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Invisible Man is a milestone in American literature, a book that has continued to engage readers since its appearance in 1952. A first novel by an unknown writer, it remained on the bestseller list for sixteen weeks, won the National Book Award for fiction, and established Ralph Ellison as one of the key writers of the century. The nameless narrator of the novel 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 chief spokesman of the Harlem branch of "the Brotherhood", and retreating amid violence and confusion to the basement lair of the Invisible Man he imagines himself to be. The book is a passionate and witty tour de force of style, strongly influenced by T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Joyce, and Dostoevsky.


Chapter One

It goes a long way back, some twenty years. All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was na?ve. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!

And yet I am no freak of nature, nor of history. I was in the cards, other things having been equal (or unequal) eighty-five years ago. I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed. About eighty-five years ago they were told that they were free, united with others of our country in everything pertaining to the common good, and, in everything social, separate like the fingers of the hand. And they believed it. They exulted in it. They stayed in their place, worked hard, and brought up my father to do the same. But my grandfather is the one. He was an odd old guy, my grandfather, and I am told I take after him. It was he who caused the trouble. On his deathbed he called my father to him and said, "Son, after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion's mouth. I want you to overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open." They thought the old man had gone out of his mind. He had been the meekest of men. The younger children were rushed from the room, the shades drawn and the flame of the lamp turned so low that it sputtered on the wick like the old man's breathing. "Learn it to the younguns," he whispered fiercely; then he died.

But my folks were more alarmed over his last words than over his dying. It was as though he had not died at all, his words caused so much anxiety. I was warned emphatically to forget what he had said and, indeed, this is the first time it has been mentioned outside the family circle. It had a tremendous effect upon me, however. I could never be sure of what he meant. Grandfather had been a quiet old man who never made any trouble, yet on his deathbed he had called himself a traitor and a spy, and he had spoken of his meekness as a dangerous activity. It became a constant puzzle which lay unanswered in the back of my mind. And whenever things went well for me I remembered my grandfather and felt guilty and uncomfortable. It was as though I was carrying out his advice in spite of myself. And to make it worse, everyone loved me for it. I was praised by the most lily-white men of the town. I was considered an example of desirable conduct-just as my grandfather had been. And what puzzled me was that the old man had defined it as treachery. When I was praised for my conduct I felt a guilt that in some way I was doing something that was really against the wishes of the white folks, that if they had understood they would have desired me to act just the opposite, that I should have been sulky and mean, and that that really would have been what they wanted, even though they were fooled and thought they wanted me to act as I did. It made me afraid that some day they would look upon me as a traitor and I would be lost. Still I was more afraid to act any other way because they didn't like that at all. The old man's words were like a curse. On my graduation day I delivered an oration in which I showed that humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress. (Not that I believed this-how could I, remembering my grandfather?-I only believed that it worked.) It was a great success. Everyone praised me and I was invited to give the speech at a gathering of the town's leading white citizens. It was a triumph for our whole community.

It was in the main ballroom of the leading hotel. When I got there I discovered that it was on the occasion of a smoker, and I was told that since I was to be there anyway I might as well take part in the battle royal to be fought by some of my schoolmates as part of the entertainment. The battle royal came first.

All of the town's big shots were there in their tuxedoes, wolfing down the buffet foods, drinking beer and whiskey and smoking black cigars. It was a large room with a high ceiling. Chairs were arranged in neat rows around three sides of a portable boxing ring. The fourth side was clear, revealing a gleaming space of polished floor. I had some misgivings over the battle royal, by the way. Not from a distaste for fighting, but because I didn't care too much for the other fellows who were to take part. They were tough guys who seemed to have no grandfather's curse worrying their minds. No one could mistake their toughness. And besides, I suspected that fighting a battle royal might detract from the dignity of my speech. In those pre-invisible days I visualized myself as a potential Booker T. Washington. But the other fellows didn't care too much for me either, and there were nine of them. I felt superior to them in my way, and I didn't like the manner in which we were all crowded together into the servants' elevator. Nor did they like my being there. In fact, as the warmly lighted floors flashed past the elevator we had words over the fact that I, by taking part in the fight, had knocked one of their friends out of a night's work.

