The narrator begins telling his story with the claim that he is an “invisible man.” His invisibility, he says, is not a physical condition—he is not literally invisible—but is rather the result of the refusal of others to see him. He says that because of his invisibility, he has been hiding from the world, living underground and stealing electricity from the Monopolated Light & Power Company. He burns 1,369 light bulbs simultaneously and listens to Louis Armstrong’s “（What Did I Do to Be So） Black and Blue” on a phonograph. He says that he has gone underground in order to write the story of his life and invisibility.
As a young man, in the late 1920s or early 1930s, the narrator lived in the South. Because he is a gifted public speaker, he is invited to give a speech to a group of important white men in his town. The men reward him with a briefcase containing a scholarship to a prestigious black college, but only after humiliating him by forcing him to fight in a “battle royal” in which he is pitted against other young black men, all blindfolded, in a boxing ring. After the battle royal, the white men force the youths to scramble over an electrified rug in order to snatch at fake gold coins. Three years later, the narrator is a student at the college. He is asked to drive a wealthy white trustee of the college, Mr. Norton, around the campus. Norton talks incessantly about his daughter, then shows an undue interest in the narrative of Jim Trueblood, a poor, uneducated black man who impregnated his own daughter. After hearing this story, Norton needs a drink, and the narrator takes him to the Golden Day, a saloon and brothel that normally serves black men. A fight breaks out among a group of mentally imbalanced black veterans at the bar, and Norton passes out during the chaos. He is tended by one of the veterans, who claims to be a doctor and who taunts both Norton and the narrator for their blindness regarding race relations.
The narrator says that he has stayed underground ever since; the end of his story is also the beginning. He states that he finally has realized that he must honor his individual complexity and remain true to his own identity without sacrificing his responsibility to the community. He says that he finally feels ready to emerge from underground.
As the narrator of Invisible Man struggles to arrive at a conception of his own identity, he finds his efforts complicated by the fact that he is a black man living in a racist American society. Throughout the novel, the narrator finds himself passing through a series of communities, from the Liberty Paints plant to the Brotherhood, with each microcosm endorsing a different idea of how blacks should behave in society. As the narrator attempts to define himself through the values and expectations imposed on him, he finds that, in each case, the prescribed role limits his complexity as an individual and forces him to play an inauthentic part.
Upon arriving in New York, the narrator enters the world of the Liberty Paints plant, which achieves financial success by subverting blackness in the service of a brighter white. There, the narrator finds himself involved in a process in which white depends heavily on black—both in terms of the mixing of the paint tones and in terms of the racial makeup of the workforce. Yet the factory denies this dependence in the final presentation of its product, and the narrator, as a black man, ends up stifled. Later, when the narrator joins the Brotherhood, he believes that he can fight for racial equality by working within the ideology of the organization, but he then finds that the Brotherhood seeks to use him as a token black man in its abstract project.
Ultimately, the narrator realizes that the racial prejudice of others causes them to see him only as they want to see him, and their limitations of vision in turn place limitations on his ability to act. He concludes that he is invisible, in the sense that the world is filled with blind people who cannot or will not see his real nature. Correspondingly, he remains unable to act according to his own personality and becomes literally unable to be himself. Although the narrator initially embraces his invisibility in an attempt to throw off the limiting nature of stereotype, in the end he finds this tactic too passive. He determines to emerge from his underground “hibernation,” to make his own contributions to society as a complex individual. He will attempt to exert his power on the world outside of society’s system of prescribed roles. By making proactive contributions to society, he will force others to acknowledge him, to acknowledge the existence of beliefs and behaviors outside of their prejudiced expectations.
Over the course of the novel, the narrator realizes that the complexity of his inner self is limited not only by people’s racism but also by their more general ideologies. He finds that the ideologies advanced by institutions prove too simplistic and one-dimensional to serve something as complex and multidimensional as human identity. The novel contains many examples of ideology, from the tamer, ingratiating ideology of Booker T. Washington subscribed to at the narrator’s college to the more violent, separatist ideology voiced by Ras the Exhorter. But the text makes its point most strongly in its discussion of the Brotherhood. Among the Brotherhood, Because he has decided that the world is full of blind men and sleepwalkers who cannot see him for what he is, the narrator describes himself as an “invisible man.” The motif of invisibility pervades the novel, often manifesting itself hand in hand with the motif of blindness—one person becomes invisible because another is blind. While the novel almost always portrays blindness in a negative light, it treats invisibility much more ambiguously. Invisibility can bring disempowerment, but it can also bring freedom and mobility. Indeed, it is the freedom the narrator derives from his anonymity that enables him to tell his story. Moreover, both the veteran at the Golden Day and the narrator’s grandfather seem to endorse invisibility as a position from which one may safely exert power over others, or at least undermine others’ power, without being caught. The narrator demonstrates this power in the Prologue, when he literally draws upon electrical power from his hiding place underground; the electric company is aware of its losses but cannot locate their source. At the end of the novel, however, the narrator has decided that while invisibility may bring safety, actions undertaken in secrecy cannot ultimately have any meaningful impact. One may undermine one’s enemies from a position of invisibility, but one cannot make significant changes to the world. Accordingly, in the Epilogue the narrator decides to emerge from his hibernation, resolved to face society and make a visible difference.