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Invisible Man (1952)

by Ralph Ellison

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
15,731203318 (3.99)1 / 672
  1. 30
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  2. 10
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  5. 00
    Small Island by Andrea Levy (tcarter)
  6. 00
    Black and Conservative by George Samuel Schuyler (M_Clark)
    M_Clark: This very cynical novel takes place during the same time period as "The Invisible Man" and provides additional perspectives on race during the post WWII years.
  7. 00
    This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (aspirit)
    aspirit: Describes the life a modern African woman to contrast with that of the historical African-American man. Similar tone.
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1940s (29)
1950s (40)
AP Lit (236)
My TBR (106)

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» See also 672 mentions

English (195)  Spanish (3)  Portuguese (Portugal) (1)  Norwegian (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (201)
Showing 1-5 of 195 (next | show all)
Well done story of a not pleasant life. ( )
  mykl-s | Aug 12, 2023 |
An incredible book. It's so densely packed with symbolism, themes, motifs, and existentialist monologues, that it was a pretty tough read, and I think I missed a lot of it. However, what I did pick up on, was very powerful. The exploration of racism, identity, and blindness were incredible. The first half of the story was a struggle for me to get through, but once the narrator joined the brotherhood, things were starting to click into place a bit more.

The end of the book, with the shooting of Clifton, and the race riots, were depressingly reminiscent of our current times in America, showing us just how little progress we've made. ( )
  Andjhostet | Jul 4, 2023 |
37. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
OPD: 1952
format: 596-page paperback (1995 edition)
acquired: February 2022 read: May 7 – Jun 12 time reading: 18:29, 1.9 mpp
rating: 5
genre/style: Classic novel theme: Richard Wright sorta
locations: Manhattan, circa 1930s? or maybe post-war.
about the author: 1913-1994. American writer and critic from in Oklahoma City, mostly famous for this novel.

What a monster of a book, laying out long gangly arms every which way, rolling as it wants, until suddenly there is structure and its slowly locks into a reality, and then stays there a long time, but not entirely. It pushes a little surreal one way, a little the other, wobbly between literary states. Ellison uses American communism to work his ideas of racism, blindness, and the truth of conformity as an argument used for power grabs. But it's gloriously complex while staying completely within reach. Long, wandering, and very powerful. Not sure what I expected, but this was certainly richer and more rewarding than whatever I imagined.

A plot summary, it opens in the present, with famous opening lines:

"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of 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."

We never learn the man's name, or names. But after setting his underground Manhattan situation, he reflects back on his history, attending a Jim Crowe era southern black college, and being expelled for mishandling a white trustee's visit. Arriving and stumbling through Manhattan and especially Harlem. He becomes the spokesperson for a lightly disguised equivalent of the communist groups active in New York in the 1930's. Communists were the first only non-all-black group of this era to openly recruit black members and support black issues and equality. Most of the book is about his role in this organization, how they use him and he uses it, how he learns and manages his community. But his success brings unexpected responses and lessons. It's here, where equality is preached, racism and blindness stand out so clear, and incontrovertible. In many ways, this world falls apart.

This is a demanding, but smart, creative and rewarding 5-star read.

https://www.librarything.com/topic/351556#8169193 ( )
  dchaikin | Jun 18, 2023 |
Romanzo di importanza storica eccezionale, narrazione forte e violenta, cadenzata da una struttura a episodi (coincidenti con i capitoli) che spezzetta e rende ancora più simboliche le singole vicende. E, per quel che conta, uno dei più bei libri che io abbia mai letto. ( )
  d.v. | May 16, 2023 |
There are some great scenes here, most notably the riot scene late in the book, and much that is shockingly contemporary in this seventy year-old novel. How about this line in light of the current moment in American history, spoken by an African American man in the process of burning down his own apartment block? "Goddamn you sonsabitches. You didn't think I'd do it but there it is. You wouldn't fix it up. Now you see how you like it." One gets here a taste of the inside story of being black in early twentieth-century America. Some of the stereotyping the protagonist faces as a black man cuts deep into America's id, above all the rape-fantasy scene. At every turn, the protagonist is held back by realities and legacies of racism from getting on by following his own lights. He is by turns a baited bear; a fighting cock; a credit to his race - in white eyes, so long as he sticks to the script; a disgrace to his college for exposing a white donor to people the black establishment is ashamed of; a medical guinea pig; a tool of a cynically biracial political operation; a sexual fantasy; and ultimately, because of all these, unable to provide productive leadership to avert a riot of looting and burning.

