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.
Race and Racism Theme Icon

In Invisible Man, race is a constant subject of inquiry. As a young black man in the middle of 20th century America, the narrator most often confronts the idea of race through experiencing the racism of others – from the degradation he experiences in the battle royal to his realization of his token role in the Brotherhood. However, the novel also explores the question of whether race might be an authentic marker of individual identity, outside the context of racism and other narratives imposed by others. The narrator quickly realizes that his blackness is highly significant, but cannot easily decipher what it should mean to him.

At the novel’s beginning, a younger narrator’s take on race is relatively simple. In his graduation speech, he is happy to repeat Booker T. Washington’s words, explaining that blacks should cheerfully cooperate with the whites that are in power. As the narrator travels through the world of the novel, he meets an array of characters shaped by the complex history of race, and his views grow more complex. The most important of these figures are black, though also included are overtly or unintentionally racist whites, like the pompous Mr. Norton. Characters like Dr. Bledsoe and Lucius Brockway are characters that control their small domains within the white system but are either cynical or unaware of their compromised positions.

Many of the experiences of the novel revolve around the narrator’s acceptance of one notion of race, only to discover that there exceptions and difficulties in the ideas he encounters. For example, Ras the Exhorter offers the inflammatory message of rejecting whites wholesale. This has a seductive appeal for the narrator, despite being irrational and dangerous. Near the novel’s end, the narrator attempts to enact his grandfather’s strategy of “yessing them to death,” but his plan backfires during his fling with Sybil, the wife of a powerful Brotherhood member.

Ellison offers no solution to the complicated legacies of race. Although the narrator withdraws into his hole at the novel’s end, he still boldly states, “I couldn’t be still even in hibernation. Because, damn it, there’s the mind…It wouldn’t let me rest.” Ellison hints that the only way to find an authentic relationship with race is to puzzle it out for oneself, and only an active, individual mind can locate his own relationship with history.

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Race and Racism Quotes in Invisible Man

Below you will find the important quotes in Invisible Man related to the theme of Race and Racism.
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

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. 

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. 

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 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 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 10 Quotes

If It’s Optic White, It’s the Right White

Related Characters: Lucius Brockway (speaker)
Page Number: 217
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has taken a job in the factory of Liberty Paints, a company with the patriotic marketing slogan "Keep America Pure." The narrator's boss, an older black man named Lucius Brockway, boasts that he helped the owner of Liberty Paints devise the slogan for the white paint: "If It's the Optic White, It's the Right White." This passage reveals the extent to which white supremacy inflects all aspects of American society. Even something as seemingly neutral as paint is implicated in a belief system that equates whiteness with purity, correctness, and moral goodness. It also highlights the deep and pervasive fear of black people "contaminating" white society through integration. The fact that Brockway is proud of having invented the slogan suggests he has internalized these racist ideas, and that in his blackness he too is "invisible."

Chapter 14 Quotes

I was puzzled. Just what did she mean? Was it that she understood that we resented having others think that we were all entertainers and natural singers? But now after the mutual laughter something disturbed me: Shouldn’t there be some way for us to be asked to sing? Shouldn’t the short man have the right to make a mistake without his motives being considered consciously or unconsciously malicious? After all, he was singing, or trying to.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 314
Explanation and Analysis:

Having accompanied Brother Jack to a gathering at a luxurious, elegant home, the narrator has been inducted into the Brotherhood and given a new identity and place to live. A short, drunken man at the gathering has insistently requested that the narrator sing, which has embarrassed the other attendees, including a woman who apologizes profusely to the narrator. Although the narrator has dispelled the embarrassment with laughter, he is left disturbed by the woman's apology, as it seems to indicate a profound block in the possibility of black people and white people communicating with one another. 

The narrator's work with the Brotherhood introduces a new type of white person into the narrative. The white members of the Brotherhood seem genuinely distressed by racism, and claim to want to end racial discrimination. The narrator is astonished by the seemingly open and respectful way they treat him, but at this moment he perceives a troubling dimension to their deference. He admits that the woman is right to assume that black people resent being stereotyped as "natural entertainers," but nonetheless thinks there should be a way for the man to ask him to sing, considering the man himself was singing. In spite of––or perhaps even due to––their concerns about racism, the members of the Brotherhood are not able to communicate with the narrator as a person, instead assuming they know what he thinks without him telling them. Despite their apparent good intentions, the narrator thus remains "invisible" to them.

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.