Invisible Man

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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.
Dreams and the Unconscious Theme Icon

Dreams and other unconscious influences play an important role in Invisible Man. Much of the novel depicts a society that is hostile to individual expressions that resist preconceived notions of how people should speak or act. Sometimes, however, repressed feelings come through, and some of the novel’s most powerful moments are expressed in dream sequences that weave together the complicated strains of race, history, and memory. In the Prologue, the narrator has a dreamlike vision of listening to Louis Armstrong, an episode that takes him down progressive levels into the history of slavery. The narrator attempts to convey the generations, pains, struggles, and actions that led to Louis Armstrong to sing the way that he does. A dream can do more than most exposition to unlock emotions or connections that society doesn’t want to see.

The narrator’s dream of his grandfather’s last words is one of the novel’s most consistent reference points. This underscores the idea that his grandfather’s words are themselves like a dream –enigmatic, suspended in a complex fabric of ideas and associations the narrator cannot completely unravel. Similarly, Jim Trueblood’s dream is another complex narrative that illustrated the tangled race relationships, suggesting that images and emotions persist long after any intellectual attempt to change situations, a fact that stuns the ignorant Mr. Norton when he hears Trueblood’s story.

Many of the novel’s scenes are described in a dreamlike, almost improvisatory fashion that seems to fade in and out of realistic description. For instance, the “battle royal” at the beginning of the book is more like a nightmare or extended dream sequence than a realistic description of an event that might have occurred in the time period of the novel. These unreal “real” scenes give Ellison room to expose the hidden emotional aspects of a situation that a “normal” depiction of society would hide.

Dreams and the Unconscious ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Invisible Man related to the theme of Dreams and the Unconscious.
Chapter 3 Quotes

Already he’s learned to repress not only his emotions but his humanity. He’s invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, the most perfect achievement of your dreams, sir! The mechanical man!

Related Characters: The Ex-doctor (speaker), The Narrator
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has taken Mr. Norton into the Golden Day, a local black bar in which a group of "shell-shocked" WWII veterans are drinking. Mr. Norton passes out, and one of the veterans, an ex-doctor, helps the narrator to revive him. Once Mr. Norton regains consciousness, the ex-doctor speaks to him with a frankness that alarms the narrator; in this passage, the ex-doctor responds to the narrator's distress by commenting on the narrator's repressed, submissive character. By telling Mr. Norton that the narrator is a "perfect achievement of your dreams," the ex-doctor highlights a new interpretation of Mr. Norton's real motivation for investing in the college—he implies that Mr. Norton's "dream" is in fact to have greater control over black people. This contrasts with the narrator's understanding of Mr. Norton at the time, though over the course of the novel the narrator comes to agree with the ex-doctor's perspective.

This is also the first instance when a character other than the narrator uses the term "invisible." The ex-doctor clearly views the narrator's invisibility as a symptom of his "mechanical" obedience to Mr. Norton, implying that the narrator's submission to white authority has robbed him of autonomy and humanity. The narrator's use of the word "invisible" is subtly different; while rooted in the same concept that black people are "invisible" because white people refuse to recognize their agency, the narrator believes that this is an inherent condition of being black in a racist society, and not the result of mechanically acquiescing to the will of white people. 

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Chapter 11 Quotes

A tremor shook me; it was as though he had suddenly given a name to, had organized the vagueness that drifted through my head, and I was overcome with swift shame. I realized that I no longer knew my own name. I shut my eyes and shook my head with sorrow.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 239
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has awoken in a hospital after having been tricked into causing an explosion at the factory by Brockway. His experience of the hospital is muted and surreal, and he has described the white doctors making racist comments and suggesting strange and cruel ways of treating him. One of the doctors asks the narrator what his name is, and at this moment the narrator is overcome by a mental and physical "tremor" that quickly transforms into shame as he realizes he does not remember his name. This passage highlights the way in which racism causes the doctors to treat the narrator in a degrading way, using electroshock therapy when it was totally unnecessary.

The fact that the treatment has caused the narrator to forget his name is significant. During slavery, Africans transported to the US were not allowed to keep their names, but were given Western, Christian first names and were forced to use their master's surname. The legacy of this practice is an important part of African American history; without their names, slaves were not able to define their own identity or preserve their own lineage, leaving their descendants unable to trace their ancestry to the particular regions and tribes of Africa where their ancestors originated. It was also a way of denying slaves the right to retain individual identity, thereby violating one of the most fundamental aspects of their humanity. The fact that the narrator has forgotten his name because of the cruel mistreatment of white oppressors shows that this American "tradition" is far from dead.

