoming a street peddler selling paper black
sambo dolls, and is murdered by the police. His death is a defining moment for the invisible man.
One of the first members of the Brotherhood the invisible man meets. The hero is skeptical of the
Brotherhood's motives when he hears Emma ask, ‘‘But don't you think he should be a little blacker?’’
The invisible man's grandfather, whom the protagonist had always thought of as a model of desirable conduct.
He is dead when the novel begins, but his influence on the invisible man is powerful. His dying words were,
‘‘Son … I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's
country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion's mouth. I
want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let
’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open…. Learn it to the younguns.’’ These words prick the
invisible man's complacency, and he remembers them as a curse that haunts him throughout his journey, a
reminder that all is not right in the world.
The spirited manager at the Golden Day.
Hambro takes the invisible man through a four-month period of intense study and indoctrination after his
arena speech to the Brotherhood to correct his ‘‘unscientific’’ tendencies. ‘‘A tall, friendly man, a lawyer,
and the Brotherhood's chief theoretician,’’ he tells the invisible man that ‘‘it's impossible not to take
advantage of the people…. The trick is to take advantage of them in their own best interest.’’
Invisible Man: Character Analysis 66
The unnamed protagonist of the novel. In explaining to the reader what he has done to be so ‘‘black and
blue,’’ the hero says, ‘‘I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and
only I, could answer.’’ By the end of his adventures, he will conclude that ‘‘I am nobody but myself. But
first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!’’ The invisible man starts his tale as an innocent, one who
believes that "humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress.’’ His greatest aspiration is to be
an assistant to Dr. Bledsoe, the president of his college, who kowtows to whites in an attempt to hold on to his
position. The invisible man believes, consciously or unconsciously, ‘‘the great false wisdom … that white is
right’’ and that it is ‘‘advantageous to flatter rich white folks.’’ He grudgingly admires other blacks who
do not share his scruples; for instance, he is both humiliated and fascinated by the sharecropper Jim
Trueblood's self-confessed tale of incest, and he is similarly impressed by the vet at the Golden Day: ‘‘I
wanted to tell Mr. Norton that the man was crazy and yet I received a fearful satisfaction from hearing him
talk as he had to a white man.’’
Although he has the ‘‘queer feeling that I was playing a part in some scheme which I did not understand,’’
he ignores his instincts, as when, for instance, he personally delivers to prospective employers in New York
City what he foolishly believes to be positive letters of recommendation from Dr. Bledsoe ‘‘like a hand of
high trump cards.’’ For every two steps forward, he takes one back. His experience in the factory hospital,
for example, is a kind of awakening, and he develops an ‘‘obsession with my identity’’ that causes him to
‘‘put into words feelings which I had hitherto suppressed.’’ But though he is skeptical of the Brotherhood's
motives in recruiting him—‘‘What am I, a man or a natural resource?’’—and their obvious emphasis on the
‘‘we,’’ the invisible man sets aside his misgivings and embraces the organization; ‘‘it was a different,
bigger ‘we,’’’ he tells himself. He is kind, joining the Brotherhood partly out of desire to pay Mary Rambo
the rent money he owes her, and loyal to people like Brother Tarp and Brother Clifton in whom he senses a
fundamental goodness But he is forever second-guessing himself, and it takes the raw injustice of Brother
Clifton's murder to spark the invisible man into consciousness: ‘‘Outside the Brotherhood we were outside
history; but inside of it they didn't see us…. Now I recognized my invisibility.’’ At first defiant—‘‘But to
whom can I be responsible, and why should I be, when you refuse to see me?’’—by the end of the novel the
invisible man is ready to come out, ‘‘since there's a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially
responsible role to play.’’
The Brotherhood's district leader for Harlem, he befriends the invisible man after hearing him address a crowd
gathered to witness the eviction of an elderly black couple, and sets about recruiting him to the Brotherhood.
That his motives might be suspect is evident from the beginning, when he asks the invisible man, ‘‘How
would you like to be the new Booker T. Washington?’’ (Washington was viewed negatively as an
accommodationist by many blacks) and warns him, ‘‘You mustn't waste your emotions on individuals, they
don't count.’’ Brother Jack turns out to be the author of an anonymous threat mailed to the invisible man.
The invisible man's first supervisor at Liberty Paints.
A white philanthropist and trustee of the college attended by the invisible man, Mr. Norton describes himself
as ‘‘a trustee of consciousness’’ and believes that the students of the college are his ‘‘fate.’’ He calls his
‘‘real life's work … my first-hand organizing of human life.’’ A romantic about race, he insists on being
taken to the old slave quarters, where he expects to hear a lively folktale but instead is treated to a
matter-of-fact account of incest by Jim Trueblood. Norton is the cause of the invisible man's expulsion from
Invisible Man: Character Analysis 67
See Dr. A. Herbert Bledsoe
Mary Rambo runs a rooming house and takes the invisible man in after finding him ill in the street following
his stay in the factory hospital. The only person to treat him with genuine affection, Mary is cynical about the
big city, and puts her faith in the newcomers from the South: ‘‘I'm in New York, but New York ain't in
me.’’ The invisible man does not think of Mary as a ‘‘‘friend’; she was something more—a force, a stable,
familiar force like something out of my past which kept me from whirling off into some unknown which I
dared not face.’’
Ras the Exhorter
Modeled on Marcus Garvey, though not a caricature of him, Ras is a flamboyant West African nationalist who
preaches black pride, a return to Mother Africa, and a willingness to die for one's principles. Ras and the
Brotherhood are engaged in a perpetual turf war, and Ras repeatedly exhorts the black members of the
Brotherhood to remember their history. He says to Brother Tod Clifton: ‘‘You my brother, mahn. Brothers
are the same color; how the hell you call these white men brother?… Brothers the same color. We sons of
Mama Africa, you done forgot? You black, BLACK!… You African, AFRICAN!’’
