"Invisible Man", written in 1952 by Ralph Ellison, documents a young black man's struggle to find identity in an inequitable and manipulative society. During the course of this struggle, he learns many valuable lessons, both about society and himself, through his experiences.
The story begins with the narrator recounting his memories of his grandfather. The most remarkable, and eventually the most haunting of these is his memory of his grandfather's last words in which he claims to have been a traitor to his own people and urges his son 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." These words remain imprinted in the narrator's mind throughout the book, although he never fully understands their meaning. His grandfather's words eventually serve as catalyst for his subsequent disillusionments, the first of which occurs directly after he graduates from high school.
At this time, the narrator is invited to give a speech at a gathering of the town's leading white citizens. The speech he is planning to give expresses the view that humility is the essence of progress. Subconsciously, the words of his grandfather prevent him from truly believing the thesis of his own speech, but he gives it anyway. Instead of being shown respect for his work, however, he is humiliated by being made to fight blind-folded against other young black men, and then being shocked by an electrified rug. He pretends not to be angered by these events, yet his true feelings escape him for a moment when, while he is reading his speech, he accidentally says "Social equality," instead of "Social responsibility." After he finishes his speech, he is awarded a new briefcase. Inside the briefcase is a scholarship to the state Negro College. That night he has a dream in which his grandfather tells him to open the briefcase and read what is in the envelope. He finds that it says "To Whom It May Concern, Keep This Nigger-Boy Running." Unfortunately, he is still too disillusioned to grasp the meaning of his grandfather's warnings.
During his Junior year at college, the narrator drives for Mr. Norton, one of the college founders who is visiting the campus. During the drive, Mr. Norton tells the narrator that he is his destiny. The narrator, however, fails to understand this statement until several years later, when he finally understands the real nature of his own exploitation.
While driving, the narrator and Mr. Norton pass by an old log cabin. Mr. Norton becomes curious about the two pregnant women washing clothes in the yard. The narrator explains that one is the wife of Jim Trueblood and the other is his daughter and that he impregnated them both. Mr. Norton is astonished by this and decides to go talk with Trueblood. Trueblood explains how it happened, and Mr. Norton is so disturbed that when he gets back into the car, he becomes sick and instructs the narrator to get him a drink.
The narrator drives to a local bar and tries to buy a drink to take outside to Mr. Norton, but the bartender won't let him. The narrator is forced to carry the now unconscious Mr. Norton into the bar. When Mr. Norton awakes, he is harassed by several mental health patients, and leaves in utter disgust.
When Dr. Bledsoe, the head of the narrator's college finds out what happened, he expels the narrator. When the narrator threatens to fight him, Dr. Bledsoe explains to the the narrator the true nature of his power. He tells the narrator that he doesn't care if he tries to fight, because behind his power is an entire hierarchy of power that cannot be displaced by anything, no matter how true or righteous: "This is a power set-up, son, and I'm at the controls. You think about that. When you buck against me, you're bucking against power, rich white folk's power, the nation's power--which means government power!" But even then, he still does not understand what is being done to him. He still believes that other people have his best interests at heart.
Dr. Bledsoe tells him that if he goes to New York and earns enough money, he will be readmitted to the college. The narrator agrees to this, and Dr. Bledsoe gives the him several letters of recommendation and sends him on his way.
When the narrator gets to New York, the son of Mr. Emerson, one of the people to whom Dr. Bledsoe wrote a letter, tries to tell the narrator about the tyranny under which he is being exploited. The narrator refuses to listen, until he is shown the letter that Dr. Bledsoe had written. He discovers that all the letters of recommendation are phony and that Dr. Bledsoe never actually intended for him to be able to re-enroll in the college. This realization finally causes the narrator to become at least partially disillusioned. Because of this, he decides to forget about the college and takes a job at a paint factory.
At the paint factory he begins working as an assistant to Lucius Brockway, an old black man that works the machines in the basement. Brockway explains to the narrator that it is the people who work the machines, and not the machines themselves, that are responsible for the success of the company. He tells him, "We the machines inside the machine." The narrator, however, fails to grasp the broader meaning of this quote.
When Brockway discovers that the narrator went to a union meeting, he attacks the narrator. While they are fighting, the machinery goes haywire and when the narrator tries to fix it, it explodes, knocking him unconscious. The narrator wakes up in the factory hospital. At first he thinks they are going to help him-that they are going to try and relieve his pain and suffering. But again, this is only a naive illusion. Instead, he becomes a guinea pig for experimental electroshock therapy. The electroshock therapy causes him to forget who he is. This is symbolic of how his continual exploitation has been robbing him of his identity. After he recovers from the amnesia and leaves the hospital, he realizes that he is no longer afraid of important men since he no longer expects anything from them. He is still a long way away, however, from full disillusionment.
A few days later, as he is walking down a street in Harlem, he happens upon a crowd gathered where an old black couple are being evicted from their apartment. Here he gives a speech about how the couple has been disowned by society-about how the entire black race has been disowned by society. This speech motivates the crowd to attack the evictors. Later that day, the narrator is approached by someone who witnessed the incident. He offers the narrator a job as a public speaker. The narrator eventually accepts and joins the political organization known as the Brotherhood. In the first speech he gives for the brotherhood, he says that we are all like one-eyed men walking down opposite sides of the street. If someone starts throwing bricks, we start blaming each other and fighting among ourselves. This description later proves to be more accurate than he thought.
