Invisible Man

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Rhyme royal (rime royale)

A stanza of seven 10-syllable lines, rhyming ABABBCC, popularized by Geoffrey Chaucer and termed “royal” because his imitator, James I of Scotland, employed it in his own verse. In addition to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, see Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “They flee from me” and William Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence.”
Alexandrian: In English, a 12-syllable iambic line adapted from French heroic verse. The last line of each stanza in Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain” and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To a Skylark” is an alexandrine.
Lesson 1:

Students will:

  • Read and discuss the novel Invisible Man
  • Write an essay on the theme of the personal experience of invisibility.
  • Examine their own communities to bring to light groups that might be considered “invisible”.
  • Connect personal experience to an understanding of larger societal structures.


In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison wrote about the experience of being ignored, bringing to light a powerful meditation on race and social structure. This novel was included in the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century, in the top 20. Being an outsider, being outcast, being ignored – all are feelings most people can relate to. Ellison related this personal experience to a greater societal structure, using characters and imagery to do so. In this lesson plan, students will use similar tools to explore the theme of invisibility in the book, in their own lives, and in their communities.


  1. Read & discuss
    Start the first discussion with the following quote from the novel:

    “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.” (Ralph Ellison)

    2. As you go through the novel, discuss each major character and how he or she interacts with the protagonist. How does the character see or not see the protagonist? How does the protagonist see himself in these situations? How does his “invisibility” affect this character? What are some of the strategies he uses to deal with it?

    3.Upon completion of the novel, return to the quote about invisibility. Hold a discussion in which the students sum up the ways in which the main character is seen and not seen. They can refer to their learning journals to refresh their memories.

  2. Essay project
    When and how in your life have you felt invisible? Encourage them to explore why they felt that way, and what strategies they used to handle the situation. (See Student Organizer 1)This could be a homework assignment, but it would be a good in-class writing exercise as well. Writing in-class for 30-45 minutes may help students bring up fresh ideas on the subject.
  3. Group project
    The final component of this lesson is a group project where students identify a group of people in their own community that might be seen as “invisible”. Start by leading a discussion on how, in Ralph Ellison’s novel, the personal experiences of a fictional character ripple outward, describing greater social conditions in a very vivid way. The students can discuss their own essays, sharing examples of how a personal feeling of invisibility can be part of a larger social structure.Next, have them break up into groups of 3-4 students. Each group will select a group that they see as socially “invisible”. Circulate among the groups to help them make an appropriate selection. Some examples might be: people who work at night, homeless people, stay-at-home mothers, children, the elderly, or a particular ethnic group that lives in the community.Once the topic is selected, the project group will create a multimedia essay “revealing the invisible.” This might be done as a posterboard project, incorporating photos, magazine cut-outs, short essays, poetry, quotes, and drawings. If you have the facilities, this would be a great Web project, with each group creating their own “Revealing the Invisible” Web page. See Student Organizer 2 for more information on the assignment.

Students will be assessed on the quality of their participation in class discussions and in the group activity, and as well as on the quality of the essay and the final group project. Students can also assess one another for the group activity. Points should be given for understanding of the more abstract aspects of this lesson, i.e. invisibility as an element of societal structure.

Extension Activities

    • Connect this lesson plan to other American Masters lessons to develop the theme of “what makes an American Master.”
    • This could be part of a larger study of African-American literature.
    • Students could write and perform a play on the subject of invisibility in their own community.
    • This topic could be the foundation for a literary project, such as a themed collection of poetry and short fiction.
    • This lesson could be extended to include taking action to address and assist one of the groups brought to light by the class. You could bring in community leaders to talk about the social actions being taken on behalf of that group, and to help students formulate an action plan of their own.
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Invisible Man Reading Group Guide

About this guide
The questions, topics, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading and discussion of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. We hope that they will provide you with new ways of looking at—and talking about—a book that is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest American novels of the second half of this century.

From the moment of its publication in 1952, Invisible Man generated the impact of a cultural tidal wave. Here was a pioneering work of African-American fiction that addressed not only the social, but the psychic and metaphysical, components of racism: the invisibility of a large portion of this country’s populace and the origins of that invisibility in one people’s willed blindness and another’s habit of self-concealment.

But Ellison had created far more than a commentary on race. He had attempted to decipher the cruel and beautiful paradox that is America, a country founded on high ideals and cold-blooded betrayals. And he sent his naive hero plunging through almost every stratum of this divided society, from an ivy-covered college in the deep South to the streets of Harlem, from a sharecropper’s shack to the floor of a hellish paint factory, from a millionaire’s cocktail party to a communist rally, from church jubilees to street riots. Along the way, Ellison’s narrator encounters the full range of strategies that African-Americans have used in their struggle for survival and dignity—as well as all the scams, alibis, and naked brutalities that whites have used to keep them in their place.

In his prose, Ellison managed to encompass the entirety of the American language—black and white, high-brow and low-down, musical, religious, and jivey—and reshape it to his own ends. In Invisible Man he created one of those rare works that is a world unto itself, a book that illuminates our own in ways that are at once hilarious and devastating.

For discussion
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 book?

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 protagonist?

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 matter?

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 readers?

Suggestions for further reading
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time; Amiri Baraka, The System of Dante’s Hell; William Burroughs, Naked Lunch; Nathaniel Hawthorne, the stories “Young Goodman Brown” and “My Kinsman, Major Molyneux” in Twice-Told Tales; Langston Hughes, The Ways of White Folk; James Weldon Johnson, Memoirs of an Ex-Colored Man; Norman Mailer, An American Dream; Thomas Pynchon, V., Gravity’s Rainbow; Ishmael Reed, The Free-lance Pallbearers, Mumbo Jumbo; Voltaire, Candide; John Edgar Wideman, Sent for You Yesterday, Philadelphia Fire; Richard Wright, Native Son, Black Boy.

For historical background:
Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land; The Autobiography of Malcolm X; Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination; and The Viking Portable Harlem Renaissance.

About Ralph Ellison
Read an author bio and view a complete list of titles by Ralph Ellison available from Random House here.