Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of the Prologue of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.

Invisible Man | Prologue | Summary



The novel opens with the words "I am an invisible man" spoken by a narrator who will remain unnamed throughout the novel. The narrator explains that he is invisible simply because no one sees him. One evening a white man with blond hair and blue eyes bumps into the narrator and calls him an offensive name. The narrator leaps onto the man, demanding an apology. He beats the man nearly to death, but the man continues his racist rant, refusing to apologize. The next morning, newspapers report that the man had been mugged. The narrator defends his actions, saying that he's been invisible for so long, he sometimes wonders whether he exists at all. To prove that he's real, he must "bump people back."

For a while, the narrator had lived as a law-abiding citizen, but when he realized that society didn't value or appreciate him, he went into "hibernation." Now he lives in a hidden room below an all-white apartment building. He has covered the ceiling and walls with lightbulbs, which he burns around the clock, pleased to be stealing so much electricity from Monopolated Light & Power. He listens to Louis Armstrong records at full volume and looks forward to the day when he can listen to five record players simultaneously.


The prologue is placed before the main story but takes place after the action of the novel as a framing device. It introduces the novel's main themes and conflicts as the narrator describes what his life is like and how he got to this point. The novel follows the narrator on his journey from naive youth to enlightened man. When the narrator says he's invisible, he means that he has no individual identity. When people see him, they simply see a black man, allowing their personal definitions of what a "black man is" to define him. Regardless of what the narrator says or does, society refuses to let him define himself. When he attacks the white man for calling him an offensive name, the narrator is trying to force the man to see him as a person, not as a label. When the white man refuses to apologize, the narrator almost kills him. However, he refuses to accept responsibility for his actions: "To whom can I be responsible ... when you refuse to see me?" The narrator views himself as the victim of a "blind" society that refuses to recognize him. The blond man represents the white society that "bumped me ... insulted me" and is therefore deserving of the narrator's violent response. The morning newspapers report that the white man was mugged, casting him as the victim and perpetuating the narrator's invisibility.

The narrator's living situation is also highly symbolic. He burns 1,369 lights simultaneously because "light confirms my reality." Stealing electricity is a source of pride in his invisibility. Throughout the novel light is symbolic of enlightenment and social education, whereas darkness is symbolic of ignorance. Those who refuse to acknowledge the narrator as an individual are often described as "blind" or "sleepwalking," which are simply different ways of saying that they live in the dark.

Finally, the prologue introduces the importance of jazz. The narrator listens to Louis Armstrong records, not only hearing the music but also "feeling" it. Listening to jazz allows the narrator to experience a convergence of time, as past and present mingle together in the music. The narrator describes time as a boomerang, suggesting that history is not linear but layered, coming back on itself. His riff reflects on slave history and civil rights issues without mentioning them directly, but it's clear that the novel will focus on race relations and defining black identity.

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