1. What makes Ellison''s narrator invisible? What is the
relationship between his invisibility and other people''s
blindness--both involuntary and willful? Is the protagonist''s
invisibility due solely to his skin color? Is it only the novel''s
white characters who refuse to see him?
2. One drawback of invisibility is that "you ache with the need
to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world" [p. 4].
How does the narrator try to prove that he exists? Does this
sentence provide a clue to the behavior of other characters in the
3. What are the narrator''s dreams and goals? How are these
variously fulfilled or thwarted in the course of the book?
4. Is the reader meant to identify with the narrator? To
sympathize with him? How do you think Ellison himself sees his
5. What is the significance of the grandfather''s deathbed
speech [p.16]? Whom or what has he betrayed? What other characters
in this book resort to the same strategy of smiling betrayal?
6. Throughout the novel the narrator gives speeches, or tries to
give them, to audiences both black and white, at venues that range
from a whites-only "smoker" to the funeral of a black street vendor
murdered by the police. What role does oratory--and, more broadly,
the spoken word--play in Invisible Man?
7. The "battle royal" sequence portrays black men fighting each
other for the entertainment of whites. Does Ellison ever portray
similar combats between blacks and whites? To what end?
8. Throughout the book the narrator encounters a number of white
benefactors, including a millionaire college trustee, an amiable
playboy, and the professional agitator Brother Jack. What does the
outcome of these relationships suggest about the possibility of
friendship or cooperation between the races?
9. What black men does the protagonist choose as mentors or role
models? Do they prove to be any more trustworthy than his white
"benefactors"? What about those figures whose authority and advice
the narrator rejects--for example, the vet in The Golden Day and
the separatist Ras the Exhorter? What characters in
Invisible Man, if any, represent sources of moral
authority and stability?
10. What cultural tendencies or phenomena does Ellison hold up
for satire in this novel? For example, what were the real-life
models for the Founder, the Brotherhood, and Ras the Exhorter? How
does the author convey the failures and shortcomings of these
people and movements?
11. Why might Tod Clifton have left the Brotherhood to peddle
demeaning dancing Sambo dolls? What does the narrator mean when he
says: "It was as though he [Clifton] had chosen...to fall outside
of history"? How would you describe Ellison''s vision of history
and the role that African-Americans play within it?
12. Invisible Man may be said to exemplify the
paranoid style of American literature. How does Ellison establish
an atmosphere of paranoia in his novel, as though the reader, along
with the narrator, "had waded out into a shallow pool only to have
the bottom drop out and the water close over my head" [p.432]? Why
is this style particularly appropriate to Ellison''s subject
13. Where in Invisible Man does Ellison--who
was trained as a musician--use language to musical effect? (For
example, compare the description of the college campus on pages
34-7 to Trueblood''s confession on 51-68, to the chapel scene on
110-135, and Tod Clifton''s funeral on 450-461.) What different
sorts of language does Ellison employ in these and other passages?
How does the "music" of these sections--their rhythm, assonance,
and alliteration--heighten their meaning or play against it?
14. More than forty years after it was first published,
Invisible Man is still one of the most widely read
and widely taught books in the African-American literary canon. Why
do you think this is so? How true is this novel to the lives of
black Americans in the 1990s?
15. In spite of its vast success (or perhaps because of it),
Ellison''s novel--and the author himself--were fiercely criticized
in some circles for being insufficiently "Afrocentric." Do you
think this is true? Do you think Ellison made artistic compromises
in order to make Invisible Man accessible to white