An unnamed Black narrator in 1952 lives underground in Manhattan in a room lit with 1,369 light bulbs, powered by stolen electricity. He remembers various incidents from his life, including a time he threatened a white man with a knife for insulting him, and a time he tried reefer while listening to Louis Armstrong. As the first chapter begins, we flashback to a time he arrived to give a speech to white rich people, only to find he was expected to fight other young black men first.
Why the unnamed narrator might be hard to identify with: He doesn’t have a name. He’s bizarre. He’s a quitter. He seems equally disdainful of everyone, black and white.
- He’s coyly hiding secrets from us that he promises to reveal later: “I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century, which I discovered when I was trying to escape in the night from Ras the Destroyer. But that’s getting too far ahead of the story.”
- The 1,369 light bulbs make for great imagery, and provide a lot of meaning. Of course if you’re surrounded by light bulbs in every direction, then you’ve still got black skin, but you don’t cast any shadows. The hero’s goal seems to be blackness purged of darkness, and he’s visualizing that problem, making it come alive for us.
- He’s a man of particular tastes: “Sometimes now I listen to Louis while I have my favorite dessert of vanilla ice cream and sloe gin.”
- Long before he abandoned society, he was told by the world that he had no place there: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
- He tells us that the more he tried to fit in, the more he ironically felt like a traitor. Because his grandfather told him on his deathbed to feign subservience and then betray the white man, then every time he tries to do what white people want him to do, he worries that he’s just following his grandfather’s dictum and he’s secretly a traitor.
- He’s disconnected and self-conscious: “Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around.”
- He’s hiding from the world now, but he claims that he was once a total badass: “One night I accidentally bumped into a man, and perhaps because of the near darkness he saw me and called me an insulting name. I sprang at him, seized his coat lapels and demanded that he apologize. He was a tall blond man, and as my face came close to his he looked insolently out of his blue eyes and cursed me, his breath hot in my face as he struggled. I pulled his chin down sharp upon the crown of my head, butting him as I had seen the West Indians do, and I felt his flesh tear and the blood gush out, and I yelled, “Apologize! Apologize!” But he continued to curse and struggle, and I butted him again and again until he went down heavily, on his knees, profusely bleeding. I kicked him repeatedly, in a frenzy because he still uttered insults though his lips were frothy with blood. Oh yes, I kicked him! And in my outrage I got out my knife and prepared to slit his throat, right there beneath the lamplight in the deserted street, holding him by the collar with one hand, and opening the knife with my teeth”
- But he admits that this is not the personality he will display for most of the book: “Most of the time (although I do not choose as I once did to deny the violence of my days by ignoring it) I am not so overtly violent.” It’s common to get us to invest in a reader by giving a brief flash of their bravest moment, even if they won’t be that way for the rest of the book.