The Narrator


The Narrator Essay, Research Paper

The narrator’s grandparents were freed slaves who believed they were

separate but equal after the Civil War. His grandfather lived a meek and quiet

life after being freed. However, on his deathbed, he tells the narrator’s father

that the lives of black Americans are a ‘war’ and that he himself feels like a

traitor. He counsels the narrator’s father to undermine the whites with ‘yeses’

and ‘grins.’ He advises his family to ‘agree ‘em to death and destruction.’ His

grandfather’s dying words haunt the narrator. He lives meekly, like his

grandfather. Like him, the narrator receives praise from the white members of

his town, but feels troubled that his grandfather branded such meekness as


On his graduation day, he delivers a speech preaching humility and

submission as the key to the advancement of black Americans. The speech is

such a success that the town arranges to have him deliver it at a gathering of

the community’s leading white citizens. He arrives and is told to take part in

the ‘battle royal’ that figures as part of the evening’s entertainment. The

narrator and some of his classmates don boxing gloves and enter the ring. A

naked, blond, white woman with an American flag painted on her stomach

parades about as the white men demand that they look at her.

Afterwards, the white men blindfold the youths and order them to

viciously pummel one another. The narrator is defeated in the last round. After

they remove the blindfolds, the contestants are led to a rug covered with coins

and a few crumpled bills. They lunge for the money, only to discover that the

rug is electrified. The white men attempt to force the victims to fall face

forward onto the rug during the mad scramble.

While the narrator gives his speech, they all laugh and ignore him as he

quotes verbatim large sections of Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Exposition

Address.” In the midst of the amused, drunken requests that he repeat the

phrase ’social responsibility,’ the narrator accidentally says ’social equality.’

The white men angrily demand that he explain himself. He states that he made

a mistake. He finishes to uproarious applause. They award him a calfskin

briefcase. He is told to cherish it as a ‘badge of office’ because one day ‘it will

be filled with important papers that will shape the destiny’ of his people. He is

overjoyed to find a scholarship to the state college for black youth inside. He

does not even care when later he discovers that the gold coins from the

electrified rug are worthless brass tokens.

That night he has a dream of going to a circus with his grandfather who

refuses to laugh at the clowns. He instructs the narrator to open the briefcase.

Inside, the narrator finds an official envelope with a state seal. He opens it

only to find another envelope that contains another envelope. The last one

contains an engraved document reading: “To Whom It May Concern, Keep

This Nigger-Boy Running.” The narrator awakes with his grandfather’s

laughter ringing in his ears.


The narrator’s grandfather intensifies the theme of ambiguity. He

confesses that he feels as though his meekness in the face of the South’s

enduring racist structure makes him a traitor. It is unclear whom he feels he

has betrayed: himself, his family, or his race. All his life, he had espoused faith

in the Jim Crow structure of equality with segregation, but on his deathbed he

rejects this faith. He advises his family to have two identities as a form of

self-protection. On the outside they should embody the stereotypical ‘good

slaves,’ behaving just as their former white masters wish, but they should

never fully believe in this identity. On the inside, they should retain their

bitterness and resentment against the imposed false identity. By following the

grandfather’s model, they can refuse to accept second-class status internally,

protect their own self-respect, and avoid betraying themselves.

The theme of subterfuge through masks will become increasingly

important later in the novel. A mask becomes a form of defense against the

aggressive and hostile onslaughts of others against the individual’s

self-concept. The grandfather’s advice can also indicate a form of resistance.

He tells his family to play the role of the ‘good slaves’ so well that it almost

becomes a parody. Excessive obedience to Southern whites’ expectations can

become disobedience. The grandfather wants his family to exploit to their

advantage the rift between how others perceive them and how they perceive


The narrator believes that blind obedience will win him respect and

praise. The white men offer him success on one hand for obedience, but on

the other hand they use obedience to degrade him with the barbaric battle

royal. The boys are expected to accept blindness by wearing the blindfolds in

return for the dubious reward of false coins on an electrified rug. The white

men wear false masks of goodwill that barely conceal their real, racist

motives. They remain blind to their own brutish, drunken behavior by forcing

the boys to conform to the racial stereotype of the black man as a violent,

savage, over-sexed beast. The narrator has not yet learned to see behind the

surfaces of things. He believes that surface appearances are true only to

discover later that his ’sight’ failed him. The coins are false and the

innocuous-looking rug is electrified.

