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Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Invisible Man | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In Invisible Man how is the name of the Golden Day bar an example of verbal irony?

A "golden day" suggests sunshine and tranquility, whereas "golden days" refers to a peaceful and prosperous retirement. In contrast, the Golden Day is a disreputable bar and brothel where a group of unstable war veterans meet. This group has no future to look forward to, as they have been traumatized by their war experiences and can only find release in drinking, brawling, and sex. In this twisted setting, it is appropriate that Mr. Norton, as a white man, is the outsider. It is also here that the narrator is first called an "invisible man" by the ex-doctor who assists Mr. Norton. In this upside-down place, the narrator cannot accept the truth of the ex-doctor's words.

Why does the war veteran call Mr. Norton "Thomas Jefferson" in Invisible Man?

On the surface the war veteran calls Mr. Norton "Thomas Jefferson" because he is insane. In the moment no one pays attention to his assessment of the rich white man. As the narrator digests the experience years later, however, the veteran's "ravings" have the ring of truth. Norton is also a "Founding Father" who uses his legacy to cover up unsavory acts, like Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a slaveholder who built an empire off free labor, and who also had children with his slave "mistress," Sally Hemings. Both men use the black race for their own pleasure and to perpetuate their legacies.

Why doesn't the narrator like the veteran doctor in Invisible Man?

The doctor has become deeply disillusioned with the world as a result of the racism he faced, which ended his career as a surgeon. He has stopped caring what white men like Norton think of him, freely speaking his mind and chastising Norton's legacy. The naive narrator, in contrast, is still obsessed with pleasing Norton at all costs. He despises the way the veteran doctor represents black men, and he fears Norton's disapproval of the doctor's views will reflect on his opinion of all African Americans. The doctor, on the other hand, recognizes the narrator's desire to please, and he calls him an automaton, or robot.

What is significant about the narrator's job as a chauffeur in Invisible Man?

The narrator believes that he has won a sense of freedom by being chosen as a chauffeur. He also believes being chosen for the job suggests that he is respected, when in reality, he is one who is most likely to follow orders. A car represents freedom—the freedom of the open road, the freedom to choose a destination and drive. The reality, however, is that while in the car, he is simply taking orders from white men, chasing the "destinations" chosen by powerful men like Norton. When he does attempt to choose his own path—by taking Norton to see Trueblood and the Golden Day—he is severely punished.

Is the narrator of Invisible Man an "automaton," as the veteran doctor calls him in Chapter 3?

At the Golden Day the veteran doctor angrily calls the narrator an "automaton," meaning an unthinking machine used to serve the white man. At this stage of the narrator's life, the label is correct. He hates black men—like Trueblood and the doctor himself—who fall outside of white racial expectations, and he believes that subservience is the way to socially advance himself. The label is also apt because of Mr. Norton's view of the narrator. As the veteran doctor correctly points out, the narrator is not a human to Norton, but "a thing," merely a "mark on the score-card" of Norton's achievement.

In what ways is Dr. Bledsoe like Clifton's Sambo dolls in Invisible Man?

Dr. Bledsoe is happy to perpetuate white power so long as he maintains personal success. He is knowingly manipulated and used by white benefactors such as Mr. Norton, but, like Sambo, he is happy in his subservience. As long as he has personal power and wealth, he'll have "every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs," a reference to lynching. Notably, Clifton's dolls have two faces, and the narrator notes Bledsoe's masklike appearance when he interacts with Norton. In the comfort of his office, however, his true self shows. He is not a quiet, subservient man; he is violent and hungry for power.

What does the color green symbolize in Invisible Man?

The color green symbolizes opposites: naivety and knowledge. The college campus, where the narrator is his most naive about society and race relations, is consistently described as green and lush. A naive schoolgirl's code to her boyfriend is "the grass is green." Each of these examples highlights the students' lack of awareness of the way in which the college exploits them. While wearing Rinehart's green-lensed glasses at the end of the novel, however, the narrator finally begins to see things clearly. Looking through, or looking past, the "green" of his naivety, he finally begins to understand his place in society and how to engage with the world for his personal benefit.

Discuss Reverend Barbee's blindness in light of his speech in Invisible Man, Chapter 5.

Barbee is a powerful orator who lifts the Founder and Dr. Bledsoe to a godlike status, obscuring their role in perpetuating racist ideals. Because the novel regularly refers to the young students as "blind" or "sleepwalking," Barbee's blindness references the expression "the blind leading the blind." In the next chapter, in fact, it is revealed that Bledsoe is not concerned with his students' well-being. If it keeps him in power, he is more than happy to lead the "blind" youths astray. Barbee's blindness is also significant because along with his first name, Homer, he evokes the image of the blind poet who wrote The Odyssey and The Iliad. Homer also wrote about characters of mythical, godlike proportions.

Why is the narrator surprised by Dr. Bledsoe's punishment in Invisible Man, Chapter 6?

Before being sent to Dr. Bledsoe's office to receive his punishment, the narrator was "saved" by Mr. Norton, who claimed that the day's events weren't the narrator's fault, and that he shouldn't be punished. The narrator assumes Bledsoe will automatically follow Norton's wishes, particularly since the narrator is a "privileged" scholarship student. He has good reason to think so; not only is Mr. Norton white and Dr. Bledsoe black, but Norton's assertion is in fact true. Dr. Bledsoe, however, wants to prove his power over the narrator and expels him anyway. The narrator is dumbfounded to see a black man expressly ignore the request of a white man.

How does the postwar setting influence themes in Invisible Man?

Invisible Man was written in the postwar World War II period. Traditionally, and particularly in white society, this period is remembered with content: the economy was strong, families were intact, and strong gender roles and expectations monitored social behaviors. Many in society were disillusioned with the facade of perfection, however, that kept them invisible in a society that portrayed ideal, happy home lives in shows like Leave It to Beaver. The needs of wounded veterans, like the patients in the novel, were largely ignored, as were the reduced civil rights of minority citizens. The novel highlights the struggles of all "invisible men" in 1950s society: women, homosexuals, minorities, and other outsiders.

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