‘The invisible man’ was Ralph Ellison’s only book published while alive, a book that addresses many of the intellectual and social issues that African-Americans faced in the twentieth century. It’s a fictional book, but it has also a historical importance .
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.
The story beginns with the narrator begin a young man in the South, then earning a scolarship to a University for black people from which he is expeled and so he ends up in Harlem. In search of a job, he ends up with a position as a spokesman for the Brotherhood, a political organization that allegedly works to help the socially oppressed. The narrator delivers speeches and becomes a high-profile figure in the Brotherhood, and he enjoys his work. But his success doesn’t last for long, and slowly he looses his credibility.
A revolt starts in Harlem and the narrator, being followed by two cops, falls by mistake in a a manhole. The police mock him and draw the cover over the manhole.
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.
The invisibility of the main character is given also by the fact that he has no name.
Ralph Ellison created a dramatic and emotional novel, building a character that was actually the voice of the black people in the 1930s. Having an identity crisis, struggling to survive, trying to develop as a community, losing faith and facing opposition and violence from white people.
Looking a bit further, this book offers us an universal truth, valid in any era and in any society. People are stereotyped on the basis of gender, religion, race, heritage, and disability, and this can have very negative effects on everyone involved.
Full summary here (it contains spoilers).