The narrator’s speech contains long quotations from Booker T.

Washington’s “Atlanta Exposition Address,” but he doesn’t actually name

Washington directly. Washington’s program for the advancement of black

Americans emphasized industrial education. He believed blacks should avoid

clamoring for political and civil rights and instead should put their energy

toward achieving economic success. The narrator’s grandfather lived by that

ideology only to recognize that it contained major limitations. Washington

hoped for racial equality through the assumption of the role of ‘the model

black citizen:’ “Work hard, but don’t draw attention to yourself by demanding

political and civil rights.” His philosophy could only go so far. The successful

black businessman was as vulnerable to racial prejudice as the poor,

uneducated sharecropper. He mistakenly believed economic success would

lead to freedom.

The narrator slips and says ’social equality’ while delivering his address.

Whereas the white men conceded some ‘benevolence’ to the narrator when

he embodied the ‘model black citizen,’ they show their true faces when he

slips. This turn reveals the limitations of Washington’s philosophy. The

narrator’s blind obedience to the ‘good slave’ role does not ‘free’ him from

racism. The moment he exhibits something like an individual opinion, the white

men demand that he return to the ‘good slave’ role. Retracting the verbal slip,

he does so, and they reward him with the briefcase and the scholarship. They

allow him to pursue social advancement, but only on their terms. They want

him to speak in such a way that affirms their belief in their natural superiority.

He is told to consider the briefcase a ‘badge of office.’ Ironically this ‘office’ is

that of the ‘good slave’ that they have forced him to play. The briefcase will

appear several times throughout the novel as a reminder of the bitter irony of

this speech.

The narrator has yet to tell the difference between espousing an

ideology and playing a role. His dream hints at his vague awareness of the real

meaning behind the incident. The scholarship is a gift with ambiguous

significance. On the surface it appears to symbolize the white men’s

benevolent generosity, but underneath it symbolizes their control over his



Invisible Man – Chapters 2-3


The narrator is fascinated by his recollection of the bronze statue of the

college Founder. He describes the statue as a ‘cold Father symbol’ with

‘empty eyes.’ At the end of his junior year, the narrator is assigned the task of

driving around Mr. Norton, one of the college’s white millionaire founders. He

innocently drives Norton beyond the campus to an area of ramshackle cabins

nearby. The cabins are left over slave quarters now inhabited by poor black

sharecroppers. Norton is intrigued by them, and the narrator immediately

regrets having driven him to this area since Jim Trueblood lives in one of them.

The college regards Trueblood with hatred and distrust because he has

committed incest with his now-pregnant daughter. Norton reacts with horror

when the narrator reveals this information, but he insists on speaking with


Trueblood explains that he committed incest because he had a strange

dream, and he woke up while having sex with his daughter. Norton listens

with a morbid, voyeuristic fascination. Trueblood expresses wonder at the

fact that white people have showered him with more money and help than

ever before after he has broken the unspeakable taboo of incest. Norton,

shocked at the story, hands Trueblood a hundred dollar bill to buy toys for his

children. He gets back into the car in a daze and requests some whiskey to

calm his nerves.

The narrator, fearing that Norton might die from shock, drives to the

nearest tavern, the Golden Day, which also happens to be a brothel. When he

arrives, a group of mentally-disturbed war veterans are on leave for the

afternoon at the Golden Day. The proprietor refuses to sell take-out whiskey.

Some of the veterans help carry Norton inside as he has fallen unconscious.

