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.
Ellison exhibits greater flexibility than most naturalistic writers. Invisible Man is often described as surrealistic because of the otherworldliness of certain passages. As a whole, however, the novel cannot properly be labeled surreal; its distortions are not sufficiently disorienting, and Ellison strongly evokes a realistic sense of place. His vivid descriptions of Harlem and of the black college in the South capture the corresponding realities of such places. Despite Ellison’s occasional forays into the more adventurous literary technique of the dream landscape, he keeps Invisible Man within the limits of naturalism.
Another literary device is Ellison’s frequent use of puns, allusions, and blatant symbolism to create a sense of detachment in the reader and a strong awareness of the novelist’s presence. Tod Clifton’s first name, for example, means “death” in German. In light of Clifton’s fate, Ellison’s choice of name can be considered either a clever stroke or a contrivance. Characteristic of post-modernism, such deliberately playful, self-conscious techniques do not necessarily earn Invisible Man classification as an “experimental” novel, but they do add another level of complexity to an already complex book.
Ellison’s concept of the art of writing is strongly grounded in the tradition of Western literature. Critics have identified possible influences on Ellison’s work ranging from the Russian authors whom he admired to other black American authors. One obvious literary precedent is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, in which the narrator becomes “The Underground Man” in order to distance himself from conventional society and thereby find his true self. Similarities in theme and structure create strong parallels between Dostoyevsky’s short novel and Ellison’s longer one. Further connections have been drawn with Richard Wright’s short story “The Man Who Lived Underground.” The nameless narrator of Invisible Man is clearly a descendant of Franz Kafka’s Joseph K. in The Trial, particularly in his complicity in his own abuse. Invisible Man also contains numerous allusions to T. S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” and drama Family Reunion.
Because of its subject matter, Ellison’s novel naturally draws upon the work of many American authors-among them nineteenth-century writers such as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson’s philosophy of transcendentalism, in particular, forms a foundation for the narrator’s quest for independence and his eventual acceptance of invisibility.
Ellison and Richard Wright grew to be close friends upon Ellison’s arrival in New York in 1936. The older author encouraged Ellison to write, and Invisible Man bears the strong marks of Wright’s influence. Other black Americans who influenced Ellison’s work include James Weldon Johnson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer.