Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison Summary [Non-African Prose]

Non-African Prose: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison Comprehensive Chapter by Summary, Background, Plot Summary, Major Events and Significance, Themes, Characters and Authors Biography [ 2021 JAMB UTME, NECO and WAEC Literature].

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 
The grandson of freed slaves, Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City on March 1, 1914. Although he grew up poor, Ellison earned a scholarship to Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University)-the country's foremost black college. He studied music and hoped to become a composer, and his love of improvised jazz music clearly influenced his writing style in Invisible Man. Although deeply involved in the civil rights movement, Ellison not only rebuked Tuskegee President Booker T. Washington's belief that African Americans should remain subservient to whites but also rejected the violent separatist beliefs of Marcus Garvey, leader of black nationalist and Pan-African movements. Despite the popularity of both movements, Ellison did not believe it was possible for blacks to live "separate but equal" from whites. Ellison recognized that the two cultures were tangled together, impossible to separate.  Upon its publication in 1952, the "Invisible Man novel" garnered high praise and won the National Book Award in 1953. Perhaps because of its success, Invisible Man would be the only novel Ellison published in his lifetime. He died on April 16, 1994.

 

BACKGROUND

Invisible Man is categorized as a bildungsroman, a novel focusing on the narrator's formative years or spiritual awakening and growth. The narrator struggles to understand his singular existence within the vastness of larger society, making this an existential novel.

The book challenges readers with its jazz music style, swaying between harsh realism, dreamlike fantasy, and political satire. The title references the narrator's central struggle: feeling invisible in a society dominated by white culture.

Invisible Man was published in 1952, during the height of racial segregation in the United States.

PLOT SUMMARY

Invisible Man is the fictional memoir of an unnamed black narrator's journey to self- discovery. The narrator is not invisible because of a physical ailment or a freak accident; he is invisible because society sees him simply as a "black man"-a label filled with racist expectation.

His true self is invisible, both to the outside world and to himself. He must confront racism, exploitation, and abuse to define his individuality. At the opening of the novel, the narrator sits at his grandfather's deathbed somewhere in America's South during the late 19205 to early 19305.

The old man tells the narrator that the key to success as a black man is to remain subservient to whites. He also tells him, however, that such behavior is treacherous.

This confusing advice follows the narrator throughout his life as he struggles to define treachery and his responsibility to anyone other than himself. Shortly after his grandfather's death, the narrator is invited to give his graduation speech to a group of prominent white men, who appreciate the speech's message of black subservience.

At the event, however, the narrator is horrified to discover that part of the evening's entertainment is a "battle royal" pitting his fellow black students against each other in a brutal, blindfolded fight.

Bloodied and bruised from the battle, the narrator delivers his speech and is rewarded with a scholarship to a prestigious black college. In his third year at college, the narrator is given the "honor" of chauffeuring a wealthy white trustee, Mr. Norton.

The day doesn't go as planned, and Mr. Norton is exposed not only to an incestuous black sharecropper but also to a brothel full of mentally disturbed war veterans. As a result of this incident, the narrator is expelled from school and sent to New York with a handful of recommendation letters to search for work Unsuccessful at finding a job, he learns that the recommendation letters from his college actually warned prospective employers of his unpredictable, violent tendencies.

The treacherous lie shatters his dreams of ever returning to school. Desperate for money, the narrator takes a job at Liberty Paints, a factory that produces Optic White paint for the government. His first job is adding a solvent to muddy brown paint and stirring it until the paint is white enough to cover coal. He is later sent to work in the boiler room alongside Lucius Brockway, a crotchety old African American man who believes the young black workers should be grateful for the jobs given them by whites and shouldn't fight for social equality.

Enraged to learn that the narrator accidentally attended a union meeting, Brockway attacks him. Then the narrator is injured in a factory blast and sent to recover at the factory hospital, where the doctors administer unnecessary shock treatments that erase his memory. Deemed "cured" by the doctors, the narrator recovers at the home of a kindly black woman, Mary Rambo.

While at Mary's, the narrator rediscovers his passion for public speaking and, at Mary's annoying insistence that he become a productive member of the black community, joins the Brotherhood, an organization created to protect the socially oppressed.

After being fully indoctrinated in the Brotherhood's ideals, the narrator enjoys a quick rise to power, becoming the leader of the organization's Harlem division. He is surprised by how powerful he feels delivering speeches, and he often speaks passionately from the heart, much to the chagrin of the organization's members.

His fellow Brothers eventually accuse him of using the Brotherhood to further his own purposes-a hurtful and untrue accusation. As a result, he is removed from his post and sent to head up the women's division downtown. He returns to Harlem when he learns that the organization is losing traction in the community and that his friend, Brother Tod Clifton, is missing. Soon after returning to headquarters, the narrator discovers Clifton selling racist Sambo dolls in the park for the amusement of white tourists.

Despite the bond between the two men, Clifton pretends not to see the narrator, who spits on the dolls and tries to crush them beneath his feet. The police arrive, and during the scuffle, officers shoot and kill Clifton. Unable to make contact with anyone in the organization, the narrator arranges Clifton's funeral on his own. As time passes, the narrator grows increasingly disillusioned with the Brotherhood and their ideals. He realizes that the organization has manipulated him and he has "sold out" his neighbors. Determined to destroy the organization from the inside, the narrator vows to follow his grandfather's advice and "overcome 'em with yeses."

He pretends to agree to the organization's new plans, but hopes to uncover enough information to destroy them. He unwittingly plays right into the Brotherhood's plans to turn power over to the violent Ras the Exhorter, who incites brutal race riots across Harlem.

This way, the Brotherhood can destroy the black community by leading the community to destroy itself. As the narrator rushes to Harlem to demand answers from the organization, he is confronted by Ras, who demands that the "traitor" narrator be lynched. Racing through the erupting violence the narrator leaps into an uncovered manhole and "hibernates" underground for the next 15 years.

MAJOR EVENTS

Grandfather Dies:

The narrator's grandfather, an ex-slave dies. On his deathbed, the grandfather leaves his family with some final advice. "Son, after I'm gone, I want you to keep up the good fight. 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." A young boy at the time, the narrator is not really sure what his grandfather's dying words meant but they haunt him in the years to come.

Battle Royale:

As one of the top students in his high school, the narrator is asked to give a speech to some important white men in town. The men will reward him with a briefcase con training a scholarship to a prestigious black college but then he is forced to participate in a fight and blindfolded in a boxing ring with other black young men.

Mr. Norton, Tim True-blood and the Golden Day:

Narrator is asked to drive a wealthy white trustee of the college, Mr. Norton around the campus. Narrator takes him to visit Jim Trueblood, a poor uneducated Blackman who impregnated his own daughter. He then takes Mr. Norton to the Golden Day, a saloon and brothel that normally serves black men. A fight breaks out and Mr. Norton passes out.

Narrator is Expelled from College

Because of his day with Mr. Norton, the narrator is expelled from college. The college president Dr Bledsoe gives him seven letters of recommendation addressed to the college‘s white trustees in New York City, and sends him there to find work

Narrator Travels to Harlem, New York

The narrator looks for work but is not successful. He has one letter of recommendation left and will have to leave New York if he does not get a job.

He Gets a Job!

The narrator goes to the office of Mr. Emerson with his last letter. There he meets Emerson's son, who opens the letter and tells the narrator that he has been betrayed: the letters from Bledsoe actually portrays him as dishonorable and unreliable. But he helps the narrator get a job at the Liberty Paints plant, whose trademark color is "Optic White".\

Mary to the Rescue

While at the paint plant, the narrator is injured and sent to the plant hospital where he wakes up with memory loss and not able to speak The white doctors use this black patient to conduct electric shock experiments and turn him out on the street.

Some black community members take him to Mary, a nice black woman who lets him live with her for free while he recovers.

Eviction Inspires a Speech

One day the narrator witnesses an old black couple being evicted from their home in Harlem. He becomes angry and gives a speech to the crowd that is gathered around. The crowd is inspired by the speech and carries the couple's belongings back into the house.

Brother Jack and the Brotherhood:

Brother Jack, a man in the crowd, hears the narrator's speech and offers him a job working for his political organization, the Brotherhood. The narrator takes the job and Jack tells him that he must change his name, buy new clothes and move to a new apartment.

THEMES

INVISIBILITY

The unnamed narrator wants nothing more than to be seen as an individual in a society where racist expectations label what he "should" be before he has the chance to prove anyone wrong. As a result, the narrator feels unseen or invisible. In seeking to create a unique identity for himself, the narrator repeatedly denies his true self-his culture and heritage-to create an identity that will make others proud.

First, he tries to suppress his Southern heritage, then he tries to cover his "blackness" with "white manners and ideologies" while in college.

In Harlem he literally takes a new name, Rinehart, only to find that this, too, pushes him further from his true self.

As the narrator matures, however, he begins to see that invisibility isn't always a bad thing. When he "meets" Rinehart, for example, he learns that by donning disguises, he is able to pursue his own goals without others' expectations getting in the way.

He had always believed that pleasing others would bring him success, but as Rinehart, he follows his own pleasure and creates his own rewards. It is also by being "invisible" that the narrator learns to change society. In the novel's prologue, the narrator wonders how an invisible man could be held accountable for his actions.

Ultimately, however, the narrator is desperate to create a unique identity, one that will be remembered in history, which would be impossible if he remains invisible.

RACIAL EXPECTATION

As the narrator tries to form a unique identity for himself, he finds that everyone else in society has an expectation of what it means to be a "black man." At college and at the Brotherhood, he is expected to embody Booker T. Washington's ideologies that "white is right," dutifully following the orders of his white leaders without question.

He, and those in power, believe that obedience will bring success. In New York he is immediately identified as a Southerner who likes soul food, folktales, and jazz music. White women view him as a sexually powerful "black bruiser," whereas white men view him as a sort of Sambo (a negative stereotype of blacks based on an 1808 short story by Edmund Botsford).

All the narrator wants is to be seen as an individual.

SLAVERY'S BAGGAGE

Although the narrator was born a free man, he is forced to carry the baggage of slavery's legacy with him everywhere.

