Book Review: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

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From the basement lair of the Invisible Man whom he imagines himself to be, a nameless narrator tells his story in this deeply compelling novel and epic milestone of American literature. 

In the book, he describes growing up in a Black community in the South, attending a Negro college from which he is expelled, moving to New York, and becoming the spokesman for the Harlem branch of “the Brotherhood,” before retreating amid violence and confusion.

Originally published in 1952 as the first novel by an unknown author, it stayed on the bestseller list for sixteen weeks and established Ralph Ellison as one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. The book is a passionate and witty tour de force of style, strongly influenced by T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, James Joyce, and Dostoevsky.

You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book review will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

Without further ado, let’s get started. 

Plot Summary

An unnamed black narrator strives to understand both himself and what it means to be black in America.


“I am an Invisible Man,” writes the narrator of this novel, who lives secretly (and rent free) in the abandoned basement of a New York City apartment building rented strictly to whites. It is not because he lives underground that he calls himself “invisible,” but because “people refused to see me.” They see only his surroundings or what they want to see, but experience has taught him to look and listen beyond the surface of dungs. 

This is the story of a man who discovers that he has been blind to the experiences in his life, but who gradually learns to “see” and to move out of the darkness. (The Prologue is narrated in the present, but the narration switches to the past in Chapters 1–25.)

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Chapter 1 

The Invisible Man grows up in a Southern town where blacks cater to whites. He is naive, lacking in identity, and ashamed that his grandparents were slaves. But something that his meek, kindly grandfather said on his deathbed has haunted the narrator for years: The grandfather instructed his family to “overcome [white people] with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction.” 

The narrator has adopted this subservient role and gives his high school graduation speech on the subject of humility as the key to black progress. It is so well received that he is invited to repeat it at a gathering of the town’s leading white citizens. 

When he arrives at the hotel to give his speech, he discovers that the white men are holding a stag party. Several black youths are forced to watch a naked white woman dance, then are led into a boxing ring and forced to fight, blindfolded—in a Battle Royal—until only one is left. 

After the fight, the youths are told to pick coins off the floor, which is impossible because the rug is electrified. Finally, they are dismissed and the narrator, exhausted and bloody from the fight, is asked to give his speech. Since almost no one listens, he is surprised when the group gives him a briefcase and a scholarship to a Southern black college.

Chapters 2–6 

Each year the college holds a Founders’ Day ceremony for the white millionaire benefactors from the North, who descend on campus “smiling, inspecting, encouraging, [and] conversing in whispers.” 

When the ceremony is held during the narrator’s junior year, he is asked to be the driver for the pompous, self-righteous Mr. Norton, one of the college trustees. Norton tells the Invisible Man that he has already seen the campus and that the narrator can drive him anywhere he wants. 

So the Invisible Man drives Norton through the black section of town, with its shabby huts and former slave quarters. As they pass the cabin of the sharecropper Jim Trueblood, they see two pregnant women—Trueblood’s wife and daughter—washing their laundry. 

When Norton hears that the young daughter has been made pregnant by her father, he is shocked and insists on talking with the sharecropper. Before long, Norton finds himself fascinated by Trueblood’s story of incest: One cold night, when there was scarcely enough wood to keep the fire going, Trueblood, his wife, and daughter slept in the same bed to keep warm. 

In her sleep, the daughter made some sexually suggestive moves toward her father, but Trueblood ignored them and fell asleep. He had a sexual dream about a white woman, and when he awoke, found himself lying on top of his daughter. 

Trueblood’s story drains Norton of emotion and, preparing to leave, he gives Trueblood $100 for the children standing along his fence.

Weakened by the heat, Norton tells the Invisible Man that he needs some whiskey. Before they go very far, Norton passes out in the backseat and is barely coherent when the Invisible Man helps him into the Golden Day bar. 

Run by a man named Halley, the combination bar and whorehouse is crowded with beer-stained tables, rowdy drunkards, and inmates from the insane asylum who have come to relax, but who are carefully supervised by their attendant, Supercargo. Norton faints several times amid the confusion, but finally he has a conversation with an insane vet—a former physician who was nearly beaten to death by a lynch mob after he administered medical treatment to a sick white woman. 