A mysterious figure who signs himself a ‘‘Spiritual Technologist.’’ The reader never meets Rinehart, but
the invisible man is mistaken for him by so many different people that he ends up putting together a
fascinating though confusing composite: ‘‘Still, could he be all of them: Rine the runner and Rine the
gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehart the Reverend. Could he himself be both rind and
heart? What is real anyway?… Perhaps the truth was always a lie.’’ It is in trying to figure out Rinehart that
the invisible man begins to see both how complex reality is, and that it is possible to live with contradictions.
Wife of a member of the Brotherhood with whom the invisible man has a brief liaison in the hope of gaining
inside information on the organization.
An old but ideologically vigorous member of the Brotherhood. ‘‘He can be depended upon in the most
precarious circumstance,’’ Brother Jack tells the invisible man. Brother Tarp hangs on the nvisible man's
office wall a picture of Frederick Douglass which reminds him of his grandfather. Unlike the invisible man,
who left the South more or less voluntarily, Brother Tarp was forced to escape to the North after spending
nineteen years on a chain gang because ‘‘I said no to a man who wanted to take something from me.’’ He
gives the invisible man a link from his ankle iron as a keepsake.
Once respected as a hard worker and a lively storyteller, Jim Trueblood is a black sharecropper who has since
shamed the black community and who shocks Mr. Norton with his matter-of-fact account of incest with his
daughter. Despite the awfulness of his crime, Trueblood's refusal to stint on the details or to make excuses for
himself reveals a basic integrity that is reflected in his name, and the invisible man listens to him with a
mixture of horror and admiration.
Veteran at the Golden Day
A skilled doctor who served in France and on his return to the States is run out of town and ends up in the
local mental hospital. He attends to Mr. Norton after his heart attack at the Golden Day. The invisible man is
impressed with the bold way the vet talks to the white trustee. The vet is the first person to grasp the invisible
man's dilemma: ‘‘You cannot see or hear or smell the truth of what you see.’’
Invisible Man: Character Analysis 68
A kindly rubbish man the invisible man meets in the streets of Harlem singing the blues and who makes him
think nostalgically of home.
A troublemaker, jealous of the invisible man. He makes a false accusation that indirectly results in the
protagonist's being taken out of Harlem and sent downtown.
Invisible Man: Essays and Criticism
The Invisible Man’s Journey and the Larger American
From his earliest published writings in the late 1930s until his death in 1994 Ralph Ellison remained an
outspoken commentator on American literature, culture, race, and identity, but his reputation has always
rested most solidly on his one published novel, Invisible Man. Since its publication in 1952, Invisible Man has
consistently been singled out as one of the most compelling and important novels of this century. Praised for
both its artistic originality and its thematic richness, the novel continues to find new readers not least because
of the reading experience it provides—at once inspiring and unsettling, lucid and complex, approachable and
profoundly challenging. From the powerful first line of the novel (‘‘I am an invisible man’’), readers are
engaged in the life of the narrator, this ‘‘invisible man,’’ as he tries to tell his story and ‘‘put invisibility
down in black and white.’’ Moreover, the novel urges its readers to undertake a similar quest along with the
narrator: to examine the painful realities of American history and culture and, in the end, to seek the ways in
which they, too, may have ‘‘a socially responsible role to play.’’
Like the familiar opening of Moby-Dick (‘‘Call me Ishmael’’), Invisible Man begins with a prologue by the
novel's first-person narrator, but in this case the introduction comes without a name: ‘‘I am an invisible
man.’’ The narrator's name remains hidden to the reader throughout the novel, but the importance of names
and the act of naming becomes clear as his story unfolds. The narrator is ‘‘named’’ by nearly every person
he encounters in the novel: He is, for example, a ‘‘boy’’ and a ‘‘nigger’’ to the ‘‘leading white
citizens’’ of his town; just the same (to his surprise) to Dr. Bledsoe; a ‘‘cog’’ in the machine of Mr.
Norton's ‘‘fate’’; little more than a laboratory animal to the doctors in the factory hospital; a race-traitor to
Ras the Exhorter; and a ‘‘natural resource’’ to the Brotherhood. Each person or group that the narrator
encounters tries to identify him, to impose an identity upon him, while ignoring or denying his own emotional
and psychological sense of self. As he reflects on his experiences from his ‘‘hole in the ground,’’ he
understands that this misnaming is the real source of his identity crisis. He is ‘‘invisible’’ not from any lack
of physicality or intelligence but because of a willed action of those around him, ‘‘simply because people
refuse to see me.’’ But this blindness, this desire to call him by any name but his own, initially affects even
the narrator himself. It takes him, as he acknowledges, ‘‘a long time and much painful boomeranging of my
expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but
Achieving that ‘‘realization’’ requires the narrator to come to terms with his personal history and with his
place in the larger history of America. The first words of the narrator's story in the first chapter of the
book—‘‘It goes a long way back …’’—establish immediately the importance of history and memory to his
quest, and his narrative itself constitutes both memory and history ‘‘in black and white.’’ Much of the
tension of the story, however, results from the narrator's conflicted understanding of history and his desire to
stifle his memories, to disconnect himself from his past. As he recollects his experiences at the college, for
example, the narrator struggles to determine ‘‘what was real, what solid, what more than a pleasant,
Invisible Man: Essays and Criticism 69
time-killing dream.’’ After rejecting the identity that he possessed at the college, the narrator is left with
‘‘the problem of forgetting it,’’ of quieting ‘‘all the contradictory voices shouting’’ inside his head. The
narrator's difficulty in leaving his past behind resonates throughout his story, from the recurring voice and
image of his grandfather to the physical reminders of his past that he carries with him throughout the novel.
Two physical objects in particular—Primus Provo's ‘‘FREE PAPERS’’ and Brother Tarp's chain link—act as
vivid emblems of the painful realities of America's past. The narrator wants to believe that the legacy of
slavery and southern chain-gangs belong to the distant past: When he reads the ‘‘fragile paper’’ that once
released a man from slavery, he tells himself, ‘‘It has been longer than that, further removed in time….’’
