Invisible Man

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Ambition and Disillusionment Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity and Invisibility Theme Icon
Power and Self-Interest Theme Icon
Dreams and the Unconscious Theme Icon
Ambition and Disillusionment Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Invisible Man, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Ambition and Disillusionment Theme Icon

Invisible Man can in many ways be thought of as a coming of age novel, in which an ambitious young man attempts to rise up through a broken system that ultimately rejects him. The novel is structured into a series of hopes and dashed expectations, beginning with the promise of the unnamed university, where the narrator assumes he will model himself after the Founder. Later, in the working world and in the world of the Brotherhood, the narrator similarly invests hope in the goodwill of others, only to find his expectations and ambitious thwarted.

His experience mirrors the whole generation of young black individuals who expected that they could rise up in an increasingly equal society. The ex-doctor from the mental hospital is a reflection of these dashed ambitions. After receiving recognition in France, the ex-doctor learns that he will never be truly respected due to his race. Denied his dignity, the surgeon gives up hope of recognition and ultimately ends up as another nameless member of the asylum. His advice for the narrator is to “Play the game, but don’t believe in it.”

In the Brotherhood, the narrator finally feels as though he is beginning to achieve recognition. However, he quickly begins to discover that the actions of the Brotherhood are designed to keep him in place. Ultimately, the Brotherhood’s betrayal culminates in the race riot at the end of the novel. The narrator realizes that he has been kept out of affairs in order to help incite the riot without his interference. The narrator’s retreat into the hole represents the final stage of the narrator’s disillusionment, though on an ambiguous note.

Completely dissatisfied with all existing institutions and accepted ways of behaving in the world, the narrator says he is in “hibernation,” waiting for the time to come when he can begin to achieve his aims. By secluding himself in his hole, the narrator precludes himself from either ambition or disappointment. However, the narrator acknowledges that this is only a temporary state, one that allows him to narrate his story from a distance, but that he will soon emerge from his hiding.

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Ambition and Disillusionment ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Ambition and Disillusionment appears in each chapter of Invisible Man. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Ambition and Disillusionment Quotes in Invisible Man

Below you will find the important quotes in Invisible Man related to the theme of Ambition and Disillusionment.
Chapter 2 Quotes

I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more fimly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has described the college he attended, an institution for black students opened by an unnamed individual described only in reverent terms as "the Founder." The narrator details the idyllic scene of the campus, including a bronze statue depicting the Founder lifting a veil from the face of a kneeling slave. As he recounts the image of the statue, he admits it is not clear to him whether the Founder is actually lifting the veil or lowering it "more firmly in place." This ambiguity is significant, as it represents the narrator's conflicted feelings not only about the college itself, but also the broader evolution of his views on racial uplift, power, and social change. 

At the novel's outset, the narrator is an obedient and enthusiastic student, who earnestly believes in the authority of figures such as the Founder, the college president Dr. Bledsoe, and the white college trustee Mr. Norton. He has faith that working hard at the college will secure him a prosperous future, and dreams of one day holding a high-powered academic position like Dr. Bledsoe. However, the events of the novel lead the narrator to question the ideology of the college and the figures who run it. He notices that Dr. Bledsoe and Mr. Norton are primarily motivated by self-interest, not a true desire to change the social status and conditions of black people. He thus comes to see the college as an institution that secures the power of a few individuals over the oppressed majority of African Americans. 


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Chapter 12 Quotes

One moment I believed, I was dedicated, willing to lie on the blazing coals, do anything to attain a position on the campus—then snap! It was done with, finished, through. Now there was only the problem of forgetting it.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has settled at Mary Rambo's house, which allows him the security of stable accommodation; at the same time, he feels lost and purposeless, because without a job or promise of return to the college it is no longer clear why he is in New York. In this passage the narrator reflects on the psychological impact of coming to terms with the fact that he will not return to the college. He is able to acknowledge that he will never go back; at the same time, his entire life had previously been oriented around securing a position on campus, and thus "forgetting" the college will not be easy. 

This passage highlights the extent to which the narrator's fate is beyond his control. Despite the zeal of his ambitions, there is literally nothing he can do about the fact that he will never be able to realize his dream of working at the college. At the same time, his words suggest that there is a kind of freedom to be found in letting go of his former dreams. He admits that he would have lain "on the blazing coals" in order to fulfill his goal, a phrase that emphasizes the extent to which his ambitions required total self-sacrifice and surrendering of agency (not to mention significant hardship and pain). By letting go of his desire to work at the college, he is able to reclaim autonomy and freedom in a similar way to the moment when he realizes he is "invisible." 

