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.

Summary of Invisible Man

Key Facts

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

Ellison introduces the nameless 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.

Content Warning: Invisible Man contains scenes of violence, drug use, sexual themes, some crude language, and the use of racial slurs.

What Your Students Will Love About Invisible Man

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

Potential Student Struggles With Invisible Man

  • The racism portrayed in the novel
  • The novel's length

Learning Objectives for Invisible Man

  • Discuss the significance of the title as it relates to the narrator’s journey.
  • Explain how the novel could be interpreted as a Bildungsroman by exploring the narrator’s progression from adolescence to adulthood.
  • Analyze the ways in which Ellison uses blindness to symbolize ignorance and light to represent knowledge.
  • Discuss the conclusion of the novel in regards to the narrator’s opinions on race relations and argue whether his outlook is hopeful or pessimistic.
  • Evaluate the extent to which the protagonist’s search for identity may have a universal application to people of all races.

Literary Elements in Invisible Man

  • Allegory
  • Bildungsroman
  • Caricature
  • Foreshadowing
  • Imagery
  • Irony
  • Point of View
  • Sarcasm
  • Symbolism
  • And more!

Major Themes in Invisible Man

IdentityInvisible Man 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.

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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.

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Race — The novel explores identity through the lens of race as well as the effects of societal neglect and inequality.

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Other Resources for Invisible Man

Order Invisible Man Resources from Prestwick House

Resource Format
Invisible Man Paperback Student Edition
Invisible Man Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Invisible Man AP Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Invisible Man Activity Pack Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Invisible Man Response Journal Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Invisible Man Multiple Critical Perspectives Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Invisible Man Complete Teacher's Kit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set

This free guide was originally posted in October 2015. It has been updated as of January 2020.