We were led out of the elevator through a rococo hall into an anteroom and told to get Into our fighting togs. Each of us was issued a pair of boxing gloves and ushered out into the big mirrored hall, which we entered looking cautiously about us and whispering, lest we might accidentally be heard above the noise of the room. It was foggy with cigar smoke. And already the whiskey was taking effect. I was shocked to see some of the most important men of the town quite tipsy. They were all there-bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants. Even one of the more fashionable pastors. Something we could not see was going on up front. A clarinet was vibrating sensuously and the men were standing up and moving eagerly forward. We were a small tight group, clustered together, our bare upper bodies touching and shining with anticipatory sweat; while up front the big shots were becoming increasingly excited over something we still could not see. Suddenly I heard the school superintendent, who had told me to come, yell, "Bring up the shines, gentlemen! Bring up the little shines!"

We were rushed up to the front of the ballroom, where it smelled even more strongly of tobacco and whiskey. Then we were pushed into place. I almost wet my pants. A sea of faces, some hostile, some amused, ringed around us, and in the center, facing us, stood a magnificent blonde-stark naked. There was dead silence. I felt a blast of cold air chill me. I tried to back away, but they were behind me and around me. Some of the boys stood with lowered heads, trembling. I felt a wave of irrational guilt and fear. My teeth chattered, my skin turned to goose flesh, my knees knocked. Yet I was strongly attracted and looked in spite of myself. Had the price of looking been blindness, I would have looked. The hair was yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll, the face heavily powdered and rouged, as though to form an abstract mask, the eyes hollow and smeared a cool blue, the color of a baboon's butt. I felt a desire to spit upon her as my eyes brushed slowly over her body. Her breasts were firm and round as the domes of East Indian temples, and I stood so close as to see the fine skin texture and beads of pearly perspiration glistening like dew around the pink and erected buds of her nipples. I wanted at one and the same time to run from the room, to sink through the floor, or go to her and cover her from my eyes and the eyes of the others with my body; to feel the soft thighs, to caress her and destroy her, to love her and murder her, to hide from her, and yet to stroke where below the small American flag tattooed upon her belly her thighs formed a capital V I had a notion that of all in the room she saw only me with her impersonal eyes.

And then she began to dance, a slow sensuous movement; the smoke of a hundred cigars clinging to her like the thinnest of veils. She seemed like a fair bird-girl girdled in veils calling to me from the angry surface of some gray and threatening sea. I was transported. Then I became aware of the clarinet playing and the big shots yelling at us. Some threatened us if we looked and others if we did not. On my right I saw one boy faint. And now a man grabbed a silver pitcher from a table and stepped close as he dashed ice water upon him and stood him up and forced two of us to support him as his head hung and moans issued from his thick bluish lips. Another boy began to plead to go home. He was the largest of the group, wearing dark red fighting trunks much too small to conceal the erection which projected from him as though in answer to the insinuating low-registered moaning of the clarinet. He tried to hide himself with his boxing gloves.

And all the while the blonde continued dancing, smiling faintly at the big shots who watched her with fascination, and faintly smiling at our fear. I noticed a certain merchant who followed her hungrily, his lips loose and drooling. He was a large man who wore diamond studs in a shirtfront which swelled with the ample paunch underneath, and each time the blonde swayed her undulating hips he ran his hand through the thin hair of his bald head and, with his arms upheld, his posture clumsy like that of an intoxicated panda, wound his belly in a slow and obscene grind. This creature was completely hypnotized. The music had quickened. As the dancer flung herself about with a detached expression on her face, the men began reaching out to touch her. I could see their beefy fingers sink into the soft flesh. Some of the others tried to stop them and she began to move around the floor in graceful circles, as they gave chase, slipping and sliding over the polished floor. It was mad. Chairs went crashing, drinks were spilt, as they ran laughing and howling after her. They caught her just as she reached a door, raised her from the floor, and tossed her as college boys are tossed at a hazing, and above her red, fixed-smiling lips I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror and that which I saw in some of the other boys. As I watched, they tossed her twice and her soft breasts seemed to flatten against the air and her legs flung wildly as she spun. Some of the more sober ones helped her to escape. And I started off the floor, heading for the anteroom with the rest of the boys.

