The Prologue is an introduction to the complex narration of how one man came to recognize his own invisibility. It begins by acknowledging invisibility and proceeds to describe the state of the narrator's life as it will be after the final chapter but before the Epilogue. Thus the twenty-five chapters which follow the Prologue explain to the reader the events which put the narrator underground where he currently living.
He first describes what he means by invisible. He is not a ghost or a man with transparent skin. He is invisible by virtue of how others react to him. They do not accept his reality and thus live as though they do not see him. He gives a more direct example by explaining how he almost killed a white man whom he bumped into on the street. He continued to attack the white man as long as the man refused to apologize and kept insulting him. The narrator then realized that the man does not see him as an individual and the narrator walked away laughing at the thought that the man was almost killed by a "figment of his imagination".
The narrator takes his revenge on society in silent, unsuspecting ways, such as stealing electricity from a power company by wiring his room full of light bulbs. He resolves to cover even the floor of his underground hole with bulbs, out of spite and a desire to hold and control as much light as possible. Light is truth and vice versa, he claims. In this way, his hibernation will be warm and well lit and he will continue to be alive.
Music is another source through which he gains power in his lair. By listening to Louis Armstrong, he hopes to feel his body vibrate and to become aware of a new sense of time. He explains that when he smokes a reefer one day, the music takes on a new meaning and he sees into the spaces between time. His dreamlike state finds him asking a woman of his illusions what freedom is and her son telling him that he must learn it from himself. Until then, he blames society for his irresponsibility and admits to his own cowardice.
In the narrator's description of what makes an invisible man, he points out that the fault lies in the beholder and is a problem with the construction of the beholder's inner eye. It is important to note that he is referring to the characters, such as Reverend Barbee, Brother Jack, and himself, who will appear throughout the novel in connection to blindness, real or imagined, and how this will be a commentary on their inner eye more than a physical illustration. The other characters' perception of the narrator is skewed because they create a world in which the narrator is meant to fulfill their destinies and choices; they never ask him for input or recognize his individuality. He plays the part of the tool or the puppet so many times that he is driven to bump strangers on the street, as in the case of the blond man, simply in order to recognize his own existence in their eyes. Yet, in the case of the blond man he fails as well and runs away in the dark as he will do time and time again during the novel. Symbolically he runs from boxing ring to boxing ring, beginning with the battle royal (in the first chapter) and continuing through to his fight with the blond man. His memory of the prizefighter against the yokel is an important allegory he provides. The narrator is the yokel in the narrative who is beaten round after round until he recognizes his ability to exist outside of the scientifically categorized world he lives within, most recognizably represented by the Brotherhood. The power structure then becomes more fluid and the yokel escapes his traditional role.
The narrator thus avoids classification because he exists between it and outside of it, similar to his heightened ability to experience the time and space inside of music. He comments that he neither is dead or suspended. Instead he fulfills more of a "dead-in-living" stage which Brother Jack will advise him against in the story. Overcoming the definitions enforced upon him, he lives through the light he steals, the knowledge, which he has begun to realize is found only in himself. While smoking the reefer, he imagines a old woman who loved her slave master although he had impregnated her. The narrator finds it amazing that she has found freedom through that love and hopes to understand her definition. But her definition will not work for him and his questioning upsets her. By the epilogue, he turns those questions inward and though he does not find a definitive answer, he looks in the right place. Until that time, he will still fear the tread of Ras and Rinehart behind him, characters who he is forced to face in his narrative and who haunt him in the role he takes on afterwards. In order to conquer all of these fears, he understands the need to weave together his words and his life into a whole.
