Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is the story of a young black man whose name the reader never learns. He is a young man from the South who is haunted by his grandfather’s deathbed warning against conforming to the wishes of white people because the young man sees that as the way to be successful.
The narrator’s first real glimpse at the cruel manipulation of white people comes when he is invited to the local men’s club to read the speech he prepared for his high school graduation. He gives the speech and is rewarded with a briefcase and a scholarship to a black college, but only after he endures the humiliation of performing for the white men there. He and several black boys are forced to box each other and then scramble around a rug pulsing with electric current to grab coins while the white men laugh at their pain.
The narrator goes off to college and determines to model himself after Dr. Bledsoe, the college’s dean and a successful black man who is well respected in his community and his field. Unfortunately, the narrator makes a dreadful mistake when he is chauffeuring Mr. Norton, a wealthy white man who donates a great deal of money to the college. He inadvertently reveals the seedier side of the black race by allowing the man to stop and speak with Joe Trueblood, a poor, black man ostracized from the black community because he got his own daughter pregnant. After the upsetting encounter with Trueblood, the white man is feeling weak and needs a drink, so the young man takes him to the closest place he can think of, the local black bar and brothel. After a disastrous encounter with a mentally altered war veteran, the narrator takes Mr. Norton back to campus. Dr. Bledsoe is so furious with the narrator’s indiscretion and stupidity that he expels him. Dr. Bledsoe offers him some hope, however, by offering to write him several letters of recommendation to deliver to the school’s trustees in New York. The dean tells the young man that if he makes enough money for tuition, he can come back to school.
The young man sets out for the city unaware that the letters of recommendation are really a hoax just to get him quietly away from the school. Once he finds out about the letters, he is so broke that he takes a job in a paint factory where he has an accident. He wakes up in the factory hospital where they are doing painful experiments on him that leave him disoriented. He recovers somewhat and is released only to dump a spittoon on some man whom he mistakes for Dr. Bledsoe at his boarding house.
After that incident, he moves into a room in a kindly woman’s apartment and stays there without a job until he gets caught up with the Communist party. They give him a position as a speaker in Harlem and he works with them until he becomes so disillusioned by their politics and betrayal that he gets caught up in a riot in Harlem and falls into a manhole. He builds himself a room in the cellar of an all-white building and hibernates there contemplating his relationship to reality and the invisibility he feels is caused by his race. He lives in that hole until he runs into Mr. Norton one day in the subway and realizes that he will no longer conform to white expectations of him. Instead, he will reclaim his humanity by being who he is and no longer struggling to change that.