But, as he begins to perceive in the factory hospital, the narrator's quest for his own ‘‘freedom’’ and
identity can only be fulfilled when he recovers that history, when he understands its continuing relevance as
part of his own past. He recognizes this connection fully only after rejecting the Brotherhood's ‘‘scientific’’
language in favor of a more personal sense of history: ‘‘I began to accept my past and, as I accepted it, I felt
memories welling up within me…. Images of past humiliations flickered through my head and I saw that they
were more than separate experiences. They were me; they defined me.’’ Only after seeing this composite
picture of his past does the narrator recognize not only his invisibility but also the ‘‘great potentialities’’
and ‘‘possibilities’’ that exist in spite of that invisibility.
Of course, ‘‘potentialities’’ and ‘‘possibilities’’ are just what the narrator finds—for a time—in the grand
missions of the Founder's college and the Brotherhood. At the college, the narrator identifies himself with Mr.
Norton and with Dr. Bledsoe and feels that he is ‘‘sharing in a great work’’; likewise, in the Brotherhood,
he believes that he has found ‘‘a way to have a part in making the big decisions, of seeing through the
mystery of how the country, the world, really operated.’’ What attracts the narrator to both groups is, in part,
versions of history and visions of the future that are full of meaning, purpose, and direction. But both groups,
he eventually learns, maintain a strict control over all ‘‘possibilities,’’ conceal all ‘‘contradictions,’’ and,
as the vet at the Golden Day prophesied, finally see the narrator as ‘‘a thing and not a man.’’ These groups
give him a ‘‘role’’ to play, but only as an ‘‘automaton,’’ a "child,’’ a ‘‘black amorphous thing.’’
When the narrator ends his story, then, by wondering if ‘‘even an invisible man has a socially responsible
role to play,’’ it is clear that the answer to his question rests on the entirety of his narrative and has no simple
solution. ‘‘Social responsibility,’’ first of all, is precisely what the racist ‘‘leading white citizens’’ of his
southern town desired from him, the responsibility of keeping himself in a submissive and segregated
‘‘place.’’ In contrast, the responsible role that the narrator seeks for the future will go hand in hand with a
belief—even if it is his alone—in the ‘‘social equality’’ that he inadvertently pronounced to the horror of the
white men. Such a role will also rest on ‘‘personal responsibility’’ and emotional integrity of the sort that
Jack and the Brotherhood denied to him. The narrator desires a role that neither engulfs his identity, his
humanity, and his memory, nor requires, in his words, ‘‘Rinehartism-cynicism.’’ For his ‘‘mind,’’ his
self, to be satisfied, he can neither ‘‘take advantage of the people’’ nor take no responsibility at all: He
‘‘must come out’’ to play a meaningful part in society, whether or not he remains invisible to the people he
encounters there. In the end, the narrator finds the key to his identity in a healthy contradiction, both
‘‘denouncing’’ and ‘‘defending’’ his society, saying ‘‘yes’’ and saying ‘‘no,’’ affirming a world
whose ‘‘definition is possibility’’ at the same time he refuses to be blind to negations of that promise.
A sense of ‘‘contradiction’’ and ‘‘possibility’’ may also, finally, be the key to the artistic power and
continuing relevance of Ellison's Invisible Man. Just as his narrator offers ‘‘no phony forgiveness,’’ no
unambiguous moral to his story, so Ellison leaves many of the tensions and competing elements unresolved.
Ellison implies that the truth of American society cannot be encompassed in absolutes such as hope or despair,
idealism or cynicism, even love or hate, but rather requires a willingness on the part of each citizen to see both
extremes and hold them in balance. As Ellison envisions it, living as a true American requires faith—faith in
equality and democracy when they are most out of reach, in the possibility of coming together when
segregation predominates, in human complexity when society is obsessed with stereotypes. That the novel
The Invisible Man’s Journey and the Larger AmericanExperience 70
continues to move readers almost half a century after it was written testifies not only to the power of Ellison's
storytelling but also to the continuing relevance of these themes. Ellison's success in reaching new readers
each year affirms, it seems, the narrator's final, unanswered question: ‘‘Who knows but that, on the lower
frequencies, I speak for you?’’
Source: Anthony M. Dykema-VanderArk, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997.
Dykema-VanderArk is a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University.
Ellison’s Ambitious Scope in Invisible Man
[In Invisible Man], Ellison attempted to portray the theme of Negro endurance and cultural continuity by
devising a plot which would include a maximum of experiences common to the American Negroes, but which
could be employed by a wandering hero in an episodic manner. For this plot, he relied heavily on the social
migration theme that promised equality to the Southern Negro but shattered his hopes in an economic jungle
which ended with a dispossession in Harlem….
In the novel one unnamed youth progresses from a high school setting in Greenwood to the Southern college
for Negroes and from there to Harlem. He does not remain in Harlem but seeks employment in the white
neighborhoods of New York City and expresses interest in a scientific Brotherhood before returning to
Harlem. In the final riot scene he flees from Harlem and discovers an underground cellar near Harlem situated
in a white community bordering the Negro ghetto. His motivation for leaving Greenwood was the scholarship
presented him by the white community of the town. At the college, the hero again felt an external motivating
force which this time catapulted him from the Southern college to New York supposedly under the same
expectations that faced Eddie, Harry, and Marvin (of earning his college expenses for the next school year);
but he soon felt the true motivating impulse of expulsion…. [Although] the hero in Invisible Man has achieved
no recognition of his identity, he has developed a workable solution and method of continued searching.
Within the episodic migration theme, Ellison developed a central character … [who] is nameless and achieves
an enlarged symbolic position. As he confronts the idiosyncrasies and overt violence of his environment and
the white man's world that closes its doors to him, he is able to portray the frustrations and victories common
to every man (‘‘Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?’’); thereby, he achieves
universal magnitude equivalent to the requirements for an epic hero.
