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.

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