An unnamed narrator introduces himself as an “invisible man.” He says that he is a real man of flesh and bone, and that he possesses a mind. He also states that he is invisible “simply because people refuse to see me.”
The narrator elaborates on his invisibility. He indicates that it is not a physical defect of his own, but rather a mistake of the “inner eye” of others. There is something flawed in the way they perceive the world outside themselves. He also states that there are certain advantages to remaining unseen, although sometimes he doubts if he really exists.
The narrator wishes to focus on the fact that his position of invisibility has nothing to do with his essential character, but is the product of other people who wish to recognize him as something that he isn’t—it is not his own choice.
The narrator recounts an anecdote: one night he bumped into a white man who cursed at him. Enraged, the narrator attacks him, head-butting him and demanding that he apologize. The other man continues to struggle, and the narrator nearly slits his throat. The narrator realizes that the man doesn’t even see him, and that he is like a nightmare to the man. The narrator runs off, unnerved but laughing.
The narrator’s metaphor of invisibility is related to race. Though he has not explicitly mentioned it, the anecdote confirms that the narrator is black. The narrator suggests that his blackness is the reason why the white man doesn’t recognize the narrator as anything more than a bad dream.
The narrator notes that most of his action now is done softly, to not awaken the sleeping. In this way, he siphons off power from the electric company, using it to light his hideout for free. He tells us that he lives in a forgotten section of the basement of a whites-only building. He calls his home a “hole,” and compares himself to a bear in hibernation.
The narrator has confirmed earlier that invisibility has the benefit of allowing him to act unseen. The act of secretly taking power (a simple metaphor itself) from the white power company is a sign of the narrator’s underground resistance.
The narrator has lined every surface of his apartment with light bulbs to consume as much energy as possible. He says he needs the light because he is invisible, and that it “confirms my reality.” When he is alone, the narrator listens to Louis Armstrong, who has “made poetry out of being invisible.”
The narrator recounts an episode of listening to Louis Armstrong. He is accidentally given marijuana instead of a cigarette one night, and smokes it at home while he listens to music. The experience triggers a vision, where the narrator finds himself “hearing not only in time, but in space as well.” He is drawn down into the dream of the music.
Louis Armstrong makes popular music, but it is also based in the blues. As the narrator listens, he begins to hear the layers of black history that have meshed together through time to create the complexity of Armstrong’s music.
In the vision, the narrator hears an old woman singing a spiritual, and then sees a fair-skinned woman being bid over by slave-owners. He then hears a passionate sermon being preached on the “Blackness of Blackness,” complete with call and response. The preacher emphasizes that black is “bloody” and that the sun is “bloody red.”
In his vision, the narrator sees the layers of black history that are transformed into a dreamlike sermon. The sermon tells him that “black,” skin color, and “bloody,” violence, have gone together ever since black men and women were brought to America.
The narrator tears himself away from the sermon and encounters the old singer of spirituals he heard before. The woman tells him that she loved her white master, who fathered her sons, though she also hated him. They hear the woman’s sons laughing, and the woman explains that the master promised to free them but never actually did it. She admits that she poisoned her master to keep her sons from murdering their father.
The narrator speaks with a woman who is emblematic of the confusing legacy of race in America. Her master is her oppressor, yet she is linked to him in ways that cannot be easily dissolved or repaired. She is forced to kill her master to free her children, but at great pain to herself.
The woman tells the narrator that she loved her master, but she loved freedom more. The narrator asks her what freedom is, but she tells him that she has forgotten and that “It’s all mixed up.” The woman becomes confused, and one of her sons appears and threatens the narrator for upsetting his mother. The son grabs him but lets him go. The music becomes thunderously loud, and the narrator thinks he hears Ras the Exhorter before coming out of the dream.
Despite the fact that the woman has killed her master, it is not clear if the woman and her sons are yet “free,” which prompts the narrator’s question. When the son threatens the narrator, it becomes clear that freedom may be a difficult, painful thing to ask about. The answer to the question may be difficult to accept.
Back on the surface, the narrator hears Louis Armstrong singing the words of “Black and Blue.” The narrator realizes that the music demands action, although few really listen to its message. He also notes that he has now stopped smoking marijuana, as it “inhibits action.” He tells us that he believes in action, and that his hibernation is a preparation for “a more overt action.”
When the narrator emerges from his dream, the words of “Black and Blue” have taken on the weight of America’s conflicted race relations, and they express injustices that still continue. While marijuana allowed the narrator to access these thoughts, he knows that he will have to act concretely to create change.
The narrator addresses the reader, sensing that the reader must find him irresponsible. He admits that he is, indeed, irresponsible, as someone would have to recognize him for him to have responsibility. He says he is not responsible for attacking the white man on the street, as the white man controls that “dream world” in which he has been made invisible. Finally, he asks the reader to “bear with him” while he explains how he got to this point.
The narrator here addresses a hypothetical reader that might blame him for existing injustices, claiming that he has refused to cooperate in the system. The narrator explains that because the system has never given him anything, he cannot be “responsible” for its shortcomings. Instead, he proposes that people who refuse to see the world as it is are those at fault.