The "baggage" is symbolized in the calfskin briefcase the narrator wins at the end of the battle royal.

Throughout the novel he fills the case with other symbols of enslavement to white men, such as the letters, his diploma, the Sambo doll, pieces of Mary's broken bank, and Brother Tarp's leg chain.

Even when he is in the middle of the tenement fire, the narrator returns for the briefcase, suggesting the impossibility of simply leaving this baggage behind. It is only at the end of the novel, when the narrator chooses to plunge into darkness, that he is able to rid himself of the baggage and truly create a new identity for himself.

CHARACTERS

NARRATOR

The unnamed narrator is a young, light-skinned black man who becomes disillusioned in his quest to create a unique identity for himself within a racist society.

The narrator feels invisible because everyone sees him as they wish to see him based on their expectations of black men, not as the unique individual he desires to be. Throughout the novel, the narrator is haunted by his grandfather's deathbed advice and, as a result, is "kept running" by the white men in power. In his pursuit of making a name for himself, he fulfills his grandfather's ominous prediction that he will act "treacherously" against his people by inadvertently "selling out" the black residents of Harlem.

DR. BLEDSOE

When the narrator first arrives at the college, he idolizes everything about Dr. Bledsoe— his legacy, his sway with white men, his wealth, even his light-skinned wife.

He blindly follows Bledsoe's philosophy that "white is right," hoping that it will earn him the same prestige.

When the narrator is expelled from school, however, he learns that Dr. Bledsoe only acts subservient to whites because doing so affords him a position of power. In addition to expelling the narrator, Dr. Bledsoe also sends him to New York with treacherous letters of recommendation.

MR. NORTON

Mr. Norton is a wealthy, white trustee who has spent his life making large donations to the black college the narrator attends.

Mr. Norton claims he supports the college because he has always felt his fate was tied to the fate of the black race, and to honor his deceased daughter's memory, but it soon becomes clear that Mr. Norton is only interested in creating a philanthropic legacy that suggests he is concerned with racial equality. He shows little interest in the real struggles of black individuals, except in the case of Jim True blood, whom he finds voyeuristically fascinating.

JIM TRUEBLOOD

Living just outside campus, Jim Trueblood represents the black "savage" stereotype of the uneducated Southern black man. Trueblood gained notoriety in town for his incestuous relationship with his daughter, whom he impregnated while he was having a dream.

Although "ignorant," Trueblood has learned to exploit the story to his family's advantage. He knows that white people like Norton want to save the lowest of black people, so he uses the story to gain work and charity, even if it means being forced into the outskirts of society.

MARY

Mary Rambo represents the strength of the black community. After witnessing the narrator collapse on the street after being released from the factory hospital, Mary takes him in, feeds him, and even offers him a room.

When the narrator can no longer pay rent, Mary allows him to stay for free, hoping that he'll become a strong leader in the black community someday. Although the narrator is initially grateful for Mary's generosity, his time at the Brotherhood leads him to resent her.

RAS

Ras the Exhorter, who later becomes Ras the Destroyer, is a violent black separatist, which means he believes black Americans should start a society completely separate from white Americans.

He refuses civil rights help from sympathetic whites, and believes anyone who takes it to be a traitor to the race.

Ras believes that any relationship with the white race is a continuation of oppression, so he preaches for all black people to quit working for white bosses and to refuse to shop at white-owned stores or even hold civil conversations with white men.

He hates the narrator and his affiliation with the Brotherhood, which is multiracial and therefore blasphemous.

BROTHER JACK

Brother Jack is the white leader of the Brotherhood in Harlem. Although the Brotherhood is formed to improve the lives of black Americans, in reality, it is a corrupt system exploited by Brother Jack and his cohorts.

When the narrator first meets Brother Jack, he seems like a heroic force, quickly giving the narrator a respectable job and wage.

Over time, however, it becomes clear that Brother Jack is using the narrator as a tool to advance his own motives. He has no real desire to improve the life of Harlem residents-easily abandoning them at the end of the novel-and is only interested in amassing personal power and wealth.

He is described as having red hair and a glass eye, two characteristics that illustrate his evil and flawed vision regarding racial equality.

TOD CLIFTON

Tod Clifton is the black member of the Brotherhood who becomes disillusioned with the organization and turns to selling Sambo dolls on the street to white tourists.

CRENSHAW

Crenshaw is the attendant to the veteran doctor.

DUPRE

Dupre is a looter who misleads the narrator into helping burn down a tenement building during Harlem's race riots.

YOUNG EMERSON

Young Emerson is the seemingly homosexual son of a wealthy white man who self- servingly helps the narrator find a job.

EMMA

Emma is BrotherJack's mistress and a powerful female member of the Brotherhood.

FOUNDER

The Founder is the educator who founded the black college the narrator attends; he is a civil rights leader with a mythic legacy.

GRANDFATHER

The narrator's grandfather advises him to remain subservient to white men even if doing so is treacherous.

BROTHER HAMBRO

Brother Hambro is the leader in the Brotherhood charged with the narrator's training and indoctrination into Brotherhood ideologies.