Once they pour some whiskey down his throat, he begins to regain

consciousness. The attendant in charge of the veterans shouts down to ask

what the ruckus is about and a brawl ensues. Norton falls unconscious again,

and the narrator and one of the veterans carry him upstairs near the


This particular veteran claims to be a doctor and a graduate of the

college. After Norton awakes, the veteran mocks his interest in the narrator

and the college. He claims that Norton must view the narrator as a mark on

his scorecard of achievement, not as a man; and similarly, the narrator must

not relate to Norton as a man either, but as a God or a ‘great white father.’ He

calls the narrator an automaton stricken with a blindness that makes him do

Norton’s bidding. He claims that the narrator’s blindness is Norton’s chief

asset. Norton becomes angry and demands that the narrator take him back to

the college. During the ride back, Norton remains completely silent.


The theme of blindness continues with the description of the statue of

the Founder of the college. The statue does not really depict an individual, but

a ‘father symbol.’ It may appear that the Founder has made his mark on

history, but we never even learn his name. His individuality and his humanity

are lost. Only a cold, nameless bronze statue remains. The Founder’s

anonymity echoes the absence of Booker T. Washington’s name in the

narrator’s graduation speech after the battle royal even though the narrator

quotes verbatim large sections of his “Atlanta Exposition Address.”

Washington exercised an enormous political influence over race

relations, but even his name disappears from the history the narrator tells in his

speech. The Founder and Washington become doubles. Both men set out to

design a program for the advancement of black Americans. Both fought for

the right to higher education for black Americans and both are fervently

worshipped by their followers as ‘great visionaries.’ And sadly, both have

become invisible men since not even a record of their names exists in the

novel. The novel also reveals that they are stricken with blindness:

Washington’s program partook of the mistaken illusion that economic

advancement would equal ‘freedom’; while the Founder’s statue shows

‘empty’ eyes.

Just as the dubious rewards of the battle royal incite the narrator and

his classmates to turn on one another, the rewards of social advancement

offered by the college incite the students and faculty to turn their backs on one

of the least-empowered group of American blacks: the poor sharecropper. In

an attempt to conform to the role of the ‘model black citizen’ expected of

them by white trustees, they disown Trueblood for his incestuous act. Perhaps

this dividing influence echoes the grandfather’s statement that blindly

conforming to the ‘good slave’ role equals an act of treachery. Norton’s

character complicates the relationship between the black American

beneficiary of the wealthy, white benefactor’s generosity. His interest in the

college lies less in his genuine desire to improve the difficulties of black

Americans than in his own self-interest. He tells the narrator that he became

involved in the college because, “I felt . . . that your people were somehow

closely connected with my destiny.” He tells the narrator, “You are my fate.”

Norton remains most concerned with his own self-image; he doesn’t even

concede to the narrator the right to claim his fate as his own–instead, their

fates become one.

Norton feels most proud of his work with the college because it has

allowed him to be involved in ‘organizing human life.’ Rather than the students

being his fate, he is, in fact, the organizer of their common fate. He represents

the power of invisibility because despite his absence and distance, his power

allows him to become intimately involved in the lives of thousands of black

students who have never even seen him. There is a chilling undertone to his

words, “You are bound to a great dream and to a beautiful monument.” The

narrator believes the school offers him freedom, but in fact, he is bound to the

dreams and monuments of men like Norton. It becomes a kind of

imprisonment to which both Norton and the narrator are blind.

Norton’s reaction to the Trueblood story is also ironic. He enjoys a

distinct voyeuristic pleasure in Trueblood’s story. Norton’s relationship with

his own daughter suggests that Trueblood’s story allows him to live out

vicariously his own incestuous desires. Norton continually mentions his

daughter’s beauty and purity–at one point, he says, “I could never believe her

to be my own flesh and blood.” He pays Trueblood one hundred dollars for

describing the very sin he himself seems to have wanted to commit. He says

the money is meant for Trueblood’s children, but his generosity is tinged with

the same ambiguous significance, the same self-interest that marks his financial

support of the college. The veteran at the Golden Day tavern calls the narrator

an ‘automaton.’ This revives the problematic relationship between white

benefactor and black beneficiary. He directly verbalizes Norton’s narcissism

by stating that Norton sees the narrator as a mark on the scorecard of his

achievement. Neither Norton nor the narrator take kindly to having their

blindfolds removed. The narrator wishes to continue under the illusion that the

college is offering him the freedom to determine his own fate and identity.

