"In our society, it is not unusual for a Negro to experience a sensation that he does not exist in the real world at all. He seems rather to exist in the nightmarish fantasy of the white American mind as a phantom that the white mind seeks unceasingly, by means both crude and subtle, to slay." ("An American Dilemma: A Review," Shadow and Act)
This quote from Ralph Ellison's review of Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal's book An American Dilemma (which explores the roots of prejudice and racism in the U.S.) anticipates the premise of Invisible Man: Racism is a devastating force, possessing the power to render black Americans virtually invisible.
Hailed as a novel that "changed the shape of American literature," Invisible Man traces the nightmarish journey of its unnamed narrator from his high school and college days in the South to his harrowing experiences in the North as a member of the Brotherhood, a powerful organization that purports to fight for justice and equality for all people but in reality exploits blacks and uses them to promote its own political agenda. By describing one man's lifelong struggle to establish a sense of identity as a black man in white America, Ellison illustrates the powerful social and political forces that conspire to keep black Americans "in their place," denying them the "inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" guaranteed to all Americans. (As numerous historians have pointed out, the U.S. Constitution explicitly excludes black Americans, who, until 1865, were perceived not as men, but as property.)
Often described as a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, Invisible Man is the tale of a black man's search for identity and visibility in white America. Convinced that his existence depends on gaining the support, recognition, and approval of whites — whom he has been taught to view as powerful, superior beings who control his destiny — the narrator spends nearly 20 years trying to establish his humanity in a society that refuses to see him as a human being. Ultimately, he realizes that he must create his own identity, which rests not on the acceptance of whites, but on his own acceptance of the past. Although Invisible Man received the prestigious National Book Award, some blacks feel that the novel perpetuates black stereotypes. In addition, some black scholars criticized the novel for not being sufficiently "revolutionary" and not accurately depicting "the black experience." Ellison's attitude towards these critics is perhaps best summarized in his classic response to a reporter during a 1973 interview: "I'll be my kind of militant." Black feminists also criticized the novel, pointing to the lack of positive female characters, and noting that the women in the novel are all prostitutes, sex objects, or caregivers. Despite these criticisms, Ellison's novel, regarded as a classic of American literature, enjoyed immense popularity.
Published in 1952, more than a decade before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 declared racial segregation illegal, Invisible Man has been praised for its innovative style and unique treatment of controversial subject matter. The violence and racial tension depicted in Invisible Man foreshadow the violence engendered by the Civil Rights Movement in cities across the U.S. The action of Invisible Man spans approximately 20 years, tracing the narrator's life from his high school graduation in Greenwood, South Carolina, to his involvement in the Harlem Riot of 1943. By tracing the narrator's journey from the rural South to the urban North, the novel emulates the movement of the slave narratives, autobiographies written by formerly enslaved black Africans that trace their escape routes from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. One of the most famous slave narratives is Frederick Douglass' autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845. This fact is important to our understanding of Invisible Man, because Frederick Douglass (like the narrator's grandfather) symbolizes the ghost of slavery alluded to at several critical points in the novel.
The narrator's path also traces the path of thousands of Southern blacks who moved to the North during the 1930s and 40s in search of better jobs and new opportunities during the Great Migration.
Call and response — a concept rooted in the traditional Negro sermons in which the pastor's impassioned call elicits an equally impassioned response from the congregation — is one of the defining elements of African American literature. With this in mind, Invisible Man can be read as a response to Langston Hughes' poem, "Harlem," which poses the question, "What happens to a dream deferred? . . . Does it explode?" According to Ellison, who also explores the myth of the American Dream, the answer is a resounding, "Yes!" In addition to Langston Hughes, the two authors who had the greatest influence on Ellison's writing style were T. S. Eliot and Richard Wright. Ellison was especially intrigued with Eliot's Wasteland, a poem that explores the spiritual wasteland of contemporary society, and with Wright's acclaimed protest novel, Native Son, and his nonfiction work, 12 Million Black Voices, which Ellison felt was even more powerful than Native Son. Ellison was also influenced by H.G. Wells' science fiction novel, The Invisible Man, and Richard Wright's short story, "The Man Who Lived Underground."
A complex, multi-layered novel, Invisible Man can be read as an allegory (a story with both a literal and symbolic meaning that can be read, understood, and interpreted at several levels) that traces the narrator's perilous journey from innocence to experience, and from blind ignorance to enlightened awareness. Invisible Man can also be read as a quest narrative. Like Homer's Odyssey and Dante's Divine Comedy — both of which are alluded to in the novel — Invisible Man involves a symbolic journey to the underworld, where the narrator must meet and defeat various monsters — such as Brother Jack — and overcome seemingly impossible trials in order to return home.
Ellison's use of inverted reality, creating a world that mirrors the reality of the white world, is a key structural element in Invisible Man. In the narrator's world, black is white, up is down, light is darkness, and insanity is sanity. This structural device is used to illustrate that blacks, due to their perceived inferior status in American society, often experience a radically different reality than whites, creating the illusion that blacks and whites live in two different worlds. The white man's American dream is the black man's nightmare, and behavior deemed normal for whites is deemed abnormal (or crazy) for blacks. A key example is the novel's closing scene: The narrator returns to his underground home, the basement (coal cellar) of a whites-only apartment building. Although this can be viewed as a physical move down into darkness and despair, in the narrator's inverted reality, his return to his underground habitat illustrates a psychological move up towards awareness and enlightenment.
Unlike conventional novels that present a series of related sequential events, Invisible Man consists of a series of seemingly unrelated scenes or episodes — often expressed in the form of stories or sermons — linked only by the narrator's comments and observations. In this way, the structure of the novel mirrors the structure of a jazz composition, players stepping forward to perform their impromptu solos, then stepping back to rejoin their group.
The structure also emulates the oral tradition of preliterate societies. Passed down orally from generation to generation, their stories embodied a people's culture and history. In the novel, each character's story can be viewed as a lesson that contributes to the narrator's growth and awareness, bringing him closer to an understanding of his own people's culture and history.