TOP SHELF: ‘Invisible Man’ and the vital reality of the self


In 1945, author Ralph Ellison, disillusioned by the leadership of the American Communist Party and of the African-American community in general, began crafting a somewhat experimental, highly symbolic novel exploring this disenchantment. The book was published in 1952 as “Invisible Man.” It went on to win the National Book Award and to be included on many lists of important English-language novels.

“Invisible Man” is narrated by an unnamed African-American man who claims to be “socially invisible” in that no one sees him as an individual, but as a receptacle for what they want or need to perceive in him. The narrator traces his life over about a decade, beginning with his outstanding performance in school. In one of the most impactful scenes, in order to be able to recite his speech on the need for blacks to be law-abiding and humble to a group of rich white men, he is forced to fight blindfolded against a group of other young African-American men while the onlookers hurl racial epithets and laugh.

The young man is given a scholarship to a college for African-Americans, but when as a junior he inadvertently exposes one of the white benefactors of the school to some of the seedier aspects of local black culture, he is expelled and shipped off to New York City with what he believes are sealed letters of recommendation, but which a la Hamlet are actually requests to cut him off from any help.

After struggling for a time, the narrator finds himself caught up in the Brotherhood, a stand-in for the American Communist Party. His considerable rhetorical skills make him a valuable tool for their ideals, so they train him extensively and have him promote the organization in Harlem.

It soon becomes clear, however, that the Brotherhood is more interested in a worsening of the plight of African-Americans in that area in order to further their goals. They are willing to see the situation devolve into chaos and riots to prove a point. The narrator, disgusted with their tactics, goes underground to escape the manipulation of others, to more clearly understand his invisibility and how to counteract it.

Ellison masterfully captures the voices of a cross section of America, and the speeches he puts in the mouths of the several orators are amazingly successful. Combining a deft use of symbolism and a nuanced realism clearly influenced by European existentialists, the author crafts a full rounded protagonist who looks upon the absurd and violent absence of meaning in the world and yet asserts the vital reality of the self.

David Bowles is a writer, educator and editor. You can contact him at