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Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Invisible Man | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


Explain the significance of the narrator's banishment from the Men's House in Invisible Man, Chapter 12.

The narrator is expelled from the Men's House after a case of mistaken identity: he pours a spittoon over a man he believes to be Dr. Bledsoe. This event is significant because it is the first time the narrator lashes back against the powers that oppress him. On the one hand, he has spent his entire life being obedient, so this action shows his maturity and growth. On the other, it is rebellious because by dumping the spittoon, he literally has everyone in the hotel "spit" on the man who deceitfully disparaged him. He feels rage for the first time, but is unable to control it and lashes out at the wrong man.

What role does Mary play in the narrator's life in Invisible Man?

On the surface Mary is a caretaker for the narrator and a symbol of the strength that can be found in the black community. On a deeper level, Mary acts as a mother for the narrator after the veteran doctor warns him to avoid father figures. The narrator finds Mary after his hospital "rebirth." She houses, feeds, cares for, and encourages the narrator, only asking that he "make her proud" as repayment. As the narrator matures, he leaves Mary's home, but he seeks to return when he is afraid (during the race riots) and in need of protection. Mary's character is often criticized for being a black "mammy"—a caregiver content with her desexualized, subservient womanly role. The novel does not offer any portraits of strong women, black or white, perhaps because Ellison believed women in the 1950s were also "invisible."

Describe the narrator's views of Southern food in Invisible Man.

The narrator's views of Southern food mirror his personal journey. When he first arrives in Harlem, he orders toast and coffee at a cafe because he is afraid to eat the "Southern special" in public, worried people will view him as an ignorant yokel. He hides his culture—even though the food sounds delicious—to appear "whiter." When he encounters a yam seller, however, he happily eats this Southern favorite because he is no longer interested in white approval as the basis for his self-identity. By reconnecting with the food of his childhood, and therefore his culture, the narrator feels restored. Similarly, the narrator enjoys Mary's home-cooked meals because they comfortingly remind him of his childhood, even though the food is often smelly and tasteless.

Describe the significance of "writing history" in Invisible Man.

According to the narrator in Invisible Man, white men write history because they hold all the power. They choose which details to include and which to omit. For most of the novel, the narrator desires to be part of history. He wants to make a name for himself and be remembered. He believes the best way to do this is by following the leadership of powerful white men such as Mr. Norton and Brother Jack. As he matures, however, he learns that there are men who have turned their backs on the socially accepted views of progress. Men such as Tod Clifton, Dupre, and eventually the narrator himself leave the clear path outlined for them by the rhetoric of white supremacy, focusing on their futures rather than the past they'll leave behind. Ultimately, the narrator is able to write his own history by recording his memoir.

What is the narrator's fatal flaw in Invisible Man?

The narrator's fatal flaw is his deep desire to be important. He spends his entire life seeking the approval of powerful white men, changing everything about himself, even his name, to please Dr. Bledsoe, Mr. Norton, and Brother Jack. He degrades himself and sells out his race at every turn—from the battle royal to his work with the Brotherhood—to chase money and power. By remaining subservient to these men and allowing his exploitation, the narrator hopes to gain something in return, just as Bledsoe gained his power. He must let go of this goal in order to discovery his identity. In the end he finds contentment living alone, underground, in a coal cellar. He has no power, prestige, or wealth, but he finally understands who he is and where he came from.

How is the narrator in Invisible Man transformed by joining the Brotherhood?

When the narrator joins the Brotherhood, he is given a new name, a new apartment, and—through detailed literature—an entirely new belief system. With his start-up money, he buys new clothing, which he doesn't recognize himself in, and new shoes, which hurt his feet. Physically, he completely transforms, even if his new identity is uncomfortable. The transformation is false, however, because the new identity is simply another persona given to him by a white man (Brother Jack). From the success of his first speech, the narrator is transformed from an unknown black boy to an influential black man, yet it soon becomes clear to him that Brother Jack is exploiting him for personal gain.

What is the significance of the blind boxer in Chapter 16 of Invisible Man?

The blind boxer in Chapter 16 of Invisible Man reminds the narrator of his childhood. His grandfather told him stories about how this boxer lost his sight in a rigged fight, foreshadowing the narrator's blindness to the Brotherhood's intentions, which will be equally devastating. The boxer believed he could defeat his opponent but did not realize the match was rigged against him. This parallels the narrator's belief that he is an equal in white society; in reality he is "blind" to the way society is rigged against him. The image of the blind boxer also recalls the image of the blindfolded students at the battle royal, reminding the reader of the narrator's role as an "entertainer" for rich white men.

What parallel does the narrator in Invisible Man draw between his character and James Joyce's character Stephen Dedalus?

After his first speech for the Brotherhood, the narrator compares himself to the literary character Stephen Dedalus (the literary alter ego of Irish author James Joyce), musing that both are tasked with finding an identity within a large group. The narrator desires to become a leader for his race, emerging from the "black mass" of his people. The irony, of course, is that the Brotherhood defines the narrator's new identity with its own cause in mind, fooling him into thinking he has any control over how he is perceived. The name also conjures Daedalus, the mythic father of Icarus, who constructed wings so he and his son could fly. This comparison reflects the desire of all the characters—Icarus, Daedalus, and the narrator—to soar above the constraints of their realities.

How are Brother Jack and Dr. Bledsoe similar in Invisible Man?

Brother Jack and Dr. Bledsoe are similar because they both become leaders of movements in order to progress their own power. Although both preach the ideologies of their organizations, the Brotherhood and the Founder's college, neither man believes what he is saying. Dr. Bledsoe preaches about integrating black minds into white society and peacefully aggregating for equality. In reality he is only interested in his own power and will "have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs" to keep his position. Similarly, Brother Jack preaches about serving the vulnerable black populations in Harlem. In reality he is quick to sacrifice those people to gain power and prestige. Both men manipulate their followers for personal gain.

Compare and contrast Ras and the Brotherhood's philosophies in Invisible Man.

Both Ras and the Brotherhood claim to want social equality for all members of Harlem. The Brotherhood wants the races to work together to create an equal society, but Ras wants to create a separate state, with blacks working together without asking white leaders for help. The Brotherhood claims to be nonviolent, although it later becomes clear that the group planned the race riots by manipulating its supporters. On the other hand, violence is a necessary evil for Ras and his supporters, and he doesn't hide it. The two philosophies reflect those of nonviolent civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and black nationalist Marcus Garvey, two powerful political figures.

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