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Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Invisible Man | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In the prologue of Invisible Man, how does the narrator feel about his invisibility?

Now that he has been underground for 20 years, the narrator sees advantages to his invisibility, whereas in his youth his "condition" enraged him. There are benefits to being invisible, such as his ability to steal electricity and to go about his daily activities without drawing attention to himself. The downside, however, is that he feels without worth in society. In the prologue these contrasting emotions boil over during the "mugging" scene, which highlights both the benefits and the drawbacks of being unseen. In the rest of the novel, the narrator will contemplate his life experiences—both when he was "seen" and "unseen"—to determine his place in society.

How does the narrator of Invisible Man distinguish between being invisible and in "hibernation"?

When the narrator says that he is in hibernation, he means that he is waiting for the right moment to make his identity known. He is writing these "memoirs" during a time of deep reflection over the events of the past 20 years. He isn't quite sure how to respond to the events of his life, but when he figures it out, he will share his new, individual identity with the world. In his 1989 essay "Beyond Hibernation," published in Black American Literature Forum, Ellison scholar Steven Marx compares the narrator's time underground to that of a heroic character such as Aeneas in The Aeneid, who descends to the underworld in order to gain information about the future from its inhabitants. The narrator's descent allows him to consider his own memories in order to determine when he will rejoin the world.

How does the narrator respond to his grandfather's deathbed advice in Invisible Man, Chapter 1?

There are many times throughout the novel when the narrator believes he is following his grandfather's deathbed advice to "overcome 'em with yeses." At first he takes the advice as simply to "obey," which he does at college, an act that leads to his expulsion. He then interprets the riddle to mean that financial success is enough, even if it means "treacherous" behavior against his people. Following this principle, he takes the job with the Brotherhood and sells out Harlem residents. Finally, he realizes that his grandfather meant faking submission while changing society. With this realization the narrator pretends to work alongside the Brotherhood while planning to dismantle it from the inside.

How do Booker T. Washington's teachings affect the narrator in Invisible Man?

Booker T. Washington taught that African Americans should remain subservient to white Americans and "earn" social equality. He believed that black workers should be content with financial success and that equal rights would eventually come if respect was earned. These beliefs are at the forefront of the narrator's college policies and preached by all the leaders, especially Dr. Bledsoe. This mentality also reflects the beliefs of the older generation, repeated by the narrator's grandfather and by Lucius Brockway. Washington is evoked again when Brother Jack asks the narrator if he wants to be "the new Booker T. Washington." Washington's mentality is one of the identities the narrator must test and reject in order to see his life clearly.

What is Mr. Norton's expectation of black men in Invisible Man?

Mr. Norton believes that African Americans need "saving" from generous white men like himself. He funds the college out of an absurd pursuit of legacy, claiming that his destiny is tied up with that of the students. In reality he doesn't care about the hardships of individual students, despite his seeming desire to "save them." Without his generosity, he believes the black students will end up with barbaric fates similar to that of Jim Trueblood, who lives on the outskirts of campus. This leads him to a bizarre division of interest: he is disgusted by the "savage" behavior of men such as Trueblood, yet he enjoys watching it.

Why is Mr. Norton shocked by the cabins on the outskirts of town in Invisible Man, Chapter 2?

Mr. Norton is shocked to see old slave cabins still in use on the outskirts of campus because he genuinely believes slavery has been wiped out of history following abolition. Now that slavery has been eradicated, he cannot comprehend that its legacy lingers. He believes black people should focus on their futures even though white society refuses to acknowledge them as equals. The cabins remain on the landscape, while the social and emotional effects of slavery persist for African Americans. Norton's lack of perception mirrors his inability to value black culture and history; he cannot understand why "savages" such as Trueblood would choose to live in the cabins instead of embracing an educated "white" life.

What role does blues music play in Invisible Man?

Blues music is most prominently seen in the opening chapters of the novel, particularly the music of Louis Armstrong. The narrator listens to blues in his hideout, and Jim Trueblood sings the blues. Blues music highlights personal pain and struggle, and it is heavily rooted in slave music. By singing the blues, both characters—Trueblood and the narrator—reflect on their personal pain as well as their connection to the larger pain of the black race. In addition, blues music involves a syncopated beat and values improvisation and "riffs," which are also seen in the novel's narration. Similarly, the narrator says that being invisible means that one is "never quite on the beat."

How does Mr. Norton's gift of money to Jim Trueblood in Invisible Man mirror experiences in both his own life and that of the narrator?

Mr. Norton gives Jim Trueblood $100 after hearing his incest story. His gift is veiled as charity, but it also alleviates Norton's guilt over his own incestuous feelings toward his dead daughter, whose beauty he has described lavishly to the narrator. He has lived vicariously through Trueblood's story, and he believes his money can wash his conscience of guilt. The gift also suggests paying for the "entertainment" of witnessing black struggle. Norton listens to the story with the same detached fascination as he would watch a television program. This "entertainment" is reminiscent of the coins thrown to the boys during the battle royal. Paying for this "entertainment" underscores Norton's hypocrisy as a humanitarian.

How is the battle royal scene in Invisible Man, Chapter 1, connected to the symbolism of Mary's bank?

During the battle royal scene, the black students brutally fight each other and scramble on an electrified rug, hoping to collect the coins tossed down by the white men who laugh and mock them. Even though the students know they are being exploited for entertainment, they greedily partake in the game, ignoring the fact that their "performance" continues their service to the racist belief system. This dynamic is symbolized in Mary's bank—a grinning black face greedily stuffing coins into his mouth until he chokes. As soon as the narrator sees Mary's bank, he wants to smash the image but it keeps returning to him.

What does the line "Keep This Nigger-Boy Running" mean in Invisible Man, Chapter 1?

The narrator dreams in Chapter 1 that his scholarship papers actually say "Keep This Nigger-Boy Running." Throughout the novel he finds himself chasing success that is just out of his reach. Often, opportunities that seem like chances for personal advancement—such as his scholarship and his job with the Brotherhood—are actually just new ways for white leaders, such as Brother Jack, to keep him subservient. He works to please them, but finds repeatedly that he is being used. Each situation creates further problems and complications that keep him running, both literally (away from Ras) and figuratively, running in place (working hard for no reward).

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