The unnamed first person hero of Ellison's novel leads the reader through the progression of events which follow the scene set by the Prologue, allowing us to see into his thoughts, yet never telling us his name. As his life unfolds, the reader watches him bounce from one group to another, from college to a paint factory to the Brotherhood, where each time he is "included" in the group. As he moves through each group, he always takes on another anonymous name. Only towards the end is he finally able to throw off all of his cloaks of blind acceptance and conciliation. The state of the autonomy he finds is echoed in the underground life which binds the story in the Prologue and the Epilogue. Through the narrator, the reader becomes familiar with the other characters who shape and mold his attitudes, justifying his philosophic self-explosion at the end of the novel.
The character who most fills the narrator's thoughts and fuels his fears throughout the novel is his dead grandfather. Dying with bitter words on his lips, the narrator feels his grandfather has never understood humanity but cannot help but be haunted by his words and the meaning which seemed to flow from them. Irked that he seems to be acting in accordance with his grandfather's wish to "yes" the white men to death, the narrator imagines that his grandfather is laughing at him. The narrator's dream in which the grandfather prophetizes that the narrator will be kept running surfaces many times in the narrator's later life as he realizes that he has been blindly running from himself all of his life.
The man announcing the scheduled activities at the battle royal at which the narrator is forced to box, scramble for electrified money, and then give a speech to the most renowned white men of his town is the M.C. The M.C. takes on the quality of a circus ringleader by coercing the boys to move from one showcase of entertainment for the white audience to another.
The narrator is left to fight Tatlock one on one as he does not realize the other boys have left the ring of the battle royal. Tatlock is the biggest of the boys and refuses to fake punching the narrator out when asked. When the narrator finally falls at one of the punches, Tatlock wins the prize. He later resurfaces in the narrator's thoughts as he comes to symbolize blind, brutal strength.
The man who invites the narrator to the hotel to deliver his speech without giving him any foreknowledge of the battle royal, he is blamed most by the reader for the humiliation which follows. After the narrator gives his oration, he presents the boy with a leather briefcase in which he finds a scholarship to the state college for Negroes. So pleased by the scholarship, the narrator holds no resentment toward the superintendent.
One of the old, rich, white benefactors of the narrator's college, he is driven around by the narrator when he visits. He believes he has created a positive future for the black students of the college and the black race in general. He shows real interest in hearing Trueblood's story and in the lives of the mental patients at the Golden Day when the narrator is forced to stop at these places along their drive. He stands up for the narrator when he is punished by the school for his treatment of Mr. Norton on the drive, but to no avail. The narrator looks back on Mr. Norton more and more as part of the artificial system represented by the college. He faces him in person one last time in the Epilogue where Mr. Norton can only act alarmed and confused.
Admired originally by the narrator, the college president has a much different public and private persona. Publicly he accommodates his white benefactors, however privately he is manipulating their interests in order to further his means and those of the college. He expels the narrator for showing Mr. Norton dangerous aspects of the school's environment, sending him to New York with letters to future employers. His intention is to trick him into staying away from the school forever.
A poor black sharecropper who lives near the college with his family, he falls into disgrace shortly before being visited by Mr. Norton and the narrator. Jim's story is that during a sexual dream, he somehow ended up pushing himself onto his teenage daughter sleeping next to him. Impregnating his wife, who comes close to killing him for the crime against their daughter, and his own daughter, Trueblood stays with his family to support them. He is surprised by the increased generosity the whites of the town show him after the incident.
Mattie Lou Trueblood
Trueblood's daughter, Mattie Lou is impregnated by her father.
Trueblood's wife, she first tries to shoot him and then uses an ax to strike him in the face. She finally resolves to live with him as he will not leave and promises to support them.
The owner of the brothel/gambling house known as the Golden Day, he refuses to give the narrator a drink to bring out for Mr. Norton but administers to him inside. He tries to keep order in his establishment but will only go so far to help the narrator out when Mr. Norton loses consciousness.
A giant black man, he is the attendant supervising the mental patients present at the Golden Day. Without his uniform on, however, he is not able to keep control of the group. The patients sense his lack of power and attack him, knocking him unconscious.