Some were still crying and in hysteria. But as we tried to leave we were stopped and ordered to get into the ring. There was nothing to do but what we were told. All ten of us climbed under the ropes and allowed ourselves to be blindfolded with broad bands of white cloth. One of the men seemed to feel a bit sympathetic and tried to cheer us up as we stood with our backs against the ropes. Some of us tried to grin. "See that boy over there?" one of the men said. "I want you to run across at the bell and give it to him right in the belly. If you don't get him, I'm going to get you. I don't like his looks." Each of us was told the same. The blindfolds were put on. Yet even then I had been going over my speech. In my mind each word was as bright as flame. I felt the cloth pressed into place, and frowned so that it would be loosened when I relaxed.

But now I felt a sudden fit of blind terror. I was unused to darkness. It was as though I had suddenly found myself in a dark room filled with poisonous cottonmouths. I could hear the bleary voices yelling insistently for the battle royal to begin.

"Get going in there!"

"Let me at that big nigger!"

I strained to pick up the school superintendent's voice, as though to squeeze some security out of that slightly more familiar sound.

"Let me at those black sonsabitches!" someone yelled.

"No, Jackson, no!" another voice yelled. "Here, somebody, help me hold Jack."

"I want to get at that ginger-colored nigger. Tear him limb from limb," the first voice yelled.

I stood against the ropes trembling. For in those days I was what they called ginger-colored, and he sounded as though he might crunch me between his teeth like a crisp ginger cookie.

Quite a struggle was going on. Chairs were being kicked about and I could hear voices grunting as with a terrific effort. I wanted to see, to see more desperately than ever before. But the blindfold was tight as a thick skin-puckering scab and when I raised my gloved hands to push the layers of white aside a voice yelled, "Oh, no you don't, black bastard! Leave that alone!"

"Ring the bell before Jackson kills him a coon!" someone boomed in the sudden silence. And I heard the bell clang and the sound of the feet scuffing forward.
Ralph Ellison|Charles Johnson

About Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison - Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison (1914–94) was born in Oklahoma and trained as a musician at Tuskegee Institute from 1933 to 1936, at which time a visit to New York and a meeting with Richard Wright led to his first attempts at fiction. Invisible Man won the National Book Award. Appointed to the Academy of American Arts and Letters in 1964, Ellison taught at several institutions, including Bard College, the University of Chicago, and New York University, where he was Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities. 

About Charles Johnson

Charles Johnson - Invisible Man
Charles Johnson is the National Book Award-winning author of Middle Passage and Dreamer.


WINNER 1953 National Book Awards
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Teachers Guide

About the Book

The questions, topics, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading and discussion of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. We hope that they will provide you with new ways of looking at--and talking about--a book that is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest American novels of the second half of this century.

About the Guide

From the moment of its publication in 1952, Invisible Man  generated the impact of a cultural tidal wave. Here was a pioneering work of African-American fiction that addressed not only the social, but the psychic and metaphysical, components of racism: the nvisibility of a large portion of this country's populace and the origins of that invisibility in one people's willed blindness and another's habit of self-concealment.

But Ellison had created far more than a commentary on race. He had attempted to decipher the cruel and beautiful paradox that is America, a country founded on high ideals and cold-blooded betrayals. And he sent his naive hero plunging through almost every stratum of this divided society, from an ivy-covered college in the deep South to the streets of Harlem, from a sharecropper's shack to the floor of a hellish paint factory, from a millionaire's cocktail party to a communist rally, from church jubilees to street riots. Along the way, Ellison's narrator encounters the full range of strategies that African-Americans have used in their struggle for survival and dignity--as well as all the scams, alibis, and naked brutalities that whites have used to keep them in their place.

In his prose, Ellison managed to encompass the entirety of the American language--black and white, high-brow and low-down, musical, religious, and jivey--and reshape it to his own ends. In Invisible Man he created one of those rare works that is a world unto itself, a book that illuminates our own in ways that are at once hilarious and devastating.

