Author Ralph Ellison
Type of work Novel
Genre Bildungsroman (a German word meaning novel of personal “formation,” or development), existentialist novel, African-American fiction, novel of social protest
Time and place written Late 1940s– 1952, New York City
Date of first publication 1952, although the first chapter was published in the English magazine Horizon five years earlier
Publisher Random House
Narrator The narrator is an unnamed black man who writes the story as a memoir of his life.
Point of view The narrator writes in the first person, emphasizing his individual experience and his feelings about the events portrayed.
Tone Ellison often seems to join the narrator in his sentiments, which range from bitterly cynical to willfully optimistic, from anguish at his sufferings to respect for the lessons learned from them. Ellison seems to write himself into the book through the narrator. However, Ellison also frequently portrays the narrator as blind to the realities of race relations. He points out this blindness through other, more insightful characters (most notably the veteran) as well as through symbolic details.
Tense Past, with present-tense sections in the Prologue and Epilogue
Setting (time) The 1930s
Setting (place) A black college in the South; New York City, especially Harlem
Protagonist The narrator
Major conflict The narrator seeks to act according to the values and expectations of his immediate social group, but he finds himself continuously unable to reconcile his socially imposed role as a black man with his inner concept of identity, or even to understand his inner identity.
Rising action Dr. Bledsoe expels the narrator from college; the narrator gets into a fight over union politics with his black supervisor at the Liberty Paints plant and enters the plant hospital, where he experiences a kind of rebirth; the narrator stays with Mary, who fosters his sense of social responsibility; the narrator joins the Brotherhood.
Climax The narrator witnesses Clifton’s racially motivated murder at the hands of white police officers; unable to get in touch with the Brotherhood, he organizes Clifton’s funeral on his own initiative and rouses the black community’s anger against the state of race relations; the Brotherhood rebukes him for his act of independence.
Falling action Riots break out in Harlem, releasing the pent-up anger that has gathered since Clifton’s funeral; the narrator encounters Ras, who calls for him to be lynched; running from Ras and the police, the narrator falls into a manhole and remains underground in “hibernation.”
Themes Racism as an obstacle to individual identity; the limitations of ideology; the danger of fighting stereotype with stereotype
Motifs Blindness; invisibility; jazz and blues music; masks and subterfuge; puppets and marionettes
Symbols The black Sambo doll; the coin bank; the Liberty Paints plant; the Brotherhood
Foreshadowing The narrator's grandfather advises him to "overcome 'em with yeses"; a group of Black boys fight each other in the battle royal.