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
Identity and Invisibility Quotes in Invisible Man
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.