Places: Invisible Man

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1952

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Late 1930’s and early 1940’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Harlem

*Harlem. Invisible ManAfrican American neighborhood of New York City’s Upper Manhattan in which much of the action takes place. The unnamed narrator lives there after the explosion of the paint factory. A surrealistic vision of the real city, the Harlem setting allows him to mix with a wide variety of people, from wealthy white women, who believe him to be a powerful, savage lover, to poor black prostitutes, who mistake him for a pimp named Rinehart. In Harlem readers see that the “invisible man” is not only invisible to whites but to fellow African Americans, as well. None of the characters, white or black, can see past racial and cultural stereotypes into the real invisible man.

Jack-the-Bear’s “hole.”

Jack-the-Bear’s “hole.” Apartment of the narrator in a white neighborhood near Harlem. Deep in the bowels of a “whites only” building, the apartment is a section of a basement that was walled off and forgotten in the nineteenth century, just as black America was walled off and forgotten after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. There the narrator steals electricity, thereby remaining invisible to the power company, and wires every inch of his walls and ceiling with more than one thousand light bulbs to bathe himself in brilliant light as he seeks knowledge about himself and his race.

State college

State college. Unnamed black college in Alabama to which the narrator wins a scholarship. Modeled on Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, the college embodies the educational ideals of Booker T. Washington, who advocated gradual progress for blacks and continued separation of the races. The college’s central fountain is broken and dry, suggesting the exhaustion of Washington’s outmoded, conciliatory policies. The college is a model community in which “model” black citizens present to white benefactors a whitewashed version of black America–a veil behind which real black life is kept hidden.

The Quarters

The Quarters. Poverty-stricken black community near the state college. There one of the college’s white founders, Mr. Norton, encounters black poverty in the flesh for the first time: People live in shacks as squalid as those from antebellum days, suggesting how little progress African Americans have been permitted to make. In contrast to the ivy-covered buildings and manicured lawns of the “show” college, the Quarters features the weathered shacks and shabby farms that typified much of southern black life in the age of widespread sharecropping and Jim Crow laws. Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the college, keeps his white benefactors from seeing the Quarters. Thus, the truth of black life remains hidden behind the veil that is the college.

Golden Day

Golden Day. Bar and brothel near the college, that is a microcosm of an insane society built on racism and hypocrisy. The Golden Day is filled with the “veterans,” patients from a nearby asylum, a group that includes World War I veterans and a variety of educated black professionals. They are considered insane because the veterans expected to return from the war to a Golden Day of full integration, and the professionals–doctors, chemists, and others–also expected to take their rightful places in society. The Golden Day and the asylum are, like the Quarters, kept carefully hidden behind the whitewashed veil that is the college, and they, too, represent hidden truths about black American life and the effects of racism.

Liberty Paint Factory

Liberty Paint Factory. New York factory in which the narrator gets his first job. There, too, he remains invisible as pro-union workers revile him as a scab and his supervisor, old Lucius Brockway, reviles him first as a spy, then as a union organizer. The enormous factory produces the whitest of white paints by adding a few drops of black pigment to each bucket, suggesting the hidden black foundations (stolen slave labor) underlying much of America’s industry and culture.

Factory hospital

Factory hospital. Medical facility in which doctors treat the narrator for injuries he receives in the paint factory explosion. They do not see him as a human being, but as a research subject, so he remains invisible even in the hospital.

BibliographyBell, Bernard W. “Myth, Legend, and Ritual in the Novel of the Fifties.” In The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Proposes that Invisible Man begins in medias res, moves simultaneously in linear, vertical, and circular directions, and offers, in its use of blues, jazz, wry humor, and a mythic death and rebirth motif, a “paradoxical affirmation and rejection of American values.”Bone, Robert A. The Negro Novel in America. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965. Takes a historical look at the development of the African American novel. Has a section on Ralph Ellison and Invisible Man.Byerman, Keith E. “History Against History: A Dialectical Pattern in Invisible Man.” In Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Sees Invisible Man as “a crucial text for contemporary black fictionists.” In each of the novel’s major phases, the college, the move to Harlem, and The Brotherhood, Ellison carefully undermines all fixed, cause-and-effect versions of history.Callahan, John F. “The Historical Frequencies of Ralph Waldo Ellison.” In Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship, edited by Michael S. Harper and Robert S. Stepto. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979. Asserts that Invisible Man’s narrator learns the essential conditions of American life to be “diversity, fluidity, complexity, chaos, swiftness of change,” anything but one-dimensionality–be it racial or otherwise. History in Invisible Man thus means metamorphosis, “many idioms and styles,” rather than the received writ of any one version.Callahan, John F., ed. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. A collection of critical essays on Invisible Man written by a variety of scholars. Includes an Ellison lecture.Gayle, Addison, Jr. “Of Race and Rage.” In The Way of the New World. Garden City, N. Y.: Anchor Press, 1975. Suggests this “picturesque novel” to be a four-part history of the “black man’s trials and errors in America.” Argues that the book’s prologue and epilogue add up to a depiction of “soul,” “the richness and fullness” of black heritage. Argues that Invisible Man, however, is to be faulted for its final assimilationism, the flaw of believing in “the path of individualism instead of racial unity.”Gottesman, Ronald. The Merrill Studies in “Invisible Man.” Westerville, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1971. A collection of essays focuses on Ellison’s thematic concerns, narrative point of view, style, and use of language in Invisible Man.Hersey, John, ed. Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. A collection of essays on different aspects of Ellison’s work. Provides a panoramic view on Ralph Ellison as an artist, a musician, and a writer. The book also includes John Hersey and James McPherson’s interview with Ellison.O’Meally, Robert G. The Craft of Ralph Ellison. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980. An excellent study of Ellison’s work. Contains biographical information about the author, a bibliography, and key references on Ellison and Invisible Man.Ostendorf, Berndt. “Ralph Waldo Ellison: Anthropology, Modernism, and Jazz.” In New Essays on “Invisible Man,” edited by Robert O’Meally. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Interprets Invisible Man through three frames: as a series of ritual transformations, as a work of modernist tactics, and as a jazz improvisation.Reilly, John M., ed. Twentieth-Century Interpretations of “Invisible Man.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970. Ten interpretations of the novel and five excerpted “viewpoints,” several of which criticize Ellison as insufficiently militant.
Categories: Places