Robert Bone, in his attempt [in ‘‘Ralph Ellison and the Use of Imagination,’’ Anger and Beyond, 1966], to
classify Invisible Man as a picaresque novel, recognizes the heroic qualities in the unnamed character’s
confrontations with reality: ‘‘His [Ellison’s] heroes are not victims but adventurers. They journey toward
the possible in all ignorance of accepted limits. In the course of their travels, they shed their illusions and
come to terms with reality.’’ The internal evidence from the novel further substantiates the heroic qualities
of the hero, who alone must contend frequently with the machinations of the white mind.
During the high school address before the drunken audience at the smoker in Chapter 1, the speaker illustrates
his speech with the account of ‘‘a ship lost at sea’’ whose sailors ask for fresh water from the first friendly
vessel they meet. The reply stresses self-reliance: ‘‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’’ Like the
captain of the distressed vessel, the Negro youth has been taught to seek help where it can be obtained. He
must seek and strive for his own identity within society.
The encounter with Mr. Norton following the ill-fated Golden Day episode again resounds with an emphasis
on self-reliance, for Mr. Norton explains that ‘‘‘Self-reliance is a most worthy virtue. I shall look forward
with the greatest of interest to learning your contribution to my fate.’’’ Do not Dr. Bledsoe's letters
manipulate the hero into a position of being rejected by Mr. Emerson in New York City, a rejection that forces
Ellison’s Ambitious Scope in Invisible Man 71
the hero to rely on his own skills rather than the reputation of his Southern alma mater (‘‘ … that though the
wide universe if full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on
that plot of ground which is given to him to till’’)?
Following the youth’s symbolic second birth from the prefrontal lobotomy machine, he collides with the
street crowds of New York without a protective shield (his college ties that opened doors for him, or a strong
body that enabled him to work in non-union plants and remain temporarily outside his Harlem environment);
and he soon struggles for a new identity, although his ‘‘tail feathers’’ have been ‘‘picked clean’’ like
Poor Robin’s. It is his encounter with a ‘‘yam’’ seller in Harlem that reverses his bewilderment and
enables him to regain an identity:
This is all very wild and childish, I thought, but to hell with being ashamed of what you liked.
No more of that for me. I am what I am! I wolfed down the yam and ran back to the old
Although this discovery and the search for identity has begun, it remains a disheveled stream of arabesqueness
at the conclusion of the novel. Ellison’s hero apparently has yet a host of worlds to vanquish.
In his struggle the hero cannot act independently of all external forces. Ellison's central hero is governed by
his paternal grandfather's deathbed command to act the part of an intelligencer toward the white society and
‘‘overcome ’em with yeses.’’ The hero, moreover, is also controlled by a naturalistic fate that is almost as
important as the classical Olympian interference. Beneath this fate, the hero is allowed some degree of
independence whereby he may become self-reliant. But this self-reliance is restricted to the Negro world;
regardless of his solutions for establishing his identity, the society in which the hero lives and must find work
is a segregated society that limits his opportunities. Unlike the racial injustice portrayed in Ellison’s vignette,
‘‘The Birthmark’’ (New Masses, July 2, 1940), when Matt and Clara are repulsed by the brutality and
barbarism of a lynching, the segregated social conditions in Invisible Man manipulate the hero as though they
were an amoral fate in which the hero finds himself. Within his limitations, the hero refuses to retreat from his
heroic search for his identity. In the Epilogue, he realizes his need to return to the streets of Harlem rather than
live continually in complacent seclusion. (The only men worthy of praise of the gods during the heroic age
were those who accomplished noble deeds.) And so the hero reasons, ‘‘Life is to be lived, not controlled;
and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat’’—a restatement of the conflict that
plagued men for centuries.
Along with his grandfather’s deathbed command, which haunts the hero throughout the novel as Anchises’
predictions in the underworld influenced Aeneas’ struggle in Italy or as Achilles’ potential return to his
father would have eliminated his chances for universal fame, a limited number of additional epic similarities
appear in Ellison's novel: the hero’s Dantesque descent in the Prologue, Sybil’s Circean attempts to detain
the hero from his mission, examples of gory combat, and one mock epic battle.
In the Prologue, the Negro youth’s descent into a cave that appears in a ‘‘reefer’’ dream is similar to
Dante’s progress into Inferno following his night of wandering in a lonely woods. During the Brotherhood
portion of the novel, the hero has been denounced by the party leaders, but before he can effect his separation
from the organization, he is transferred to the downtown section of New York and assigned to lecture on the
position of women in the United States. The women of the Brotherhood and Sybil in Chapter 24 are unable to
seduce the hero. Their attempt to sap his stoic will has failed, and they are unable to preclude his search for
The battle scenes and physical flights from death echo of primitive combat. Near the end of the Harlem Riot,
the hero ‘‘ran expecting death between the shoulder blades or through the back of my head, and as I ran I
was trying to get to Mary’s.’’ In the Epilogue his description of his personal feelings upon recognition of his
Ellison’s Ambitious Scope in Invisible Man 72
fated position in society reeks of gory details:
That is the real soul-sickness, the spear in the side, the drag by the neck through the
mob-angry town, the Grand Inquisition, the embrace of the Maiden, the rip in the belly with
the guts spilling out, the top to the chamber with the deadly gas that ends in the oven so
hygienically clean—only it's worse because you continue stupidly to live.
But Ellison, the Ellison of subtle humor, does not neglect at least one mock epic battle as Ras the Exhorter
fights the uniformed New York policemen: ‘‘‘Hell, yes, man, he had him a big black hoss and a fur cap and
some kind of old lion skin or something over his shoulders and he was raising hell. Goddam if he wasn't a
sight, riding up and down on this ole hoss, you know, one of the kind that pulls vegetable wagons, and he got
him a cowboy saddle and some big spurs.’’’ The unnamed hero from a nebulously defined town of
Greenwood and the college for Negroes in the South has migrated to Harlem where he witnesses
mock-chivalry and chaos but has yet failed to achieve his own identity.