The vet had become a doctor to earn dignity, not money, and after being attacked, he lost all that he had worked for. He angers Mr. Norton by challenging his values and by treating him as an equal. This is the first time the Invisible Man sees a black man doing this.

The Invisible Man is expelled from the college for taking Norton to the black section of town, but not before being scolded by Dr. Bledsoe, the black president of the college. Blacks should never do what whites want, he argues, but should only show them what they want whites to see.

The narrator is shocked that Bledsoe puts on a different face for whites, that he lies to them and uses them to gain power for himself. Bledsoe then sends the narrator off to New York City with letters of introduction, promising that if he works hard during the summer he might be readmitted to the college in the fall. 

The Invisible Man informs Bledsoe that he intends to read the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson so he will learn about self-reliance.

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Chapters 7–15 

Lonely and isolated, the narrator is bewildered by New York. He takes a room at the prestigious Harlem Men’s House and duly delivers his letters of introduction. After being rebuffed at each place, he discovers that Bledsoe has deceived him: the letters announce that the narrator will never be readmitted to the college. 

He takes a job at the Liberty Paint Company, where his first task involves adding drops of black liquid to a murky paint base to turn it white. He accidentally puts the wrong black liquid in the paint, however, and is sent to the basement to work with Lucius Brockway, an elderly black man who zealously guards the secret of how to make the paint white. 

After lunch, Brockway accuses him of being a tool of the union, and during the fight that follows each forgets to monitor the machine, which explodes and knocks the narrator unconscious. He wakes up, confused, in the factory hospital receiving shock therapy from a white doctor who uses him in an experiment to test a new machine (“my little gadget”). 

He can’t distinguish his arms from his legs and can’t even remember his name. Eventually a doctor’s question about Brer Rabbit triggers a long string of memories of black rhymes, songs, and folktales. Finally, he is taken off the shock machine, told he cannot work anymore, and is dismissed.

Weak and dizzy, he faints soon after reaching Harlem, but is rescued by Mary Rambo, a motherly woman who nurses him back to health and from whom he rents a room. After several weeks of isolation, he begins to walk the streets of Harlem. 

He buys a “baked Car’lina yam” from a street vendor and at first feels homesick, since it reminds him of Southern black soul food. But then he feels free, since he is eating what he wants instead of worrying about whether it is “proper” to eat in the streets. 

As he walks, he passes an old black couple who are being evicted by whites, and is so moved by the scene that he makes a speech urging the crowd to band together and organize (“Let’s follow a leader…. We’re dispossessed”). When the police arrive, he runs off. But he realizes that someone is following him; it turns out to be Brother Jack, the white leader of a Communist group known as the Brotherhood. 

Impressed with the speech he has just given to the street crowd, Jack offers him a job as the group’s spokesman in Harlem, as someone who can “articulate the grievances of the people.” The narrator isn’t interested in speaking for a group; he was only helping some individuals who were being mistreated. 

When he thinks about the overdue rent he owes Mary, however, he accepts the Brotherhood’s paid position. He settles his debts, buys a new suit, then moves to his new room on the Upper East Side to begin a new life.

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Chapters 16–24 

The Brotherhood objects to his first speech because it is too personal and emotional. His speeches should conform to the Communists’ belief that human history—even violent revolution—is a rational, scientific process.

For the Brotherhood, the group is more important than any individual. After four months of studying the group’s philosophy with one of its teachers, Brother Hambro, the narrator becomes the leader of Manhattan’s Harlem District. 

His first evening in the district offices, he runs into Ras the Exhorter, a militant black nationalist who berates him and his new friend, Tod Clifton—also a member of the Harlem Brotherhood—for working with white people as well as blacks.

The narrator works hard, brings in new members, organizes parades, and becomes well known for rousing the citizens of Harlem. He also becomes friends with Brother Tarp, who for 19 years was a prisoner on a Southern chain gang for having said no to a white man. Tarp offers the Invisible Man a link from his leg chain, a symbolic “link” with his black heritage.

The Brotherhood is not pleased with the narrator’s work. One morning he receives an anonymous letter (it is from Brother Jack) reminding him that it is a white man’s world and mat if he really wants to help blacks he will remain anonymous. 