After he has given his first speech, the Brotherhood decides to train him and give him a new name, new clothes, and a new residence. All these changes make the narrator think that he is finally finding an identity. "The new suit imparted a newness to me. It was the clothes and the new name and the circumstances. It was a newness too subtle to put into thought, but there it was. I was becoming someone else." The narrator does not realize, however, that it was still the same game, just with a deeper level of illusion.
The Brotherhood teaches him their doctrine of scientific world brotherhood and he eventually becomes manager of the entire Harlem branch. At first, things seem to be going well and he is very enthusiastic, but then he receives an anonymous note that tells him not to gain power too fast, or the whites will start to resent him. This disturbs him deeply. A few days later, another setback occurs. A fellow brother accuses him of trying to amass power for himself. The Council takes this accusation seriously and relocates the narrator to the downtown branch. The narrator is infuriated, but accepts the relocation. This experience is the first step in the narrator's realization that even the Brotherhood is a bureaucracy, and acts only in its own self-interests.
Without the narrator's leadership, the Harlem Branch soon falls into disarray. Because of this, the Council decides to move the narrator back to Harlem. When he returns he finds that most of the members have left, and the community feels betrayed by the organization. Within a few days of the narrator's return, Tod Clifton, a former member of the Brotherhood, is shot, unarmed, by a police officer. The narrator decides that this is just the catalyst he needs to save the dying organization. He organizes a public funeral for Clifton and gives a speech denouncing the shooting. When the Council finds out what the narrator has done, they threaten to expel him. They say that it was wrong to treat Clifton as a hero since he had betrayed the organization before being shot, and it was also wrong to act without the authorization of the Council. The narrator argues that it was justified by the need to rebuild support for the organization in the community. At this, Jack becomes infuriated and his glass eye comes out. When the narrator learns that Jack only has one eye, it is symbolic of his realization that the people who head the organization are essentially blind to the real needs of the community. They are more interested in arguing philosophy than really doing what is right. In essence, they are like the one-eyed men that the narrator spoke of in his first speech for the Brotherhood. Becoming further disillusioned, he decides to go visit Hambro. On the way there, he narrowly escapes being assaulted by black nationalists. He decided to buy a disguise so that he will be safe in the future. Wearing the disguise, he is stopped several times on the street by people that think he is a man named Rinehart. Eventually, he discovers that Rinehart is a lover, a gambler, a briber, and a reverend. The knowledge that such a man could truly exist opens up a new perspective for the narrator. This new perspective causes him to decide to follow his grandfather's advice and undermine the brotherhood with the illusion of complete submission. He falsifies all of the branch's records and reports, while pretending that everything is perfectly fine. Meanwhile, the people of Harlem are becoming increasingly angry, and there is no one left to organize their anger into productive activities.
Eventually, riots break out, and the narrator realizes that he has been fooling himself the whole time, he has been betraying his community. The Brotherhood had planned it all, but now it's too late for him to do anything about it. So instead of trying to organize the people, he simply observes what happens. He finds that the people have the ability to organize and take action for themselves. "And now I was seized with a fierce sense of exaltation. They've done it, I thought. They organized it and carried it through alone; the decision their own and their own action." He realizes that the real forces of history are not political organizations, but the common people.
During the riots, the narrator is recognized by black nationalists, led by Ras the Destroyer. They chase him until he falls down a manhole, landing on a pile of coal. He searches for an exit by burning the contents of his briefcase, one by one. Each item he burns represents freedom from an aspect of his past. First he burns his high school diploma, then a doll made by Clifton. Next he burns the anonymous letter and the new name given to him by Jack. He discovers that the handwriting is the same on both documents. He now understands the complete truth about the Brotherhood. Exhausted, and without light, the narrator collapses into the darkness. He soon falls asleep and begins to dream. In this dream he has a final confrontation with Jack, Emerson, Bledsoe, Norton, and Ras. He discovers that they are all the same and that all they want to do is to keep him running. None of them really cares about him and they just want to use him for their own gain. He finally sees beyond all the illusions and realizes that history will vindicate his invisibility.
The style in which " Invisible Man" is written, is very introspective and personal. Every detail of the narrator's emotions and logic are exposed, thus allowing us to more fully comprehend his development over time. In parts of the book, introspection takes over almost completely, sending us deep within the spiraling abyss of the invisible man's consciousness. Unlike most other books, the ideas that the author wishes to express are conveyed more through thoughts than by dialog or actions. The book also uses dream scenes quite frequently, often as a foreshadowing of events to come.
Many parts of the book are quite graphic and disturbing, thus reflecting the horror of the true nature of society. The most blatant example of this is Trueblood's incest account. It tells of how he awakens to find himself violating his own daughter and yet he refuses to stop since he believes that would be an even greater sin. He contemplates severing his genitals with a knife, but doesn't have a knife nearby. When his wife finally discovers what he has done, she cuts his face with an ax. Other examples of graphic or disturbing scenes include Sophia trying to get the narrator to rape her, Jack removing his glass eyeball, and the narrator throwing a spear through Ras' jaw. Emerson is a true realist, never sparing any image, no matter how graphic.