Although the central character in Invisible Man is fictitious and nameless, the chaos that swirls about him in
the final chapters presents a scene similar to the Harlem Riot of 1943. Ellison's clever meshing of fiction with
historical fact and his structural development in the novel tend to produce a surface adventure with historical
Intertwining through the episodes is Ellison's use of lyrics, which often are effective digressions and possess
ironic overtones that suggest an atmosphere of defeat or of victory. Moreover, the spirituals and hymns, blues
and jazz, recall slavery work songs and catastrophes that weld the centuries of the American Negroes’
experiences into a collective event of suffering and expectation….
As a novelist, Ellison seems to have engaged his literary talents in a conscious effort of recording a century of
Negro culture in Invisible Man. He records speech habits and musical lyrics of an oral tradition before they
are lost to future ages. But his greater achievement is that he couches the lyrics and sermons within a
framework of Negro expressions and history. His novel becomes no mere anthology of unrelated selections,
but a unified presentation of the American Negroes’ culture and heritage. The lyrics, moreover, reflect
glimpses of the white culture that dominated the slavery and reconstruction eras of the South and was
modified by Negro choirs. Spirituals and anthems left behind by the hero on the Southern college campus
reappear in a pejorative form of insult (‘‘Go Down Moses’’) voiced by the intoxicated members of the
scientifically oriented Brotherhood. Conversely, the spiritual theme of ‘‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’’
resounded throughout sections of Dvorak's New World Symphony.
In the hospital scene following the paint factory explosion, the hero is reminded of a work song as he
struggles to free himself from the machine and as he attempts to recall his past identity. Mary Rambo's use of
the ‘‘Backwater Blues’’ and Trueblood's singing of primitive blues laments are two characteristic examples
of Ellison's heavy reliance on the blues form. Trueblood's children and those of Brother Hambro in New York,
sing nursery and game songs, but the songs are those borrowed from the Anglo-Scottish community. Ellison's
use of animal lyrics (‘‘Poor Robin’’), the jazz of the musical bars in New York, and the Harlem jive of
Peter Wheatstraw (‘‘She's got feet like a monkey / Legs like a frog—Lawd, Lawd!’’) together form a
composite, along with his other musical types, of the American Negroes’ culture and the experiences to
which the invisible hero was subjected.
The musical references and lyrics parallel the geographic settings used in the structure of the novel and
provide evidence of a cultural heritage that existed long before the events in the novel occurred. They are the
remains of a primitive oral tradition among the American Negroes that Ellison sought to record in their
authentic context before they were lost or obscured in fragmentated passages in printed anthologies. The
scope of the novelist was ambitious enough, and the once oral musical tradition has become literature.
Ellison’s Ambitious Scope in Invisible Man 73
Ralph Ellison’s ‘‘love’’ for the American scene somehow inspired him to capture the American Negroes’
culture in an artistic form, and his Invisible Man is Ellison’s attempt—a most successful attempt—to produce
the great American Negro epic. For the reader aware of the American Negroes’ culture, it is an Odyssey in
Source: Stewart Lillard, ‘‘Ellison’s Ambitious Scope in Invisible Man,’’ in English Journal, Vol. 58, No.
6, September, 1969, pp. 833-39.
Ralph Ellison and the Birth of the Anti-Hero
The anti-hero of Invisible Man, though we come to know him intimately, remains nameless. He is no-man and
everyman on a modern epic quest, driven by the message his grandfather reveals in a dream: ‘‘To Whom It
May Concern … Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.’’ His primary search is for a name—or for the self it
symbolizes. During his search, he is given another name by the Brotherhood, but it is no help. When he
becomes a ‘‘brother,’’ he finds that brotherhood does not clarify his inner mysteries.
In creating his anti-hero, Ellison builds on epic and mythic conventions. The nameless voyager passes through
a series of ordeals or trials to demonstrate his stature. First, he passes through the initiation-rites of our
society—the battle royal (exposing the sadistic sexuality of the white southern world) and speechmaking that
sends him to college are parts of this rite of passage, and he is tormented into the adult world. He passes this
test by demonstrating his servility and naively interpreting his grandfather’s dictum: ‘‘Live with your head
in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death
and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.’’ This is the first outlook of the
invisible man—the paranoia fostered by ‘‘them,’’ the white oppressors; the boy here is Buckeye the Rabbit,
the swift clever animal living by its wits beneath the jaws of the killer.
When he arrives at college, he is confronted by the deceit and duplicity of Negroes who have capitulated to a
white world; he is broken by the powerful coalition of Bledsoe the Negro president and Norton the white
trustee. His second trial shows him that the struggle is not a simple one of black against white, that ‘‘they’’
are more complex than his first experiences showed. He finds that both black and white can be turned against
The second phase of his career commences in the trip to New York, an exile from ‘‘paradise’’; in the city,
he finds Bledsoe’s seven magic passports to success in the white world, the letters of recommendation are
actually betrayals, variations of the dream-letter: ‘‘Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.’’ Thus, his primary
illusions are shattered, but there are many more layers to the cocoon in which he sleeps.
For he is first of all a dreamer, a somnambulist, and sleep and dreams figure significantly in his image of
himself. As he reassesses himself, his metaphor for new discoveries is the same: ‘‘ … it was as though I had
been suddenly awakened from a deep sleep.’’ Yet each sleep and each awakening (little deaths and births)
prove to be interlocked layers of his existence, a set of never-ending Chinese boxes. One climactic section of
the novel details his second crucial awakening—the ‘‘descent into the underworld’’ which occurs in
chapters 10 and 11.
Like the hero of myth and ritual, Ellison’s invisible man finally descends from life on the mortal plane into an
underworld of death. This is the substance of the entire New York section of the novel. On arriving in the city,
he recalls the plucked robin of the old song and imagines himself the victim of a fantasy-letter: ‘‘My dear
Mr. Emerson … The Robin bearing this letter is a former student. Please hope him to death, and keep him
running.’’ Then he takes the job at Liberty Paints, keeping white paint white by adding drops of pure black,
under the ironic slogan, ‘‘If It’s Optic White, It’s The Right White,’’ which (like ‘‘If you’re white, all
Ralph Ellison and the Birth of the Anti-Hero 74
right, if you’re black, stay back’’) has been invented by a Negro, the ancient and malevolent Lucius
Brockway. The anti-hero becomes a machine within the machines, and he finds that Brockway, an illiterate
‘‘janitor’’ is the heart of the whole industry. In the boiler room, an inferno, he is betrayed again by a Negro
and ‘‘killed’’ through his treachery. But the death is the ritual death of the hero’s career—a death which
leads to resurrection and a new identity.
