Summary and Analysis
In the Epilogue, the narrator speaks to us from his underground hideout again. Having had time to reflect on his life, he has decided that reality exists in the mind.
The narrator considers coming out of hibernation and facing the world once again, reasoning that "even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play."
Resuming his reflections on the meaning of his life that he began in the Prologue, the narrator, having survived numerous traumatic experiences, including the madness of the Harlem riot, can now reflect on his life with a detached objectivity that he was unable to achieve before he realized that, through his imagination, he has the power to transform and transcend reality. He has also achieved a clarity of vision that enables him to see things from a different perspective.
After getting to know him on a more personal level as a unique individual instead of as a nameless, anonymous black man, the reasons behind his ramblings are understandable. Without this knowledge, labeling him "crazy" and simply discounting or dismissing his remarks would be the greater inclination. Recalling the narrator's initial encounter with the veterans at the Golden Day, in light of his own experiences he is likely to be more sympathetic and understanding of their situation at this point in his life than he was as a naïve young college student. Although the world around him has not changed significantly, the narrator's attitude toward life and his perspective concerning normal versus abnormal behavior have changed dramatically, because he is now a veteran of the race war.
The narrator's remark regarding his "belated appreciation of the crude joke that had kept me running" reveals his enhanced emotional maturity, as does his struggle to come to terms with the meaning of his grandfather's advice. Despite the torture he has been forced to endure, he is still stupidly alive, which suggests that living in a world that denies an individual basic human rights is a fate worse than death. He reiterates his stance, "I'm invisible, not blind."
The narrator's accidental meeting with Mr. Norton in the subway is key. Norton asks him for directions but doesn't recognize him as the young man he once identified as the keeper of his destiny. Given the narrator's life-long search for his true identity, the narrator's realization, which he attempts to share with Mr. Norton, that "if you don't know where you are, you probably don't know who you are" means that unless an individual understands their place in history, they can never hope to discover their identity.
Concerning his reasons for writing down his story, the narrator realizes that the process of writing helped him work through the pain, diffuse the hate, and regain his capacity to love. Once more, he reflects on the experiences of his grandfather who, even as a slave, never doubted his humanity. In the final analysis, the narrator suggests that even though his experiences as a black man in white America are unique, his experiences have much in common with the experiences of all human beings. He suggests that even though he speaks on his own behalf, perhaps on some level, he speaks for each of us.
Whether the narrator is seen as hero or victim depends on whether he is seen literally living underground or as metaphorically living in his subconscious — whether to believe that he is hibernating or whether to assume that he is merely hiding. In his essay "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke," Ellison is quite emphatic about the meaning of the novel's closing scene. As he points out, the narrator's movement down into "a coal cellar, a source of heat, light, power" is not an act of "concealment in darkness"; it is "a process of rising to an understanding of his human condition."
heart of darkness allusion to Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, published in 1902, which centers on the cruelty of colonial exploitation in the Belgian Congo. The "heart of darkness" is the jungle and the primitive, subconscious human heart.