Invisible Man Essay Questions

1.

Compare and contrast the ideologies of the Brotherhood and the college. How does each ideology breed blindness and invisibility? What conflicts do they cause for the narrator?

The college’s ideology is based on the ideas of Booker T. Washington, who is represented by the figure of the Founder; through a near-religious devotion to the legend of the Founder’s life, students at the college are taught to work hard and seek economic advancement while not clamoring for equal rights or equal treatment from whites. The college encourages students to reject black culture to the extent that it seems ignorant and rural, and to pattern their behavior on the white middle class. The Brotherhood adheres to an ideology based on that of American communist groups in the 1930s, a sort of authoritarian socialism that relies on a Marxist theory of history—which holds that those of lower social status must submit themselves to the unavoidable class struggles on the path to equality. The Brotherhood thus prizes clinical, scientific exposition over the sort of emotional appeal on behalf of the individual that the narrator makes after Tod Clifton’s death.

The ideology of the college limits the narrator’s identity in that it forces him to reject the black culture that shaped his early identity and forces him to accept a position of inherent inferiority to whites. The ideology of the Brotherhood limits the narrator’s identity in that it requires blind adherence to the collective attitude of the organization and allows no room for individual thought, expression, or action—the very things that the narrator craves. By limiting the narrator’s identity, these ideologies effectively render him invisible, as they force him to bury his real self beneath the roles that those around him require him to play.

2.

Who is Rinehart? What does he represent? What does he mean to the narrator?

Rinehart is a mystery and a source of deep ambiguity in Invisible Man. He never appears in the novel, and the narrator only learns of his existence when other people mistake him for Rinehart while he is in disguise. Rinehart seems to be all things to all people—pimp, bookie, and preacher, among other things. Ultimately, Rinehart is an extremely surreal figure of Ellison’s creation, designed not to be realistic or believable but rather unsettling and confusing. Rinehart represents a protean conception of identity—the idea that a person’s identity can change completely depending on where one is and with whom one interacts, an extreme version of the narrator’s conundrum throughout the novel. At first, the narrator feels that Rinehart’s adaptability enables a kind of freedom, but he quickly realizes that Rinehart’s formlessness also represents a complete loss of individual selfhood. In the end, the liquidity of Rinehart’s identity is one of the forces that compel the narrator to discover his own more solid identity.

3.

What is the role of treachery in the novel? Who betrays whom? How does treachery relate to the motifs of blindness and invisibility?

The two major betrayals in the novel are the narrator’s betrayals at the hands of the college (in the figure of Dr. Bledsoe) and the Brotherhood (in the figure of Brother Jack). Bledsoe poses as a figure representing the advancement of black Americans through education. In reality, however, he deliberately subordinates himself to whites and says that he would see every black man in America lynched before giving up his power. That he sends the narrator away with letters of supposed recommendation that, in reality, explicitly criticize the narrator demonstrates his objectionable desire to suppress black identity. The members of the Brotherhood betray the narrator in a number of insidious ways, ranging from curtailing his individuality to turning their backs on the plight of the poor blacks in Harlem. Jack, specifically, betrays the narrator by posing as a compassionate and helpful friend while secretly harboring racist prejudice against him and using him as a tool for the advancement of the Brotherhood’s ends.

This sort of treachery generally contributes to the novel’s creation of a bewildering, malevolent world in which an unexpected blow can come at any time, reinforcing the novel’s characterization of the social effects of racial prejudice. Treachery also reinforces the ideas of blindness and invisibility, because any betrayal is essentially a sign that the betrayer willfully refuses to see his victim. Additionally, the novel’s betrayals function through deceit and secrecy—for the most part, they are invisible, and the narrator is blind to them until it is too late.

The 2017 AP English Literature Free Response Questions focus on varying themes and are each structured differently. For an overview of the three prompt types that you may encounter, read The Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs. Here we discuss the third FRQ prompt, which allows you to choose a particular work of literature as the focus of your essay.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is a complex look at race, ideology, and stereotypes. Herein we will discuss how to determine if the given prompt is appropriate for this particular literary work and give you an idea of what to review before your exam.

