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.
Power and Self-Interest Theme Icon

Throughout the novel, the narrator encounters powerful institutions and individuals, all of which are bent on maintaining influence over events. At the novel’s beginning the narrator is exposed to the white power elite of his town, who act one way in the public eye but have no shame about their racist and sexist actions within a private club. The very moment they sense a threat from the narrator (when he mentions the word “equality”), they prepare to destroy him. These men arm themselves with the story that they are upstanding businessmen and community leaders, but this narrative is in contradiction with their naked desire to maintain power.

The Brotherhood is one of the best examples of another group that uses a powerful narrative that seems to perfectly explain the world. By suggesting that all events are part of a science of history that can be perfectly understood, they seek to impose their subjective vision on others who buy into their philosophy. However, this ideology is flawed: although the Brotherhood is originally interested in combating oppression, it is clear that characters like Brother Jack come to relish their power above any other altruistic motive.

The black community is no freer from the self-interested drive to consolidate and maintain power at all costs – only they are limited by white oppression. Dr. Bledsoe is an example of a figure the narrator looks up to, only to find out that he is more interested in holding onto the enclave of power he has carved out than in the ideals of humility and cooperation he espouses in public. Later, the figure of Rinehart comes to represent a similar impulse within the black community: a cynical attempt to profit in the short term by exploiting the ignorance of others.

He is a pimp, gambler, racketeer, lover and preacher all in one, but only because he can rely on the weakness and desperation of other members of the black community. At the novel’s end, the narrator remarks, “I’ve never been more loved or appreciated than when…I’ve tried to give my friends the incorrect, absurd answers they wished to hear.” By retreating into the underground, the narrator hopes to distance himself these stories that destroy individual integrity while shoring up power structures.

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Power and Self-Interest Quotes in Invisible Man

Below you will find the important quotes in Invisible Man related to the theme of Power and Self-Interest.
Chapter 1 Quotes

I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country…Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.

Related Characters: The Narrator’s Grandfather (speaker), The Narrator
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has admitted that he once felt ashamed of the fact that he was the descendant of slaves, and then came to be embarrassed of that very shame. He recalls the dying words of his grandfather, who he describes as an "odd old guy" who "caused the trouble." On his deathbed, the narrator's grandfather announced that "our life is a war" and that he considered himself a traitor and a spy; he advised the narrator's father to "overcome 'em with yeses... agree 'em to death and destruction." The narrator goes on to explain that this advice was highly unexpected, as his grandfather––a former slave whom the narrator describes as quiet and meek––never seemed interested in disrupting the status quo. 

Although his parents urge him to forget his grandfather's dying words, the narrator is profoundly shaken by them, and identifies this moment as the catalyst for the later events in the novel. Indeed, a major motif in the novel is the tension between appearing to resist racist power structures, and actually doing so. Characters such as the narrator's grandfather and the ex-doctor at first seem passive and compliant; however, they are then revealed to be "troublemakers" by rebelling from within the system, and encouraging others to do the same. Meanwhile, characters like Dr. Bledsoe and Brother Jack present themselves as fighting against subordination, when in fact they are motivated by self-interest. 

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Chapter 2 Quotes

I didn't understand in those pre-invisible days that their hate, and mine too, was charged with fear. How all of us at the college hated the black-belt people, the "peasants," during those days! We were trying to lift them up and they, like Trueblood, did everything it seemed to pull us down.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has been tasked with chauffeuring Mr. Norton, a wealthy white trustee of the college, and per Mr. Norton's request has driven them to a nearby area where the poorest members of the local black population live in shacks. The narrator refers to these people as "the black-belt people, the 'peasants,'" and recounts that everyone at the college––including himself––hated, feared, and resented them for supposedly thwarting their efforts to uplift the race. Once again, the narrator divides his understanding of the world into before and after his realization that he was invisible, and characterizes his "pre-invisible days" as being characterized by naive faith in the transformative power of the college and fearful misunderstanding of poor black people. 

Indeed, this passage shows the complex and contradictory nature of the narrator's feelings toward the impoverished "black-belt people." He claims that he hated and feared them, while at the same time embodying a patronizing, paternalistic attitude by saying "We were trying to lift them up." This highlights the incoherent nature of the college's relationship to poorer black people, a relationship that directly echoes Mr. Norton's attitude toward the college. As this chapter shows, Mr. Norton is both fascinated and repelled by black people. Although his support of the college is supposedly motivated by altruism, his conversation with the narrator reveals the extent to which he is actually acting out of self-interest, as he believes that his own fate is directly implicated in the fate of black people. 

Chapter 6 Quotes

The white folk tell everybody what to think—except men like me. I tell them; that’s my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about.

Related Characters: Dr. Bledsoe (speaker)
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

Dr. Bledsoe has scolded the narrator for taking Mr. Norton to the poor black neighborhood and to the Golden Day. When the narrator protests that he was just obeying Mr. Norton's wishes, Dr. Bledsoe exclaims that every black person should know that the only way to please white people is to lie. He goes on to rant about his own power, claiming that white people "tell everybody what to think" except men like himself, who tell white people how to think. This passage radically alters the narrator's understanding of Dr. Bledsoe. Unlike the narrator himself, who willingly obeys white people such as Mr. Norton, Dr. Bledsoe collaborates with white people in a strategic way, making it seem as though he is submitting to them when in fact he retains control by lying to them and manipulating them into thinking how he wants them to. 

Or at least, this is what Dr. Bledsoe claims. While it is certainly true that Dr. Bledsoe has been able to secure a degree of power for himself, over the course of the novel the narrator comes to view Dr. Bledsoe's claims about the extent of his influence over white people as somewhat delusional. Despite his statement about telling white people what to think, in reality Dr. Bledsoe must behave in an outwardly subservient way to white people in order to retain his position as president of the college, and thus remains "invisible" in the same way as the narrator and other black characters.

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. 

Chapter 22 Quotes

Our job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them!

Related Characters: Brother Jack (speaker)
Page Number: 473
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has delivered a powerful speech at Tod Clifton's funeral, but one that he knows did not emphasize Brotherhood ideology enough to satisfy the members of the Brotherhood. Sure enough, he has been called into a meeting during which Brother Jack and Brother Tobitt criticize and ridicule the narrator for his speech and tell him that he doesn't truly understand the situation in Harlem. Brother Jack informs the narrator that he was "not hired to think," and goes on to say that the role of the Brotherhood is not to ask people what they think but to tell them. These words are directly reminiscent of Dr. Bledsoe's claim that he tells white people what to think, highlighting the similarity between the power-hungry figures of Brother Jack and Bledsoe. 

This passage is the first time in which the Brotherhood's authoritarian, paternalistic nature is explicitly revealed. Thus far, members of the Brotherhood have described the organization as radically egalitarian, but Brother Jack's statement reveals that this is false, and that members of the Brotherhood, like so many other characters in the novel, only really care about having power over others. Once again, it is black people (in this instance, the population of Harlem) who are particularly targeted and whose agency and autonomy is denied. 

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. 

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.