However, the vet compares Norton’s position to an invisible puppet-master

pulling the strings and the students’ to that of dancing marionettes: the

blindness of one reinforces the blindness of the other. The vet is labeled

‘crazy’ for daring to see beneath the surface, and for telling the tale of what he

has seen.


Invisible Man – Chapters 4-6


Norton asks to be taken to his room and requests that Dr. Bledsoe, the

president of the college, come and see him. Dr. Bledsoe becomes furious

when the narrator informs him of the afternoon’s events. Bledsoe says he

should have known to show powerful white trustees only what the college

wants them to see. When Bledsoe arrives at Norton’s room, he orders the

narrator to leave and go attend the evening chapel service. Later, the narrator

receives a message that Bledsoe wants to speak with him in Norton’s room.

However, he arrives to find only Mr. Norton, who informs him that Bledsoe

had to leave suddenly, but that the narrator should see him after the evening

service. Norton says that he explained to Bledsoe that the narrator was not

responsible for what happened.

Reverend Barbee, a black man wearing dark glasses, speaks at the

chapel service. He tells the story of the Founder, a former slave born into

poverty, but with a precocious intelligence. The Founder was almost killed as

a child when a cousin splashed him with lye, ’shriveling his seed.’ After nine

days in a coma, he awoke as though he had ‘risen from the dead or had been

reborn.’ He taught himself how to read and later became a runaway slave. He

went North and pursued further education. After many years, he returned to

the South and founded the college to which he devoted the rest of his life’s

work. The sermon deeply moves the narrator. Barbee stumbles on the way

back to his chair, his glasses fall from his face, and the narrator catches a

glimpse of his sightless eyes–Barbee is blind.

The narrator meets with Bledsoe after the service. When he learns that

the narrator took Norton to the old slave quarters, the Golden Day and the

Trueblood cabin, Bledsoe becomes very angry. The narrator explains that

Norton ordered him to stop at the cabin. Bledsoe says that white people are

always giving orders, and that the narrator, having grown up in the South as a

black man, should know how to lie his way out of such orders. Bledsoe plans

to investigate both the veteran who mocked Norton and the college; he also

plans to expel the narrator. The narrator threatens to tell everyone that

Bledsoe lied to Norton about not punishing him. Bledsoe is shocked. He has

worked hard to achieve his position of power and doesn’t plan to lose it.

However, he tells the boy to go to New York for the summer and work to

earn his year’s tuition. He offers to send letters of recommendation to some of

the trustees to ensure that he gets work. If he does well, Bledsoe hints that he

will be able to return to school. The next day, the narrator retrieves seven

sealed letters and promises Bledsoe that he holds no resentment for his

punishment. Bledsoe praises his attitude, but the narrator remains haunted by

his grandfather’s prophetic dying words.


Bledsoe is a master of masks. Imperious and commanding with the

narrator, he becomes conciliatory and servile with Norton. Bledsoe’s

infuriated response to the narrator’s explanation that he drove Norton to the

old slaves quarters simply because Norton had asked him to aggravates him

further: “Damn what he wants. We take these white folks where we want

them to go, we show them what we want them to see. Don’t you know that?”

The narrator is shocked to learn that the surface appearance of humble

servility is a mask under which Bledsoe manipulates and deceives powerful

white donors to his advantage. He is also shocked that Bledsoe thought he

knew this all along. However, the narrator has had blind faith in the ‘truth’ of

the surface appearance until now.

