Foreshadowing plays an important role in Invisible Man, but Ralph Ellison uses this literary device in a unique way. Ordinarily, foreshadowing works to create tension by providing hints about an event that will occur later in the story. Ellison also directs the reader’s attention to later events. However, instead of pointing to discrete events that happen just once, Ellison’s use of foreshadowing introduces patterns of events and motifs that will repeat throughout the novel. The opening chapter introduces many of these patterns, all of which relate to the ongoing presence of anti-Black racism in U.S. society. This link to racism makes Ellison’s use of foreshadowing unique, since his use of the device indicates how history repeats itself. The following provides examples of events that occur in the first chapter, introducing motifs that repeat throughout the book.
The narrator’s grandfather advises him to “overcome ’em with yeses”
When nearing death, the narrator’s grandfather advises him to undermine authority figures with affirmation. These words haunt the narrator throughout the novel. Although he interprets his grandfather’s words differently at different times, each interpretation leads to deception. For example, when he finally agrees to Dr. Bledsoe’s decision to expel him, he does so believing that acceptance will prove the best way to get back on track with his education. Later on, after he realizes that Dr. Bledsoe deceived him, the narrator accepts Brother Jack’s invitation to join the Brotherhood. When he says “yes” this time, he does so believing that he can really make a difference in the Harlem community. Once again, though, the narrator is deceived. Later still, the narrator decides to affirm every misguided decision made by the Brotherhood’s leadership. In this case he sees his “yes” as an act of resistance against the overly secretive Brotherhood. However, he later realizes his assent in fact aided the Brotherhood in their plan to cause a race riot. The narrator finally breaks the cycle of deception at novel’s end. When he decides to return aboveground, he does so in a gesture of acceptance of the world’s pervasive problems.
A group of Black boys fight each other in a battle royal
In Chapter 1, the narrator gets roped into a battle royal in which his town’s white elites force him to fight blindfolded against a group of other Black boys. This disturbing scene foreshadows several later events in which the narrator finds himself in tense relationships with other Black men. The narrator first comes into conflict with Dr. Bledsoe, who decides to expel the narrator over a minor infraction, all in the interest of protecting his own reputation. Later, the narrator enters a brief but no less tension-riddled relationship with Lucius Brockway. Lucius is an aging Black man who has long served as an engineer at Liberty Paints, and when the narrator turns up as his assistant, he worries that the young man has come to replace him. This suspicion leads Lucius to taunt the narrator, which eventually leads to physical violence. A third example of a dispute between Black characters arises through the narrator’s encounters with Ras the Exhorter. As a Black nationalist, Ras believes that Black people everywhere should unite against whites. However, when the narrator refuses to accept this logic, Ras declares him an enemy and calls for him to be lynched.