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Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Invisible Man | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


Compare and contrast the characters of Tod Clifton and the narrator in Invisible Man.

Both the narrator and Tod Clifton are young, handsome, talented black men hoping to make a name for themselves and better their community by working with the Brotherhood. They are excellent orators and well liked within the community. Clifton, however, realizes well before the narrator that they are being used to perpetuate the organization's racist goals. He realizes that he has "sold out" his people, so he disappears. The narrator finds him selling Sambo dolls to white tourists in the park, whereas the narrator continues to follow the organization's plans blindly. At the end of the novel, Clifton is physically dead, whereas the narrator is emotionally dead.

How are death and individuality related in Invisible Man?

At Brother Tod Clifton's funeral, the narrator repeats his name over and over. The narrator hopes to honor his friend as an individual in death by reciting his name, rather than allow his friend to be turned into an emblem of the black community's struggles. Similarly, when Ras threatens to lynch the narrator for being a traitor, the narrator begs to be killed for his personal sins, not for the sins of the Brotherhood. The narrator has worked his entire life to create an identity for himself, and he knows that death may be his final opportunity. This dichotomy presents situational irony for the narrator: individuality seems impossible while he is alive and may only be achieved in death.

How is temperature imagery (hot, cold, and warm) used in Invisible Man?

Ellison uses temperature imagery to symbolize the narrator's emotions. Warm images, in particular, are used when the narrator is nostalgic, happy, and content. This is seen primarily when he is with Mary or eating warm foods such as yams. Cold images are used when the narrator feels isolated, frightened, or confused. This is seen strongly when the narrator leaves college, wanders New York looking for work, and debates joining the Brotherhood. Heat imagery is used to symbolize rising tensions in the narrator's life. Like a growing fire that ends in explosion, the final chapters are described as hot, red, or heated in the build toward the race riots that fill the streets of Harlem—literally and figuratively—with fire.

What is the deeper meaning of the narrator's position at the women's division of the Brotherhood in Invisible Man?

When the narrator is sent downtown, a symbol of demotion, he is put in charge of the women's division. Through its portrayal of female characters, the novel has already shown that women are viewed as unequal to men in society. Therefore, sending a black man to head up the women's division is another example of white men "castrating," or feminizing, powerful black men. The demotion also creates strong parallels between blacks and women and their position as "second-class citizens." The difference, however, is that the white women in the novel aren't as aware of their disenfranchised position as the narrator is.

What does the narrator of Invisible Man mean when he says some men live "outside of history"?

The narrator is obsessed with being remembered as an individual in history. He realizes, however, that white men are the ones who record history, choosing which details to include and which to omit. For a while, he attempts to appease the white men, perpetuating the "white is right" mentality. As he matures, he sees that other men create legacies for themselves by living "outside of history"—by remaining "invisible" to white men. By living underground, away from the rest of society, the narrator refuses to let anyone else define his existence. Instead, he hibernates and writes his memoirs, which gives him full control of defining his life.

In what ways are Brother Jack and the looters Dupre and Scofield similar in Invisible Man?

Both Brother Jack and the two looters lead the unwitting narrator to commit crimes against his people. Dupre and Scofield lead the dazed narrator to a derelict tenement, and before he knows it, he's helping burn it down despite the protest of its residents. He hasn't expected the destruction and is unsure how to feel about it. Similarly, Brother Jack leads the narrator to destroy his community when he follows the Brotherhood's ideals without question. By taking part in Brother Jack's plans, even after he realizes the outcome, the narrator has become complicit in sacrificing the vulnerable Harlem residents to Brother Jack.

At the end of Invisible Man, is individual identity or community identity more important to the narrator?

The narrator cannot separate individual identity from community identity at the end of the novel. All those who pursued individual identity over the well-being of others are portrayed as villains: Dr. Bledsoe exploits his black students for personal power, Brother Jack sacrifices the community he promised to serve, and Ras the Exhorter threatens violence and death against his own race. Yet the narrator is still concerned with being seen as an individual rather than simply a member of the black mass of his community. He wants to create both a strong sense of community and an individual place within it.

Describe the significance of the Founder's statue in Invisible Man.

The Founder's statue is an ongoing symbol of enlightenment and white supremacy in the novel. In the statue, the Founder lifts the veil off the eyes of a slave, symbolizing his enlightenment. Upon further reflection, however, the narrator wonders whether this education and the Founder in the statue are actually pulling the veil more firmly over the slave's eyes. Throughout the novel, whenever the narrator believes he is progressing and enlightening himself, he is actually being manipulated or "used" by white powers. Later, the narrator sees that the statue is covered in bird droppings, suggesting that the Founder's ideals have been desecrated.

How are white women portrayed in Invisible Man?

White women are portrayed as taboo, unobtainable creatures for black men such as the narrator. This is seen in the battle royal scene with the naked, dancing woman and through the character of Emma, Brother Jack's mistress. When the women are obtained (as with Sybil and the unnamed woman in Chapter 19), they are portrayed as racist, shallow women with little to offer the narrator. Exploited and underserved by their communities, the women are nearly indistinguishable from each other. Given the narrator's desire to be seen as an individual rather than a stereotype, the portrayal suggests that he has his own prejudices.

What identity has the narrator created for himself at the end of Invisible Man?

At the novel's end, the narrator has been underground for more than 15 years, reflecting on the events in his life and trying to make sense of them. He has come to define himself by understanding more about his circumstances, including his cultural heritage, his role in history, and his relationship with the white supremacists who have kept him "running." He seems to understand the mistakes he has made in life as well as the way society is rigged against his success. The narrator is still invisible and nameless, but the ending offers hope that he will find an identity from the possibilities he can now recognize.

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