Invisible Man - Themes

The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is a novel which embodies the universal theme of self-discovery, of the search to figure out who one truly is in life which we all are embarked upon. Throughout the text, the narrator is constantly wondering about who he really is, and evaluating the different identities which he assumes for himself. He progresses from being a hopeful student with a bright future to being just another poor black laborer in New Your City to being a fairly well off spokesperson for a powerful political group, and ultimately to being the "invisible man" which he eventually realizes that he has always been. The deepest irony in this text is that for a significant portion of the story, the narrator is unaware of his own invisibility, in believing that others can "see" him, he is essentially invisible to himself. Only through a long and arduous journey of self-discovery which is fraught with constant and unexpected tragedy and loss does he realize the truth, that his perceptions of himself and of how others perceived him had been backwards his entire life. The story opens with the narrator participating in a "battle royal" prior to delivering a speech on humility, and on the progress of the Black people. These are the days during which he is still a hopeful scholar, defining himself as a "potential Booker T. Washington." At this point he is living the life that others have told him that he should live, and defines himself as he believes he is seen through their eyes, as an icon of what a Black person can achieve when they put their minds to it, and as a role model for his people. The abuse and degradation which he is put through in the battle royal give him the first inklings that everything is not as it seems, but fail to do anything to change the narrator's perceptions of himself. It is quite possible that if given the chance, the narrator may have gone on living the life that society had preselected for him, and never realized his invisibility, but fate had other plans for him. His entire life was thrown into disarray the day that he was assigned around Mr. Norton, a powerful white man and founder of the school which he was attending. The narrator made the mistake of taking Mr. Norton through the old slave quarters, and at Norton's request, brought him down to converse with Jim Trueblood, a man who, in the midst of a dream, had raped and impregnated his own daughter. The conversation they had left Mr. Norton very shaken, and caused him to pass out. Afraid that Norton would die and wanting to do anything that would save him, the narrator brought him into a local brothel called the Golden Day to get him some whiskey. Mr. Norton ended up recovering fully, but when news of what had happened reached Dr. Bledsoe, the narrator was permanently expelled from under the pretext that he would be allowed to return after one year had elapsed. Deeply shaken by this turn of events but far from broken, and taking hope in returning to school after a year, the narrator heads to New York City armed with seven letters from Dr. Bledsoe addressed to some prominent white people which he believes will help him in attaining a job. This couldn't be further from the truth however, and upon delivering the seventh letter, he is informed that the letters state that his expulsion has been permanent, and that the men which he has been referred to will do nothing other than "help him continue in direction of the promise which?recedes ever brightly and distantly beyond the hopeful traveler," in short, that all they will do is keep him chasing after a false hope. It is here that the narrator sees that his dreams of being the "next Booker T." will go unrealized, and that he may never return to the life which he has abandoned. This is also where he begins the journey to finding his true identity. Following a tip from the son of the seventh addressee, the same person who revealed the true contents of the letters, the narrator takes a job at a paint factory, but ends up caught in a furnace explosion on his first day. At the factory hospital, he