Chapter 16 Quotes

This was a new phase, I realized, a new beginning, and I would have to take that part of myself that looked on with remote eyes and keep it always at the distance of the campus, the hospital machine, the battle royal—all now far behind. Perhaps the part of me that observed listlessly but saw all, missing nothing, was still…the dissenting voice, my grandfather part; the cynical disbelieving part—the traitor self that always threatened internal discord.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), The Narrator’s Grandfather
Page Number: 335
Explanation and Analysis:

Brother Jack has taken the narrator to a boxing arena in Harlem where he is to give a speech. The narrator waits nervously, reflecting on the role he is expected to perform as part of the Brotherhood and uneasily admitting that, although he is largely willing to trust the Brotherhood, "the traitor self" inside him threatens to ruin this new beginning. Note that the narrator describes this side of himself as inherently oppositional rather than opposed to any particular ideology or group. Indeed, this "dissenting voice" is a threat first and foremost to the narrator's own peace of mind. 

It would be wrong, however, to characterize this aspect of the narrator's personality as needlessly cynical. Over and over again, the narrator encounters individuals and groups of people who demand his obedience––from the white boys at the "battle royal" to Dr. Bledsoe to Lucius Brockway to the Brotherhood. Each has a different motivation for wanting the narrator to submit to them, and some seem genuinely invested in his wellbeing. However, in every case, surrendering his autonomy eventually leads the narrator to a bad situation; thus, although the narrator resents the "dissenting voice" for causing "internal discord," he is ultimately right to trust it. Over the course of the novel it becomes clear that it is this dissenting voice that allows the narrator to retain a sense of his own identity and humanity.

Chapter 20 Quotes

Men out of time, who would soon be gone and forgotten…who knew but that they were the saviors, the true leaders, the bearers of something precious? The stewards of something uncomfortable, burdensome, which they hated because, living outside the realm of history, there was no one to applaud their value and they themselves failed to understand it….What if history was a gambler, instead of a force in a laboratory experiment, and the boys his ace in the hole?

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 441
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has witnessed Tod Clifton be murdered by the police, and has stumbled in a state of shock into the subway. He observes the people around him, who don't care about the Brotherhood and who the narrator judges to be "men out of time, who would soon be gone and forgotten." During this part of the novel, the narrator undergoes a crisis of faith in the Brotherhood. On the one hand, the ideology of the Brotherhood depicts history as akin to "a force in a laboratory experiment" that can be accurately predicted and manipulated, and thus membership in the Brotherhood gives the narrator a sense of control over history and makes him believe that he can change the racist, unjust society in which he lives for the better. 

However, the narrator's increasing distrust in the Brotherhood is accelerated by witnessing Clifton's murder. He begins to doubt whether history can be controlled; the frenetic and unpredictable events of his life seem to suggest that history is more like a "gambler" than a scientific force. The narrator is also troubled by the evident irrelevance of the Brotherhood to most ordinary people in Harlem. Although he at first judges the men he is observing to be inconsequential, he then wonders if they are in fact "the true leaders" of society, and whether it is the Brotherhood (and therefore also the narrator) who is in fact inconsequential.

Epilogue Quotes

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 581
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has explained that, despite all that has happened to him, he has accepted his own humanity and is still able to love, and that he is now ready to emerge from "hibernation." He reflects on his reason for writing his story, and imagines the reader reacting in a negative way to his explanation, criticizing the narrator for being attention-hungry. He refutes this position and in the final sentence of the novel suggests that "on the lower frequencies" he might speak for "you," the reader.

There are a number of ways to interpret this sentence. "The lower frequencies" may refer to the narrator's life on the fringes of society; perhaps he is referring to his mission to give a voice to the experience of being oppressed as a black person in America. At the same time, the "you" in this sentence could be anyone, and "the lower frequencies" perhaps refers to the fundamental humanity that all people share––even those who do not want to admit it. The narrator may be implying that while on the surface he is "invisible," beneath this lies the truth of his consciousness and authentic identity. The sentence is further complicated by the fact that the narrator uses the phrase "speak for you" as opposed to "speak to you." The novel is filled with moments in which certain characters speak for other characters, thereby denying these other characters their right to self-determination and agency. However, in the final sentence the narrator suggests that their is perhaps a better way for people to speak for one another, by articulating genuine emotional truths about human experience.