After the explosion, the anti-hero awakens in a hospital, where he is resurrected by white doctors using an
electroshock machine. Chapter 11 opens with a monstrous image of the demons of this underworld: ‘‘I was
sitting in a cold, white rigid chair and a man was looking at me out of a bright third eye that glowed from the
center of his forehead.’’ The doctors revive him (‘‘We're trying to get you started again. Now shut up!’’)
to the accompaniment of fantastic effects—Beethoven motifs and a trumpet playing ‘‘The Holy City’’ and
dreamlike dialogue from the surgeons:
‘‘I think I prefer surgery. And in this case especially, with this, uh … background. I'm not so
sure that I don’t believe in the effectiveness of simple prayer.’’
‘‘The machine will produce the results of a prefrontal lobotomy without the negative effects
of the knife.’’
‘‘Why not a castration, doctor.’’
Then, as he is revived, the doctors construct an heroic identity for him, recapitulating his existence as a Negro,
starting with the first folk myth guises of the clever Negro—Buckeye the Rabbit and Brer Rabbit: ‘‘… they
were one and the same: ‘Buckeye’ when you were very young and hid yourself behind wide innocent eyes;
‘Brer’ when you were older.’’ The electrotherapy machine is an emblem of the mechanical society
imprisoning the anti-hero: ‘‘I could no more escape than I could think of my identity. Perhaps, I thought, the
two things are involved with each other. When I discover who I am, I'll be free.’’ This lesson of the
resurrection is carried through the rest of the anti-hero’s journey.
The apparatus which resurrects the invisible man is a mechanical womb, complete with umbilical cord
attached to his stomach which is finally cut by the doctors; he is delivered of the machine, and the doctors
pronounce his new name—yet he remains nameless. The doctors, who follow a ‘‘policy of enlightened
humanitarianism’’ declare that this New Adam will remain a social and economic victim of the machine:
‘‘You just aren't prepared for work under our industrial conditions. Later, perhaps, but not now.’’
The anti-hero sallies forth after his revival in the underworld ‘‘overcome by a sense of alienation and
hostility’’ when he revisits the scene of the middle-class Negro arrivals in New York. He is now painfully
aware of the hostility of his world, and he reacts not passively (‘‘in the lion's mouth’’) but aggressively. In
a symbolic gesture, he dumps a spittoon on a stranger whom he mistakes for his first nemesis, Bledsoe. The
act is that of a crazed messiah: ‘‘You really baptized ole Rev!’’ Then he goes forth for a harrowing of hell.
He joins the Brotherhood, an infernal organization which meets at the Chthonian club. In the Brotherhood, he
rises to authority, becomes a respected leader and demagogue and is finally again betrayed by the wielders of
power, whites who manipulate Negro stooges for their own ends. But at the end of this episode, the
penultimate phase of the hero’s career, he meets two important emblematic figures: Ras the Destroyer and
Rinehart the fox. Ras, the black nationalist leader, is his crazed counterpart, and he harasses the invisible man
until the night of the riots, when he attempts to hang and spear the anti-hero as a scapegoat for the mob—a
dying god to appease the violence Ras releases. A contrast is Rinehart, who like Renyard is a master of
deception and multiple identities: ‘‘Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the
lover and Rine the reverend.’’ He is a tempter, and the invisible man nearly succumbs to his temptation to
freedom without responsibility; he strolls through Harlem disguised as Rinehart, the visible-invisible man
Ralph Ellison and the Birth of the Anti-Hero 75
who passes undetected through many identities. Ras offers the assurance of one undivided black identity and
Rinehart the assurance of many shifting amoral identities—the faces of stability and flux. But the anti-hero
avoids both traps, turning Ras’s spear on him and shucking the dark glasses and wide hat of Rinehart, then
finally dropping literally out of sight underground at the climax of the riot. Ellison has said [in Writers at
Work, 1965] that he took Rinehart’s name from the ‘‘suggestion of inner and outer,’’ seeming and being,
and that he is an emblem of chaos—‘‘He has lived so long with chaos that he knows how to manipulate it.’’
So Rinehart and Ras both represent chaos, two versions of disorder.
Loss of identity, sleeping and blindness are the figures that express the invisible man's confusion and despair
as his world disintegrates. Then, after the cultural malaise climaxes in the riot, the final phase of the
anti-hero's progress begins, a descent into the tomb—the netherworld across the Styx where heroes rest: ‘‘It’s
a kind of death without hanging, I thought, a death alive…. I moved off over the black water, floating, sighing
… sleeping invisibly.’’ So he remains immortal and waiting, like the heroes of myth who disappear and are
believed to wait should the world require them—like King Arthur and Finn MacCool, sleeping giants blended
into the landscape. The invisible man, now grown into Jack-the-Bear, turns to New York’s sewer system, a
black and labyrinthine underground—a fitting anti-hero’s mausoleum.
In this black crypt he destroys his old selves one by one as he searches for light, erasing his past—burning his
high school diploma, a doll which is a bitter totem of Tod Clifton’s demise, the name given him by the
Brotherhood, a poison-pen note, all the tokens of his identity. Then he dreams of castration and sees that the
retreat has been his crucifixion—he has been cut off from the world of possibility. ‘‘Until some gang
succeeds in putting the world in a strait jacket, its definition is possibility. Step outside the narrow borders of
what men call reality and you step into chaos—ask Rinehart, he’s a master of it—or imagination.’’
Imagination in the end redeems the anti-hero and makes his flight from battle a victory, for it gives us his
story. In his tomb he is not dead but hibernating, preparing for a spring of the heart, a return which may be
either death or resurrection:
There’s a stench in the air, which, from this distance underground, might be the smell either
of death or of spring—I hope of spring. But don’t let me trick you, there is a death in the smell
of spring and in the smell of thee as in the smell of me.
