A master of poetic devices, Ralph Ellison incorporates numerous symbols and archetypes (universal symbols) into his novel, each providing a unique perspective on the narrative and supporting the dominant themes of invisibility and identity. Dreams and visions generally symbolize the power of the subconscious mind. In the novel, numerous dreams and visions symbolize the narrator's retreat from reality, seeking solace in memories of his childhood or days at the college, often occurring as he escapes into his music. Ellison merges dreams and reality to underscore the surrealistic nature of the narrator's experience and to highlight the gross disparities between the realities of black life and the myth of the American Dream.
Several key symbols enhance Invisible Man's overall themes: The narrator's calfskin briefcase symbolizes his psychological baggage; Mary Rambo's broken, cast-iron bank symbolizes the narrator's shattered image; and Brother Tarp's battered chain links symbolize his freedom from physical as well as mental slavery. Other symbolism can generally be divided into four categories: colors, numbers, animals, and machines (humans depicted as dolls, puppets, or robots).
Ellison uses color to convey the novel's themes and motifs throughout the book, consistently weaving references to the following colors into the text:
Gold. Gold symbolizes power, elusive wealth, or the illusion of prosperity. References to gold and variations thereof include: the Golden Day, an ironic commentary on the lives of the veterans who, instead of looking forward to their golden years of retirement, escape only once a week on a golden day from the mental hospital; the brass tokens, which the boys mistake for gold coins; and the naked blonde's hair, described as "yellow like a Kewpie doll's." Yellow also alludes to light and enlightenment.
Red. Red, often associated with love and passion as in red roses, generally symbolizes blood, rage, or danger in the novel. Brother Jack's red hair (which, along with his blue eyes and white skin, underscore his all-American identity), the red-faced men at the battle royal, the vet's red wheelchair (underscoring his courage), and the frequent references to Santa Claus as a symbol of evil are part of a red motif that accents unpleasant personalities and symbolizes the narrator's uneasiness evoked by these characters. Numerous references to red, white, and blue — the white men at the battle royal with their blue eyes and red faces — mock the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness symbolized by the Stars and Stripes.
Black/White. Ellison makes several profound statements about American society and the language of racism (white generally symbolizes goodness and purity, while black symbolizes evil and corruption) by reversing traditional black/white symbolism and its associated white-is-right philosophy. Black is generally portrayed as good and positive (black skin, Ras's "magnificent black horse," and the "black powerhouse"). White is associated with negative images of coldness, death, and artifice: snow, the white blindfolds, the white fog, the images of a mysterious "white death," the "cold, white rigid chair" at the factory hospital, the optic white paint produced at the Liberty Paint Factory, and Brother Jack's "buttermilk white" glass eye. However, in keeping with Ellison's tendency to reject polar opposites, this symbolism is sometimes reversed: the fragrant white magnolias and the narrator's favorite dessert, vanilla ice cream with sloe gin.
Blue. Blue alludes to the blues, a form of African American folk music characterized by lyrics that lament the hardships of life and the pain of lost love. In the novel, the blues are characterized by Louis Armstrong's "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?" The song haunts the narrator throughout the narrative. The blues motif is also emphasized through frequent references to musical instruments, blues language (exemplified in the excerpts from black folk songs such as "Poor Robin") and references to blues singers such as Bessie Smith and to characters in the novel who sing the blues, such as Jim Trueblood and Mary Rambo. Focusing on the harsh realities of life that black men and women such as Jim and Mary overcome through their strong religious beliefs and unwavering faith that tomorrow will be a better day, Ellison's novel provides a literary counterpart to the blues. The blues provides a musical counterpart to Ellison's novel. References to the color blue also include the blues-singing cart-man's discarded blueprints, the white men's blue eyes, and the naked blonde's eyes, "as blue as a baboon's butt."
Gray. Like white, gray (a slang term used by blacks to refer to whites) is generally associated with negative images. Examples include gray smoke, the dull gray weathered cabins in the former slave quarters, and the gray tinge in the white paint at the paint factory, which symbolizes the bland and homogenous result of mixing black and white cultures without respecting the unique qualities of each. Gray is also alluded to in the fog that greets the narrator upon his arrival at the paint factory, which casts a gloomy and dismal shadow over the landscape and foreshadows the narrator's horrific experiences at the factory and factory hospital.
Green. Although generally associated with nature, in the novel, green is the color of the lush campus verdure and money, the narrator's main motivator.
While Ellison's images of the South are alive with colors of nature — green grass, red clay roads, white magnolias, purple and silver thistle — his images of the North are painted primarily in shades of gray and white. Thus, color contrasts the rural South with its farms and plantations, providing people a means of living off the land, against the urban North, depicted as cold, sterile, and inhospitable.
Number symbolism is common in mythology and the Bible, from which Ellison draws many of his symbols and images. The following numbers are especially significant throughout the novel:
Three. Three is widely regarded as a divine number. Many myths and religions have triads of hero-gods: the ancient African deities Ogun, Obatala, and Sango; the Greek gods Zeus, Hera, and Poseidon; and the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The universe moves through three cycles (growth, dissolution, and redemption) which mirror the three phases of the life cycle (birth, life, and death). In Greek and Roman mythology, the heroic quest consists of three stages (departure, initiation, and return). In the European worldview, time is divided into three parts: past, present, and future, but according to the African worldview, reality consists of three worlds: the worlds of the ancestors, the living, and the unborn. In the novel, the number three occurs at several key incidents: Waiting to give his speech on "Dispossession" at the sports arena, the narrator sees three white mounted policemen on three black horses. He notices three brass rings among Brother and Sister Provo's possessions. Trying to escape from Ras's men, he sees "three men in natty cream-colored summer suits . . . wearing dark glasses."
Seven. Seven signifies completeness and perfection: seven wonders of the ancient world, seven seas, and seven ages of man. According to the Bible, God created the world in seven days. Biblical scholars also refer to the seven last words of Christ, meaning the seven last sentences Christ allegedly uttered, compiled from all the Gospels. According to the Jewish religion, there are seven heavens, of which the seventh is the place of God. In his classic book, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois refers to "the Negro" as "the seventh son." In the novel, Dr. Bledsoe gives the narrator seven letters addressed to seven prospective employers. By focusing on the number seven, Ellison underscores Du Bois' statement, highlighting the narrator's experiences as symbolizing the experiences of black men in white America.
Twelve. Twelve, like seven, symbolizes completeness and perfection. But in African American folklore, the number twelve also refers to playing the dozens — a wordplay ritual that often involves insulting one's mother.
Animal symbolism pervades the novel. Men, referred to as snakes, dogs, horses, and oxen, mirror the violent, chaotic world of the twentieth century, in which humans (primarily men) often behave like animals. The animal symbolism in the Northern scenes also underscores the images of life as a circus and New York as a zoo.
Through frequent references to "the man in the machine" (the first occurs in Chapter 2, where Trueblood dreams that he is trapped inside the clock), Ellison emphasizes the stark contrasts between the agricultural South, with its farms and plantations, and the industrial North, with its factories and steel structures. This image is particularly powerful in Chapters 11 and 12, which focus on the Liberty Paint Factory and the factory hospital. The narrator is trapped inside the glass and metal box. In the final dream sequence, the bridge (the "machine") becomes a man and walks away. Machine symbolism emphasizes the destruction of the individual by industry and technology, highlighting the lack of empathy and emotion in a society where people are indifferent to the needs of others.