Invisible Man


Ralph Ellison

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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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.

Page Number: 559
Explanation and Analysis:
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: