As an example of the bildungsroman genre, the plot of Invisible Man details the unnamed narrator’s moral and psychological development. The novel follows this development from the time the narrator graduates high school through his difficult first few years of real-world experience. As the novel progresses, the narrator feels increasingly burdened by his position in the world and confused about his identity. Ellison signals the narrator’s sense of burden and confusion by having him collect a series of objects, each of which symbolizes a particular encounter or experience. Some of these objects indicate the narrator’s connection to racism and the history of slavery. For instance, he carries Brother Tarp’s leg chain, Tod Clifton’s “Sambo” doll, and the broken pieces of Mary’s racist coin bank. Other objects pertain directly to the narrator’s confused identity. For instance, he carries the fragment of paper where Brother Jack wrote down his Brotherhood name. He also carries the “Rinehart” disguise, which enables him to pretend he’s someone he’s not. Collectively, these objects represent the burden of historical and imposed identities. At the end of the novel, the narrator destroys these objects or otherwise casts them away in order to discover who he really is.
The narrator tells his story in a linear, chronological fashion. However, he speaks in the past tense from the point of view of his present situation in a secret underground lair. The novel therefore begins and ends at the same point in the present time, creating a plot structure that circles back around to its original starting point. This structure enables the narrator to recount the various experiences that landed him in his cellar, and to use the act of storytelling to make sense of these experiences. Thus, despite being set in the past, the act of recollecting his past helps the narrator understand the present. In particular, this act helps him comprehend his personal and social status as an “invisible man.” By the end of the book, the reader has gained a full understanding of why the narrator retreated from society in the first place. Yet at the same time, after telling his story, the narrator also explains to the reader why he decides to return to the world above and try to change it for the better.
For the most part, Invisible Man unfolds episodically. Particularly in the first half of the novel, the narrator passes rather quickly through a series of formative experiences. These experiences include the battle royal in chapter 1, the encounter with Jim Trueblood in Chapter 2, the adventure at the Golden Day in chapter 3, Reverend Homer A. Barbee’s evening lecture in Chapter 5, the narrator’s expulsion from college in Chapter 6, and so on. This kind of episodic plotting continues until the narrator first meets Brother Jack, who has witnessed the narrator’s innate gift as a street organizer. Jack entices him to join the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood section comprises the second half of the novel, and though many different episodes take place throughout this section, the narrator tells this part of the story in a more improvisational way that recalls the structures of jazz music. Instead of each chapter recounting a distinct experience, the narrative becomes more fluid and less focused on uniquely dramatic events. Time also becomes more fluid, and sometimes months will pass between chapters. As the storytelling comes to rely less on the organizing principle of individual episodes, it betokens the chaotic events that conclude the novel.