Course Hero Logo

Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

Get the eBook on Amazon to study offline.

Buy on Amazon Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "Invisible Man Study Guide." Course Hero. 28 July 2016. Web. 6 June 2023. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2016, July 28). Invisible Man Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved June 6, 2023, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2016)



Course Hero. "Invisible Man Study Guide." July 28, 2016. Accessed June 6, 2023.


Course Hero, "Invisible Man Study Guide," July 28, 2016, accessed June 6, 2023,

Invisible Man | Context



Invisible Man was published in 1952, during the height of racial segregation in the United States. To keep African Americans apart from whites following Reconstruction (the period after the Civil War during which the federal government established criteria for the reentry of Southern states into the Union), state and local governments in the South passed laws mandating "separate but equal" treatment for African Americans. These discriminatory "Jim Crow" laws were in place from the 1870s to the mid-1960s and enforced separation of blacks and whites in schools, public transportation, restaurants, facilities such as hospitals and prisons, and even restrooms, swimming pools, and drinking fountains. Rather than ensuring "equal treatment," the laws resulted in inferior conditions for African Americans. The laws reflected the views of many Americans—particularly Southerners—that black people were intellectually and morally inferior. Although Invisible Man is not officially a protest novel—in fact, Ellison maintained that the novel was intended as a comment on humanity—the narrator's struggles in Invisible Man result from segregation.

Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Marcus Garvey

Many black intellectuals fought against Jim Crow and argued for racial integration. However, Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee University in Alabama and a respected educator and civil rights leader, believed black people should accept their position as "second-class citizens" and work to prove themselves worthy of full integration. He preached that hard work and economic equality would win the respect of whites and eventually lead to cultural advancement. Washington became quite famous and powerful, acting as a race relations expert for U.S. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft by promoting black subservience. He never backed down from his beliefs, even when fellow black academics such as W.E.B. DuBois criticized him for protecting segregation over the social equality of his own people.

DuBois founded the Niagara Movement, which advocated for full civil rights and political representation. The movement encouraged black citizens to get in touch with their African roots, while violently calling for social equality. Both Washington and DuBois took extreme positions, and many black people found themselves unable to affiliate with either leader's belief system, leaving them feeling alienated within both black and white cultures.

Marcus Garvey was a leader of the black nationalist movement and believed African Americans should return to Africa to found a new nation. He created a shipping company to establish trade between Africans in the Americas and Africa. Critics say he was the inspiration for the character of Ras the Exhorter, although Ellison said he did not model the character on Garvey.

Harlem Race Riots of 1935 and 1943

Ellison called on the race riots of 1935 and 1943 in Harlem to portray the riot in Invisible Man. The riot of 1935 was caused by the public's misunderstanding of the treatment of a teenage boy who had committed petty theft. Angry, underemployed citizens believed the boy had been harmed and protested by rioting. In 1943 the cause of the riot was the shooting of a black soldier who had punched a police officer while trying to stop his mother from being arrested. Some progress had been made in meeting the needs of Harlem residents by 1943, but racial discrimination was prevalent, and solving the problem was not a priority of President Roosevelt. In both riots the violence erupted spontaneously, and the targets were Harlem businesses owned by whites who refused to hire blacks.


Although not a traditional coming-of-age novel, Invisible Man is categorized as a bildungsroman, a novel focusing on the narrator's formative years or spiritual awakening and growth. The narrator struggles to understand his singular existence within the vastness of larger society, making this an existential novel. The book challenges readers with its jazz music style, swaying between harsh realism, dreamlike fantasy, and political satire. Upon its publication in 1952, the novel garnered high praise; it won the National Book Award in 1953. Invisible Man was the only novel Ellison published in his lifetime, perhaps because the novel was held in such high esteem that any other works would have invited fierce criticism.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about Invisible Man? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!