Chapter 1 Summary:
The first chapter provides quite a contrast to the novel's Prologue as the narrator takes the reader back to his experiences as a naive high school student. The chapter focuses on a gathering of the town's most influential white citizens held the day after the narrator's graduation. Because of the narrator's well-received oration at graduation, he is asked to repeat his speech at the gathering, which he deems a great honor. Upon arriving at the fancy ballroom, he learns that before his speech he must first participate in the "battle royal" to be fought by several black boys hired for the occasion. The boys are led into the main hall where the narrator is shocked at the drunkenness of many of the town's most respected members. Half naked, the boys are only part of the night's entertainment. Pushed to the front of the hall, they are brought into full view of a naked, blond woman who is expected to dance for the crowd. The incredible humiliation of the scene causes most of the boys to want to run away but they are kept in place as the white men of the group chase the terrified woman around the room. The next event of the night directly involves the narrator and other boys; they are all made to wear blindfolds and enter the boxing ring. Covered in darkness, voices from the smoky room yell jeers and taunts to the boys until they are incited to fight. The fighting becomes hysterical and crazed, though slightly less tortuous for the narrator when he maneuvers his blindfold in such a manner to allow a little vision and more control over his fights. Suddenly, however, he is left in the ring as one of the final two who must fight until one wins. The narrator is mostly concerned that he will not get a chance to relay his speech, finally deciding to just fall to the floor with one of Tatlock's punches. The boys are then taunted one last time when the white men throw gold coins onto a carpet and encourage them to grab for the money. The carpet turns out to be electrified, and a jolt is received by anyone touching a coin. The narrator attempts to grab as many coins as possible without touching the carpet and does so, almost throwing a seated white man onto the carpet by holding onto his chair leg. The narrator is then finally allowed to give his speech during which the men do not even bother to listen. Regardless, the narrator receives a scholarship at the end of the night and is so pleased that he ignores the earlier shame and the voice of his dying grandfather which continues to haunt him in his dreams.
The structure of the first chapter is a series of events told from memory with the expressed purpose of teaching the reader why later events will unfold. Not only is the chapter prefaced with an explanation of its goal but it also ends, somewhat cyclically, professing how the narrator himself did not understand the nature of the events which took place. He states that he would not make sense of the experience until attending college, thus prefacing the next chapter. With the author's intentions consciously in mind, the reader then has an easier time recognizing the weighted symbolic images involved within the chapter. The grandfather is a device used by Ellison to foreshadow heavily the rest of the novel as well as enhance the illustrations presented during the chapter. Appearing at the beginning and the end, the grandfather provides a lesson to the young narrator which his parents then tell him to ignore. The guilt of treachery that his grandfather instills in him follows him into the gathering of white men and ends the chapter haunting him in a dream that, he notes, he has dreamt often since. The experience of the gathering is the beginning of a race against himself, as the grandfather writes in the dream: "Keep this Nigger-Boy Running".
The battle royal represents the state in which the white men of the society enjoy keeping the black men, a state of darkness, confusion, and fear. In addition, the white men can vicariously live out their desire to be less civilized, as they become in reality by constructing the event and by creating a blind rage within the boys they have hired to fight. The boys are blinded by a white blindfold - an easy metaphor - which the narrator circumvents in order to approach the battle royal slightly less like an animal. Before he moved the blindfold though, he notes that he had never truly experienced darkness before and it scared him. In this manner, his invisibility is again foreshadowed as the reader knows that he will fade as a character into more darkness as the novel progresses.
The idea of invisibility surfaces most within the chapter during the speech, which the narrator has continued to practice for even in the most humiliating of moments. Increasing the hypocrisy embedded in the upright citizens gathering, the men not only fail to listen to the speech but yell to the narrator to speak up when his throat is choked by blood. Nauseated and overwhelmed, he makes the mistake of saying "social equality" instead of "social responsibility" and is almost thrown out of the room. Only by thoroughly swallowing the hypocrisy of the room and the events he has had to participate in can he finally exit the scene without further harm and in the possession of his prize. Sadly, the narrator accepts this prize as an award well worth his humiliation. He cannot yet understand his grandfather's message because he still refuses to spit out the blood and speak for himself.
Chapter 2 Summary:
The chapter opens with a description of the college which the narrator attends. The wistful illustration is given from the perspective of the later narrator speaking from his underground lair. The focus then shifts to one day in particular, Founder's Day, when the multi-millionaire trustees visited the campus. The narrator is given the honor of driving one trustee, Mr. Norton, around the school. Norton asks him to just drive since he is early for his next event. The narrator finds himself pulling off the highway onto an unknown road while Norton speaks about his interest in the school and its students. He feels that he has affected the narrator and other students' destinies much like the hand Ralph Waldo Emerson had in the fate of the African-American. He explicitly tells the narrator that he is Norton's fate and he feels as strongly as he does because of losing his beautiful, delicate daughter years ago when they were touring the world. Showing her picture to the narrator and explaining her death are actions which surprise the narrator who does not feel it is safe to open up to others in that manner. Norton continues to speak of his fate and asks the narrator to contact him once he knows of his own. By seeing the fruits of the labor he has committed to the school, Norton believes he is creating a memorial to his daughter.
