Summary and Analysis
The narrator — speaking in the voice of a man in his 40s — reminiscing about his youth, opens the novel. He remembers when he had not yet discovered his identity or realized that he was an invisible man. The narrator relates an anecdote concerning his grandfather who, on his deathbed, shocks his family by revealing himself as a traitor and a spy (to his race). The narrator also recalls being invited to give his high school graduation speech at a gathering of the town's leading white citizens. When he arrived, he discovered that he was to provide part of the evening's entertainment for a roomful of drunken white men as a contestant, along with nine of his classmates, in a blindfolded boxing match (a "battle royal") before giving his speech. The entertainment includes an erotic dance by a naked blonde woman with a flag tattoo on her stomach, which he and his classmates are forced to watch. After enduring these humiliating experiences, the narrator is finally permitted to give his speech and receives his prize: a calfskin briefcase that contains a scholarship to the local college for Negroes (a term Ellison preferred over "blacks").
That night, the narrator dreams that he is at the circus with his grandfather, who refuses to laugh at the clowns. His grandfather orders him to open the briefcase and read the message contained in an official envelope stamped with the state seal. Opening the envelope, the narrator finds that each envelope contains yet another envelope. In the last envelope, instead of the scholarship, he finds an engraved document with the message: "To Whom It May Concern: Keep This Nigger-Boy Running."
Chapter 1 consists of six key episodes: (1) the grandfather's deathbed scene, (2) the narrator's arrival at the hotel, (3) the naked blonde's erotic dance, (4) the battle royal, (5) the narrator's speech, and (6) the narrator's dream.
(1) The grandfather's deathbed scene. Although it may appear merely incidental, this episode is an integral part of the novel because the grandfather, representing the ancestor or ghost of slavery, has a major impact on the narrator's life. Determined to rid himself of the past, the narrator is nevertheless compelled to come to terms with his past before he can handle his present and future.
During the course of the novel, the grandfather's spirit appears to the narrator on several occasions, providing his grandson with spiritual guidance, representing the legacy of slavery that continues to haunt black Americans, regardless of their social, political, or economic progress.
(2) The narrator's arrival at the hotel. This episode introduces betrayal, broken promises, and game-playing themes. Although as a young high school graduate he naïvely assumed he had some choice in whether to participate in the battle royal, looking back on the incident, he realizes that he had no choice. The only way he would be granted the opportunity to give his speech was to first participate in the humiliating blindfolded boxing match. The book contains many other instances in which the narrator experiences a sense of betrayal as he is forced to abide by arbitrary rules devised by others.
(3) The naked blonde's erotic dance. Overall, this scene represents America's distorted value system. The American dream of freedom, liberty, and equality (symbolized by the flag tattoo) has been replaced by the relentless pursuit of money, sex, and power (symbolized by the car advertising tokens).
Introducing the imagery of people as dolls and puppets, the narrator describes the blonde as having yellow hair "like . . . a circus Kewpie doll." Later, a blow to the narrator's head causes his right eye to pop "like a jack-in-the-box." Ellison describes people as dolls or puppets elsewhere in the book, an image that emphasizes powerlessness.
(4) The battle royal. The battle royal is a brutal rite of passage that thrusts the naïve narrator into a violent, chaotic world where the rules that govern a society do not apply (there are "no rounds [and] no bells at three-minute intervals"). By participating in the battle royal, the narrator learns that life is a struggle for survival, but at this point he still believes in the philosophy of Booker T. Washington: that blacks can achieve success through education and industry. Symbolically, the scene introduces the theme of struggle among blacks for an elusive prize that often remains out of reach.
The battle royal symbolizes the social and political power struggle depicted throughout the novel. Central to this struggle are the issues of race, class, and gender, three concepts the narrator must come to terms with before he can acknowledge and accept his identity as a black man in white America. To underscore his message that blacks forced to live in a segregated society are denied their human rights, Ellison uses two powerful symbolic elements: the white blindfolds and the brass tokens.
The white blindfolds symbolize the narrator's being "blinded by the white." Inundated by white racist propaganda concerning the inferiority of blacks, the narrator begins to internalize these destructive messages, no longer seeing the truth. Made of brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, the tokens consist of a combination of two pure elements, symbolizing the role of black Americans, who represent a blend of African and American/black and white cultures. Because none of the boys can afford to buy the cars advertised, the tokens underscore the economic inequity between blacks and whites. The tokens also suggest the worthless, empty gesture inherent in tokenism — the practice of including a select few blacks into white society without granting all blacks social equality as well as social responsibility.
(5) The narrator's speech. The narrator's speech introduces a pattern of irony and duality that pervades the novel. While the narrator professes to disagree with Booker T. Washington's views on race relations, he presents Washington's conciliatory 1895 Atlanta Exposition address, urging blacks to be patient and accept "social responsibility" without "social equality," at his high school graduation. In doing so, he establishes a pattern of simply doing what others expect of him, without examining his motives, establishing his own value system, or considering the consequences of his actions. Evidenced in subsequent chapters, the narrator's tendency to act without thinking and to accept others' judgments without question keeps him from discovering his true identity.
The calfskin briefcase highlights the emphasis on skin and underscores the relationship between the fate of the calf and the narrator's potential fate as one who is about to be sacrificed on the altar of racism.
(6) The narrator's dream. The narrator's dream symbolizes the myth of the American Dream, holding that Americans can achieve their dreams, if only they are willing to work hard and pursue their goals. Clearly, the narrator's experience has taught him that this is not true for black Americans.
In addition to the theme of dreams and visions, which plays a key role throughout the novel, the narrator's dream also introduces the theme of the running man, alluded to in the phrase, "Keep this Nigger-Boy Running." The running-man theme is a major motif in African American literature, tracing its roots to the slave narrative. But unlike enslaved Africans, often forced to run for their lives, the narrator starts running and is kept running by others who seem to have little real impact on his life. The narrator is on the run throughout the novel.
Music, the language of music, as well as musical sounds and rhythms, pervade and provide the narrative framework for the novel, structured like a jazz composition. The sensuous music of a clarinet provides the accompaniment for the blonde's dance and the background for the battle royal. Conveying the novel's color imagery, white men with blue eyes and red faces and the naked blonde's white skin, red lips, and blue eyes color these scenes all-American, part of a red, white, and blue color motif.
smoker an informal social gathering for men only.
rococo a style of architecture, decorative art, music, etc., of the early eighteenth century developed from and in reaction to the Baroque and characterized by profuse and delicate ornamentation, reduced scale, lightness, grace, etc.
Kewpie doll from Cupid; trademark for a chubby, rosy-faced doll with its hair in a topknot.