Moreover, Bledsoe has attempted to preserve the rich donors’

blindness to some aspects of the black experience in the South. He becomes

angry when he learns that the narrator has unwittingly removed the blindfold

from at least one of them. The narrator has disrupted the masquerade of the

‘model black citizen,’ and Bledsoe anxiously seeks to repair the damage. The

narrator’s own blindfold has been removed, and the knowledge he has gained

overwhelms him. He is branded a traitor to the college’s image, and he again

remembers his grandfather’s words: believing in the mask of meekness is

treachery. Bledsoe, echoing Booker T. Washington’s philosophy, practices

humility and preaches the virtue of humble contentment with one’s ‘place’ to

the students; but he has been living the grandfather’s advice and uses it as a

mask to his own advantage.

However, we find that Bledsoe uses his humility mask to dupe the

students as well the white donors. He uses the college and Washington’s

ideology for the preservation of his own position of power rather than for the

broad social progress for his people. While toying with an old leg shackle

from slavery, he explains the narrator’s expulsion by claiming that he has

become ‘dangerous to the college.’ Bledsoe calls the shackle a ’symbol of

progress.’ The narrator’s threat to expose Bledsoe’s double-dealing to Norton

and the rest of the college quickly changes Bledsoe’s manner. Bledsoe tells

the narrator that he has ‘played the nigger’ long and hard to get to his position

and he doesn’t plan to let one young, naive student vanquish his

accomplishments. Thus, we find evidence that that his concern for the

college’s image is really just a mask, a cover up of his selfish concern for his


Bledsoe’s power depends on preventing the narrator from ripping his

mask off and exposing his duplicity. He tells the boy to go to New York for

the summer, and suggests that he might be allowed to return to school in the

fall. It will become clear later that the narrator has still not learned to see

beneath the surface; he trusts Bledsoe and overlooks his , propensity for

double-dealing precisely when he should most remember it. The narrator’s

grandfather advised his family to use masks as a form of self-defense and

resistance against racist white power, but Bledsoe uses it as a weapon against

members of his own race. Moreover, he uses it to achieve an influential

position within the white-dominated power structure rather than as a means to

dismantle it, ultimately revealing the limitations of the grandfather’s philosophy.

Reverend Barbee’s sermon on the Founder develops this theme further.

Every student is expected to attend this service and receive a peculiar

‘education.’ Rather than teaching the students to take advantage of invisibility

through masks like Bledsoe, the sermon reinforces blind faith and allegiance to

the college’s and Bledsoe’s outward philosophy. The sermon treats the

Founder like a god of sorts, whose ideology should be trusted completely like

a religion. The sermon implies that his ideology and his life represent a

universal example that should be followed blindly rather than skillfully

manipulated, as in Bledsoe’s case.

Even the Founder himself, the figure head of the college’s power and

glory, is castrated. In childhood, a cousin threw lye on him and ’shriveled his

seed.’ If the Founder himself is sterile, how can his vision and his legacy be

fertile? His legacy’s ‘offspring’ are a blind preacher, the double-dealing

Bledsoe, and a narcissistic Boston philanthropist who refuses to admit his own

incestuous attraction to his deceased daughter. The Founder’s ‘re-birth’

signifies a form of death: his name is lost to history; and he becomes an empty

symbol manipulated by men like Bledsoe to preserve the blindness of others.

The reverent sermon revives the narrator’s blind love and devotion to the

college and to its program; however, this devotion prompts the narrator to

blindly accept a rotten deal with Bledsoe. Bledsoe’s shackle becomes a

symbol of continuing enslavement to multiple forms of blindness.


Invisible Man – Chapters 7-9


On the bus to New York, the narrator encounters the veteran who

mocked Norton and the college. Bledsoe has arranged to have him

transferred to a psychiatric facility in Washington D.C. The narrator doesn’t

believe Bledsoe could have anything to do with it, but the veteran winks and

tells him to learn to see under the surface of things. He tells the narrator to

hide himself from white people, from authority, from the ‘big man who’s never

there’ but is always ‘pulling his strings.’ Crenshaw, the veteran’s attendant, tells

him that he talks too much. The veteran replies that he verbalizes things that

most men only feel. Before he transfers to another bus, the veteran advises the

narrator, “Be your own father.” The narrator arrives in New York and is

astonished to see a black officer directing white drivers in the street. He sees

a gathering on a sidewalk in Harlem. A man is giving a speech about ‘chasing

them out’ in a West Indian accent. The narrator feels as though a riot could

erupt at any minute. He has seen Ras the Exhorter giving a speech. He quickly

finds a place called the Men’s House and takes a room.