Not really paying attention to where they were going, the narrator soon drives past a poor region of shacks and log cabins. Regretting going into this area, the narrator cannot stop Mr. Norton from wanting to stop once he eyes a log cabin. The cabin belongs to the sharecropper Trueblood who was recently shunned by the college for the alleged incest he committed. After telling Norton about the inhabitants, Norton demands to speak with Trueblood. Trueblood goes into his narrative as he has told the story many times before. He lay in bed a long time one night with his daughter, Mattie Lou, between him and his wife, Kate, as they always slept. He lay thinking about the boy Mattie Lou was seeing and how she was becoming a woman. Then his thoughts strayed to an old girlfriend he had when he was younger. Mattie Lou moved next to him like she is dreaming about being with the boy. Trueblood recounts that he turned away from her but could still feel her moving as he fell asleep and had the dream.
In the dream, he is looking for meat and is sent to Mr. Broadnax's house, a white man in town, to find it. Entering the house, he does not see anyone so he goes through a door into a bedroom where he finds a woman. The woman does not understand that he wants to see Mr. Broadnax and grabs him to keep him away from her grandfather clock. He throws her onto the bed were she disappears and he runs into the clock. Truebloods says he he woke up astounded by his dream and is shocked to find himself on top of his daughter, who is crying. He tries not to wake up his wife so that he will not have sinned. But Mattie Lou starts squirming and neither of them can stop moving once they start. Kate wakes up in horror, screams at him, and gets a shotgun. He talks her out of that but she drags in an ax and strikes him in the face. Trueblood leaves but decides to return and take responsibility for his actions. He learns that he has impregnated both his wife and daughter. As a result, the black community in town scorns him whereas the white community supports him more than they ever had earlier. Norton gives him a hundred dollar bill and he and the narrator leave with Norton asking the narrator to find him some whiskey as he is feeling ill.
The seemingly bucolic description of the narrator's "beautiful college" which begins the chapter is deceptive as Ellison throws in negative images to upset the balance and shadow the story with a darker foreboding sense. His tone is ironic as he mentions the path that turns off to the insane asylum or how "boys in the know" were given special treats by the gay nurses. His pure campus was truly anything but that. His irony stresses the point that his days in college were blinded. The many questions he asks concerning the reality of his memory illustrate the questionable quality of his existence when he was a student at the school. The one clear day he remembers from his college experience is the day when his world there fell apart. Driving the trustee Mr. Norton around campus, he makes an early error when he tries to suppress a burp and honks the horn. Ellison remarks on the hypocrisy embedded in Norton from the very beginning, mentioning that he has held the white man's burden for forty years. The horn blasting represents a lesson to the narrator which he refuses yet to hear: in attempting to suppress who he is, he in fact creates a larger disaster. On a larger scale, the car is also a metaphorical vehicle through which the narrator hopes to move closer to the college's heritage but which inevitably brings him further toward disaster as he tries to please the college's leaders and benefactors.
A curious moment occurs when Norton asks the narrator whether he has read Ralph Waldo Emerson, alluding to the fact that Ellison was named after the author. One can pick up from the fact that the narrator has not read Emerson that he is not in touch with the idea of self-reliance, one of Emerson's main points, nor is he in touch with the author either. He is a displaced, lost character. However, Norton is not the type of character who would be the most knowledgeable on how the narrator should spend his life and the reader is not surprised to learn that he cares about the narrator's destiny because he claims it as his own. The old faded picture of his daughter strikes the narrator not because she is beautiful as Norton claims but because of how she is presented. The appearances of Norton and his daughter trick him into giving them reverence simply based on who they are. He spends much of the ride attempting to pin down Norton's feelings and whether he was pleased with the narrator. As the narrator says himself, he "half-consciously followed the white line".
Uncovering further along this line of pretense, Jim Trueblood mentions how the white community had been surprisingly supportive after the incest. He is effective in his speech with Mr. Norton, who also rewards him monetarily for his act, because it is without pretense. His very name is suggestive, as he is true to his blood, his nature. This manner thus guilts the white community into paying off the state they have created whereas it shames the black community who does not want to recognize any who could work against their success. The narrator looks away in shame at Trueblood's audacity during the storytelling. The act of storytelling within the narrator's act of storytelling is also suggestive. Upon closer examination of the dream which Trueblood talks about, one notices that it is strangely symbolic of the entirety of the narrator's story, picking up on the themes of a race without a finish line and an awakening out of the tunnel of darkness. Symbolically too, when he wakes up, reality is worse than his illusion had been. Faced with this kind of reality, it is no wonder Mr. Norton, a trustee of the illusion, feels faint and desires liquor.