The Easter of the spirit may be the emergence of the new man—no longer an anti-hero, invisible, nameless and
dispossessed, but a true hero—or it may be the death of our culture.
The resurrection motif ties the story in the frame of prologue and epilogue, in the voice from underground:
… don’t jump to the conclusion that because I call my home a ‘‘hole’’ it is damp and cold
like a grave, there are cold holes and warm holes. Mine is a warm hole. And remember, a bear
retires to his hole for the winter and lives until spring, then he comes strolling out like the
Easter cluck breaking from its shell. I say all this to assure you that it is incorrect to assume
that, because I’m invisible and live in a hole, I am dead. I am neither dead nor in a state of
suspended animation. Call me Jack-the-Bear, for I am in a state of hibernation.
Buckeye the Rabbit has grown into the formidable Jack-the-Bear (recalling the Bear’s Son of the sagas) as
the anti-hero has passed his trials and journeyed on his downward path, reliving the recent history of the
Negro. He lies in wait beneath the inferno, under the underworld, listening for the hero’s call.
Source: William J. Schafer, ‘‘Ralph Ellison and the Birth of the Anti-Hero,’’ in Critique: Studies in
Modern Fiction, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1968, pp. 81-93.
Ralph Ellison and the Birth of the Anti-Hero 76
Invisible Man: Suggested Essay Topics
1. What does the reader know about the narrator solely on the basis of the Prologue? Take this opportunity to
play detective, and explain both what he reveals about himself explicitly and what inferences can be drawn,
justifying your findings as you go along.
2. Focus on the fantasy section of the Prologue. What’s going on there? The narrator imagines a series of
scenes beginning with a sermon. What themes does it reveal?
1. Why might the adults present at grandfather’s deathbed have reacted the way that they did? If it’s true that
the grandfather may have been crazy, what other possibilities exist?
2. Why would the audience listening to the narrator’s speech have reacted so strongly to the narrator’s
mistake? Discuss the implications of his slip of the tongue.
1. Examine the details the narrator gives about the college at the start of the chapter. What kind of picture is
evoked? What do we know about that part of the narrator’s life?
2. Notice how the narrator is determined to show Mr. Norton something he’d never seen before. Follow the
progression of statements, thoughts, and decisions bringing Mr. Norton and Jim Trueblood together.
1. We are told that the men who visit the Golden Day are “shell-shocked,” which means that they are
suffering from permanent stress from wartime battles. What other reasons might they have for being there?
2. The prolonged scene of chaos that unfolds inside the Golden Day is comparable with the descriptions of the
battle royal. What are the differences? Look at the relationships between the people involved. What different
purposes does the violence serve?
1. Write a character sketch of Dr. Bledsoe based on the information in this chapter. What does the reader
know about him? What inferences can be drawn from this knowledge? Be sure to support your observations.
2. Summarize the narrator’s “crimes,” as Dr. Bledsoe might call them. Explain how they happened, and
whether or not the narrator could have avoided them. Who is right in this situation?
1. The Founder is an important figure in the sermon. Does Reverend Barbee disclose the race of the Founder?
By what information can the reader divine whether the Founder was black or white? What difference would
this have made?
2. At the end of the chapter, the narrator feels that the sermon is not likely to make Dr. Bledsoe soft-hearted
when considering the narrator’s situation. Why does the narrator feel this way? How might Dr. Bledsoe’s
mood be influenced by the sermon? What about the sermon would create this mood?
1. Consider Dr. Bledsoe’s way of looking at race relations. He tells the narrator that it didn’t matter what Mr.
Invisible Man: Suggested Essay Topics 77
Norton wanted to see or do; the narrator was in charge. Bledsoe also says that he thought that the narrator had
more sense and was not such a fool. What were Dr. Bledsoe’s expectations of the narrator? How does he
suggest that the narrator could have lied? How did the narrator fail to meet those expectations?
2. At one point in their talk, Dr. Bledsoe says that Mr. Norton could have made the narrator’s fortune. What
does this mean and imply? Consider the relative positions of the narrator and Mr. Norton, and the fact that the
narrator thinks about the possibility of getting something from Mr. Norton at the beginning of Chapter Two.
What would the narrator have had to do in order to get something from Mr. Norton, and why was he unable to
1. It is important to remember what Dr. Bledsoe said about the Vet (hint: look about five pages into Chapter
Six). Is it a coincidence that the Vet is going up to St. Elizabeth’s? Why would someone like Dr. Bledsoe
want the vet to be sent away?
2. Describe the narrator’s impressions of both New York City and Harlem. What is different about his new
surroundings, and what changes will they most likely lead to in the narrator’s life?
1. Summarize the narrator’s fears. Are they reasonable, given what you have read in the novel? If the fears
center on Dr. Bledsoe and Mr. Norton, are there grounds for the narrator to be concerned? If the fears are
based on other feelings, is there evidence behind them?
2. In this chapter and the one before it, the narrator saw black people with jobs unlike those that blacks had in
the South. Pick three examples and describe them. What responsibilities do these jobs involve? What does it
imply to say that blacks can and do hold them?
1. The narrator’s conversation with Emerson’s son has many twists and turns. What happens that
complicates the discussion they have? Is it clear that Emerson’s son wishes to help the narrator? Why or why
2. The narrator thinks very deeply about a song he heard on the subway after leaving Emerson’s office. What
is the significance of the song, both in the chapter and in the novel thus far? Discuss how the story in the song
applies to the narrator’s life, especially to what Bledsoe has done to him.
1. A wide variety of people interact with the narrator at the paint factory. How do they treat him? Follow the
action of the chapter, and include some discussion of all of the interactions. Is there racism? Is the narrator
treated as an individual?
2. Write a character sketch of Lucius Brockway, given what we are told in this chapter. Beyond this, what
inferences can be drawn? Be sure to support your observations.
1. This chapter shows a great range of internal moods in the narrator. Describe when and why his mood
changes, especially based on the questions and his reactions to them.
