Invisible Man can in many ways be thought of as a coming of age novel, in which an ambitious young man attempts to rise up through a broken system that ultimately rejects him. The novel is structured into a series of hopes and dashed expectations, beginning with the promise of the unnamed university, where the narrator assumes he will model himself after the Founder. Later, in the working world and in the world of the Brotherhood, the narrator similarly invests hope in the goodwill of others, only to find his expectations and ambitious thwarted.
His experience mirrors the whole generation of young black individuals who expected that they could rise up in an increasingly equal society. The ex-doctor from the mental hospital is a reflection of these dashed ambitions. After receiving recognition in France, the ex-doctor learns that he will never be truly respected due to his race. Denied his dignity, the surgeon gives up hope of recognition and ultimately ends up as another nameless member of the asylum. His advice for the narrator is to “Play the game, but don’t believe in it.”
In the Brotherhood, the narrator finally feels as though he is beginning to achieve recognition. However, he quickly begins to discover that the actions of the Brotherhood are designed to keep him in place. Ultimately, the Brotherhood’s betrayal culminates in the race riot at the end of the novel. The narrator realizes that he has been kept out of affairs in order to help incite the riot without his interference. The narrator’s retreat into the hole represents the final stage of the narrator’s disillusionment, though on an ambiguous note.
Completely dissatisfied with all existing institutions and accepted ways of behaving in the world, the narrator says he is in “hibernation,” waiting for the time to come when he can begin to achieve his aims. By secluding himself in his hole, the narrator precludes himself from either ambition or disappointment. However, the narrator acknowledges that this is only a temporary state, one that allows him to narrate his story from a distance, but that he will soon emerge from his hiding.
Ambition and Disillusionment ThemeTracker
Ambition and Disillusionment Quotes in Invisible Man
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.