The invisible man suffers from the ramifications of a society built upon racial discrimination to the extent that he loses everything: his home, his family, his job, and most importantly, his identity. As Dolores Beth Powers asserts in her paper for Iowa State University, “Throughout the novel, the narrator struggles to attain freedom against various barriers put in his way, and every barrier is, first of all, racially constructed… these barriers isolate and alienate the black man from the main institutions of American life.” (Powers 3) It is these restrictions placed by the white authorities that suppress the black population and prevent them from progressing. They cannot rise in this society because the ones pulling the strings, the whites, do not want them to. The protagonist tries incessantly to make himself seem obedient, well-behaved, educated and sophisticated. This meekness plays a major role in his downfall as he neither thinks for himself nor explores what he truly wishes to. The invisible man is appreciated when he abides by social rules and what other people want but despised when he does what he wants to. “And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own…” (Ellison 573) Ellison implies that no matter how you behaved with the whites, whether you were bitter or compliant, you would receive the same malevolent treatment as any other Negro.
The narrator is betrayed, shunned, misunderstood and manipulated by so many people that he grows to view everyone with apprehension. He faces hostility and discrimination in every part of his life, no matter where he goes. Whether it be from a hateful white woman angry for him using her trash can, from a man on the street who accuses him of disposing of a gun or stolen goods, from Ras the Extorter’s mob of angry and agitated followers, or from people close to him who he trusts, like Dr. Bledsoe or Brother Jack, the protagonist is mistreated until he breaks. Nothing is actually how he thinks it to be: He rises up the ranks of an organization that supposedly works for the welfare and advancement of the blacks but in reality, is working to push them deeper into the pit of misery. Tobbit betrays him by accusing him of attempting to take over the organization. Jack backstabs him by putting on a facade of kindness and concern when talking to him but secretly plots to bring him down. He even writes an anonymous letter warning him to stay within his limits. After being hurt so many times, the invisible man is devastated; he stops getting back up and exiles himself in an underground room. He exists without existing.
The protagonist is trapped in this society and cannot escape from his life’s adversities. “No, I couldn’t return to Mary’s, or to the campus, or to the Brotherhood, or home… The end was in the beginning.” (Ellison 571) The invisible man’s life is destined to end in disaster because the white-dominated society is one in which a black man simply would be shattered. It didn’t matter where he went, whether it be North or South, there was no place for a man like the narrator in this society. If he wants to fit in, the only place he belongs is as a witless, subservient black man, without an identity, personality, or dignity. In a society based upon the discrimination of blacks, the Sambo doll represents the black man’s vulnerability and helplessness. Negroes only have two choices: to obey or be eliminated. The invisible man goes through countless struggles before he realizes this. His undoing is impending because he is not a Sambo doll, and because he attempts to defy the imperious system. Each change leads him to another dead end and he realizes the boundaries erected by the whites around him and his race.
I would like to end with a quote by Dr. Bledsoe from Invisible Man that encapsulates the idea of white dominion in American society –
“Power doesn’t have to show off. Power is confident, self-assuring, self-starting and self-stopping, self-warming and self-justifying. When you have it, you know it.” (Ellison 142)
In conclusion, Ellison reveals to us the extent of white supremacy and the inevitability of downfall for a black person in the pernicious Jim Crow system of the late 19th and early 20th centuries by presenting us with the endless struggle of the invisible man.