Invisible Man Study Guide

Invisible Man By Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man is a story about a young Black man who is expelled from college, moves to New York, gets recruited into a political movement, and realizes that no one cares about him; he is invisible except for the elements that each part of his life is looking for: his brilliance, his blackness, or his speaking ability - none of which he considers 'him'.

The narrator begins the book about to deliver a speech on the importance of humility in black men to a group of white men; once he finishes, he receives a scholarship to college. Because of some incidents that occur on the way to the school, however, the headmaster, Dr. Bledsoe, fears that the college's funding may be in danger, and immediately expels the narrator. The narrator experiences his first epiphany relating to his invisibility: that Bledsoe has portrayed himself as a stereotype in order to relate to white men on their terms, and the narrator had once himself wanted to be like Bledsoe -- invisible except as a predefined notion of what blacks 'should be'.

The narrator moves north, is betrayed by Bledsoe into losing several potential jobs, and eventually ends up at a paint factory. He immediately gets into a fight with Lucius Brockway, the man in charge of the boiler room, during which a boiler expodes, hospitalizing the narrator. When the narrator awakens, he hears that he is being treated as a mental health patient and has been receiving shock therapy.

Out of work, he wanders the streets, and happens across an elderly couple being evicted, and makes a powerful speech that incites a riot. This earns him the attention of The Brotherhood, which recruits him as an orator with the intention of uniting the black community.

He soon runs into trouble from Ras the Exhorter, who runs a rival group and believes that the Brotherhood is controlled by whites. Ras attempts to sway the narrator and a fellow orator named Tod Clifton, but fails.

The narrator is interviewed by a magazine, and some Brotherhood members criticize him for taking credit for his own work, instead of emphasizing the strength of the Brotherhood as a whole. The Brotherhood moves him to a new area, and he has another epiphany: he is being used for his ability to rally, but his users are unconcerned for him as a person.

One day, Ras finds the narrator and his men rough the narrator up. He buys a disguise, and is repeatedly mistaken for a man named Rinehart in a number of different scenes, coming to the conclusion that Rinehart, whoever he his, has adapted to white society at the cost of his own identity. He realizes that the Brotherhood is also using him for his blackness.

A massive race riot erupts in Harlem due to tensions between the Brotherhood and Ras. Ras and the narrator fight, and the narrator realizes that Ras is right -- and he his been supporting the Brotherhood's white-controlled interests by contributing to the riot. His final epiphany, then, is that he is mostly invisible to his immediate users, but entirely invisible to the people that are actually in control of the events in his life.

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