Justification for Teaching

Invisible Man brings to light many of the social and intellectual issues facing African Americans in the 1930s. Besides dealing with racism, blacks in America at this time were also struggling with their own identity within their community. These issues included black nationalism, the connection between African American identity and Marxism, and the progressive racial policies of Booker T. Washington.

The novel is unique in that it was, especially for its time, bold and daring; the caricature-like depictions of social and political trends sparked a huge deal of controversy, but also forced people to pay attention to African American visibility —or, rather, lack thereof. Moreover, Ellison, the grandson of slaves, attended the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, which was founded by Booker T. Washington and became one of the nation's most important black colleges.

Invisible Man is a great read to help students learn more about African-American history because of its author's background and the cultural context it provides, and it would be an excellent choice to pair with a history lesson about black history and the Civil Rights Movement.


Ellison introduces the main character in Invisible Man as invisible right away, in the sense that he lives underground in a manhole, where he is hibernating. The narrator then details the rough road that leads to this character's invisibility. He meets a woman in Harlem named Mary Rambo who takes him in, and, while living with her, he is initiated into the Brotherhood, a multi-racial organization.

Eventually, the narrator learns of the Brotherhood's real intentions when race riots erupt. While running back to Mary's house, he falls down a manhole, where he has been staying ever since. The novel ends with the narrator saying that writing the story was helpful and that he is finally ready to come out of hiding.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Allegory
  • Caricature
  • Imagery
  • Point of View
  • Symbolism

Themes and Motifs

  • Identity — The novel expresses the conflicting nature of the perception of the self and the effect of society and that the true way to understand oneself is to remove other people from influence.
  • Deception — Another important theme is the discovery of truth through identifying and overpowering lies. Several characters of the novel act dishonestly, and these deceptions ultimately lead to important truths.
  • Race —  The novel explores identity through the lens of race as well as the effects of societal neglect and inequality.

Related Works

Theme of Identity


Theme of Deception


Themes of Race

Key Facts

  • Length: 581 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 950
  • Publication Date: 1952
  • Recommended Grade Band: 10 – 11


  • U.S. National Book Award for Fiction (1953)
  • Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Special Achievement Award (1992)

Your students will love:

  • The interesting events that happen along the narrator's journey.
  • The bold subject matter.

Students may have problems with:

  • The racism portrayed in the novel.
  • The length of the novel.

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