Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” as told by the “invisible man” himself, is the story of a man’s quest to separate his beliefs and values from those being pressed upon him. The narrator never gives his name in the story, which is shown later to have great significance. The narrator is a well-educated black man who has been kicked out of his college, and lied to by the school officials. While wandering around Harlem searching for some sort of closure, he encounters a black couple, unjustly evicted from their home.
A crowd has gathered, also upset by the injustice, and seems to be ready to riot. Instead, the narrator speaks to them, and they rush the house systematically. This is his first true display of independent thinking and action in the story. He speaks his honest feelings to a crowd, and is backed by them. The narrator’s actions, however, don’t remain so uninhibited throughout the story. The narrator is later approached by a representative of a group called the Brotherhood, who wish for the narrator to join them as a black leader.
In the beginning his ideas are respected, but in time his superiors order him to follow their instructions, placing aside his own ideas and feelings. For a while, the narrator regresses from his independence, simply content following orders. He comes to realize, however, that he is being stifled by the Brotherhood, desiring free action once again. The narrator’s will suddenly conflicts with the will of the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood essentially wants to act more pacifistically, taking a less dangerous approach to the raging will of the black people.
Rather than rectifying the changed Brotherhood, the narrator decides to sabotage it from the inside. His actions doing this once again represent those of a strong-willed individual, rather than his previous conformist following. The effect on the Brotherhood is shown when many of their members begin to leave, empowered now to stand against the corrupted Brotherhood. The end result is a huge riot in the streets of Harlem, between different affiliations, races, and communities.
The narrator, along with his briefcase containing items of his past, is chased into a sewer during the riot. He looks through his items and realizes he has been deceived and made some poor choices in the past. He burns the items, saying goodbye to his past and embracing a new desire to understand himself, as well as his place in the world. In the story’s most important line, “I”m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole- or showed me the hole I was in… ,” the narrator realizes that none of the people he encountered ever even asked his name.
This is because they were much more concerned with themselves, and how he fit into their master plans of self-bettering. The “invisible man” has been hurt horribly, but refuses to lose life. Instead, he embraces it with both love and hatred. He understands that he has spent his life justifying the desires of others. His realizations at the story’s end set him free from the societal standards and values, allowing him to emerge victor against the world. The “invisible man” is finally visible, even if only to himself.