Without giving a name, the narrator introduces himself as a man, not a ghost, describing the nature of his invisibility: People refuse to see him. Although he considered his invisibility a disadvantage, he points out that it has become an asset. To illustrate, the narrator relates an incident in which he almost killed a white man in the street for insulting him until he realized the absurdity of a sleepwalker being killed by a phantom, existing only in the white man's nightmares. Besides, because he is invisible, the narrator is able to live rent-free and avail himself of free electricity.
Describing his underground home: the coal cellar of a whites-only building "in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century," the narrator avoids the picture of a dark hole or crypt, hastening to explain that his cellar is illuminated by 1,369 light bulbs.
The narrator, a music lover, has only one radio-phonograph but plans to have five so that he can feel as well as hear his music. He imagines what it would feel like to have five recordings of Louis Armstrong's "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue" playing simultaneously. The narrator's thoughts on music lead him to reminisce about a time he listened to music while smoking a reefer (marijuana joint), amazed at his ability to descend into "breaks" within the music, which normally seemed like one continuous flow. He compares his experience interrupting the flow of time to a prizefight in which the champion was beaten by a yokel (amateur) simply because the latter interrupted his opponent's timing.
Next, while listening to Louis Armstrong's music, the narrator describes several visions, which seem to merge into one extended vision, including a woman standing on an auction block as a group of slave owners bid for her naked body; a man delivering a sermon on "The Blackness of Blackness"; and an old black woman pleading for freedom, who tells the narrator that she killed her white husband/master to save him from the hatred of his two mulatto sons.
A Prologue generally consists of an opening speech or introduction to a literary work. Here, the Prologue anticipates the Epilogue. Together, these two elements frame the novel, which begins and ends in chaos.
Obsessed with a need for light to validate his existence, after 20 years seeking his true identity the narrator finally understands the difference between seeing through "physical eyes" and perceiving reality through one's "inner eyes" (that is, he is no longer "blind"). Discovering how to turn his invisibility into an asset because no one acknowledges his existence, the narrator realizes he can live rent-free and obtain enough free electricity from Monopolated Light & Power (the white power source) to fill his "hole" with light. In fact, he points out that his "hole" is illuminated by 1,369 light bulbs. This number may seem like merely a descriptive detail, but 1936 — the year Ellison arrived in New York City and met Alain Locke and Langston Hughes — becomes 1,369 by simply switching two digits, revealing yet another example of Ellison's use of number symbolism. Ellison's numeric "joke" also illustrates his knack for merging elements of fact and fiction.
Keeping in mind that Ellison's story is an allegory, the narrator's focus on light, light bulbs, and illumination can be interpreted as referring to the process of intellectual enlightenment, and the narrator's seemingly random comments begin to make sense. Through the narrator's numerous references to fighting, Ellison introduces the prizefight imagery in Chapter 1 with the battle royal, playing a key role throughout the novel.
This scene also introduces the concept of fate, illustrating that despite our scientific knowledge and our diligent efforts to prepare ourselves to meet life's challenges, some things are simply beyond our control.
The narrator's discussion of Louis Armstrong's "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?" introduces a theme that resonates throughout the novel: the power of music, often helping the narrator transcend reality and mentally retreat to another place and time. The music theme is underscored by numerous references to musical works, terms, and instruments, including references to blaring trumpets, hectic rhythms, and "a tom-tom beating like heart-thuds." The Prologue also introduces Ellison's color symbolism, as indicated by numerous references to black and white (ivory), and red, white, and blue.
Numerous references to "stepping outside of time" and "interrupting the flow" of time as well as the description of history as moving "not like an arrow but a boomerang," introduces another important insight regarding time and history: that, like the flight of a boomerang, history travels in a circular path and always returns to its origins. As the narrator points out, "the end is in the beginning."
References to "bodiless heads . . . in circus sideshows" and the funhouse where people find themselves "surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass" create a striking circus metaphor that Ellison carries throughout the novel. Trained animal performances and freaks of nature — the two-headed man, the bearded lady, and so forth — are so far removed from the normal world that onlookers find it inconceivable to identify with them on a human level. By establishing this premise in a novel about a black man's search for identity, Ellison underscores the racial rift that separates blacks and whites not because they are inherently different, but because whites refuse to see blacks as fully human.
Invisible Man's humor, irony, and satire, as well as the narrator's fondness for wordplay, reveal Ellison's sensitivity to the nuances of the English language. The Prologue's references to "the master meter," the "power station," and "free current" all relate to the underlying themes of power, freedom, and the legacy of slavery. Intertwined with these concepts are images of hell and "the jungle of Harlem." Similarly, the narrator's insistence on precise definitions of terms and concepts (freedom, hibernation, responsibility, and invisibility) illustrates his awareness of the power of language.
In the Prologue, Ellison also prepares us for the numerous allusions to classic works of fiction, nonfiction, and folklore that appear throughout the novel, at times merging elements of fiction and folklore. The narrator's statement, "Call me Jack-the-Bear" alludes to the opening line of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, "Call me Ishmael." It also alludes to the Br'er Rabbit folktales based on African folklore, featuring characters such as Jack-the-Bear, Br'er Fox, and Br'er Rabbit.
Edgar Allan Poe American poet, short-story writer, and critic (1809-1849), best known for his tales of horror.
ectoplasm the vaporous, luminous substance believed by spiritualists to emanate from a medium in a trance.
epidermis the outermost layer of the skin.
bilious having or resulting from some ailment of the bile or the liver.
Louis Armstrong American jazz musician (1901-71). Lauded as the world's greatest trumpet player, Armstrong was noted for his unique impact on the history of jazz due to his technical skill in trumpet playing and his innovative style of "scat" singing.
Dante allusion to Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy, a classic work that traces the soul's journey through the underworld towards divine enlightenment.
Weltschmerz German for "world pain"; sentimental pessimism or melancholy over the state of the world.
flamenco Spanish gypsy style of dance (characterized by stomping, clapping) or music (typically very emotional and mournful).
I might forget to dodge some bright morning allusion to Richard Wright's short story, "Bright and Morning Star," about a mother and son who are brutally murdered after being betrayed by a white "comrade."
All sickness is not unto death allusion to Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55), a Danish philosopher noted for his philosophy of Existentialism. Kierkegaard is the author of The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Exposition for Edification and Awakening, which contends that the "sickness unto death" is despair.