Invisible Man AP English Lit Essay Themes

To choose a literary work to answer your prompt, it’s important to examine the themes which are outlined in the assigned essay. If the theme is not relevant or well established in a work, you will do well to choose another title to examine. The following are the main themes which you may discuss in your Invisible Man AP English Lit Essay.

Race vs. Individual Identity is a major theme explored throughout the story. The narrator is unable to reconcile his own conception of personal identity with his place in a racist society as a black man.

The Limitations of Ideology are illustrated in the novel with various scenarios. The narrator comes to realize that the ideologies of institutions, like schools, are too narrow-minded to allow for the variety of the human condition. Ultimately, the narrator feels that life is too rich and various to be bound by strict ideology.

The Folly of Adopting Stereotypes to Combat Stereotypes is another important theme within the story. The narrator is met with many different ideas of how black people should represent themselves in order to prove white stereotypes wrong. However, he asserts that these models only make it difficult to be truly free within your own life.

How to use Invisible Man for the 2017 AP English Literature Free Response Questions

Invisible Man is a complex literary work, with which you should be familiar. It may well be a viable choice for the AP English Lit free response question. However, that is dependent on the question. Each year the 3rd FRQ is different, and the CollegeBoard supplies a list of suggested books to reference for your essay. The absence of a book from the list does not disqualify it from use. That being said, it’s important to know how to choose which book to use for the given analysis.

In preparation for your exam, it’s a good idea to read previous years’ free response questions posted on CollegeBoard. The following review is for the 2016 FRQ prompt.

2016 FRQ 3: Many works of literature contain a character who intentionally deceives others. The character’s dishonesty may be intended to either help or hurt. Such a character, for example, may choose to mislead others for personal safety, to spare someone’s feelings, or to carry out a crime.

Choose a novel or play in which a character deceives others. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze the motives for that character’s deception and discuss how the deception contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.

Invisible Man is on the suggested list for this prompt, and there are several reasons for its inclusion. The theme of deception is represented by various characters in the story, including the narrator himself. A possible thesis for Invisible Man is as follows. In Invisible Man, the narrator is deceived by Dr. Bledsoe after his expulsion from college. The doctor relies on deception to maintain his status at the college. The narrator is expelled for showing a white man something which the doctor has deliberately hidden from them. The treachery of Dr. Bledsoe reveals the contempt with which he sees other black people and the lengths he will go to continue his charade of servitude to the white world.

In support of this thesis, you can cite the various passages dealing with this subject matter. In the following quote, Dr. Bledsoe is adamant that the narrator should have lied in order to show the white men what they are supposed to see, not what they want to see. The doctor has fabricated a persona for himself and expects his students to represent that same persona in their behavior.

“He ordered you. Dammit, white folk are always giving orders, it’s a habit with them. Why didn’t you make an excuse? Couldn’t you say they had sickness – smallpox – or picked another cabin? Why that Trueblood shack? My God, boy! You’re black and living in the South – did you forget how to lie?” (6.24)

In the next quote, Dr. Bledsoe shows his true feelings towards white men, stating that the narrator shouldn’t lie to him. He also shows his contempt for his own race in the way he addresses the narrator

Nigger, this isn’t the time to lie. I’m no white man. Tell me the truth!” (6.34)

Herein, Dr. Bledsoe describes his thirst for power over men of all colors. The narrator, having heard this, should have known not to trust the letters he was given. However, the fact that he trusted the doctor blindly shows how naive he was about the world at that time.

“You’re nobody, son. You don’t exist – can’t you see that? The white folk tell everybody what to think – except men like me. I tell them; that’s my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about…But you listen to me: I didn’t make it, and I know that I can’t change it. But I’ve made my place in it and I’ll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am.” (6.76)

In the following excerpt, Dr. Bledsoe is asserting yet again how much power means to him, even at the price of respect. He asserts to the narrator that he doesn’t care what is said or done against him because it won’t be enough to bring him down from power.

