Book Review // Invisible Man

Invisible Man follows the story of an unnamed African American boy from his teenage years in school in the deep South to his days as an organizer and activist in 1930s Harlem. The novel deals with issues of race, gender, and identity.

My AP Literature teacher tells us that everyone needs a “way” into a book they are analyzing, whether it be through feminism, race, or something else. Our essay topic for this particular book was to choose a central question posed in the text and talk about the extent to which it is answered. I suppose my “way” into the book is best exemplified in the question I chose: what an Invisible Man’s true identity is and whether he should seek visibility.

There are so many elements to this book: identities concerning race, gender, and location feature prominently in the novel. In some ways, the identities are masks, donned so that the narrator can be hidden, or appointed, so that the narrator’s “Master” can use him for the Master’s own purposes. However, my favorite part of the story about identity was the melding of all the identities. In a way, the identities that were forced onto the narrator in the end became his identity. If our identities are a result from our experiences in life, is the narrator’s that of an Invisible Man and nothing else? Or is there another identity under that which is more true to who the narrator really is?

This book was thought-provoking and really very beautiful. In many ways, it embodies what America is, something I have felt as a minority, a woman and a person of color, who has experienced the assumptions that characterize an Invisible Man (a person whose identity is assumed by others based on irrelevant, stereotypical characteristics). Yet in some ways, it was impossible for me to really connect to the novel. Perhaps what didn’t click for me was the fact that I have always accepted my identity to be purely American, untethered to race or even location. The narrator’s questions about his own black identity, his Southern identity, play a major part in the book (although it should be noted the book is not entirely about race). His black grandfather’s reflections on white men haunt him throughout the book, as do his experiences from his youth in the South, even when the narrator relocates and becomes very much a part of 1930s Harlem.

Perhaps I am missing something. This book is a coming-of-age story, but it also looks beyond the coming-of-age a little bit. Most of us do not experience the change so dramatically as does the narrator of Invisible Man in our teenage years, when we are simply finishing high school and applying to college. I myself have lived in the same part of the country for my entire life, have never truly moved homes, and have yet to relocate or identify where I am going to live during my college years. So perhaps my view of this novel will change, and I will connect more to it as I grow older and realize more profoundly the legacy my hometown and my upbringing will have or will not have left on me. But I return to my first point: in the end, what I took away from this book was not anything in its substance, but questions left unanswered by Ellison.



3 responses to “Book Review // Invisible Man

  1. Ahhh, I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages but haven’t gotten around to it yet! Maybe this will finally be the year that I do. 🙂

    LOVE what your teacher had to say about everyone needing a “way” into a book that they want to analyze. I don’t usually make a conscious decision to find a particular “way” (or to use the same one over and over… as sometimes happens, lol, you know me, I’m all about LGBTQ+ readings of material!), but find that it just happens naturally. Which always makes writing essays for my lit classes fun. 🙂

    • It’s really good! I didn’t mention this in the review, but I liked how it wasn’t just about race, since a lot of the books featuring people of color that talk about identity assume that the book is simply about race and are very exclusive if the reader isn’t the same race or doesn’t have the same relationship with race/national identity that the story is about. I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone of any identity, because it does SUCH A GOOD JOB of explaining how oppression can appear in the lives of people of all identities.

      My English teacher is AMAZING, she’s definitely one of the best I’ve ever had! I feel like my “way” comes to me unconsciously, too, and it’s really fun to see whether my essay will turn out to analyze the book through a feminist lens or a person-who-reads-a-lot’s lens or something else!

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