Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's National Book Award-winning novel, is written in the traditional style of the novel of education: the young, black narrator moves from a state of innocence to one of experience as he searches for his self-identity. The book relates the narrator's educational journey, the episodes leading to his seclusion in an underground cellar in Harlem, and his involuntary invisibility, which results from society's inability to see beyond its own racial stereotypes.
The novel establishes themes of betrayal, invisibility, and violence in the opening chapter, known as Ellison's "Battle Royal" scene. The narrator, raised in the American South and named valedictorian of his high school class, is invited to speak before the community's prominent white citizens. After being humiliated by the drunken gathering and forced to fight in a blind boxing match, the protagonist is presented with a college scholarship, leading him to believe that education will help him overcome the racial problems he faces.
The protagonist enrolls at the state college, which resembles Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute and which the youth sees as a paradise. There, he is assigned to chauffeur a white philanthropist, Mr. Norton, and takes him to visit Jim Trueblood, a black sharecropper whom Mr. Norton believes to be a colorful storyteller. Upon hearing Trueblood's account of incest with his daughter, Mr. Norton is both horrified and fascinated by Trueblood's indulgence in moral taboos that he himself has secretly considered transgressing. This scene is significant, according to many critics, because Ellison uses it to refute racial stereotypes. The narrator then drives Mr. Norton to the Golden Day, a crowded saloon filled with black World War I veterans who, after fighting overseas for freedom, have been institutionalized for refusing to conform to segregation laws.
Expelled from college because of his ordeal with Mr. Norton, the protagonist goes to Harlem in search of work. He carries sealed letters of reference from Dr. Bledsoe, president of his former college. Though the letters are later revealed to contain character defamations, the narrator is employed by a paint company. As the result of an accident for which he is held responsible, he is hospitalized and given a form of electroshock therapy. The procedure, intended to mimic the effects of a lobotomy, leaves him "desensitized" but able to recall his Southern boyhood. He emerges with a new sense of racial pride.
The protagonist attracts the attention of the Brotherhood, a proto-communist organization, after delivering an impromptu speech on the injustice of an elderly couple's eviction. Though he initially embraces the group's ideals, he later discovers that the organization merely feigns interest in civil rights while it works to repress blacks and deny their individuality. The chaos that ensues in the black community following the exhortations of a fanatic nationalist develops into a hallucinatory treatment of the Harlem race riots of the 1940s. While fleeing the riot's uproar, the narrator falls into a coal cellar that leads to his underground hiding place, which he eventually illuminates with 1,369 light bulbs. In the novel's final section, he meditates upon the meaning of his experiences.