Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. Vintage Books, 1995.
Summary of Work
The unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s story begins his narrative in a basement space full of lights listening to Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue.” He tells of his invisibility and how he is just now learning about how to deal with invisibility in his life, and goes on to tell his story from his college days to the present. At the end of high school, he writes a prize-winning essay, and is rewarded with a scholarship if he reads the paper to the powerful businessmen in town. However, instead of getting to read his paper, he is directed with other black boys to the front of a stage in front of a naked dancing woman, and after being humiliated in that manner, forced to strip down and fight blindfolded in a boxing ring at the front of the room. He ends up fighting one on one with one of the boys, and he loses. Afterward, in order to get paid, they have to pick up money, which turns out to not even be real money, off of an electric rug. After all of that, the narrator gets to give his speech, and with one minor slipup in wording about equality (at this time he is so bloodied up that it is hard for him to speak), he is given a briefcase and a scholarship.
While at an unnamed college that heavily resembles Tuskegee Institute, he aspires to be a great figure in the black academic community. He is assigned to drive Mr. Norton, one of the major donors to the college, to the college for meetings, but when he is talking to Mr. Norton, they drive past a poor black family. Upon hearing a little bit about them, Mr. Norton asks for him to stop so he can talk to the man. He leaves upset and ghostly pale and sickly, asking for a drink to help him. In a panic, the narrator takes him the only place he knows that he can get liquor: the Golden Day. It is in a poor side of town, and all the patients from the mental hospital are there. The bartender won’t let him take liquor out to Mr. Norton, so he has to bring him in. This makes the situation worse, and a patient who claims to be a doctor ends up helping Mr. Norton recover enough to get to the college. The incident infuriates the head of the college, Dr. Bledsoe, and after the evening meeting where a blind man gives a rousing speech about the Founder of the college (who is much like Booker T. Washington), the narrator has to go to Bledsoe’s office, and Bledsoe expels him but tells him he will give him letters of recommendation so he may get a job in the North and potentially be able to come back to the college the next year.
He heads to the New York City and tries to get a job using the letters, but is thwarted because the letters contain slander about him that disables him from betting a job. One of the powerful businessmen’s sons informs the narrator about it and offers him advice on employment, which the narrator initially rejects but then checks out. He attempts to work at a paint company, where he first mixes paint and screws up the job, and then gets sent down to the piping system to help there. The job seems to be going well but then goes South when his boss mistakenly thinks he has gone to a union meeting and they get in a fight, causing them to forget about the pipe pressure, which causes an explosion. The narrator is placed in a hospital, where the doctors perform electrical medical experiments on him and he forgets his name and who he is. When he gets out, he wanders the streets of Harlem until a woman named Mary takes him in. He struggles to find a job, but she doesn’t kick him out for not paying rent.
One day when he is walking the streets, he comes across an eviction and becomes involved in stopping the eviction as he stands up on the stairs of the apartment complex and gives a speech to the people outside watching. They overpower the policemen and the evictors and put all the things back into the house, but more policemen come and someone directs him to the rooftop to get away safely. Very soon after, he is approached by Brother Jack to join the Brotherhood and make speeches to get the masses to move against the unjust working and housing conditions in the city. At first skeptical, he is moved to accept the job when he sees Mary and realizes just how poor she is in her situation and how much she has done for him. He is initiated into the Brotherhood and given a new name and home, and he doesn’t have the gumption to say goodbye to Mary, so he simply leaves her money. At this time he also accidentally breaks a money bank (black man eating coins), and he takes it with him as to hide that from Mary as well.
The work with the Brotherhood initially goes well, but he works his way up in the system and the community so fast that Brother Jack and the white members of the group are upset and worried. The Brotherhood brings up false charges against him when a magazine article comes out that turns out to be more about him than the Brotherhood, and then he is reassigned to “The Woman Question.” He is upset, but chooses to do this rather than lose his employment. A rich, married white woman approaches him and talks him into coming to her house to talk more about the Brotherhood, but she actually wants sex. He is nearly caught with her one night, but he realizes the husband doesn’t care what she is doing. Later on, he is assigned once again to Harlem because Ras the Destroyer, the local agitator in the area, is gaining a fast following while the Brotherhood is losing theirs, and Brother Clifton has gone missing.
Nothing that the narrator does to regain Brotherhood support is working, and the black members of the Brotherhood are largely MIA. He spots Clifton on the streets one day selling Sambo dolls, and as he tries to chase him down, he watches as Clifton gets in a fight with police and gets shot. Devastated, he takes Clifton’s body and hosts a funeral for Clifton that everyone can go to, and he makes a moving speech. The Brotherhood are furious, as the speech and memorial are contrary to their plans for the area. It becomes apparent to the narrator that the Brotherhood are not actually out to help black people and black neighborhoods, but to exploit them and their voices when it is useful, but he decides to try “yessing them to death” and trying to be perfect and say whatever it is that the Brotherhood wants to hear to protect his job. He goes to Brother Hambro for training. However, on his way to Hambro, Ras the Destroyer sees him and is after him, and so he must disguise himself in a zoot suit to hide. Everyone mistakes him for Rinehart, the local preacher, rounder, and illegal businessman, and he realizes further his own invisibility and the dual nature of people in his community.
After he gives reports to the Brotherhood that are complete lies but what they want to hear, he decides to go use the wife of one of the Brotherhood members to get ahead. But it turns out that when he gets there, she actually wants him to do a sexual role play where he rapes her. He gets her drunk enough that she passes out and can’t remember that it never happened, and then he tells her he did as she asked even though he didn’t. When he leaves, she follows him out, and she follows him to Harlem, which is in the middle of an all-out race riot. He gets caught in the fray and helps to burn down an apartment building, and afterward thinks of Mary and tries to find her. In his rush he falls down into a manhole, and he gets blocked in as some men cover it. He burns all of his documents so that he can find a way down the tunnel, and ends up in the coal cellar that he stays in, and where he is telling his story from.
Brief Note on Themes
Invisibility as a black person and what that means is the overarching theme of the narrative. Invisibility means being treated poorly, being denied opportunity, being outright discriminated against, and finding that no matter how hard a person works, they will never be able to rise above their circumstances. The theme of invisibility, therefore, intertwines with institutionalized racism and economic issues as well as issues of justice and segregation. If it’s a black political issue, it’s probably in Invisible Man. Music and sound are other themes, and ones that relate to my dissertation. Blues and jazz music are found in both the language and the plot, as are black vernacular dances: eagle rock, slow drag, dances done with knocking bones—those are the ones I can find so far. The music and dances are also often utilized in ways that either act as a freeing agent or a stereotyping agent. Since the book deals with the issues of stereotyping and limited ideological viewpoints and beliefs quite heavily, looking at those topics through music and sound can be a good entry point to discuss ways to comment on ideology and stereotypes.
- The narrator in Invisible Man states that he “discovered a new analytical way of listening to music. The unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its piece, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak. That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well” (9). How do we derive meaning from things that aren’t uttered? How do we derive those meanings out of textual sounds?
- How are the sounds of cultural history made pejorative through racism in this work? And can that cultural history of music and dance be reappropriated? If so, how? Do we see that happening anywhere within Invisible Man?
- How do we describe the sounds of protest, and are those sounds racialized? Does white protest in America take on a different set of sounds than black protest in America, or only different results and consequences?