Invisible Man

Invisible Man

4.1 201
by Ralph Ellison

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Invisible Man is a milestone in American literature, a book that has continued to engage readers since its appearance in 1952. A first novel by an unknown writer, it remained on the bestseller list for sixteen weeks, won the National Book Award for fiction, and established Ralph Ellison as one of the key writers of the century. The nameless narrator of the…  See more details below


Invisible Man is a milestone in American literature, a book that has continued to engage readers since its appearance in 1952. A first novel by an unknown writer, it remained on the bestseller list for sixteen weeks, won the National Book Award for fiction, and established Ralph Ellison as one of the key writers of the century. The nameless narrator of the novel describes growing up in a black community in the South, attending a Negro college from which he is expelled, moving to New York and becoming the chief spokesman of the Harlem branch of "the Brotherhood", and retreating amid violence and confusion to the basement lair of the Invisible Man he imagines himself to be. The book is a passionate and witty tour de force of style, strongly influenced by T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Joyce, and Dostoevsky.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Vintage International
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Random House
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Chapter One

It goes a long way back, some twenty years. 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 na?ve. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!

And yet I am no freak of nature, nor of history. I was in the cards, other things having been equal (or unequal) eighty-five years ago. I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed. About eighty-five years ago they were told that they were free, united with others of our country in everything pertaining to the common good, and, in everything social, separate like the fingers of the hand. And they believed it. They exulted in it. They stayed in their place, worked hard, and brought up my father to do the same. But my grandfather is the one. He was an odd old guy, my grandfather, and I am told I take after him. It was he who caused the trouble. On his deathbed he called my father to him and said, "Son, after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight. 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 ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. 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." They thought the old man had gone out of his mind. He had been the meekest of men. The younger children were rushed from the room, the shades drawn and the flame of the lamp turned so low that it sputtered on the wick like the old man's breathing. "Learn it to the younguns," he whispered fiercely; then he died.

But my folks were more alarmed over his last words than over his dying. It was as though he had not died at all, his words caused so much anxiety. I was warned emphatically to forget what he had said and, indeed, this is the first time it has been mentioned outside the family circle. It had a tremendous effect upon me, however. I could never be sure of what he meant. Grandfather had been a quiet old man who never made any trouble, yet on his deathbed he had called himself a traitor and a spy, and he had spoken of his meekness as a dangerous activity. It became a constant puzzle which lay unanswered in the back of my mind. And whenever things went well for me I remembered my grandfather and felt guilty and uncomfortable. It was as though I was carrying out his advice in spite of myself. And to make it worse, everyone loved me for it. I was praised by the most lily-white men of the town. I was considered an example of desirable conduct-just as my grandfather had been. And what puzzled me was that the old man had defined it as treachery. When I was praised for my conduct I felt a guilt that in some way I was doing something that was really against the wishes of the white folks, that if they had understood they would have desired me to act just the opposite, that I should have been sulky and mean, and that that really would have been what they wanted, even though they were fooled and thought they wanted me to act as I did. It made me afraid that some day they would look upon me as a traitor and I would be lost. Still I was more afraid to act any other way because they didn't like that at all. The old man's words were like a curse. On my graduation day I delivered an oration in which I showed that humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress. (Not that I believed this-how could I, remembering my grandfather?-I only believed that it worked.) It was a great success. Everyone praised me and I was invited to give the speech at a gathering of the town's leading white citizens. It was a triumph for our whole community.

It was in the main ballroom of the leading hotel. When I got there I discovered that it was on the occasion of a smoker, and I was told that since I was to be there anyway I might as well take part in the battle royal to be fought by some of my schoolmates as part of the entertainment. The battle royal came first.

All of the town's big shots were there in their tuxedoes, wolfing down the buffet foods, drinking beer and whiskey and smoking black cigars. It was a large room with a high ceiling. Chairs were arranged in neat rows around three sides of a portable boxing ring. The fourth side was clear, revealing a gleaming space of polished floor. I had some misgivings over the battle royal, by the way. Not from a distaste for fighting, but because I didn't care too much for the other fellows who were to take part. They were tough guys who seemed to have no grandfather's curse worrying their minds. No one could mistake their toughness. And besides, I suspected that fighting a battle royal might detract from the dignity of my speech. In those pre-invisible days I visualized myself as a potential Booker T. Washington. But the other fellows didn't care too much for me either, and there were nine of them. I felt superior to them in my way, and I didn't like the manner in which we were all crowded together into the servants' elevator. Nor did they like my being there. In fact, as the warmly lighted floors flashed past the elevator we had words over the fact that I, by taking part in the fight, had knocked one of their friends out of a night's work.

