Invisible Man

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Identity and Invisibility 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.
Identity and Invisibility Theme Icon

Invisible Man is the story of a young man searching for his identity, unsure about where to turn to define himself. As the narrator states at the novel’s beginning, “All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned somebody tried to tell me what it was.” It is undoubtedly clear that the narrator’s blackness comprises a large part of his identity, although this isn’t something he has necessarily chosen. For others in the novel, it is simply convenient to define the narrator through his blackness.

Ellison’s narrator explains that the outcome of this is a phenomenon he calls “invisibility”—the idea that he is simply “not seen” by his oppressors. Ellison implies that if racists really saw their victims, they would not act the way they do. The narrator recognizes his invisibility slowly—in moments like the hospital machine, when he realizes he is being asked to respond to the question of who he is in terms of his blackness. Ultimately, the narrator is forced to retreat to his hole, siphoning off the light from the white-owned power company, itself a symbol of an underground resistance that may go unacknowledged for a long time.

However, invisibility doesn’t come from racism alone. Just as poisonous for the narrator are other generalized ways of thinking about identity—ideas that envision him as a cog in a machine instead of a unique individual. This is true for the narrator both at the unnamed black university and at Liberty Paints. However, it is the Brotherhood, a thinly veiled take on the Communist Party, that proves to be most disillusioning for the narrator. The Brotherhood provides a systematic way of thinking about the world that claims to be the solution to racism and inequality.

When the narrator first meets Brother Jack, Jack says, “You mustn’t waste your emotions on individuals, they don’t count.” At first, the narrator embraces this ideology of the Brotherhood and structures his identity around it. However, he comes to discover that the Brotherhood is perfectly willing to sacrifice him for its own potentially flawed ends. Thus the novel can be read not only as a story about a black man’s struggle against racism, but a black man’s struggle to grow up and learn to be himself, against the backdrop of intense social pressures, racism among others.

Identity and Invisibility ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Invisible Man related to the theme of Identity and Invisibility.
Prologue Quotes

I am an invisible man…I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator introduces the central concept of the novel from the very first sentence, describing himself as an "invisible man" who––despite having a body and taking up physical space––is not perceived by others because they "refuse to see" him. Immediately, this evokes the idea that because the narrator is African American, he is not recognized or acknowledged as a person in the same way that a white person would be. The narrator highlights the strange logic of this fact by pointing to the aspects of himself that are the same as any human: "flesh and bone, fiber and liquids." These basic facts constitute the human body prior to any racial differentiation, and thus indicate that the forces that render the narrator "invisible" are arbitrary and artificial. 

The narrator's statement "I might even be said to possess a mind" may allude to the fact that a major feature of racism is the idea that black people are less intelligent than white people, or that racism encourages white people not to recognize black people's internal lives and consciousnesses (minds). Indeed, it is chiefly in this way that the narrator is invisible; while other characters can perceive his bodily presence when they encounter him, they do not acknowledge the existence of his mind. In the context of the novel, this is ironic, because the entire narrative is set within and narrated from the narrator's consciousness. Unlike the characters in the novel, the reader truly "sees" the narrator, an impression confirmed by the direct, almost confessional address of the first sentence: "I am an invisible man." 

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Without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well; and to be unaware of one’s form is to live a death. I myself, after existing some twenty years, did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has explained that the "hole" where he lives is "full of light," because he manages to use energy from Monopolated Light and Power without paying the company for it. He says that this is important because without light he becomes "formless," a state of existence that is like being dead; he then confesses that he only became alive once he "discovered" his invisibility. At first glance, this passage seems to contain two paradoxical ideas: firstly, that the narrator needs light because being formless and invisible is a kind of death, and secondly, that he was not alive until he realized he was invisible. 

On closer inspection, however, it is possible to see that these concepts are not in fact contradictory. In the first sentence, the narrator is referring to the concept of being invisible to himself, and argues that if he does not have a sense of who he is, then he might as well be dead. In the second half of the passage, his focus is on his invisibility to others, and points out that before he acknowledged this was true he was not really alive. This passage therefore confirms the importance of self-possession and self-awareness.

It also highlights the necessity of not living in ignorance of the true nature of reality. Before becoming aware of his "invisibility," the narrator struggled in vain for recognition and justice. However, once he understands the way that racism renders him invisible, he is able to achieve a greater level of autonomy.

Chapter 1 Quotes

All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naïve. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which, and only I, could answer.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator begins the first chapter of the novel by confessing that all his life he has been "looking for something," and that he spent a great deal of time listening to the views of other people in trying to figure out what it was. Eventually, however, he came to realize that only he himself would be able to decide. This passage foreshadows the journey the narrator embarks upon over the course of the novel. Indeed, much of the conflict in the narrative originates in the many contradictory views of the world the narrator encounters, and his uncertainty about which path to follow.

Particularly at the beginning of the novel, the narrator places very little faith in himself, preferring to blindly trust the authority of figures such as the Founder, Mr. Norton, and Dr. Bledsoe. However, after various crises he is forced to reckon with the extent to which these figures act out of ignorance or self-interest, and comes to see his trust in them as naïve. Indeed, the narrator comes to realize that his central problem––the thing he was looking for––is his lost sense of identity, and that those he formerly looked up to in fact contributed to his lack of stable identity in the first place. The sentence "I was looking for myself" confirms how this quest for identity is related to theme of being an "invisible" man. 

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. 

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 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 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 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 20 Quotes

Why did he choose to plunge into nothingness, into the void of faceless faces, of soundless voices, lying outside history?...But not quite, for actually it is only the known, the seen, the heard and only those events that the recorder regards as important that are put down, the lies his keepers keep their power by.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Tod Clifton
Related Symbols: The Sambo Doll
Page Number: 439
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has witnessed a series of events that have made him seriously question his faith in the Brotherhood. Brotherhood membership in Harlem has dropped, Brother Tarp has disappeared, and the narrator has encountered Tod Clifton on the street selling racist Sambo dolls. In this passage, the narrator ponders Clifton's choice to leave the Brotherhood and "plunge into nothingness... outside history." His role in the Brotherhood has provided the narrator with a sense of purpose and importance, and as a result he sees the outside world as a "void of faceless faces and soundless voices." This image directly links to the condition of invisibility that the narrator eventually comes to realize is his inevitable fate.

Although he doesn't see it yet, eventually the narrator appreciates the freedom that comes with anonymity, and views the sense of identity given to him by the Brotherhood as false because it requires him to surrender his own autonomy. Furthermore, by telling his own story in his own terms, the narrator places himself within history in a way that reflects his authentic experience, as opposed to submitting to the "lies" authority figures use to stay in power. 

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.

Chapter 23 Quotes

His world was possibility and he knew it. He was years ahead of me and I was a fool…The world in which we lived was without boundaries. A vast seething, hot world of fluidity, and Rine the rascal was at home. Perhaps only Rine the rascal was at home in it.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Rinehart
Related Symbols: The Dark-Lensed Glasses
Page Number: 498
Explanation and Analysis:

After being harassed by followers of Ras the Exhorter, the narrator decides to buy a pair of dark-lensed glasses to wear as a disguise. His plan does not work exactly as intended, however, because the people of Harlem now all assume that he is Rinehart, a shady yet beloved character who variously takes on the personas of pimp, gambler, and preacher. In this passage the narrator reflects on the impression he has gained of Rinehart's life through the reactions of people who have assumed he is Rinehart. Although the narrator knows that Rinehart is a "rascal," he concedes that Rinehart's dishonesty and fluid identity allow him to experience the world as a place of endless possibility. The narrator concludes half-ironically that Rinehart "was years ahead of me and I was a fool." 

Once again, the narrator is seduced by the reinvention of identity, a process that requires a person's true identity to remain forgotten or "invisible." Although the narrator condemns the ways in which Rinehart misleads people, he has come to believe that the world is suited to such fluidity and dishonesty. Having become disillusioned with the idea that the world is either fair or predictable, the narrator admits that in order to survive in the "vast seething, hot world of fluidity," perhaps it is best to operate in the chameleon-like fashion of Rinehart. 

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. 

Epilogue Quotes

Let me be honest with you—a feat which…I find of the utmost difficulty. When one is invisible he finds such problems as good and evil, honesty and dishonesty, of such shifting shapes that he confuses one with the other…I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest. Or when, even as just now I’ve tried to articulate exactly what I felt to be the truth. No one was satisfied—not even I.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 572
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrative has jumped back to where it began, with the narrator living as an "invisible" man in his "hole." He has admitted that he accepted his present situation reluctantly, but that having understood the nature of reality, he has no other choice. In this passage he admits that he has always found it difficult to be honest, because "I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest." The truth of this statement can be found throughout the novel, from the moment when the narrator's parents urge him to forget his grandfather's dying words, to the narrator's hostile reaction to the advice given to him by the ex-doctor, to Brother Jack's harsh criticism of the narrator's emotionally genuine speech at Tod Clifton's funeral. 

In each of these instances, characters respond by immediately attacking the truth-teller, rather than pausing to consider whether what they are saying is valid. At first, the narrator reacted to this pattern by constantly seeking to live up to other people's expectations, thereby embodying the advice given to him by Dr. Bledsoe—that it is necessary to lie to white people in order to keep them happy. Later in the novel, the narrator adopts a more radical, strategic form of dishonesty by imitating the chameleon-like deceit of Rinehart. However, the narrator cannot rely on this strategy either, as in this state good and evil become "such shifting shapes" that it's impossible to distinguish one from the other. In this passage the narrator resolves to be honest with the reader, thereby highlighting the importance of giving a truthful account of one's own story.

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.