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Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.

Invisible Man | Symbols


Ellison uses clear, recognizable symbols to underscore the novel's themes. In particular, the meanings of popular racial objects such as the Sambo doll and the bank are considered, giving the objects deeper social meanings.

Liberty Paints

The Liberty Paints factory functions as an extended metaphor for race relations and race expectations. The most popular paint produced at the factory is Optic White, which is so pure it can cover even the blackest coal. The paint symbolically covers blackness in the same way that the narrator's education sought to hide his black heritage, or cultural "blackness." Ellison reinforces this comparison by calling the finished paint a "graduate." The fact that the paint is being sent to a national monument, however, suggests a larger theme of "whitewashing" national history by failing to acknowledge black contributions. This idea is underscored by the details of Lucius Brockway's contributions to the Optic White paint. He seemingly created the formula and masterminds daily production—"ain't a ... thing that happens down here that ain't as iffen I done put my black hands into it!"—yet he receives no credit for his work. He is confined in a hot, dirty room 3 feet (.9 meters) below ground level, despised by his coworkers, and constantly fears losing his job. Meanwhile, the white bosses, who admittedly don't understand how he bases levels of production work, get rich.

The Sambo Doll

On the surface, Clifton's dancing Sambo dolls are cheap racist images used to entertain white audiences for a quick profit. Sambo is the name for a stereotype of a subservient, lazy slave happy to serve his master. Clifton reinforces this stereotype by putting the dolls on strings, like marionettes, highlighting their inability to think or move on their own. The sight of the doll deeply offends the narrator, who doesn't yet realize that he and Clifton were both puppets for the Brotherhood. When Clifton realized that he had become "a dancing Sambo" for the organization, he cut ties and attempted to reclaim the negative stereotype, stripping it of meaning, by ironically selling the dolls for his advantage. Unable to face the reality of being an emotional slave, Clifton self-destructs.

Mary's Bank

Mary's bank is a twofold symbol. First, its grinning, coin-gobbling appearance symbolizes the narrator's identity. When he joins the Brotherhood, he agrees to do a white man's bidding without question, making himself a "slave" to the organization, which has hired him to act—"not to think." The narrator does so for money, "performing" much like the bank, which greedily flips coins into its open mouth, suffocating with greed. After the narrator shatters the bank and is unable to discard the pieces, however, the bank—like the briefcase, the chain, and the Sambo doll—becomes symbolic of the baggage of slavery, the racist stereotypes every black man faces. Despite his best efforts to create a new identity for himself—adopting a new name, a new apartment, a new suit—the narrator cannot discard the pieces, suggesting that true transformation is impossible.


Almost all of the characters in the novel—even the narrator when he is Rineheart—wear glasses, which are symbolic of their varying inabilities to recognize the narrator's struggles to identify himself. Some characters, such as Reverend Barbee and Brother Jack, are described as being blind (Reverend Barbee completely and Brother Jack in one glass eye). So is the boxer who is glimpsed only in a photograph. Characters who offer the narrator some support, or who recognize aspects of the struggle (Dr. Bledsoe, Lucius, Young Emerson, Mr. Norton, Mary Rambo), wear glasses, which suggests their impaired vision of the "truth." Those who see the world and race relations clearly (the veteran doctor, Jim Trueblood, and Peter Wheatstraw) do not wear glasses.

Questions for Symbols

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