About the Author

Ralph Ellison was born in 1914 in Oklahoma City, the son of Lewis Ellison, a construction worker, and his wife, Ida, a domestic. He was introduced to literature by his mother, who used to bring him books she borrowed from the homes she cleaned. A further exposure was provided by the ironies of segregation: in the 1920s, Oklahoma City had no black library, and books from the library's main branch were shelved haphazardly in a pool hall, where the young Ralph might find a volume of fairy tales alongside one of Freud--with no well-meaning librarian telling him what a child ought or ought not to be reading.

Ellison attended Alabama's Tuskegee Institute on a music scholarship, but in 1936 he moved to New York City, where he began writing short stories while supporting himself as a free-lance photographer and audio engineer. After serving in the Merchant Marine during World War II, he spent seven years writing Invisible Man, working out of an office located at the back of a jewelry store on Fifth Avenue. The book was published in 1952 and was awarded the National Book Award. It has been translated into seventeen languages.

The manuscript of Ellison's second novel was destroyed by a fire in 1967. He spent the remaining years of his life painstakingly reconstructing it, while publishing two volumes of nonfiction, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). He taught and lectured widely, was appointed to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, served on the National Council on the Arts and Humanities and the Carnegie Commission on public television, and was a trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Ralph Ellison died of cancer on April 16, 1994, at his home in New York City.

Discussion Guides

1. What makes Ellison's narrator invisible? What is the relationship between his invisibility and other people's blindness--both involuntary and willful? Is the protagonist's invisibility due solely to his skin color? Is it only the novel's white characters who refuse to see him?

2. One drawback of invisibility is that "you ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world" [p. 4]. How does the narrator try to prove that he exists? Does this sentence provide a clue to the behavior of other characters in the book?

3. What are the narrator's dreams and goals? How are these variously fulfilled or thwarted in the course of the book?

4. Is the reader meant to identify with the narrator? To sympathize with him? How do you think Ellison himself sees his protagonist?

5. What is the significance of the grandfather's deathbed speech [p.16]? Whom or what has he betrayed? What other characters in this book resort to the same strategy of smiling betrayal?

6. Throughout the novel the narrator gives speeches, or tries to give them, to audiences both black and white, at venues that range from a whites-only "smoker" to the funeral of a black street vendor murdered by the police. What role does oratory--and, more broadly, the spoken word--play in Invisible Man?

7. The "battle royal" sequence portrays black men fighting each other for the entertainment of whites. Does Ellison ever portray similar combats between blacks and whites? To what end?

8. Throughout the book the narrator encounters a number of white benefactors, including a millionaire college trustee, an amiable playboy, and the professional agitator Brother Jack. What does the outcome of these relationships suggest about the possibility of friendship or cooperation between the races?

9. What black men does the protagonist choose as mentors or role models? Do they prove to be any more trustworthy than his white "benefactors"? What about those figures whose authority and advice the narrator rejects--for example, the vet in The Golden Day and the separatist Ras the Exhorter? What characters in Invisible Man, if any, represent sources of moral authority and stability?

10. What cultural tendencies or phenomena does Ellison hold up for satire in this novel? For example, what were the real-life models for the Founder, the Brotherhood, and Ras the Exhorter? How does the author convey the failures and shortcomings of these people and movements?

11. Why might Tod Clifton have left the Brotherhood to peddle demeaning dancing Sambo dolls? What does the narrator mean when he says: "It was as though he [Clifton] had chosen...to fall outside of history"? How would you describe Ellison's vision of history and the role that African-Americans play within it?

12. Invisible Man may be said to exemplify the paranoid style of American literature. How does Ellison establish an atmosphere of paranoia in his novel, as though the reader, along with the narrator, "had waded out into a shallow pool only to have the bottom drop out and the water close over my head" [p.432]? Why is this style particularly appropriate to Ellison's subject matter?

13. Where in Invisible Man does Ellison--who was trained as a musician--use language to musical effect? (For example, compare the description of the college campus on pages 34-7 to Trueblood's confession on 51-68, to the chapel scene on 110-135, and Tod Clifton's funeral on 450-461.) What different sorts of language does Ellison employ in these and other passages? How does the "music" of these sections--their rhythm, assonance, and alliteration--heighten their meaning or play against it?

14. More than forty years after it was first published, Invisible Man is still one of the most widely read and widely taught books in the African-American literary canon. Why do you think this is so? How true is this novel to the lives of black Americans in the 1990s?

15. In spite of its vast success (or perhaps because of it), Ellison's novel--and the author himself--were fiercely criticized in some circles for being insufficiently "Afrocentric." Do you think this is true? Do you think Ellison made artistic compromises in order to make Invisible Man accessible to white readers?

Teacher's Guide


Written in the politically and socially turbulent 1940s, Invisible Man is one of the definitive novels of the African-American experience; it is also one of the definitive novels for all Americans. The issues Ellison so powerfully addresses are those that confront everyone who lives in the modern world: not only racism but the very question of personal identity, our frustrated impulse to assert ourselves in a world which is metaphorically blind. Ellison's hero is invisible within the larger culture because he is black, but his feelings can easily be understood by all those who experience the anonymity of modern life. Shortly before his death Ellison acknowledged the fact that his novel had expanded the very meaning of the word "invisible." Invisibility, he said, "touches anyone who lives in a big metropolis." (New Yorker, 5/2/94)

The novel's nameless narrator (the Invisible Man) is representative of many intelligent young African-Americans of his generation. Born and raised in the rural South, he is a star pupil at a college for black students. He dreams of racial uplift through humility and hard work, a doctrine preached by the school and the larger Southern culture. When his innocent idealism lands him in trouble, he comes to understand the hypocrisy behind the school's professed philosophy and heads for the greater freedom of New York.

The naive young man is "educated" by being slowly disabused of all his ideals. Despite this, in the end he chooses to reject cynicism and hatred and to embrace a philosophy of hope. Ellison wanted his novel to transcend the rage and hopelessness of the protest novel and assert a world of possibility, however remote. It is surreal because "life is surreal," and it is funny—often hilariously so—because "what else was there to sustain our will to persevere but laughter?" [p. xv]. The novel also reflects the rhetorical richness of the African-American culture, using a wide range of idiomatic styles. Ellison's anti-realism stood out at a time when realism was the dominant fictional style, particularly in the protest novel. Through it he asserts the excitement of human experience in a world in which the unexpected is always happening.


The questions, exercises, and assignments that follow are designed to guide your students through Invisible Man and to help them approach it as both a work of literature and a provocative critique of our society. How are minorities treated in our culture? What justifications do white people make to themselves for this treatment? Do African-Americans ever show prejudice toward one another? The questions below test reader comprehension, suggest themes for in-depth discussion, and point the way toward more extensive reading and research. Students should be encouraged to read the newspapers and watch the news on television, keeping a journal on contemporary events that touch racial themes. How much, or how little, has changed since the book's publication in 1952? Are we any closer to realizing Ellison's imagined society of possibility?



1. What is the significance of the Founder's posture in his statue on campus?

2. Why is Mr. Norton so affected by Jim Trueblood's story?

3. Why have white people lavished help upon Trueblood since his disgrace, when they ignored him before his crime?

4. Why do the students and teachers at the college hate and fear Trueblood and the other "black belt" inhabitants?

5. Why doesn't Dr. Bledsoe give the narrator a second chance at the college?

6. Why does the narrator refuse grits and pork chops at the breakfast counter?

7. Why does young Mr. Emerson show Invisible Man the contents of the letter? Why does Invisible Man mistrust his offers of friendship?

8. What is the motto of the Liberty Paint Company? What is their method of keeping paint pure white? In what way does the ethos of the company resemble that of the American Republic?

9. Why is Lucius Brockway against unionization?

10. Is Brockway being used by the white bosses, or is he taking advantage of his position and knowledge to use others?

11. Ellison gives a detailed catalogue of the belongings of the elderly evicted couple. What do these individual items signify?

12. Why does Emma think Invisible Man should be "a little blacker"? [p. 303]

13. What is the significance of Mary's cast-iron bank? Why is it appropriate that the narrator is unable to rid himself of it? Is it significant that the people who won't let him discard it are themselves black?

14. Why does Brother Tarp choose the narrator to be the recipient of his leg chain?

15. Is Invisible Man's rage at Clifton's Sambo doll more than just racial? Does he see it as specifically mocking him?

16. What does the word "Tod" mean in German? Why is this a symbolically appropriate name for Tod Clifton?

17. What does Invisible Man mean when he says that Sybil sees him as an "entertainer?" [p. 521]

18. In what way is the riot at the end of the book reminiscent of the battle royal at the beginning?

19. What has accounted for the change in Mr. Norton's manner when he meets the narrator at the end of the book?

20. Why does Invisible Man move underground after the riot?

21. What was Jack's reason for writing the anonymous letter?

For in-class discussion

1. The narrator's grandfather tells him to "overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open." [p. 16] How does the narrator's interpretation of this advice change during the course of the novel? Do you feel that Dr. Bledsoe shares the grandfather's philosophy? What about Tod Clifton? And what about Rinehart?

2. The town leaders at the battle royal tell the narrator, "We mean to do right by you, but you've got to know your place at all times." [p. 31] What kind of help are the men actually offering? What "place" in the world do they plan for young black people? Is there any real benevolence included in their wish to dominate?

3. What is the significance of the briefcase treasured by Invisible Man throughout the novel?

4. Ellison carefully lays out the geography of the state college for Negroes, with its whitewashed buildings, its black powerhouse, the barren road leading to the insane asylum, and the nearby shanties of the "black belt." How does this map symbolize the idealistic vision of the school and the hard realities of black life which the school's philosophy attempts to deny?

5. Mr. Norton is "a bearer of the white man's burden," a "symbol of the Great Traditions." [p. 37] How does he personify the paternalistic ethos, for better and for worse?

6. Many critics suggest that the veterans at the Golden Day represent the repressed black middle-class--that these are the men who would have been the community's doctors, lawyers, teachers, and scientists had they been allowed the same opportunities as whites. Do you agree with this thesis?

7. The "doctor" at the Golden Day calls the narrator "a walking zombie, the most perfect achievement of [Norton's] dreams." [p. 94] What does he mean by this? What is the narrator's reaction? Does he eventually come to share the doctor's opinion?

8. How does Ellison, with both his black and his white characters, employ the metaphor of blindness? How does the metaphor of blindness relate to that of invisibility?

9. In The Souls of Black Folk (1905), W.E.B. Du Bois theorized that the black American has two selves, a white one and a black one. How does Dr. Bledsoe exemplify that principle? How does the principle cause the breakdown of Tod Clifton's character?

10. The Founder and his followers make much of the Christian virtue of humility. In what ways can Invisible Man be seen as an elaborate critique of that virtue?

11. Upon his arrival in New York, Invisible Man observes that "a new world of possibility suggested itself to me faintly, like a small voice that was barely audible in the roar of city sounds." [p.159] Does the character retain that faint sense of possibility despite the events of the novel?

12. Reflecting on the black race after his encounter with the blueprint peddler, Invisible Man feels both pride and disgust. How are these two emotions juxtaposed in his feelings for Mary Rambo? For Tod Clifton? For Rinehart?

13. Young Mr. Emerson sees himself as Huck Finn and the narrator as Jim. What is the social significance of such a fantasy? What is the psychological significance?

14. What does the freedom to like chitterlings, yams, or spirituals mean to the narrator?

15. How does the narrator's vision of Mr. and Mrs. Provo, the evicted couple, differ from Brother Jack's? Do the two men have the same difference in outlook when it comes to Tod Clifton?

16. What does the Brotherhood mean when it uses the word "History"? And "Science"?

17. Why does the narrator reject Ras the Exhorter's philosophy? In what ways does Ellison set out to make Ras's philosophy both attractive and repellent?

18. Invisible Man wonders how the white men of the Brotherhood differ from the trustees of his college. Do they, in fact, differ fundamentally? If so, in what ways?

19. How does Invisible Man react when he is told he will be concentrating on "the woman question"? How are women as a group treated in the novel?

20. The narrator mockingly calls Brother Jack "the great white father." [p. 473] In what way have Jack and the Brotherhood assumed the psychological role of slaveowners?

21. How does the protean character of Rinehart come to represent a world of possibilities for Invisible Man? Does Invisible Man accept or reject those possibilities? Is "Rinehartism" cynicism, or realism?

