Ellison uses the trope of invisibility in this novel that traces the Invisible Man’s journey from idealism to a grim realism about the racism that confronts him every step of his way. Every episode ends with the Invisible Man’s escape from near disaster, brought about by his naiveté and the virulent racism in which he must function. By novel’s end, the hero is living clandestinely in the basement of a large building, burning hundreds of lights at the expense of the electric company, and planning for an eventual re-emergence.


This brilliant novel captures multiple aspects of the U.S. reality for African-Americans and does so by "changing the joke and slipping the yoke," as Ellison has said. By bringing into the novel references and allusions to American writers and thinkers such as Walt Whitman, Thomas Jefferson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others, Ellison’s text compels readers to rethink bedrock notions of democracy and justice. While we see the Invisible Man oppressed at every turn, we also see him resist and outsmart his oppressors.

Especially relevant to medicine is Chapter 11, in which the Invisible Man has been involved in an explosion at the Liberty Paint Factory. This act of sabotage by his co-worker comes about as a result of suspicions that he is involved in the union (which he is not). Having been taken to the factory hospital, the Invisible Man awakens to hear the doctors talk about him and the merits of their treatment: "The machine will produce the results of a prefrontal lobotomy without the negative effects of the knife . . . . [The patient] will experience no major conflict of motives . . . and society will suffer no traumata on his account."

They submit him to shock therapy, pronouncing him cured when they think he can no longer remember his name, his mother’s name, or who Brer Rabbit is. Of course, he does remember the icon of resistance and trickery, but, like the rabbit, does not let the doctors know.

This section allows readers to look at abuses of medicine and the problematic proposition that to erase identity in the cases of certain "others," is to "cure" them. At the same time, it is useful in seeing the incomplete knowledge the doctors have of the efficacy of their cure, as the Invisible Man’s survival skills and intelligence outwit their machinations.


First published: 1952


Random House

Place Published

New York



Page Count