I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.
In the opening paragraph of the novel, the narrator addresses the reader directly, introducing and beginning to explore his central metaphor. The full meaning of the metaphor of invisibility will be revealed throughout the book, and he soon writes that this invisibility occurs because the inner eyes of the people who look at him only see his skin.
I'm told that he is the smartest boy we've got out there in Greenwood. I'm told that he knows more big words than a pocket-sized dictionary.
The emcee of the battle royal introduces the narrator to the men. The fight over and the money awarded to the boys, and the narrator begins to deliver the speech that he’d given for graduation to the men. Despite being bloodied and beaten, the narrator finishes the speech, swallowing both his blood and his pride. The narrator distinguishes himself as extremely smart and eloquent, and remains so throughout the novel.
But more than that, he was the example of everything I hoped to be: Influential with wealthy men all over the country; consulted in matters concerning the race; a leader of his people; the possessor of not one, but two Cadillacs, a good salary and a soft, good-looking and creamy-complexioned wife.
The narrator reflects on Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the college he attends, after sharing the unfortunate experience at the Golden Day bar with Mr. Norton. Norton has asked to see Bledsoe, and the narrator worries that Bledsoe will blame him for Norton’s condition. Here, he confides his goals by describing this man who epitomizes black success, at least for him at this young age. His values change in the course of the text, but at this moment, his aspirations align with luxury cars, a steady income, and a trophy wife.
. . . I could barely move, my stomach was knotted and my kidneys ached. My legs were rubbery. For three years I had thought of myself as a man and here with a few words he'd made me as helpless as an infant. I pulled myself up . . .
The narrator describes his reaction to Dr. Bledsoe’s tirade during which he expels the narrator from the college. Although Bledsoe claims to like the narrator’s fighting spirit, he feels that he must penalize him nonetheless. He humiliates the narrator, which reminds him of his grandfather’s last words. Dr. Bledsoe does send him away with some sealed letters of reference, but he tears down the narrator’s self-esteem before he hands over the letters.
I tried to imagine myself angry—only to discover a deeper sense of remoteness. I was beyond anger. I was only bewildered. And those above seemed to sense it. There was no avoiding the shock and I rolled with the agitated tide, out into the blackness.
The narrator explains his emotional state after his shock treatment in the factory hospital. The treatment alters him in some essential way and takes him outside his own body. The narrator describes a surreal and physically intense experience of being subjected to electric shock and undergoing great pain. After the completion of the treatment and his dismissal, he refuses his job.
“It's you young folks what's going to make the changes,” she said. “Y'all's the ones. You got to lead and you got to fight and move us all on up a little higher. And I tell you something else, it's the ones from the South that's got to do it, them what knows the fire and ain't forgot how it burns. Up here too many forgits.[”]
Miss Mary speaks to the narrator after she rescued him from the streets and welcomed him into her boarding house. She acts like a mother figure to him, encouraging him, supporting him when he’s down and broke, and expressing her hope that he, and other young people like him, will make a difference in the lives of black Americans. She has faith in his abilities to lead, and her faith pays off because Brother Jack soon hires him.
I took a bite, finding it as sweet and hot as any I'd ever had, and was overcome with such a surge of homesickness that I turned away to keep my control. I walked along, munching the yam, just as suddenly overcome by an intense feeling of freedom -- simply because I was eating while walking along the street.
The narrator describes his emotional and mental reaction to the simple act of eating a yam while walking down the street. While strolling the streets of Harlem, he meets an old man selling Car’lina yams, hot and sugary, slathered with butter. He purchases one and experiences complex emotions: The familiar taste evokes feelings of nostalgia, while the act of eating it on the streets of New York evokes feelings of freedom, yet another contradiction the narrator embodies.
I could hardly wait until I reached 42nd Street, where I found the story carried on the front page of a tabloid, and I read it eagerly. I was referred to only as an unknown "rabble rouser" who had disappeared in the excitement, but that it referred to me was unmistakable.
The narrator describes seeing a newspaper headline sensationalizing the crowd response to the eviction. He realizes that his actions during the eviction demonstrations carried weight and he feels pride. Even though the article doesn’t mention him by name, he admits that as a consequence of being included even as a nameless, almost-invisible figure, he experiences a new sense of self-importance.
This was a new phase, I realized, a new beginning, and I would have to take that part of myself that looked on with remote eyes and keep it always at the distance of the campus, the hospital machine, the battle royal—all now far behind.
Here, the narrator describes standing before the crowd at the stadium, waiting to give the speech that would seal his fate as a leader in the movement. He has a kind of out-of-body sensation in which he observes himself from the outside. He also sees this moment as part of the many chapters of his life, an extension of them all, and also, a culmination.
So I took to the cellar; I hibernated. I got away from it all. But that wasn't enough. I couldn't be still even in hibernation. Because, damn it, there's the mind, the mind. It wouldn't let me rest. Gin, jazz and dreams were not enough. Books were not enough. My belated appreciation of the crude joke that had kept me running, was not enough.
The narrator takes stock of his entire life experience and reaches several conclusions. The novel comes full circle as the narrator returns to the underground invisibility. We now learn the reason why this text exists: The narrator’s mind cannot be stilled. This idea supports the theme of invisibility and also that of self-realization. It was not until the narrator goes underground, in both the coal bin and in the lighted cellar, that he truly shines his light.