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Invisible Man


INVISIBLE MAN (1952) is widely considered one of the finest examples of American literature. Written by Ralph Ellison (1914–1994) at the outset of the civil rights movement, the popular best-seller won the National Book Award in 1953.

Invisible Man is a complex and richly layered tale in which the pointedly unnamed African American narrator tells both his own story and the story of millions of others like him. The novel traces the narrator's experiences from his humiliating teenage participation in a battle royal for the amusement of white southern businessmen through his engagement in—and, significantly, his withdrawal from—the black culture of Harlem. His constant battle is one of and for identity, and it is a battle the narrator shares with millions of Americans in every time and circumstance.

Ellison's characters offer rich variations of doubling and dichotomy. Bledsoe, president of the college the narrator briefly attends, should enlighten his young black students; instead, he is just as oppressive as the surrounding white southern culture. Jack, the leader of the Brotherhood, professes the desire to express the voice of the masses, yet he cannot allow his prized orator to speak his own mind. Ras, who derides the Brotherhood's moderate tactics as a white-sponsored fraud, ends up isolated, the victim of his own radical push for the unity of all African brothers. The narrator illustrates many dichotomies within and around himself, although they are in fact universal influences: South and North, black and white, coercion and freedom, underground and exposure, darkness and light, silence and voice. The appeal of Ellison's narration lies in the fact that the hopes, disappointments, fears, frustrations, and viewpoints that he expresses resonate as strongly with the experience of any alienated group in the United States today—and those who would alienate them—as they did when Ellison published his only novel.


Sundquist, Eric J., ed. Cultural Contexts for Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1995.

Barbara SchwarzWachal

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