Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Chapter 1

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 1 of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.

Invisible Man | Chapter 1 | Summary



The narrator's realization that everyone was trying to define him goes back as far as he can remember. Chapter 1 narrates events from 20 years before when the narrator was a boy. On his deathbed, the narrator's grandfather urges him to "keep up the good fight." He essentially advises the narrator to conform to the white man's expectations while remaining vigilant and bitter inside. He continues to say, however, that this is how he lived his life, and on his deathbed he realizes it was "treacherous." The narrator's family believes the man has lost his mind, but these words haunt the narrator throughout the novel.

At his high school graduation the narrator delivers a well-received speech on the importance of humility, and he is invited to give the speech again at a meeting of the town's highest-ranking citizens. Before he gives the speech, however, he is herded into a group of fellow black students. The group of young men are stripped down to their shorts and forced to watch a naked woman with an American flag tattoo on her stomach dance while the white men ogle and taunt them and the woman. Then the students are blindfolded and forced to fight. The narrator manages to be one of the last two standing, but he ultimately loses the fight. Bloodied and bruised, the students are then given their reward: coins thrown onto an electrified rug that they must scramble to pick up while the white men cheer them on. Although the pain of being electrocuted is excruciating, the narrator lunges for the gold coins, which are later revealed to be worthless brass tokens. Exhausted and bloody, the narrator finally gives his speech, but the audience is too drunk to care what he's saying. When he mistakenly says "social equality" instead of "social responsibility," however, everyone takes notice. At the end of his speech, the superintendent presents him with a calfskin briefcase and a scholarship to "the state college for Negroes." The narrator is overwhelmed with joy. That night he dreams that the letter inside the briefcase actually says "Keep This Nigger-Boy Running."


The grandfather's deathbed riddle haunts the narrator like a curse throughout his life. The advice seems to be contradictory—conform to the white man's expectations if you want to succeed, but if you do, it will be "treacherous" to your people. The novel never fully explains what the grandfather means, which makes the advice as puzzling for readers as it is for the narrator. It seems, however, that the grandfather is advising his grandson to wear masks—to embody two personas—his true self, which must remain hidden if he wants to succeed, and the meek, grinning, agreeable black man white society wants him to be. As a young man the narrator interprets this advice to simply mean obedience. When he obeys the outrageous demands at the town hall meeting, he is rewarded with a college scholarship. He thinks he's cracked his grandfather's code, but his dream reminds him that by blindly obeying white demands, he will forever be jumping through hoops for approval. Just as he took part in the battle royal for worthless brass tokens, he will be forced to continue "performing" for whatever scraps generous white men feel like throwing at his feet. Not until much later in the novel does the narrator realize his grandfather was advising him to pretend to be submissive, changing society from the inside.

The white men at the meeting view the young black students as savages or animals. For perverted entertainment, the students are brutally pitted against each other. The narrator goes along with it because he really wants to deliver his speech: "I ... felt that only these men could judge truly my ability." The narrator acts like a "Sambo," or a negative black stereotype—which one man calls him in this scene—willing to do anything, eagerly anticipating the white man's approval.

Before the battle, the young men are stripped down and forced to watch a naked woman dance while the white men ogle, taunting and hollering as the boys get aroused. The dancer notably has an American flag tattoo on her stomach—a symbol of freedom, equality, and liberty—values the novel suggests are as inaccessible to young black men as the beautiful blond woman is.

Documents for Chapter 1

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Questions for Chapter 1

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