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Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Course Hero. "Invisible Man Study Guide." July 28, 2016. Accessed June 10, 2023.


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Plot Summary

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the plot summary of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.

Invisible Man | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Invisible Man is the fictional memoir of an unnamed black narrator's journey to self-discovery. The narrator is not invisible because of a physical ailment or a freak accident; he is invisible because society sees him simply as a "black man"—a label filled with racist expectation. His true self is invisible, both to the outside world and to himself. He must confront racism, exploitation, and abuse to define his individuality.

At the opening of the novel, the narrator sits at his grandfather's deathbed somewhere in America's South during the late 1920s to early 1930s. The old man tells the narrator that the key to success as a black man is to remain subservient to whites. He also tells him, however, that such behavior is treacherous. This confusing advice follows the narrator throughout his life as he struggles to define treachery and his responsibility to anyone other than himself. Shortly after his grandfather's death, the narrator is invited to give his graduation speech to a group of prominent white men, who appreciate the speech's message of black subservience. At the event, however, the narrator is horrified to discover that part of the evening's entertainment is a "battle royal" pitting his fellow black students against each other in a brutal, blindfolded fight. Bloodied and bruised from the battle, the narrator delivers his speech and is rewarded with a scholarship to a prestigious black college.

In his third year at college, the narrator is given the "honor" of chauffeuring a wealthy white trustee, Mr. Norton. The day doesn't go as planned, and Mr. Norton is exposed not only to an incestuous black sharecropper but also to a brothel full of mentally disturbed war veterans. As a result of this incident, the narrator is expelled from school and sent to New York with a handful of recommendation letters to search for work. Unsuccessful at finding a job, he learns that the recommendation letters from his college actually warned prospective employers of his unpredictable, violent tendencies. The treacherous lie shatters his dreams of ever returning to school.

Desperate for money, the narrator takes a job at Liberty Paints, a factory that produces Optic White paint for the government. His first job is adding a solvent to muddy brown paint and stirring it until the paint is white enough to cover coal. He is later sent to work in the boiler room alongside Lucius Brockway, a crotchety old African American man who believes the young black workers should be grateful for the jobs given them by whites and shouldn't fight for social equality. Enraged to learn that the narrator accidentally attended a union meeting, Brockway attacks him. Then the narrator is injured in a factory blast and sent to recover at the factory hospital, where the doctors administer unnecessary shock treatments that erase his memory. Deemed "cured" by the doctors, the narrator recovers at the home of a kindly black woman, Mary Rambo.

While at Mary's, the narrator rediscovers his passion for public speaking and, at Mary's annoying insistence that he become a productive member of the black community, joins the Brotherhood, an organization created to protect the socially oppressed. After being fully indoctrinated in the Brotherhood's ideals, the narrator enjoys a quick rise to power, becoming the leader of the organization's Harlem division. He is surprised by how powerful he feels delivering speeches, and he often speaks passionately from the heart, much to the chagrin of the organization's members. His fellow Brothers eventually accuse him of using the Brotherhood to further his own purposes—a hurtful and untrue accusation. As a result, he is removed from his post and sent to head up the women's division downtown. He returns to Harlem when he learns that the organization is losing traction in the community and that his friend, Brother Tod Clifton, is missing. Soon after returning to headquarters, the narrator discovers Clifton selling racist Sambo dolls in the park for the amusement of white tourists. Despite the bond between the two men, Clifton pretends not to see the narrator, who spits on the dolls and tries to crush them beneath his feet. The police arrive, and during the scuffle, officers shoot and kill Clifton. Unable to make contact with anyone in the organization, the narrator arranges Clifton's funeral on his own.

As time passes, the narrator grows increasingly disillusioned with the Brotherhood and their ideals. He realizes that the organization has manipulated him and he has "sold out" his neighbors. Determined to destroy the organization from the inside, the narrator vows to follow his grandfather's advice and "overcome 'em with yeses." He pretends to agree to the organization's new plans, but hopes to uncover enough information to destroy them. He unwittingly plays right into the Brotherhood's plans to turn power over to the violent Ras the Exhorter, who incites brutal race riots across Harlem. This way, the Brotherhood can destroy the black community by leading the community to destroy itself. As the narrator rushes to Harlem to demand answers from the organization, he is confronted by Ras, who demands that the "traitor" narrator be lynched. Racing through the erupting violence, the narrator leaps into an uncovered manhole and "hibernates" underground for the next 15 years.

Invisible Man Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 The narrator describes discovering his invisibility.

Rising Action

2 After the battle royal, the narrator attends college.

3 The narrator is expelled for his outing with Mr. Norton.

4 The narrator moves to Harlem and tries to find a job.

5 The paint factory explodes; the narrator moves in with Mary.

6 The narrator joins the Brotherhood as a key orator.


7 Tod Clifton is killed; the narrator arranges his funeral.

Falling Action

8 The narrator becomes "Rinehart" through a simple disguise.


9 Harlem erupts in race riots; the narrator flees.

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