book review: invisible man by ralph ellison

"A man becomes invisible" LIFE Magazine, 1952

“His name was Clifton and he was black and they shot him. Isn’t that enough to tell?” A young man, unarmed, shot by police. A painfully familiar story is described in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, published in 1952, using words that echoes the call to “say their name” for victims of police violence today.

Winner of the National Book Award, Ellison’s first and only novel published during his life is a classic. It is celebrated for its depiction of race in America in the mid-century modern period. I chose this book for my book club for our reading series of classic novels.

The book follows the journey of an unnamed narrator from his life as a student in a historically black college in the South to a life as a laborer and community organizer in Harlem. It captures the historical migration of Black Americans from the South and rural life to cities like New York City. In this story, set around a single young man, many of the historical themes of identity are described with multi-sensory affect.

The novel moves through a long series of intensely psychological scenes of conflict, horror, and comedy where our narrator, like Alice in Wonderland, seeks to retain his agency while the ground of reality keeps shifting. A living nightmare is how it might be described, where every opportunity he has for social and economic progress is beset with the traps of racism, group think, power, and ideology.

The scenes are by no means straightforward caricatures of racist encounter, because at its core this novel is about visibility and self-discovery, about being seen and seeing into yourself. A recalibration of the formula – “for now we see as through a glass darkly, but then – but then –” trying to find the rest (p. 470).

Seeking to see face to face, is a challenge confronted repeatedly for the narrator with everyone. One moment it is the white board member of the college passing out with projections of his benevolence that blurs out the narrator. The next moment it is the black president of the college that in his blind greed for power blots out the narrator. Yet, he resists the temptation to let these external threats define him and his sense of purpose, returning to the idea that his true identity must be formed from within.

To be seen is surely also about race, but Ellison persists that it is also about collective identity and its relationship to the individual. This means the narrator encounters racism in scenes of conflict with other black people – Ellison often delays or omits physical descriptions, showing how everyone can perpetuate systemic racism when they stand to personally benefit.

However, it also shows how racism can be perpetuated by collective action. In the novel, “the brotherhood” is a progressive movement that critics say represents the communist party on account that Ellison had some personal connection to it. The narrator is recruited by the brotherhood for his brilliant speechmaking ability. He is given housing and good pay, yet the mission of the organization is shrouded in mystery and he must endure a period of indoctrination before he can get started.

That the brotherhood might be the communist party could sideline the novel’s description of a progressive organization withholding decision making, agenda setting, and ownership of resources from its black members. Do we recognize in movements and organizations today this preservation of power and property hidden behind a tightly regulated set of rules of acceptable speech?

For Ellison’s narrator, the worst thing is conformity and this is a notable insight for consideration today. There are a variety of ways to fall in line. Its on display in the scenes at the college where black identity is redefined with middle class longings and devoid of history. Its on display in the factory where the narrator is thrust into a labor union meeting. It is in the rapturous militancy of Ras the Exhorter and his uncompromising vision of black nationalism. It is in the scientific ideology of the brotherhood with its vague rules of acceptable speech.

There are a number of ways that the narrator tries to respond to the pressures to conform. He can play the game and secure himself in an indispensable position like Lucius Brockway the steampunk engineer who controls an entire factory from his perch in the basement. Or like president Bledsoe at the college who will crush anyone that’s a threat to his power. There’s even a version of playing the game that’s a type of resistance. The narrator thinks of his grandfather and his advice to “overcome them with yeses, undermine them with grins, I’d agree them to death and destruction” (p. 487)

Or he can use his invisibility, go underground and wait for the right time for when the appetite for conformity might settle. “I have stayed in my hole, because up above there’s an increasing passion to make men conform to a pattern.” (p. 550)

How long does the narrator stay underground? Well, he certainly re-emerges 60 years later as the narrator in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, published in 2015. The novel not only opens with the first lines of Ellison’s book, it hits the same themes of race in America, authentic identity, and conformity with a fire of scorching satire. In a way, I wonder, if Beatty’s book is funnier today, because the distance of time underscores the tragic crawl of this country toward justice and self-understanding.

Albeit fiction, the scenes in Invisible Man immediately seem realistic, in part because of the similarity of the stories described to events today, but also because the reader may suspect that Ellison is dramatizing the hundreds of stories of African American experience that he collected and catalogued through his employment in the Federal Writers Project – an incredible federal program that was part of the New Deal and provided work relief for 10,000 people.

I wonder how that experience conditioned the dual nature of Invisible Man. For on the one hand it has the quality of a nightmare that you just can’t escape. But on the other hand it is hopeful. Waking up seems possible and maybe imminent. And that hope, for me as a immigrant to the United States, seems to be predicated on a sense that the low things, the weakness, the broken backstories, and the divisions of this country is ultimately its strength.

Even when [the narrator] is most bitter, he makes by his tone a declaration of values and he says, in effect: There is something nevertheless that a man may hope to be.

Saul Bellow’s 1952 Review of Invisible Man

And so we may find out that the work of our civic unity is not in conformity to ideology or a set of talking points, but in accord – like separate threads braided together, or like jazz artists working dissonance intervals into pieces. In these moments we can see the whole is made up of many parts and even when they are at odds, they are together. They’re not blending into one homogeneous unity, like in the novel at the paint factory where the workers strive to produce the whitest paint.

The work of our civic unity is the sum of the lives being lived, past and present, visible and invisible. The more we follow Ellison’s work at the FWP and in Invisible Man to “recognize them and let it so remain”, the less our uncertain future will be dull and gray.

Invisible Man
by Ralph Ellison, 1952
[Amazon or Local Library]
The Sellout
by Paul Beatty, 2015
[Amazon or Local Library]

Further reading

Discussion questions

  1. What should we call the narrator in Invisible Man, recognizing that his name and not even his Brotherhood pseudonym is mentioned?
  2. How would you describe the feeling you had reading this book?
  3. The book is a series of scenes charted on the migration of our narrator as a student at a black college in the south to a community organizer in Harlem. What stood out to you as a recurring theme in this book?
  4. Which scenes stood out to you as a representation or comment on race in America?
  5. Was race the only theme in the book or were there others? Provide examples referring to scenes from the book. 
  6. Vision or sight is a recurring motif in the book. How did this motif thread the book together for you? Were there other motifs that stood out to you?
  7. In the end, how would you describe the narrator’s meaning that he is an invisible man?
  8. With all the conflict and struggle our narrator faces in the book, does the book manage an optimistic conclusion? If so, how?
  9. How would you describe the lasting impact of the book? What feels contemporary and relevant as ever? Was there a particular character that you recognized? What feels tired or dated? What makes this a classic?
  10. Did the book spur you on to research the author’s personal story or the history of the time period? If so, In what direction did your research take you?
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