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Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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

Invisible Man | Themes


Invisible Man is a deeply thematic book, and its clear message of social protest is interwoven throughout the novel's main themes. Ellison carefully crafts the themes and messages to speak for a variety of "invisible" groups, including minorities, homosexuals, and women.


The unnamed narrator wants nothing more than to be seen as an individual in a society where racist expectations label what he "should" be before he has the chance to prove anyone wrong. As a result, the narrator feels unseen or invisible. In seeking to create a unique identity for himself, the narrator repeatedly denies his true self—his culture and heritage—to create an identity that will make others proud. First, he tries to suppress his Southern heritage, then he tries to cover his "blackness" with "white manners and ideologies" while in college. In Harlem he literally takes a new name, Rinehart, only to find that this, too, pushes him further from his true self. As the narrator matures, however, he begins to see that invisibility isn't always a bad thing. When he "meets" Rinehart, for example, he learns that by donning disguises, he is able to pursue his own goals without others' expectations getting in the way. He had always believed that pleasing others would bring him success, but as Rinehart, he follows his own pleasure and creates his own rewards. It is also by being "invisible" that the narrator learns to change society. In the novel's prologue, the narrator wonders how an invisible man could be held accountable for his actions. Ultimately, however, the narrator is desperate to create a unique identity, one that will be remembered in history, which would be impossible if he remains invisible.

Racial Expectations

As the narrator tries to form a unique identity for himself, he finds that everyone else in society has an expectation of what it means to be a "black man." At college and at the Brotherhood, he is expected to embody Booker T. Washington's ideologies that "white is right," dutifully following the orders of his white leaders without question. He, and those in power, believe that obedience will bring success. In New York he is immediately identified as a Southerner who likes soul food, folktales, and jazz music. White women view him as a sexually powerful "black bruiser," whereas white men view him as a sort of Sambo (a negative stereotype of blacks based on an 1808 short story by Edmund Botsford). All the narrator wants is to be seen as an individual. He is unsure of his identity, but he knows that he wants to make a name for himself within the black community, first as a successful college student and then as a community leader with the Brotherhood. No matter the situation, however, the narrator is only seen as others label him. As the narrator attempts to move further away from racial expectations, he is frustrated to find that he moves further away from his individuality. The only way to free himself completely is to go "underground" and wait for the right time to emerge.

Slavery's Baggage

Although the narrator was born a free man, he is forced to carry the baggage of slavery's legacy with him everywhere. The "baggage" is symbolized in the calfskin briefcase the narrator wins at the end of the battle royal. Throughout the novel he fills the case with other symbols of enslavement to white men, such as the letters, his diploma, the Sambo doll, pieces of Mary's broken bank, and Brother Tarp's leg chain. Even when he is in the middle of the tenement fire, the narrator returns for the briefcase, suggesting the impossibility of simply leaving this baggage behind. It is only at the end of the novel, when the narrator chooses to plunge into darkness, that he is able to rid himself of the baggage and truly create a new identity for himself.

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