The novel opens with the nameless narrator introducing himself to the reader as an invisible man. The Narrator makes it clear that he is not actually invisible but is considered as such because people refuse to see him. The Narrator is speaking from an underground space illuminated by a ridiculous number of light bulbs underneath a whites-only building. He goes on to tell the reader that he was not always in this predicament and begins to tell the tale of his younger days which led him to his current situation.
Invisible Man pleads that the reader bear with him during this tale characterized by naivety, ignorance, and eagerness. The tale opens with the Narrator being invited to give his high school valedictory speech in front of leading white men in his community. When the Narrator arrives to give his speech, he is forced to participate in a boxing style competition, along with several other boys, for the entertainment of the white men in attendance.
Invisible Man and the boys are then made to further humiliate themselves by having to grab coins off of an electrified rug. Once this is over, the Narrator is allowed to give his speech. The men love it until the Narrator slips up and says “social equality” instead of “social responsibility”. After delivering his speech, Invisible Man is given a briefcase with a scholarship to the state college for Negroes inside. Later that night, the Narrator has a dream about his grandfather and the new briefcase. In the dream, Invisible Man is searching through the briefcase and encounters a letter inside that reads “Keep This Nigger Boy Running”.
The Narrator continues on with the tale of his life and begins to expand on his college days. While attending college, Invisible Man idolizes the president of the institution, Dr. Bledsoe. One day, the Narrator is selected to serve as an attendant to one of the college’s trustees, Mr. Norton. The Narrator drives Mr. Norton around campus and into a restricted area, the old slave quarters. While in the slave quarters, the Narrator and Norton listen to the story of Jim Trueblood, a poor farmer who has been shunned by the black community after impregnating his daughter.
Trueblood blames the incident on a wild dream he was having while he, his wife, and his daughter slept in the bed together one cold night. After hearing Trueblood’s story, Mr. Norton falls ill and requests that Invisible Man take him someplace to grab a drink of alcohol. Thinking on a whim, Invisible Man takes Norton to the Golden Day, a bar where mentally ill veterans tend to hang out. At the Golden Day, the pair encounters a veteran who imparts knowledge on them both. He was a former doctor. The Vet accuses Norton of being narcissistic and viewing the students at the college as “marks on his scorecard” while he describes the narrator as invisible.
Upon hearing this subtle truth, the Narrator and Norton return back to campus. Upon hearing of the day’s events, Bledsoe becomes infuriated with the Narrator and sends him to the North to find a job while on suspension from school. Bledsoe provides Invisible Man with seven letters of recommendation that are to be given to friends of Bledsoe’s that will provide the Narrator with a job. When the Narrator arrives in New York, he is shocked and excited by the freedom blacks seem to have in the North.
Invisible Man’s excitement quickly disappears when he reaches the office of Mr. Emerson, the recipient of his last letter from Bledsoe. Emerson’s son reveals to the Narrator that the letters of recommendation are actually intended to keep Invisible Man as far away from campus as possible. Emerson’s son refers the Narrator for a job at Liberty Pain Company. After landing the job at Liberty Paints, the Narrator meets Lucius Brockway, a black man in charge of the boiler room.
Out of distrust for Invisible Man and insecurity about his position at the company, Brockway attacks the Narrator. During the scuffle, the boilers are left unattended and an explosion occurs that knocks the Narrator unconscious and lands him in the factory hospital. As a patient at the factory hospital, Invisible Man is subjected to electroshock therapy experiments. These experiments cause Invisible Man to lose much of his memory.
Upon his discharge from the hospital, the Narrator is introduced to Mary Rambo, a strong, independent woman who nurses the Narrator back to health and becomes a mother figure. One night while Invisible Man is taking a stroll around the city, he witnesses the eviction of an elderly black couple. Saddened by the scene, the Narrator gives a speech that riles up the crowd of onlookers and they begin to place the couple’s belongings back into their home.
The police are alerted and Invisible Man flees the scene. During his retreat, Invisible Man is followed by a white man, who goes by the name Brother Jack. Jack invites Invisible Man to a diner for coffee and discusses a possible job opportunity with a multicultural political organization known as the Brotherhood. The Narrator later accepts the offer, moves out of Mary’s home, and becomes the leader of the Brotherhood’s Harlem sector.
The Narrator is given a new identity and learns all of the ideology of the Brotherhood with the guidance of Brother Hambro. As Invisible Man gains public popularity, many factors attempt to halt his success. Brother Wrestrum accuses the Narrator of using the Brotherhood to gain personal acclaim and the Narrator receives and anonymous letter, which we later discover was written by Brother Jack, that warns him that “this is a white man’s world”. Invisible Man begins to slowly detach himself from the organization but is brought back in following the death of Brother Tod Clifton, the former youth leader in Harlem.
Clifton was shot and killed in the street by a policeman while selling Sambo dolls. When Invisible Man decides to give Clifton a public funeral, the Brotherhood committee becomes unhappy and calls a meeting. As Brother Jack is criticizing the Narrator’s recent choices and attitude, his glass eye falls out. This makes the Narrator very uncomfortable because he was not aware of Jack’s injury.
After being belittled by the committee, the Narrator seeks revenge on the organization by using his grandfather’s advice to undermine the Brotherhood. In order for Invisible Man to carry out his plan for revenge, he must have an informant inside of the committee. The Narrator chooses Sybil, the wife of one of the leading member of the Brotherhood, as his informant but she is clueless about her husband’s business affairs.
When Invisible Man returns to Harlem, the city is in a state of uproar and Ras the Exhorter, a black nationalist, is fueling the community’s anger. In order to move around the city undetected by Ras, the Narrator purchases a disguise consisting of dark green shades and a brimmed hat. While wearing his disguise, the Narrator is often mistaken for Rinehart, a man of many talents in the community. While riots are occurring throughout the city, Ras eventually catches up to Invisible Man and orders his henchman to hang him.
The Narrator flees but is stopped by two men who want to know the contents of his briefcase. In an attempt to escape the two men, Invisible Man falls into a man hole. Unable to see in the underground tunnels, he is forced to light the contents of his briefcase on fire and use them as a torch. Being in the manhole for an extended period made Invisible Man realize the extent of the Brotherhood’s manipulation and how they used him as a tool. The epilogue of the novel mirrors the prologue and the Narrator expresses that he is ready to emerge from his underground hideout and rejoin society.