Never given a name, he is a doctor who attends to Mr. Norton after Mr. Norton faints during the attack on Supercargo at the Golden Day. Seemingly sane at first, he increasingly alarms the narrator and Mr. Norton by touching upon the "invisibility" of the narrator. He is also on the bus the next morning as the narrator leaves the school for New York. He has been transferred due to his conversation with Mr. Norton. During the ride, he predicts the open yet innately hidden life the narrator will continue to lead in New York.
A moving orator, he speaks at the chapel to the members of the college and visiting trustees. His speech centers around the founder of the college and the greatness of his vision which he and Dr. Bledsoe have attempted to continue. Described as buddha-like, the orator intensifies the narrator's deep love for the college, making it even harder to deal with his fate of expulsion. Barbee is blind.
The attendant who accompanies the vet doctor on the bus where they meet the narrator. He refuses to support or encourage any of the vet's claims.
Ras the Exhorter/Destroyer
Taking primarily the first title, but the second as the story progresses, Ras is the main black opponent to the Brotherhood whom the narrator has to deal with in Harlem. He espouses his beliefs loudly in the streets of Harlem, claims to be from the West Indies, and calls the narrator a traitor for not militantly supporting his race against the white establishment. He is first viewed when the narrator enters the city but becomes a much stronger force once he has joined the Brotherhood and stands in opposition to him. His supporters try to beat up black Brothers on numerous occasions and his tactics become more extreme as the book progresses. Once the brotherhood pulls its support out of Harlem, his power grows until he leads a race riot on horseback in the garb of an Abyssinian chieftain. As the Destroyer on this night, he orders for the narrator to be hanged. In primitive response, the narrator throws a spear at him which cleaves through his jaw.
The last potential employer whom the narrator has a letter to give from Dr. Bledsoe, Emerson is scheduled to meet with the narrator about a job. Upon arrival at the office, the narrator is intercepted by Emerson's son who reads the letter to uncover the cruel trick which Bledsoe has organized: the letter says not to hire the narrator. Disillusioned by its contents, the son tries to talk the narrator into going to another college but only frustrates him. Finally, he shows the narrator the letter. The son feels his position is worse than the narrator's however, since Emerson is his father.
The narrator's first boss at the Liberty Paints plant, Kimbro is called the "terrible" and "Colonel" by the employees. He gives the narrator the job of mixing in the last ingredient of their famed white paint, but does not stand for questions or hesitations. When the narrator is confused by one of his snappy orders and make a wrong decision, Kimbro is angry and passes him on to another part of the plant.
The next boss at the plant, Brockway is used to working alone, filling the job of engineer by virtue of his having worked at the factory for so long and knowing it so well. He is paranoid that the narrator wants his job and explodes when he learns that he has been to a union meeting, even if by accident. Brockway attacks him and the narrator fights back, fending him off. Because of the lapse of attention to his job during the fight, Brockway blames the narrator for the overheated boilers and laughs when running out just before they burst.
Interviewing the narrator upon his exit from the plant's hospital, he notifies the narrator that he can no longer work at the plant. He reminds the narrator of the hypocrisy he found at the college and is asked by the narrator if he knows Mr. Norton and Dr. Bledsoe.
Mary steps into the narrator's life after he leaves the hospital and is feeling faint. She takes him to her house until he feels better and offers him a place to stay permanently. Mary is a strong, independent woman who feels that it is very important that the narrator do something significant to further his race. Even when he cannot pay the rent, she continues to care for him, cook for him, and encourage him. After he must leave her to join the Brotherhood, the narrator often refers to a pull that he feels back to Mary's house whenever he is in a time of need.
The consummate, white leader of the Brotherhood, he first approaches the narrator because of his rallying speech at the scene of an eviction. Once the narrator agrees to join the Brotherhood, Jack ushers him into his world, giving him a new home address, a new name, and a job to arouse and lead the people of Harlem through the teaching of the Brotherhood. The strong hand of control that Jack wields only gives the narrator necessary information. He heads up the committee of the Brotherhood which twice interrogates the narrator on choices he makes. His hold over the narrator falls away when he admits to him that he is not meant to think. After this point, the narrator sees Jack as the head of another oppressive monster of which he must free himself.
Jack's well dressed, handsome mistress, Emma holds a coveted position and is one of the first to introduce the narrator into his new lifestyle at the Chthonian Hotel. She is indiscrete in asking Jack if the narrator is black enough to fulfill the role they want for him within his hearing distance.