We were led out of the elevator through a rococo hall into an anteroom and told to get Into our fighting togs. Each of us was issued a pair of boxing gloves and ushered out into the big mirrored hall, which we entered looking cautiously about us and whispering, lest we might accidentally be heard above the noise of the room. It was foggy with cigar smoke. And already the whiskey was taking effect. I was shocked to see some of the most important men of the town quite tipsy. They were all there-bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants. Even one of the more fashionable pastors. Something we could not see was going on up front. A clarinet was vibrating sensuously and the men were standing up and moving eagerly forward. We were a small tight group, clustered together, our bare upper bodies touching and shining with anticipatory sweat; while up front the big shots were becoming increasingly excited over something we still could not see. Suddenly I heard the school superintendent, who had told me to come, yell, "Bring up the shines, gentlemen! Bring up the little shines!"

We were rushed up to the front of the ballroom, where it smelled even more strongly of tobacco and whiskey. Then we were pushed into place. I almost wet my pants. A sea of faces, some hostile, some amused, ringed around us, and in the center, facing us, stood a magnificent blonde-stark naked. There was dead silence. I felt a blast of cold air chill me. I tried to back away, but they were behind me and around me. Some of the boys stood with lowered heads, trembling. I felt a wave of irrational guilt and fear. My teeth chattered, my skin turned to goose flesh, my knees knocked. Yet I was strongly attracted and looked in spite of myself. Had the price of looking been blindness, I would have looked. The hair was yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll, the face heavily powdered and rouged, as though to form an abstract mask, the eyes hollow and smeared a cool blue, the color of a baboon's butt. I felt a desire to spit upon her as my eyes brushed slowly over her body. Her breasts were firm and round as the domes of East Indian temples, and I stood so close as to see the fine skin texture and beads of pearly perspiration glistening like dew around the pink and erected buds of her nipples. I wanted at one and the same time to run from the room, to sink through the floor, or go to her and cover her from my eyes and the eyes of the others with my body; to feel the soft thighs, to caress her and destroy her, to love her and murder her, to hide from her, and yet to stroke where below the small American flag tattooed upon her belly her thighs formed a capital V I had a notion that of all in the room she saw only me with her impersonal eyes.

And then she began to dance, a slow sensuous movement; the smoke of a hundred cigars clinging to her like the thinnest of veils. She seemed like a fair bird-girl girdled in veils calling to me from the angry surface of some gray and threatening sea. I was transported. Then I became aware of the clarinet playing and the big shots yelling at us. Some threatened us if we looked and others if we did not. On my right I saw one boy faint. And now a man grabbed a silver pitcher from a table and stepped close as he dashed ice water upon him and stood him up and forced two of us to support him as his head hung and moans issued from his thick bluish lips. Another boy began to plead to go home. He was the largest of the group, wearing dark red fighting trunks much too small to conceal the erection which projected from him as though in answer to the insinuating low-registered moaning of the clarinet. He tried to hide himself with his boxing gloves.

And all the while the blonde continued dancing, smiling faintly at the big shots who watched her with fascination, and faintly smiling at our fear. I noticed a certain merchant who followed her hungrily, his lips loose and drooling. He was a large man who wore diamond studs in a shirtfront which swelled with the ample paunch underneath, and each time the blonde swayed her undulating hips he ran his hand through the thin hair of his bald head and, with his arms upheld, his posture clumsy like that of an intoxicated panda, wound his belly in a slow and obscene grind. This creature was completely hypnotized. The music had quickened. As the dancer flung herself about with a detached expression on her face, the men began reaching out to touch her. I could see their beefy fingers sink into the soft flesh. Some of the others tried to stop them and she began to move around the floor in graceful circles, as they gave chase, slipping and sliding over the polished floor. It was mad. Chairs went crashing, drinks were spilt, as they ran laughing and howling after her. They caught her just as she reached a door, raised her from the floor, and tossed her as college boys are tossed at a hazing, and above her red, fixed-smiling lips I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror and that which I saw in some of the other boys. As I watched, they tossed her twice and her soft breasts seemed to flatten against the air and her legs flung wildly as she spun. Some of the more sober ones helped her to escape. And I started off the floor, heading for the anteroom with the rest of the boys.