But this book is not only an exposé of the African American experience: the writer gamely challenges mindsets of people black and white alike. Check out the character of the conniving black college dean and enjoy the acid takedown of Booker T. Washington-style accommodationism. It questions avenues the author saw black people taking to get ahead: pander to white benefactors? "yes them to death" but remain a secret "spy" for self-respect? be an essential and admired cog in a white man's machine? be all things to all men, but a fake? This brave book teaches how stereotyping harms the real people who are its objects, but has much more to say beyond that. It broaches feelings of contempt in an African American seeking to rise through education but foiled by a white benefactor's encounter with embarrassingly "degraded" African Americans in the country just outside the purlieus of the black college. It dissects and critiques the failings of the diverse ways in which African Americans had tried to get on in America. Curiously, the nascent Civil Rights movement is absent though.

But, taking the book as a novel, I was bothered by the way the narrative did not quite gel in terms of causation and motivation. What was the effect on the protagonist of the shock-treatment electric lobotomy? Why did the Brothers think he would make a good member based on his street-speaking when his speech was a confused mess? I preferred the more realist chapters over the dreams and fantastical plot-points like the paint factory explosion. The theme of the ingenuous revolutionary exploited by cynical Marxist plotters (see also: Arthur Koestler, Graham Greene) has lost its relevance today (Fox News fans may disagree). Least satisfying was the philosophizing and psychology of "invisibility", which the title would suggest it was the author's prime concern to communicate. Opting out of society, indeed living in the sewers, because you cannot bear for other people to see in you what they have learned to see, rather than the individuality and complexity of who you really are, seems more like despair than an answer. What is to be done to live well in a broken society? Perhaps the author meant precisely that a practical answer to African America's predicament was not known. We make our own history, but not in circumstances of our choosing, if I may paraphrase one of history's "gods that failed".

The author nods towards absurdism and existentialism, suggesting something universally human in the black predicament of living a life trammeled by history, hatred, fear, and the manipulations of others, rather than as truly free. Like the pigs who seem as men in "Animal Farm", the protagonist sees all his manipulators, both black and white, "merge into one single white figure. They were very much the same, each attempting to force his picture of reality upon me and neither giving a hoot in hell for how things looked to me. I was simply a material, a natural resource to be used." The broken system had broken everybody, black and white, who tried to fix it. At the end, even the white benefactor, who invested in the protagonist his hopes for changing the world, is lost and decrepit. How many of us is the last line aimed at? "It is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" ( )
  fji65hj7 | May 14, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 195 (next | show all)
"Invisible Man" is tough, brutal and sensational. It is uneven in quality. But it blazes with authentic talent.

» Add other authors (65 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ralph Ellisonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Callahan, JohnIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Goyert, GeorgÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
James, Peter FrancisNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Johnson, CharlesPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Morton, JoeNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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"You are saved," cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; "you are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?"

--Herman Melville, Benito Cereno
HARRY: I tell you, it is not me you are looking at,

Not me you arre grinning at, not me your confidential looks

Incriminate, but that other person, if person,

You thought I was: let your necrophily

Feed upon that carcase. . . .

--T. S. Eliot, Family Reunion
To Ida
First words
"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of 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."
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Average: (3.99)
0.5 3
1 49
1.5 14
2 162
2.5 30
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4.5 119
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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141184426, 014119491X


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