This brother is a teacher whom the narrator is sent to for the first few months of his new employment in order to train in the ways of the Brotherhood. He is later revisited when the narrator is called back to take on the problems in Harlem with a broader, more vague agenda. Hambro's lawyer mind cannot satisfy the narrator at this point in the narrative, however, as he can only provide narrow, scientifically based answers formed by the committee apart from real life as the narrator has begun to see it.
Older but very dedicated to the Harlem chapter of the Brotherhood, Tarp is quickly liked and trusted by the narrator. He can rely on Tarp to answer any questions or concerns he has of the area. Tarp also can trust in the narrator and entrusts with him a chain link that he broke off to escape from a chain gang to which he had been bound to for nineteen years. The narrator keeps the link with him at all times.
The leader of the youth of Harlem, Clifton becomes a friend and mentor of the narrator after a quick fear of his being a rival. Clifton is tall and handsome and very influential in his district. He often gets into disputes and clashes with Ras the Exhorter, who feels that he is a traitor to his black race. Clifton strangely disappears from the Brotherhood while the narrator is away from Harlem. He is discovered by the narrator to be dishonorably selling dancing, paper Sambo dolls in the street. He is senselessly killed when trying to resist arrest by police for his street selling. The narrator uses this murder to rally the people of Harlem around his funeral, but is later chastised by the Brotherhood for highlighting a man who would be caught in such a degrading act. The race riot also has Clifton's name incited as a reason behind it.
Identified by the narrator as a meddler, Wrestrum criticizes many of the narrator's leadership qualities. The first committee interrogation that the narrator is called into is started by Wrestrum who claims he has given a biased interview, highlighting himself and not the Brotherhood. Though the committee finds no real veracity in the claim, his actions result in the narrator being moved temporarily downtown to speak on the Woman Question.
Another character never named, the married white woman he meets at his first lecture on the Woman Question invites the narrator back to her home for drink and discussion. Seductively, she moves him into her bedroom and is not phased by her husband returning home later in the night. The narrator remains paranoid after leaving her and feels that the Brotherhood may know and could use this affair against him.
After returning to Harlem, the narrator is disappointed to find that Maceo has not been to the Jolly Dollar Bar for awhile. Once the movement in Harlem begins to pick up again he too returns. He fails to recognize the narrator when he is wearing the sunglasses and hat that resemble the dress of Rinehart and they almost get into a fight.
The owner of the Jolly Dollar, he is instrumental in defusing the tensions when the narrator returns to the bar after his sojourn downtown. He also kicks the narrator out of the bar when Maceo and other customers think that the narrator is Rinehart, saving them from a fight.
A Brother on the committee, he speaks up during the interrogation of the narrator concerning Clifton's funeral. The two are at odds as Tobitt feels he has greater liberty to speak from a black perspective since his wife is black, and uses this to arrogantly argue with the narrator over his motives.
An apparently cynical, manipulative member of the Harlem community, the narrator never meets the actual Rinehart. By wearing dark green shades and a big hat for a disguise, people in the streets recognize him as the man Rinehart. Through their perceptions of him, the narrator sees how Rinehart has taken on the conflicting identities of zootsuiter, player, and Reverend in order to manipulate as many people as possible. He opens the narrator's eyes to a new meaning of identity and cynicism.
Chosen as the woman the narrator hopes to get information out of, Sybil does not know much of what her husband George thinks on Brotherhood matters. She is an easy choice for the narrator because she was a lonely, misunderstood married woman who was often quite tipsy at Brotherhood functions. Sybil becomes very drunk when they meet and tries to coerce the narrator to rape her as she has always fantasized.When he is called uptown for a Brotherhood crisis, he tries to send her home but she shows up on the street corner in Harlem before he is finally able to convince her to leave.
The man leading a group of men during the rioting in Harlem at the end of the novel, Dupre's biggest plan is to set fire to the apartment building they and their families live in. Once the narrator joins their group, he leads them into looting the materials needed for the fire and carries out the building's destruction.
The member of Dupre's group who helps the narrator when he is nearly shot in the riot, he is the narrator's closest connection to the looting men.Scofield sticks by the narrator through the plan to destroy the building, but loses him when the narrator returns to the building for his briefcase. The narrator calls him his friend.
Convincing his wife to stay in the middle of the riot, his words jump out at the narrator who is finally able to put the event of the day and of the way in which he has run his life into perspective. The narrator realizes that he has been a tool of the Brotherhood.
Invisible Man Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Invisible Man is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.