2. How do the doctors and nurses treat the narrator, both in terms of what they do and how they do it? How
does the behavior of these people compare to the treatment that the narrator has received from whites in the
Invisible Man: Suggested Essay Topics 78
1. Describe Mary. What does the reader know about her, and what does the advice that Mary gives the
narrator tell us about her?
2. The narrator sees many different kinds of people when he goes back to the Men’s House. His descriptions
of the men reveal a lot about how they live in Harlem. What does the information in each of the brief
descriptions tell us about the men?
1. Discuss the significance of the narrator’s experience with the yam seller. How does it compare with the
narrator’s breakfast in the diner in Chapter Nine? Why does eating the yams make the narrator think and feel
2. Summarize the narrator’s interview with Brother Jack in the cafeteria. How does each feel about the
eviction, and how does each respond to the other’s viewpoint? What does the encounter help you learn about
each of the characters?
1. Examine the narrator’s reactions to the drunk man who asks him to sing. How does the narrator respond?
Why does he respond in this way, and why does his response get such a reaction from those around him?
2. What does the reader know about the Brotherhood thus far? Review what Brother Jack says in Chapter
Thirteen, combined with relevant quotations and material in this chapter, and sum up the group’s philosophy
1. Discuss the narrator’s thinking about leaving Mary’s place and going to the address the Brotherhood has
found for him. Why does he think that it might be a bad idea? What advantages are there to moving? How
does he explain his decision to himself?
2. What reasons do the woman and the man give for not wanting anything to do with the narrator’s package?
Is what they say motivated from bitterness, or anger, or other emotions? Also, how does the narrator respond
in each of the conversations?
1. Go through the chapter and compare all the moments where the narrator mentions sight in one way or
another. The discussion of this chapter includes some comments on blindness, and the narrator makes many
other references to being seen, the uses of sight, and the forms of blindness. Explain his references to what
eyes do or cannot do, in both the narration and the quotations, in terms of the novel thus far.
2. Discuss Brother Jack’s reactions to the narrator’s speech and to what the other Brotherhood members have
to say about the speech. What do these reactions reveal about the character? Are they surprising, given what
the reader has learned about Brother Jack previously?
1. What are your impressions of the Brotherhood, based on both this chapter, and what you have learned from
earlier chapters? How friendly an organization is it, and what about it (if anything) might make you
2. Summarize what Ras says to the narrator and Clifton. What are your reactions to the speech he gives them?
How does it fit in with the definition of “exhort”? Why do you think they call him crazy?
Invisible Man: Suggested Essay Topics 79
1. How do you perceive interpersonal relations at the Brotherhood? What evidence of division can be seen in
this chapter? Are these problems of communication simply the standard results of people working together, or
are there deep conflicts between the members of the Brotherhood? Be sure to cite examples and details from
2. Describe the meeting in which the narrator faces the charges against him. What is the mood, and how does
it change? How do people communicate their views? How does the narrator handle himself? What should he
have done differently, and why?
1. Summarize the narrator’s discussion with the woman known only as Hubert’s wife. What messages are
they sending to each other? Did the narrator have reasonable expectations for intellectual conversation when
he went to her apartment?
2. What is the significance of the husband’s appearance in the apartment? What do the narrator and the reader
know about the situation that they didn’t know before, and how does this knowledge tie in with the
conversation between the narrator and the woman?
1. Describe the mood in Harlem, based on what we read in this chapter. Use specific details from different
moments and incidents, being sure to observe people and descriptions closely, and support your points.
2. Given what we know of Brother Tod Clifton, since having met him, try to give some explanation of his
behavior. Concentrate on what Ras said to Clifton and the narrator in Chapter Seventeen. We have seen before
that when characters act crazy, or are called crazy, there is generally something more at work. What might
that be, in this situation?
1. This chapter is filled with questions. Many of them are asked by the narrator, who does not expect an
answer. Pick five of the rhetorical questions that the narrator asks and try to provide answers for them, based
on what you have read about the subject.
2. Summarize the narrator’s funeral address. How many questions does he ask, and of whom does he ask
them? What do you think he feels about the audience in the park? Does he say anything about himself, or the
Brotherhood? What does he assume, about both Tod Clifton and his audience?
1. Evaluate the argument from the point of view of your own logic. Whose position in the argument makes the
most sense to you? Each stance is well-defined, and thoroughly contradicts the other. Be sure to explain which
response makes the most sense to you.
2. How do the three men—the narrator, Brother Jack and Brother Tobitt—frame their comments? Which of the
comments are sarcastic, and which ones serious? How well does each side communicate with the other?
1. What do you think about the narrator’s reactions to the Brotherhood in this chapter? Brother Hambro has
given his thoughts on the organization’s decisions and policies, and you have material from other chapters on
which to draw. Do the Brotherhood’s plans make sense? Why or why not?
Invisible Man: Suggested Essay Topics 80
2. What is the narrator’s response to Rinehart and the roles that Rinehart plays? Summarize the narrator’s
thoughts on Rinehart.
1. The narrator seems to have conflicting emotions in his tryst with Sybil. Explain why this might be the case.
What do they say to each other, and what disparate agendas are they pursuing?
2. Write a character summary of Sybil. Why is she in bed with the narrator? What does she want from him?
Analyze what she does and what she says.
1. Is the Brotherhood responsible for the riot in Harlem? Could the members have prevented it, or was it
inevitable? Why does the narrator feel that the Brotherhood should be held accountable for what has
2. When was it clear that the narrator wanted to go to Mary’s place? Why does the narrator desire to return to
Mary’s, and what stops him? Why do you think he says that he was invisible to Mary?
1. Describe the narrator’s tone of voice in the Epilogue. He is explaining himself—how does he do that, and
what impressions does his mood give you? Be sure to support your points with details from the text.
2. What is your reaction to the narrator’s meeting with Mr. Norton? How do they act and react? How is what
the narrator says reminiscent of what the Vet has to say while tending Mr. Norton’s wounds, in Chapter