According to Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man, to be invisible means to be construed by others as a collection of general stereotypes rather than an actual, individual person. When people of the dominant society think of the narrator, states he, “they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination-indeed, everything except me” (3). While the stereotyping individuals in such situations have in front of them a physically real, living human being, and are not literally blind to the presence of said person, they project their pre-conceived notions of his identity onto him rather than bothering to find out his true nature.
This projection can lead to obscenely negative stereotypes, such as the view of the men in the smoker that black kids are no more than dumb brutes, fighting for others’ entertainment. However, it can also lead to complimentary and even idealized views of the black individual being thus perceived, such as Mr. Norton’s concern over the black students’ futures as being his own fate. Mr. Norton thus defines the identity of the narrator and students like him in terms of his own identity and how his legacy is enhanced by those students’ productive activities. While Mr. Norton does not by any means intend to degrade the black students, his mindset nevertheless fails to conceive of them as fully distinct individuals with purposes distinct from his own and peculiar to themselves.
However, the consequences of Ellison’s idea of invisibility are not merely the failure of others to understand an invisible man. They extend to the invisible man actually living out others’ views of his identity. Reflecting on his development throughout the story, the narrator states that he had made “a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!” (15).
Though the invisible man gains his invisibility by means of others’ thoughts, he eventually comes to incorporate his invisibility into his own identity as a crucial component thereof. One can observe this tendency in the justifications that the narrator gives for his behavior. Attempting to justify his perceived irresponsibility, he claims that “[i]rresponsibility is part of my invisibility; any way you face it, it is a denial. But to whom can I be responsible, and why should I be, when you refuse to see me?” (14). Here the narrator confesses that a major habit of his character, namely, his irresponsibility, has been shaped by others’ refusal to acknowledge his individuality.
When a random white man on the street insults him, the narrator lives out the white man’s stereotype of him as a vicious street mugger and renders it possible for the man to be “almost killed by a phantom” (5). The narrator as an individual experiences discomfort and disgust with the mugging, but it is not his genuine individual self that has performed such an action, but rather a persona that the stranger has construed the narrator to be. According to Ellison, when there exists a pervasive perception of the individual as something other than himself, the individual, to a degree, cannot escape becoming what the dominant society conceives of him.
This transformation is not an altogether renunciation of one’s individuality, however, but rather a synthesis of one’s former self and interests with the new status of “invisibility.” The narrator confesses, for example that “it is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves” (3). The narrator, toward the chronological end of his journey, is capable of harnessing this condition to serve his purposes, such as the powering of 1,369 light bulbs with electricity drawn from Monopolated Light & Power.
Dr. Bledsoe, too, has learned to use his invisibility as a means of firmly establishing his status and influence within white society, feigning humility and deference at public gatherings, but vigorously employing his connections and avenues to power available to him behind the scenes to maintain the security of his privileged position at the head of the university. However different the narrator, Bledsoe, and Burnside the vet may be as characters, all of them develop to follow Burnside’s advice to the narrator: “Play the game, but raise the ante, my boy. Learn how it operates, learn how you operate… You’re hidden right out in the open — that is, you would be if only you realized it. They wouldn’t see you because they don’t expect you to know a thing, since they believe they’ve taken care of that…” (153-4).
The invisible man, in the advanced stages of his invisibility, learns to use it as a weapon and a powerful means to pursue his self-interest. By recognizing that his identity is shaped by others’ perceptions, he is far from wholly putting one’s life under others’ control. Rather, Ellison argues, he becomes aware of a fact of reality that others are often ignorant of, thus giving him an advantage over others in his personal and societal endeavors.