Invisible Man Book summary
Ralph Ellison began writing the book in 1945 after securing the Rosenwald Fellowship, and the first chapter of the book appeared in the 1948 magazine of the year. The entire book was published in 1952 at which time it received both critical and commercial success. The influence of Jazz is evident in the book as it shifts from one genre to the other quite frequently with relative ease, just as prominent is the influence of the Existentialists. These writers from France sought to understand the concept of meaning in a meaningless universe, and Ralph Ellison examines the existential question in the context of the racially strained United States of America. The book was published during the time of Segregation, and it brought global attention to the racist practices of the southern states.
An invisible man lives undetected in the basement of a building, and he uses stolen power to light over a thousand bulbs in that small space. He explains that he had not always been a recluse, but he had been forced to realize that society had never truly seen him but rather saw him as a manifestation of their own beliefs. He begins by recounting the words of his humble grandfather, who had endured slavery and lived as a free man. On his death bed, the protagonist's grandfather had shocked them all by telling them that he had betrayed his kind by being too subservient, and he now advised them to follow a duplicitous attitude while appearing subservient on the surface. The protagonist as a young man had been a studious high schooler who was recognized for delivering a moving speech about social responsibility. He was invited to speak in front of a group of influential men from his small southern town, but rather than a respectable gathering, the event had turned into a violent and grotesque display that was conducted at the expense of young black men.
The young black man is heckled throughout his speech after he is caused to participate in a battle royale, and he is then awarded a briefcase along with a scholarship to the state college for black people. The protagonist has hazy memories of his time in college, but he recounts how he was forced to leave the college. He had been driving around a trustee of the college, Mr. Norton, and had accidentally taken him down a country lane where he encountered the ostracised Jim Trueblood. The sharecropper had impregnated his daughter and wife, the act had left the black intellectuals in the neighborhood horrified. They had sought to have him removed from the vicinity but Jim had received support from the white authorities. Jim's account caused Mr. Norton to experience dizziness and nausea perhaps due to his incestuous fantasies about his deceased daughter. The protagonist takes the sick trustee to a local bar called the Golden Day for some stimulant, but he finds the bar filled with black veterans from a mental asylum who soon begin to riot.
They are rescued by a patient who proves to be a talented doctor and he further claims to be a graduate from the local college. He helps the sick Norton but then threatens them with violence after he calls the protagonist an automaton that has been brainwashed by the white power structure. The protagonist escorts the trustee back to the college, where he has to face the director, a big black bald man nicknamed Buckethead. The protagonist attends the evening service and hears the speech of the blind Reverend Barbee who describes the life of the founder of the college, a man who entrusted his legacy to Dr. Bledsoe. The protagonist in his private meeting with the director encounters a succinctly different man who wears the mask of a humble servant while being a vengeful man determined to keep hold of his position of power. The protagonist is expelled from the college for endangering the life of the trustee but he is given a false hope with the prospect of returning to college the following year after earning the tuition while working in New York.
The protagonist takes a bus north along with the veteran doctor who tells him that the North would offer him opportunities, but that he would need to play the game without truly believing in it. He finds little success with the letters of introduction that Dr. Bledsoe had given him while assuring him of assistance in securing a job in New York. He is left dumbfounded when he learns that the letters had been written to caution the trustees from entertaining him as it assured them that he would never be accepted back to the college. One of the contacts he meets in New York helps him secure an entry-level position at a paint factory called Liberty paints. His stint at the factory ends terribly when an older black worker in the basement becomes threatened by the younger and more qualified black man. Brockway causes the protagonist to be involved in an explosion which leads him to be admitted to the factory hospital where the doctors experiment on him with electric shock in addition to considering lobotomy.
The protagonist wakes with amnesia but he can recall the characters from old slave folk tales. He is then released from both the factory hospital and his old fear of the white power structure. He collapses as he returns to Harlem, but is nursed back to health by an older large black woman called Mary. He begins to reside as a tenant with the lady, and she continues to behave well with him even when he is unable to pay his rent as the compensation money from the factory accident is depleted. The protagonist begins to realize that he had been living his life by denying his heritage as he was afraid of what his peers would condone, and passionately addresses a crowd when he witnesses an old black couple being evicted from their homes by two white marshals.
This speech rouses the crowd to violence which quickly brings the attention of the riot police, the protagonist is followed by a white man, Brother Jack, as he flees the scene. The man offers the protagonist a job as a speaker for a mysterious organization that he turns down almost immediately. He later reconsiders and decides to take the opportunity when he realizes that his poverty is affecting Mary as well. Jack takes him to a lavish party at a mysterious building where he learns of the Brotherhood, an organization driven to establish fair treatment for all people irrespective of race. The Protagonist accepts the generous employment offer and is taken to a political rally the following night. He addresses the crowd with a moving speech about blindness that wins him the crowd's affection but earns him the ire of the Brotherhood committee who believes that his speech had been too reactionary. The protagonist is sent for indoctrination for several months, after which he is made the chief spokesperson of the Brotherhood's Harlem chapter. He meets the young and handsome Clifton at the chapter, and together they begin to raise awareness about social dispossession.
Their campaign is opposed by Ras the Exhorter, a black nationalist who condemns the cooperation of black men with white men in the Brotherhood. Clifton is nearly killed by Ras during one of their conflicts, while the protagonist receives an anonymous threatening letter. The protagonist leads the Harlem chapter with great success, however, his leadership position comes to an end when another black man in the Brotherhood, Brother Wrestrum, lodges a complaint against the protagonist.
He is sent to the Brotherhood's women chapter where he has sexual relations with a white woman, but he eventually is summoned back to the Harlem Chapter. He is surprised to learn that Brother Clifton has disappeared and all of their previous progress in the region had been lost as the organization shifted focus from local to national issues. He is then put at arm's length from the committee and he encounters Clifton hawking racist Sambo dolls in the street. The protagonist is disgusted at the actions of his former associate but this disgust soon turns into horror as Clifton is killed by a policeman. The protagonist is deeply moved by Clifton's death and organizes a funeral march that attracts nearly all the inhabitants of the neighborhood. The Brotherhood committee admonishes him for acting individually but the protagonist accuses them of being white supremacists at which point he is sent to Brother Hanbro for further indoctrination. The protagonist is attacked in the streets by Ras's gang, and he decides to wear a disguise which leads to him experiencing the life of Rhinehart, a local gambler, pimp, and pastor. The protagonist decides to infiltrate the ranks of the Brotherhood when he learns that residents of Harlem are being 'sacrificed' for the pursuit of higher goals. His plans to seduce a woman from the inner ranks fail miserably when Sybil, the woman he entraps, is only interested in playing out her racist sexual fantasies. He receives a call that Harlem is in danger and arrives to find it overrun with looters and sounds of gunfire. He is hit with a stray bullet but he is then rescued by a gang of looters. He aids the gang set fire to a tenement building and realizes that the riot had been a planned consequence of the Brotherhood's plans. He decides to seek out Jack but finds himself accosted by Ras the Destroyer who is garbed in the war attire of an African Chieftain. The protagonist nearly allows himself to be killed but he suddenly realizes that his life is worth living, and ends up hiding in a hole in the ground.
In the end, he believes this time of hibernation has allowed him to understand his life a little better, as he now advocates the power of love as he contemplates leaving his hole in the ground.
Bildungsroman, novel of social protest
African-American fiction, Existentailism