22. Invisible Man wonders what value personal integrity can have in his cynical world. Does it seem to you that it is possible to retain one's integrity while dealing with the likes of Dr. Bledsoe or Brother Jack? Do any of the book's characters in fact retain their integrity?


1. Research the history of African-Americans from the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War through World War II, paying special attention to segregation ("Jim Crow") laws and to the legal gains made by African-Americans during the Forties. Would a young black intellectual in 1950 feel only disgust for his world, or would he see cause for hope in the future?

2. Great numbers of black Southerners emigrated to the cities of the North during the Twenties and Thirties. The new lives of these urban African-Americans in the industrial North were radically different from those they had led in the agrarian South. On the surface, they confronted much less prejudice. What were the differences in racial attitudes between the two cultures? Was the prejudice of the North less real because it was better hidden?

3. Ellison's account of the "Brotherhood" is a thinly disguised depiction of the American Communist Party during the Stalin era. Ellison was himself involved with the Party, as were many other black intellectuals during the Thirties. Research Stalinist ideology and Communist activity during the Thirties. Why did so many black Americans identify themselves with the Communist Cause? Why did Party officials see the black community as a natural ally? Were their aims essentially allied or opposed?

4. At the time of which Ellison writes, there were (as there are today) competing ideas of how the black race could best improve its lot. On one side was Booker T. Washington's philosophy of "racial uplift" and humility, given voice by the Founder and by Reverend Barbee in Invisible Man. On another were the militant ideals of Marcus Garvey (fictionalized in Invisible Man as Ras the Exhorter), who spoke loudly for black separatism. Another influential thinker, more militant than Washington but less so than Garvey, was W.E.B. Du Bois. Research Washington, Du Bois, and Garvey. What do you see to be the strong and weak points in their philosophies?

5. Read the story "Tar Baby" from Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings by Joel Chandler Harris. How does Brer Rabbit's reaction to the Tar Baby compare with the ways in which Invisible Man's various white characters respond to the black ones? Is there a parallel between Tar Baby's "behavior" and the advice given by Invisible Man's grandfather?

6. The race riot at the end of Invisible Man is closely based upon the Harlem riot of August 1943. Compare the riot as depicted by Ellison with news reports on the recent race riots in Los Angeles and Washington. What similarities do you see? What differences?

7. The question of naming is an important one in Invisible Man and for African-Americans in general in light of our long history of slavery. The narrator is nameless to his readers; he is renamed by the Brotherhood as slaves were renamed by a new master. In refusing to give us either of his names, what kind of statement is the narrator making about his identity? Assuming that the book ends on a hopeful note, do you think that one day the narrator will have a real name?

8. In 1963 the African-American author James Baldwin wrote: "In most of the novels written by Negroes until today...there is a great space where sex ought to be; and what usually fills this space is violence." Is this true of Invisible Man? What role do women play in the story? Are they even regarded by the narrator as being fully human?

9. At the end of the novel, Invisible Man says, "Whence all this passion toward conformity anyway?—diversity is the word. Let man keep his many parts and you'll have no tyrant states. Why, if they follow this conformity business they'll end up by forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but the lack of one....America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain." [p. 577] The debate between the value of diversity versus conformity--or consensus--is still very much alive today, more than forty years after the appearance of Invisible Man. What contribution does the novel make to this cultural debate?

10. The narrator finally concludes that "Even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play." [p. 581] This is an important tenet of Ellison's philosophy, for he believed that art should serve democracy. In what way is Invisible Man a novel that deals specifically with the problems and challenges of democracy?

11. The late 1940s saw an improvement in the rights and respect accorded black Americans, thanks largely to the important role they played in World War II. What were the principles for which the Allies fought in World War II? Why did that war specifically cause white Americans to rethink their own values and racial policies?


James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name; Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground; Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass; W.E.B. Du Bois, Autobiography, The Souls of Black Folk; Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory, Shadow and Act; Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery; C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow; Richard Wright, Black Boy, Native Son.


This teacher's guide was written by Brooke Allen. Brooke Allen has a Ph.D. in literature from Columbia University, and has spent several years in France as a teacher and a journalist. She writes regularly on books for The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications.


Copyright © 1994 by VINTAGE BOOKS

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