Two weeks later, a committee of Brotherhood leaders, angry that he has been interviewed in a magazine, accuses him of glorifying himself and sends him downtown to lecture on discrimination against women (“the Woman Problem”). Sybil, a white woman at one of his lectures and the wife of a Brotherhood “big shot,” finds him sexually attractive and they return to her apartment to make love.

The committee returns him to Harlem after Tod Clifton disappears. Clifton has failed in an assignment and Ras the Exhorter’s gangsters have begun to cause trouble in Harlem. Having disagreed with the Brotherhood’s principles, Clifton has left the organization, and the Invisible Man finds him on 43rd Street, selling black Sambo paper dolls which can be manipulated into obscene dancers.

Feeling betrayed, the narrator puts a doll in his pocket and watches a policeman chase Clifton for selling dolls without a permit. After a scuffle in which Clifton punches the policeman, the officer shoots Clifton to death when he tries to escape. The narrator organizes a huge funeral for Clifton and delivers an angry eulogy to the thousands of people who attend.

The committee then confronts him again for acting on his own instead of for me group. The narrator is sent to Hambro for further instructions and, on his way there, he buys dark glasses and a hat so mat Ras the Exhorter, who blamed him for Clifton’s death, will not recognize him. 

He is surprised to discover mat everyone thinks he is someone named Rinehart, a pimp, gambler, and preacher (who is never seen in the novel). Hambro angers him by revealing mat the Brotherhood plans to ignore the needs of Harlem in order to concentrate on other issues. 

So the narrator decides to deceive the group. He makes phony lists of new members and says things are cooling down among the blacks, when in fact they aren’t. Soon he receives a phone call saying that Harlem has erupted into a full-blown race riot.

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Chapter 25 

He sees fighting, looting, and general confusion, and even helps some looters set a tenement on fire. He runs when someone from the Brotherhood says Ras is looking for him, and as he flees he realizes that the Brotherhood has forfeited its influence in Harlem to Ras, knowing that violence would erupt. 

Ras arrives on a big black horse and throws a spear at the narrator, calling him a betrayer. The narrator protests that both he and Ras have been used, but Ras won’t listen. 

Fearing for his life, the Invisible Man escapes after throwing the spear at Ras, ripping him in both cheeks. A few blocks away, while running from a group of whites, he falls through a manhole onto a load of coal in a cellar. 

He can’t get out of the hole right away since it is dark, so he pulls some papers out of his briefcase—his high school diploma and Brother Jack’s anonymous letter—and burns them in order to have light. Knowing that he has no way to escape, he spends days underground screaming with anger. 

After dreaming about being castrated, he awakens and realizes he is finished with his past; he now needs to stay underground in order to think about things in peace and quiet, even though he is hungry and exhausted. He stumbles around in the dark, bumps into a partition, and finally exits from the hole.


The narrator reflects on the absurdity of his position. His problem, he says, is that he did what everyone else thought he should do rather than what he wanted. He decides he must accept personal responsibility for his own predicament, knowing that life’s possibilities are limitless and that it is time for him to come out of “hibernation.”

Key Characters

Invisible Man Narrator: black man. Everything seen through his eyes. As a naive young man, he believes success lies in pleasing whites and behaves in a stereotypically black fashion. He trusts whites in his hometown and also trusts Dr. Bledsoe, Mr. Norton, and Brother Jack, but is betrayed by them all. Stripped of his earlier illusions, he learns to take responsibility for his own life and to trust himself. He becomes self-reliant in the manner of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Dr. Bledsoe: President of a Southern black college. He pretends to be humble and subservient to whites, yet he is intent on having power. He uses whites, lies to them, and wears different masks for them.

Mr. Norton: Northern white businessman and trustee of the college. He is obsessed with love for his daughter, speaks endlessly about Ralph Waldo Emerson, brags about his generous monetary gifts to blacks, and considers himself a great supporter of blacks, although he has little understanding of them as a group or as individuals.

Lucius Brockway: Old black man who works in the basement of the Liberty Paint Factory. He guards his “trade secret” of making paint white. He is suspicious of young blacks and of unions and is anxious to please whites. He is dependent on them.

Mary Rambo: Black mother figure who is kind and patient and dedicates herself to others. She believes that the welfare of the individual is all important. Her name is a modified version of “Sambo.”

