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.
In the tradition of the Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, the narrator is an innocent who gradually comes to recognize other people’s corruption, self-deception, and deviousness. At first he believes that others are genuinely interested in him; later he recognizes that they are looking through him to whatever preconception they have of his race. Ellison has noted that minorities in particular face this problem, losing individual identity through classification as members of a group. Blacks, of course, can be stereotyped simply by the color of their skin. The narrator, after struggling to make society recognize him, ultimately embraces the quality of “invisibility.” His experience illustrates both the dehumanizing nature of racial prejudice and the agonizing loneliness that often triggers or accompanies the search for self-knowledge.
The nameless narrator is the most fully drawn character in Invisible Man. Since the reader experiences the entire novel from his point of view, the other characters appear, ironically, as “invisible” to him as he does to them, for he, too, is incapable of looking beyond preconceptions. Continually misinformed or self-deceived, the narrator learns, through a series of revelations, that people are seldom what they seem.
The earlier parts of the book focus on Dr. Bledsoe, president of the college that the narrator attends. An “example to his race,” Bledsoe seemingly enjoys the respect of both whites and blacks. The narrator fantasizes about ascending someday to Bledsoe’s position. But Bledsoe reveals his true character when the narrator accidentally exposes Mr. Norton, a white New England benefactor, to aspects of black life that Bledsoe has spent his life concealing. Norton comically passes out when confronted with an incestuous farmer, mental patients, and prostitutes. Bledsoe is furious, for he has spent his life exploiting liberal white preconceptions about black culture in order to gain power over the very people he purports to represent.
Another fascinating character is Jack, the man who recruits the narrator into the Brotherhood, a political organization based on the Communist party. Along with the other members of the Brotherhood, Jack claims to be interested in a world of equality but is guilty of lumping all blacks into a category. His political dogma limits the scope of his vision, a fact that the narrator finally realizes in a climactic scene where Jack’s glass eye pops out. Others connected with the Brotherhood are equally guilty of stereotyping. One man thinks he understands Harlem because he married a black woman, and a woman married to an important “Brother” propositions the narrator because of notions about black males’ sexual potency.
The most sympathetic character is Mary Rambro, a boarding house operator. Kind, suffering, and patient, she does not press the narrator for money when he loses his job. Her extraordinary patience ultimately angers and embarrasses the narrator, who comes to consider her a stereotypical, impoverished black saint. Less sympathetic is Ras the Exhorter, a flamboyant militant who reveals the Brotherhood’s deceptions but is consumed by notions of total separation from or destruction of whites.
Other characters include Lucius Brockway, the narrator’s co-worker at Liberty Paints; Mr. Sparland, owner of Liberty Paints; DuPree, who decides to burn down the Harlem tenement where he lives; Trueblood, the incestuous farmer; Tod Clifton, a member of the Brotherhood who becomes disillusioned; and Brother Tarp and Brother Maceo.