Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, A Book Club Reading Guide

“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison

The Invisible Man opens with the main character describing himself under the city of Harlem, and invisible because people refuse to see him, not in the sci-fi kind of way.  He remembers the death of his grandfather, a quiet man, who, only on his deathbed described a great distaste for white males and advocated a sort of breakdown of the system from the inside. As the main character grows, he attends an all black college, funded by white trustees and experiences years of bad luck, from institutionalized racism. He is expelled from college, loses a job, doesn’t get a job, is dropped from the Brotherhood, and eventually finds himself at the bottom of the aforementioned city, and vows to come back above ground as soon as the time is right.
  1. What is the significance of the song, “What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue” in this text?
In the beginning of the text, there is a reference to the great Louis Armstrong, who performed this song. He was a black man, who was most popular in the 1920s/1930s for his expertise in trumpet playing and movements in the Jazz era. The Invisible Man finds comfort in listening to another black man’s music because “[Louis Armstrong] has made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he’s aware he is invisible (Ellison 8).” The lyrics describe the act of being shut out due to his color, that there is no changing a black man’s fate, that they (the collective they) were born to live differently, and he asks “what did I do to deserve this?” This is similar to the main character because this novel is central to the idea that our unnamed character  experiences, problems in life due to the color of his skin.

2. What is the significance of the Liberty Paints Plant?

Optic White paint is “…So white you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn’t white clear through (Ellison 201).” These factory’s workers are predominately black with white officials, with the purpose of creating sales for the most perfect paint color, white. With the production of the paint, ten drops of black color mixed with other fluids creates the brightest, most opaque white. Obviously, this supplies a double-meaning, the whiteness of this paint is referencing the fact that if one tries hard enough, they can cover their own blackness as if they were never black in the first place. It provides the overarching theme that whiteness prevailed during this era, that there was profit being built off the use of black workers, while simultaneously condemning them for being lazy. This act is alive and well in very limited doses today.

3. What does the theme of blindness contribute to the novel?

With the blind priest, the theme of irony is prevalent, he sang the praises of a school made for African-Americans but run by white trustees. He was present only to create a sort of credibility towards the school, which wasn’t independent from the thoughts of the trustees. Even with the presence of a school for African-Americans, there was no pride in the school, it was created for white profit and entitlement. Throughout the novel, this theme is openly discussed, as well as reiterated through the Brotherhood’s hypocritical ideals towards the main character, he is led blindly, without any motivation for himself to follow the teachings of the Brotherhood. Only at the end does the main character understand that in order to live happily, he must follow his own moral code.

4. What is the significance of the smiling coin bank?

The coin bank is a figure which takes a single coin and flips it into his mouth, he is “a very black, red-lipped, and wide-mouthed Negro, whose wide eyes stared up at me…(Ellison 319).” He represents yet another racist symbol in this book, predominantly the stereotype of blacks as money eaters with powerful facial features. The larger than life statue creates an unwelcome feeling in the main character, the face begins to look like a choking man instead of a grinning boy.

5. What is the significance of the Fourth of July?

The fourth of July represents a day of freedom in American history, but in this story, it represents the day of the riots in Harlem, first with a positive message from the Brotherhood for freedom and equality of African-Americans, but like most moments in this story, is then detrimental to the main character. The mention of freedom is then consumed by the protagonist falling into the manhole and the police covering it, which signaled the end of the novel. “Man, you lucky you ain’t dead (538).”

6. Why isn’t the main character ever named?

Honestly? This seems like an extension of the meaning within the novel, that racism removes individuality, and likewise removes the names that make us all unique. Even with the acknowledgment of the main character’s attendance in college, as a worker, and in the Brotherhood, he never is associated with a nickname, which cleverly limits the relationship between the main character and the reader. With references of the character ranging from pronouns to racial slurs, this provides a limited connection, similar to “The Old Man and the Sea.”

7.What is the significance of the closing scene?

“And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man (575).”
In the Epilogue, the Invisible Man discusses his realization that his individuality was limited by the racism others held against him. That was what kept him from growing as a person, only in the last few chapters did he become a dynamic character, only then did he learn anything. He uses the phrase “invisible man” to describe his helpful invisibility underground and towards others rather than invisible because people refuse to see him.

8. The progression of the “Invisible Man’s” memories of the statue represent?

“Then in my mind’s eye I see the bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold Father symbol, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave; and I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding (p. 36).”
Here, the main character is experiencing a new perspective from his later learnings in this novel which includes his own self-awareness, as well as the awareness of the irony of attending an African-American school funded by white men and fueled by their teachings of “civilized” actions that should(not) be replicated.

9. What did the Grandfather mean?

“Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open (16).”
In the Grandfather’s own way he describes the act of killing them with kindness. Through actions which make the African-Americans seem loyal, it actually leads to the downfall of white leadership, and theoretically, slowly encompasses African- American freedoms. In this era, the procession of living with the “head in a lion’s mouth” was a day to day occurrence rather than a willing choice. The act of busting wide open was akin to receiving freedom from acts of deception, which seemed to work.

10.Impact on the world today?

“America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It’s ‘winner take nothing’ that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many — This in not prophecy, but description (577).”
This quote applies so reverently to today’s world, it encompasses the power in American individuality from a minority’s perspective. The main character, at this point, realizes that his humanity is something only he can make for himself as well as take away. He acknowledges that outside forces, such as the Brotherhood and the college he attended, can sway his opinions, that in the end  only he can create his own morals.
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