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Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man

This was the only novel Ellison published in his lifetime and the only novel he actually completed. It is a protest novel about the treatment of African-Americans in the United States but he does not use the protest style used by other African-Americans, such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin, rather his style comes more from existentialism and transcendentalism than social protest. The story is narrated by an unnamed African-American narrator, who is living, hidden, in the basement of a building normally rented to whites.

The narrator tells us his story. He was successful at school, being class valedictorian, though before giving his speech, the students have to entertain the white men with a fight. He wins a scholarship to a college clearly modelled on the Tuskegee Institute. While there he has to drive Mr. Norton, a white benefactor of the college, around town and inadvertently drives him to the house of Jim Trueblood, a man who allegedly has impregnated both his wife and daughter. Hearing his story makes Norton faint and the narrator takes him to a local brothel to get some whisky to revive him, where a former doctor helps him. However, the narrator is expelled from the college for showing Norton what he should not have seen. He is given several letters to take to prospective employers in New York but when they don’t contact him, he decides to insist on seeing the final recipient personally, from whose son he learns that the letters have instructed the recipients to help keep him from returning to the college.

He gets a job in a paint factory but that goes wrong when he is tricked into causing a boiler to explode. While in hospital he is given electric shock treatment and, when he gets out, he is taken in by a kindly old lady. When he helps an old couple being evicted by making a stirring speech, he is given a job as an orator with the Brotherhood, a left-wing organisation. But once again things go wrong as there is conflict between the Brotherhood and a black nationalist group, culminating in a major race riot in Harlem. He finally escape from the Brotherhood, the nationalists and others after him and ends up in the building, using the white man’s building and the white man’s electricity to illuminate it.

A simple outline of the plot cannot begin to show how significant this novel is, both in terms of its literary style and its content. Ellison brilliantly shows the invisibility of the black man in white society and the many ways in which blacks are exploited by whites. But this is not a realist novel. It has a certain dreamlike quality to it, as though the narrator was in a world that we recognise but is not the world we know. Many of the characters, including the narrator himself, are larger than life, types rather than real people. He makes extensive and fairly obvious use of symbolism, from the white paint in the paint factory to the 1,369 lights in his basement hide-out. Both from its style and its huge effect on what followed, and not just black literature, this remains one of the most important novels of the second half of the twentieth century and is essential reading.

Publishing history

First published 1952 by Random House