Some were still crying and in hysteria. But as we tried to leave we were stopped and ordered to get into the ring. There was nothing to do but what we were told. All ten of us climbed under the ropes and allowed ourselves to be blindfolded with broad bands of white cloth. One of the men seemed to feel a bit sympathetic and tried to cheer us up as we stood with our backs against the ropes. Some of us tried to grin. "See that boy over there?" one of the men said. "I want you to run across at the bell and give it to him right in the belly. If you don't get him, I'm going to get you. I don't like his looks." Each of us was told the same. The blindfolds were put on. Yet even then I had been going over my speech. In my mind each word was as bright as flame. I felt the cloth pressed into place, and frowned so that it would be loosened when I relaxed.

But now I felt a sudden fit of blind terror. I was unused to darkness. It was as though I had suddenly found myself in a dark room filled with poisonous cottonmouths. I could hear the bleary voices yelling insistently for the battle royal to begin.

"Get going in there!"

"Let me at that big nigger!"

I strained to pick up the school superintendent's voice, as though to squeeze some security out of that slightly more familiar sound.

"Let me at those black sonsabitches!" someone yelled.

"No, Jackson, no!" another voice yelled. "Here, somebody, help me hold Jack."

"I want to get at that ginger-colored nigger. Tear him limb from limb," the first voice yelled.

I stood against the ropes trembling. For in those days I was what they called ginger-colored, and he sounded as though he might crunch me between his teeth like a crisp ginger cookie.

Quite a struggle was going on. Chairs were being kicked about and I could hear voices grunting as with a terrific effort. I wanted to see, to see more desperately than ever before. But the blindfold was tight as a thick skin-puckering scab and when I raised my gloved hands to push the layers of white aside a voice yelled, "Oh, no you don't, black bastard! Leave that alone!"

"Ring the bell before Jackson kills him a coon!" someone boomed in the sudden silence. And I heard the bell clang and the sound of the feet scuffing forward.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Invisible Man 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 201 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When I first began reading this book, I admit that it was almost many pages. But as I continued I realized that the journey was necessary. It was a time that needed to be fully understood in all it's primal glory. Racism truly has permeated society. A great book and great read!
clearwatersflowafter More than 1 year ago
I read it over 10 years ago. But it is one of only a handful of books that has stayed with me for years. It significantly changed my understanding and compassion for the black experience in America. It is the descent of an man into obscurity...hidng in plain sight. The haunting images from the book of eyes passing over yours in a crowd, no hint of a recognition of shared humanity, of not being noticed, of being ignored due to preconceived stereotypes were very powerful. Mr. Ellison put into words some thoughts that hover in the background, but rarely reach consciousness.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a good read. What a tremendous journey. This was read for a class. i have to be real honest in that I have really never read anything in this style. It was stimulating, and I found myself reading every chance I had. The invisibility that was portrayed and discovered had an impact on me as a person.
prettybrowneyes More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading Invisible Man. There were odd, but meaningful characters. Ralph Ellison, wanted to explain the struggle for African Americans in both the north and the south, and how society conflicts with those issues.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Not many books can change your perspective on the world around you, or make you look at situations differently, but Invisible Man is one of them. This is one of the greatest books written, and I advise everyone to read it. This is a rollercoaster read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Everyone should read the novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison because it contains many of the ideas concerning humanity thatwe tend to think we perfectly understand, but we truly don¿t understand. This novel is good for people who don¿t know much about the horrors of the African Americans during racism. The author portrays the novel with realism that actually brings back the issue of racism rack to life. Also, the author¿s use of vocabulary and method of storytelling is very appealing to readers. The author bases his story on a main character who is invisible to the people around him, but not in reality. The author doesn¿t give this main character a name, which actually makes the reader more anxious page after page to know what happened and wonder who the main character actually is. To be truly honest, when I first seen the book, I thought it was going to be a boring book because it looked very long. However, as they say, ¿Don¿t judge the book by it¿s cover.¿ When I began to read the book, I realized that it was the total opposite of what I have thought. The book was very interesting. No matter how the book was lengthy, I forgot about it¿s long length because of the enjoyment I had when reading the book. The appealing words of the author keep its readers in contact with the book, always wondering what will happen next in the story. One interesting idea about this book is when the author mentions the end of the story is in the beginning. The novel is focused on one particular character with no name, as I said before.In reading this book, you will find out that this character tends to be naïve, in which he never finds out who he really is until the end of the book. This character does not want to be seen by the white society around him. That is because of his color. In the prologue, the author mentions that the main character lives, without paying any rent, in a basement of an apartment that is strictly just for white people. This basement was shut off and forgotten about since the nineteenth century. He doesn¿t go until the dark so no one can see him. Once he was walking and unintentionally bumped into a white man. When he bumped into him, the man called him an insulting name. The invisible man forced him to apologize. However, the man disagreed and continued to curse at him. Then the main character started to beat him and again force him to apologize. After the character beats him and takes out a knife to kill him, he realizes that the man had not seen him. The man turns out to be sleep walking in a night mare. Regardless of being naïve, the main character was very intelligent. He was a very good speaker. Because of his good speech that he once gave at a conference, he earned a scholarship to the Negroes Community College. Because of his intelligence, he was chosen to become the driver for Mr. Norton, a white man working in a job that is high in rank. Instead of showing Mr. Norton the beautiful places in his community, the main character shows him the worst of the community. The main character is not doing that intentionally he just doesn¿t know what he was doing. As he drives by an old lay and a young girl who are both pregnant, Mr. Norton asks him to stop there. Mr. Norton finds out that both the old lady and her daughter were pregnant from the same person they were pregnant from Trueblood, the girl¿s father. After finding out what happened with that family, Mr. Norton doesn¿t feel good and asks the driver to buy him some whisky. Again the narrator takes him to the worst of the community, Golden Day. Mr. Norton gets injured in Golden Day. After Mr. Norton and the main character arrive back to the campus, the director of the college finds out what happened and gets very angry. The director, Dr. Bledsoe, decides to expel The main character from the college. However, what is his fault for being expelled from the college? He just stopped where Mr. Norton asked him to stop.Was he supposed to ignore him? It wa
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is a difficult read because of all the themes and symbolism, in fact there are college course specifically on this book! If you want to get the most out of it I recommend using spark notes as a guide.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, is a great American novel that shows the uphill struggle that the African-Americans had to go though in the 20th century. Ellison uses the nameless character as a way to show the invisibility of the African-American community in the eyes of white society. Not only does Ellison tell us an interesting story of the nameless character and his journey to realizing his own invisibility, but he writes this novel with such power and brilliance that it means much more to the American society then just another novel. Ralph Ellison cleverly uses motifs and symbols in Invisible Man in order to¿ Motifs are reoccurring themes in a novel, such as the motif of blindness and invisibility in Invisible Man. This use of motifs is seen early in the novel when the narrator is involved in a rumble for the entertainment for the white men in his neighborhood. Ellison cunningly has the narrator and the rest of the members of the rumble become blindfolded by a white piece of cloth. All of the boys are blinded by the white cloth and can not see what they are doing. ¿¿allowed ourselves to be blindfolded with broad bands of white cloth.¿ This passage of the novel can be seen as the boys being blinded by the white influence over them and can not see their own potential as human beings, but instead they are blinded by the whites and treated as animals. The Founder¿s statue at the college has empty eyes, signifying his ideology¿s stubborn neglect of racist realities. Blindness also afflicts Reverend Homer A. Barbee, who romanticizes the Founder, and the narrator himself. This is another masterpiece that Ellison adds in his novel. Ellison makes the Reverend who praises the founder of the college and Mr. Bledsoe blind because he is trying to point out that he is blind in seeing that the founder and Bledsoe are holding the African-Americans back from reaching their ability to do great things. The narrator himself experiences moments of blindness, such as in Chapter Sixteen when he addresses the black community under enormous, blinding lights. ¿¿ stretching away in a curve, I could see rows of blurred faces-then suddenly I was blinded.¿ In each case, failure of sight is a symbol for the lack of insight. The smell of cabbage presents itself periodically throughout the novel to represent poverty. Whenever the narrator encounters the aroma of cabbage it reminds him of the low class upbringing he experienced as a child. ¿Cabbage was always a depressing reminder of the leaner years of my childhood¿¿ Ellison once again shows his brilliance, in having a simple food mean more to the narrator then just a piece of food. When Mary serves the narrator the cabbage it occurs to him that he can not turn down the offer that Brother Jack gave to him earlier in the novel. Ellison has the narrator come to this conclusion in this chapter because the cabbage reminds the narrator of the poverty that the black community is facing and that he needs to try and change their fortune. The Liberty Paints plant is used as a complex symbol in Invisible Man as a way for Ellison to portray his statements about race in American Society. The plant¿s name itself is fascinating with the use of the word ¿Liberty¿ because the American society uses the word ¿liberty¿ to mean freedom. However, no freedom can seen inside of Liberty Paints, in fact only racism can be found embedded in the workings of the paint plant. Ellison uses the paint factory to make his thoughts about racism very clear, in his own way. The optic white paint that the factory is famous for is created by using a small amount of black chemicals that becomes invisible once it is mixed with other ingredients. The briefcase that the narrator keeps carrying around with him is also a symbol that Ellison uses to perfection. The briefcase purpose in the novel is to symbolize the identity of the narrator, along with all the belongings that he places inside. The briefcase was given to him by the white
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was coerced into reading this book as a college sophomore. At least, that was my view at first. However, I am astounded at the power of this book -- the power to take your consciousness totally into a character without ever knowing his name (or the alias he was later assigned). A powerful book for anyone with even a passing interest in race relations or in great literature. Ralph Ellison most certainly deserves the recognition of having written one of the best books of all time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book was among the best i read. i think that anyone interested in reading for fun should try this book. its a great book that changes a boy into a man, in my perspective. this would be ideal for someone to enjoy even if you dont really like to read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a great book about a black boy who survives in a white world. The struggles that he went through is the same of my experience of today. Reading this book shows you the everyday life of many African Americans people, and what they go through in life.
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The Invisible Man was something I would never expect. The story was a huge adventure that took place everywhere. The book is about the narrator’s personal life and never speaks of his own name. The narrator meets a lot of people and he really sees who is actually there for him. He deals with a lot of situations with Norton and at one point in time, he’s not even living in his own home. The narrator is a very generous, caring person. The narrator almost gets killed several times risking his life for people he cares about. Also he really is a “go with the flow” kind of person. My favorite part of the book is when some girl has an affair with him and he almost gets caught in the act with her husband. Luckily, the narrator doesn’t get caught and he easily gets away without the husband finding out. At this point, I thought the narrator is a straight pimp. But then again, the narrator still doesn’t even know who he is as a person. The story begins in the south and ends up in New York. What really amazed my mind was when there was a huge riot and Clifton ends up getting killed. The brotherhood was very devastated and takes it out on the narrator. They make him do a protest speech and another riot breaks out and something very detrimental happens, and I can’t say what happens. The book was really worth reading and it has a very shocking ending. I recommend this book to everyone!  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
GingerSnapp More than 1 year ago
This book was so compelling that I had trouble not thinking about it at times when I was working, and I could hardly stop reading to go to sleep at night. I recommend it highly.
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This book is so sexy
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RiceLS More than 1 year ago
The narrator is an African American man who has worked diligently to become an integral member of a free society. He listens and follows instructions carefully so that he might learn how to join himself to this new equality. He even submits to humiliation from those in power in order to gain a college scholarship to a "state college for Negroes. "The narrator is academically successful and very positive about his future. He envisions using his learning and success to contribute to the betterment of society. Unfortunately, by following instructions and being truthful he unwittingly allows a white trustee of the college to see the reality of black life in the South. For this, his scholarship is rescinded and he is expelled. The college director is furious and says to him: "Why, the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows that the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie! What kind of an education are you getting around here?" The shamed and confused narrator packs his bags and moves to New York City. Here he plans to earn enough money so that he might return to college and again work toward that goal of true societal equality. The narrator's persuasive speaking style brings him to the attention of The Brotherhood, a mixed race group that purportedly champions equality for all. He becomes a Brotherhood spokesman and believes he has found likeminded individuals. Over time, the narrator again discovers that he is a pawn in a larger agenda that has nothing to do with equality or the betterment of society. It is at this point that the narrator decides to "hibernate" and disassociate himself from the chaotic and senseless society in which he has found himself. He is tired of trying to make a difference in a world in which the rules, and even truth, seem to change at the whim of the powerful.
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