Ralph Ellison, one of the most famous black writers of the twentieth century, was virtually unknown as a writer when, in 1952, his novel Invisible Man won the National Book Award and made him an instant celebrity. Ellison later discovered that his father, who had died when he was three years old, had often told people he was raising his boy to be a poet.
Although Ellison has expressed doubts about Invisible Man’s enduring worth, critics have been almost unanimous in ranking it among the best post-World War II American novels. By universalizing the experience of American blacks, Ellison is often credited with having transcended more political works of social protest. The “invisibility” referred to in the title is the end result of an existential search for identity. The unnamed narrator slowly realizes that people see only what they wish to see in others and are themselves defined by concepts imposed upon them. Ellison is often quoted for having said, “I wasn’t and am not primarily concerned with injustice, but with art,” a statement that paradoxically implies that Invisible Man be read as a philosophical or aesthetic statement rather than a statement about racial intolerance. His position has inevitably invited attacks that he “copped out” and embraced an unjust establishment by not focusing his book strongly enough on the problems of racial injustice.
The story takes place in a small southern town, at the nearby college for blacks, and in New York City during the late 1930s. Although Ellison denies any autobiographical elements in the novel, the town and college are reminiscent of his own Tuskegee Institute. More important than the place is the time of the setting. The narrator arrives in New York during the rise of socialism, expecting to contribute to and benefit from the changing times. Instead, he is continually duped. He lives in a basement apartment illuminated by 1,369 light bulbs, which provide, symbolically, enough light to examine his identity but which physically would produce enough heat to destroy life. Through a mistake, the power company pays his electric bill. A cave dweller, invisible to the world, the narrator searches for enlightenment within a supposedly enlightened society.
Invisible Man’s most important theme is the individual’s quest for identity. The narrator moves from a state of ignorance to a state of enlightenment, represented by the profusion of light bulbs in his underground hiding place. He comes to see that his identity, as a black person, is wholly determined by other people’s perceptions-and that, as a result, he is invisible. Whether as a student, an employee, or a political spokesman, he is an instrument of those who would see him only as a member of his race.
As in the naturalistic novels of Emile Zola, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris, characters in Invisible Man are limited by the circumstances of birth, intelligence, and social upbringing. The naturalistic tradition raises serious questions about the existence of free will in human beings. Critics have pointed out that each turn in the fate of Ellison’s narrator is based not upon willed action but upon accidental occurrence. Only the narrator’s acceptance of invisibility seems an act of will. Also in the tradition of naturalism is the characters’ general tendency to represent types rather than unique individuals. Despite the book’s fascinating array of characters, most can be generalized: Ras is a typical back-to-Africa extremist, Bledsoe an establishment black leader, and Norton a deluded philanthropist. Invisible Man operates on a near-mythic level where the interplay of symbols and meaning creates greater insight than a work of strict realism could provide.
Of universal appeal in its reflection of the human condition, Invisible Man is deeply rooted in the social problems faced by blacks in the United States. After World War II race relations began to shift dramatically: the military was desegregated, the color barriers in sports broke down, and, in 1954, the Supreme Court made its historic ruling against racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. More than thirty-five years after its publication, Invisible Man remains a timely book because of its ongoing contributions to breaking down prejudice. Subtler than most works dealing with racial oppression, the book employs symbolism and deliberate distortions to make its points, and successfully avoids being labeled a political harangue or a simple allegory. Ellison refrains from turning any of his characters into one-dimensional paradigms of good or evil, and readers of all races can identify with the main character’s humiliations, disappointments, and anger.