Brother Jack: White leader of the Brotherhood. Outwardly calm and nonracist, he actually uses people and betrays them. He believes that part of humanity must be sacrificed for the good of the whole. He is a fanatic, capable of great anger, and will do anything for his cause.

Tod Clifton: Intelligent, sensitive, handsome, idealistic black youth and a man of action. Though he is a popular leader of the Brotherhood, he cannot tolerate the reality that he is no more than a puppet to the Brotherhood. He resorts to selling black Sambo paper dolls on the street and is killed while running from a policeman.

Brother Tarp: Older black man who is fatherly toward the narrator. He is calm, patient, and willing to wait for an opportunity to act. He waited 19 years to escape from a chain gang and has lived experiences representative of the black American past.

Ras the Exhorter: Black militant who believes in the total separation of blacks and whites. He is hostile toward blacks who associate with whites, and therefore hostile to the narrator. He is dedicated to using violence and destruction to get back at whites.

Themes & Ideas


The narrator discovers that people neither see nor understand him. Even though he is educated, they see that he is Southern, rural, and black and treat him according to their idea of who they think he is. No one sees him as an individual beneath all these labels; therefore, he is an “Invisible Man” to them but also to himself since, until the end of the novel, he is blind to his own potential.

Quest for Identity

As a youth, the narrator tries to be what he thinks others (especially whites) want him to be but discovers after many harsh experiences that freedom lies in finding out who he really is as a human being and as a black. He realizes that to gain an understanding of himself and of his role in American society, he must rid himself of naive ideas and expectations and follow his instincts.

At the novel’s end, while he is in the cellar, he dreams that Norton, Bledsoe, Jack, and others castrate him, destroying his manhood, then ask how it feels to be stripped of illusions (Chapter 25).

He replies, “painful and empty.” Great rage follows the dream, and finally, exhausted, he realizes these people no longer have any hold on him. He decides to let go of the past to climb out of his hole and move into the future.

Stereotyping of Blacks

The narrator responds to whites’ prejudices (i.e., that blacks have poor hygiene and eating habits, are unmotivated, etc.) by using lots of deodorant, always being punctual, and eating traditional American food. Despite his efforts, whites still assume he likes to dance and wants to rape white women.

The author’s idea is that whites cannot think beyond their racist prejudice of the narrator to see him as a unique human being. The novel shows that blacks not only have been invisible to whites but have also served as scapegoats.

For example, whites often pay blacks to be “bad” for them (as in Battle Royal, Chapter 1) so they can then feel purified and justified in their prejudice against blacks. Mr. Norton, having had incestuous feelings toward his own daughter, hands Trueblood a $100 bill.

Rejection of Marxism

The narrator rejects the Brotherhood’s Marxist view of history as a rational, scientific process moving in a straight line toward the ultimate goal of a classless society. He concludes that events are matters of accident and chance, not of planning.

As the prostitute at the Golden Day says, with another spin of the roulette wheel, blacks could end up on top of society. The narrator also rejects the Brotherhood’s idea that the “group” is more important than individuals; the narrator thinks that this attitude leads to the exploitation and sacrifice of individuals, all in the name of what is good for the group.

He believes that America is founded on the principle of liberty and the rights of individuals; he wants to see that belief upheld for everyone, white and black.

Black Pride

The narrator knows that his position of “invisibility” is absurd. He is human but is seen as less than human. He wants to move forward, but to do so violates tradition. He is idealistic and believes in the importance of individuals but realizes that everything in American society works to suppress black individualism.

Ellison claims that blacks have sometimes responded to whites’ racism by showing a passive yet constant hatred (e.g., narrator’s grandfather), by adopting amoral behavior (Rinehart), or by deceiving and using whites (Bledsoe). Ellison’s alternative is to assert black cultural pride.


Blindfold: Represents those barriers that prevent people from “seeing” themselves and others. It appears in the Battle Royal scene of Chapter 1, and the rest of the novel recounts the narrator’s struggle to remove the blindfold.

Battle Royal: Symbolizes the struggle of blacks in a society controlled by whites.

Sambo dolls: Represent those blacks who are easily manipulated by whites.

Briefcase: Stands for the narrator’s past life and is a reminder of Battle Royal. It contains a high school diploma, Bledsoe’s letter, an anonymous letter, a chain link, and a Sambo doll. The narrator has to destroy the briefcase and burn its contents to illuminate the hole and move, symbolically, into the future.

Possessions of Evicted Couple: Represent the black American past. They include freedom papers, a faded tintype of Lincoln, a newspaper portrait of Marcus Garvey (head of the Back to Africa movement in the 1920s), and three lapsed insurance policies. The belongings dumped in the street are all that remains from years of hardship.

Animals: Stand for primitive human instincts that lie beneath the civilized surface. In the Golden Day bar, Mr. Norton’s teeth are bared like an animal when he faints. Edna (prostitute) talks about him as being a sexual goat or monkey. The narrator’s first rally is held in a “barnlike” structure.


1. Well-developed main character

The narrator of the story is a complex and multi-dimensional character that the author has developed exceptionally well. Ellison portrays him as a detached individual who is struggling to find his identity in a society that refuses to see him for who he truly is.

As the story progresses, we witness the narrator’s growth and development as he begins to question the societal expectations placed on him. I appreciated how Ellison was able to make me feel empathy towards the narrator’s struggles and engage with his journey.

2. A powerful message about individual identity

The central theme of the novel is finding one’s individual identity in a world that expects conformity. The author’s portrayal of the narrator’s journey is a powerful reminder of the importance of being true to oneself and not conforming to societal expectations.

I appreciated how the novel challenged my own perceptions and assumptions about people and how society shapes our individual identities. The message is both relevant and timeless, and I think it’s something that everyone can relate to.

3. Compelling storytelling

Ellison’s writing style is both captivating and engaging. The novel is well-structured, and the plot moves at a steady pace, keeping the reader invested in the story.

The author’s use of vivid imagery and descriptive language helps bring the characters and settings to life, making it easy to immerse oneself in the world of the story. Overall, the novel is a compelling work of literature that is both thought-provoking and engaging.


1. Dream-like narrative structure

One aspect of the novel that some readers may find confusing or frustrating is the dream-like quality of the narrative. The narrator tells a series of dreams that may or may not be based on his experiences. While this style of writing can be effective, it may not be to everyone’s taste. Some readers may find the surreal and abstract nature of the storytelling difficult to follow.

2. Heavy use of symbolism

Ellison’s use of symbolism in the novel is both complex and pervasive. While this can be seen as a strength, it may also be a weakness for some readers. Symbols are not always clear, and their meanings can be subjective and open to interpretation. Some readers may find it challenging to decode the symbols used in the novel, which can detract from their enjoyment of the story.

3. Lack of clarity in plot and characters

While the main character of the novel is well-developed, other characters in the story are not as fully realized. This can make it difficult for readers to understand the motivations and actions of these characters. The plot is also somewhat disjointed and may not always make sense. The novel’s emphasis on symbolism and abstract themes may come at the expense of a clear and compelling plot.


Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is a powerful and thought-provoking novel that leaves a lasting impression on its readers. The themes of individual identity, conformity, and societal expectations are as relevant today as they were when the book was first published.

The narrator’s journey to find his true self is a painful and difficult one, but it ultimately leads to a sense of liberation and self-realization. Ellison’s writing style is captivating, and his use of symbolism and imagery adds depth and complexity to the story.

While the novel is not without its flaws, such as the dream-like narrative structure and lack of clarity in plot and characters, it remains a timeless classic that is well worth reading. Invisible Man is a beautiful and haunting work of literature that speaks to the human experience and the struggle to be true to oneself in the face of societal pressure.

About The Author

Ralph Waldo Ellison (1914–94) was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His father was a construction worker; his mother was a domestic. 

He studied music at Tuskegee Institute (1933–36), then sculpture in New York. Dabbled in radical politics in the 1930s and 1940s; wrote for New Masses, a publication of the American Communist Party. 

Influenced by the noted black writer Richard Wright (1908–60), author of Native Son (1940). Wrote for Federal Writer’s Project; edited Negro Quarterly. Received the National Book Award for Invisible Man (1953).

He is the author of essays, Shadow and Act (1964), and Going to the Territory (1986). Recipient of many honorary doctorates and fellowships.

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