Over the next few days, the narrator delivers all of his letters except

one addressed to Mr. Emerson. After a week, he receives no responses. He

tries to reach the trustees by phone only to receive polite refusals from their

secretaries. His money is beginning to run out, and he entertains vague doubts

about Bledsoe.

The narrator sets out to deliver his last letter and meets a jive-talking

man named Peter Wheatstraw who recognizes his southern roots. He tells the

narrator that Harlem is nothing but a bear’s den, reminding the narrator of the

stories of Jack the Rabbi t and Jack the Bear. He stops for breakfast at a deli.

The waiter says he looks like he’d enjoy the special: pork chops, grits, eggs,

hot biscuits, and coffee. Insulted, the narrator orders orange juice, toast, and


The narrator arrives at Mr. Emerson’s office. He meets Mr. Emerson’s

son, a nervous little man. Emerson leaves with the letter only to return with a

vaguely disturbed expression, chattering about his ‘analyst’ and ’some things

being too unjust for words .’ Finally, Emerson allows the narrator to read the

letter: Bledsoe has told each of the addressees that the narrator was

permanently expelled and had to be sent away under false pretenses to

protect the college; he never intended for the narrator to di scover the finality

of his expulsion. Emerson says that his father is a strict, unforgiving man and

will not help him, but he offers to get the narrator a job at the Liberty Paints

plants. That narrator leaves the office full of anger and a desire for r evenge.

He imagines Bledsoe requesting that Mr. Emerson ‘hope the bearer of this

letter to death and keep him running.’ He calls the plant for a job and is told to

report to work the next morning.


The reigning ideology in the South for the advancement of black

Americans is that of Booker T. Washington and the college. Both white and

black Southerners practice this ideology. At the Golden Day, the veteran

succinctly pointed out the blindness and en slavement that this ideology entails,

and Bledsoe ‘expels’ him from the South just as he expels the narrator. Unlike

the narrator, however, the veteran has wanted a transfer for years. His

defiance of the masquerade through ‘free speech’ earns him the ‘ freedom’ he

has wanted, but that of course becomes an ironic victory. His trip North leads

only to further confinement in another asylum in the capitol of a nation

purportedly founded on the principles of freedom.

The veteran tries to clarify the power system for the narrator. He tells

the boy to lose his blindness and see under surface appearances because

power works most efficiently when invisible, hidden behind deceptive masks.

The veteran revives the doll met aphor with the image of important men pulling

strings. Those controlling the narrator’s life remain invisible, hidden behind

masks. Pulling his strings, they treat him like an object, not a person.

However, the veteran ascribes the phrase ‘the big man who’s never there’ to

powerful whites. He fails to recognize the manner in which black men like

Bledsoe use this form of power against other black Americans. Ultimately,

Bledsoe himself may remain blind to his own role as a mask behind which

white power and influence can operate and propagate. He uses the same

deceptive means to achieve power. However, as we noted in the last section,

rather than dismantling the white-dominated power structure, he reinforces

and reproduces it.

The veteran represents an old literary trope: the fool. By exploiting the

ambiguity of his comic and tragic role, he defines his version of the truth; and

his fool’s mask allows him to speak openly with fewer consequences.

However, his ambiguous banter keeps the reader unsure of his seriousness.

For instance, when he advises the narrator to be his ‘own father’ before

leaving the bus, he is actually offering his own ‘fatherly advice.’ He is telling the

narrator to define his own identity, while simult aneously defining it for him.

The narrator is on an archetypal journey. Like thousands of black

Americans, he joins the Great Migration North looking for freedom. He

marvels at the variety and vibrancy of Harlem. He sees Ras making an

inflammatory speech in the street calling the b lack Harlem residents to drive

out the whites,

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