Chapter 17 Quotes

And it went so fast and smoothly that it seemed not to happen to me but to someone who actually bore my new name. I almost laughed into the phone when I heard the director of Men's House address me with profound respect. My new name was getting around. It's very strange, I thought, but things are so unreal for them normally that they believe that to call a thing by name is to make it so. And yet I am what they think I am.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 379
Explanation and Analysis:

Despite a clash with Ras the Exhorter, the narrator's fortunes overall seem to have turned, and in this passage he reflects on the success he has found in his role within the Brotherhood. Where previously he moved through New York anonymously and was often treated badly by those around him, under his new identity he finds fame and respect among the people of Harlem. The narrator experiences many reinventions of his identity over the course of the novel, a fact that confirms the impression that his true self is "invisible" beneath these various guises. This invisibility, though in many ways a curse, allows him the fluidity to assume different roles, thereby giving him a sense of freedom and allowing him to witness many different sides of society.

Once again, this passage highlights the importance of names, whose particular significance within African American communities originated during slavery. It is through the good reputation of his new name that the narrator is finally treated with respect by those around him; at the same time, the fact that he was given the name by the Brotherhood and did not choose it himself does not bode well. White people bestowing a name on a black person echoes the practice of slaveowners naming their slaves, and suggests that the narrator is of instrumental value to the Brotherhood––they have a use for him, but do not really care about him as a person. Once again, the narrator has slipped into a new identity without choosing that identity himself, thereby relinquishing his autonomy and self-definition to others. 

Chapter 23 Quotes

I began to accept my past and, as I accepted it, I felt memories welling up within me. It was as though I’d learned suddenly to look around corners; images of past humiliations flickered through my head and I saw that they were more than separate experience. They were me; they defined me.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 507
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has spoken with Brother Hambro about the Brotherhood's plan to abandon the people of Harlem, and was disturbed by Hambro's response that sometimes people need to be sacrificed for the greater good of the Brotherhood's mission. Having left Hambro's apartment, the narrator reflects despairingly on the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of the Brotherhood, and admits that Brother Jack is just as bad as Mr. Norton. Caught up in this state of rage and disillusionment, the narrator suddenly comes to terms with his past, accepting his memories and "past humiliations" as the things that constitute his identity. This is a pivotal moment in the novel in which the narrator, rather than seeking a new source of hope and reinvention, finds peace with who he is. 

In this passage, the narrator realizes that being "invisible" does not have to mean denying his past or rejecting the memories that make up his identity. In fact, reckoning with his own history gives the narrator a new perspective on life, which he likens to suddenly gaining the ability to "look around corners." This statement implies that the narrator's former naïveté was perhaps based in his refusal to accept who he truly was, a position that blinded him to reality.   

Chapter 25 Quotes

I looked at Ras on his horse and at their handful of guns and recognized the absurdity of the whole night and of the simple yet confoundingly complex arrangement of hope and desire, fear and hate, that had brought me here still running, and knowing now who I was and where I was and knowing too that I had no longer to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Dr. Bledsoe, Mr. Norton, Brother Jack, Ras the Exhorter, Young Emerson
Page Number: 559
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has found himself in the middle of a riot that's broken out in Harlem, and he has encountered Ras the Exhorter dressed as an Abyssinian chief, carrying a spear and riding a horse. Having recognized the narrator, Ras orders his men to hang him, ignoring the narrator's explanations that he is no longer part of the Brotherhood. Faced with the prospect of his imminent death, the narrator reflects on the bizarre, "simple yet confoundingly complex" situation in which he has ended up. The calm with which he confronts the prospect of death reveals a newfound sense of acceptance of the sinister and unpredictable nature of reality, and indicates that the narrator no longer wishes to control "history." 

This sense of freedom and acceptance is echoed in the narrator's admission that he no longer feels he has to run from "the Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion." The narrator's new level of wisdom and maturity is emphasized by the fact that he has given up hope of escaping power-hungry figures without succumbing to total disillusionment and despair. While almost everything he once believed about the world has been upended, he still believes in the importance of patience, wisdom, and compassion, and seems to have discovered a newfound appreciation for the "beautiful absurdity" of life in American society.