“Tell anyone you like,” he said. “I don’t care. I wouldn’t raise my little finger to stop you because I don’t owe anyone a thing, son. Who, Negroes? Negroes don’t control this school or much of anything else – haven’t you learned even that? No sir, they don’t control this school, nor white folk either. True they support it, but I control it. It’s big and black and I say ‘Yes, suh’ as loudly as any burrhead when it’s convenient, but I’m still the king down here. I don’t care how much it appears otherwise. 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. Let the Negroes snicker and the crackers laugh! Those are the facts, son. The only ones I even pretend to please are big white folks, and even those I control more than they control me. This is a power set-up, son, and I’m at the controls. You think about that. When you buck against me, you’re bucking against power, rich white folk’s power, the nation’s power – which means government power!” (6.73)

2015 FRQ 3: In literary works, cruelty often functions as a crucial motivation or a major social or political factor. Select a novel, play, or epic poem in which acts of cruelty are important to the theme. Then write a well-developed essay analyzing how cruelty functions in the work as a whole and what the cruelty reveals about the perpetrator and/or victim.

Invisible Man is on the recommended list for this prompt. Cruelty takes many forms throughout the story. The most prominent example is the cruelty society perpetrates over black people the negro man. A possible thesis for the 2015 free response question is as follows. In Invisible Man, the everyday cruelty of society towards the black man is a central theme in the story. The narrator finds himself at odds with stereotypes and expectations from both white and black factions of the world. He comes to realize that no man can be categorized so narrowly and remain his own person. Thus, his eventual break from society which leads him to embrace his role as the Invisible Man.

To elaborate on this thesis and explain what it reveals about the perpetrator and/or victim, you will need to choose your examples and expand upon them. In the following excerpt, the narrator relates how the idea of freedom for slaves was so cruel. Since no man, who is not equal with his fellow men, can truly be free.

“I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed. About eighty-five years ago they were told that they were free, united with others of our country in everything pertaining to the common good, and, in everything social, separate from the fingers of the hand. And they believed it. They exulted in it. They stayed in their place, worked hard, and brought up my father to do the same.” (1.2)

In the next quote, we can see how racial equality was not something to be discussed or achieved.

“’You weren’t being smart, were you, boy?’ he said, not unkindly. ‘No, sir!’ ‘You sure that bit about ‘equality’ was a mistake?’” (1.87-9)

After winning a scholarship to college, by the most humiliating of means, the narrator dreams that it is only another way for the white men to keep him running in place. Not untrue, considering the outcome of his scholarship.

“’To Whom It May Concern,’ I intoned. ‘Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.’” (1.105)

Due to the cruelty of racial inequality, the narrator feels he must speak to white men as if he is stupid and flatter them without reason.

“Of course I knew he was a founder, but I knew also that it was advantageous to flatter rich white folks. Perhaps he’d give me a large tip, or a suit, or a scholarship next year.” (2.18)

In the following quote, Trueblood recounts how the black community reviled him, for living up to negative white stereotypes for his race. And, how whites would help him no matter what he did because he was justifying their feelings of superiority.

“I went to see the white folks then and they gave me help. That’s what I don’t understand. I done the worse thing a man could ever do in his family and instead of chasin’ me out of the county, they gimme more help than they ever give any other colored man, no matter how good a nigguh he was…The nigguhs up at the school don’t like me, but the white folks treat me fine.” (2.254)

In the next passage, the Vet relates how both the narrator and Mr. Norton are feeding into racism, without even meaning to do so.

“But seriously, because you fail to understand what is happening to you. You cannot see or hear or smell the truth of what you see – and you, looking for destiny! It’s classic! And the boy, this automaton, he was made of the very mud of the region and he sees far less than you. Poor stumblers, neither of you can see the other. To you he is a mark on the score-card of your achievement, a thing and not a man; a child, or even less – a black amorphous thing. And you, for all your power are not a man to him, but a God, a force –” (3.314)

The narrator remembers how his grandfather had mistrusted whites and advised him to keep his distance. This is a consequence of racial segregation and the stereotypes which kept blacks from advancing. While whites felt superior and untrusting of the black community, black men couldn’t fully trust any white man, even if he seemed to regard them positively.

“…I remembered something my grandfather had said long ago: Don’t let no white man tell you his business, ’cause after he tells you he’s liable to git shame he tole it to you and then he’ll hate you. Fact is, he was hating you all the time…” (9.147)

Conclusion

Invisible Man has many themes you may find helpful for the last Free Response Question on the AP English Literature Exam. When reading the prompt and deciding on what literary work to use for your essay, remember to choose a subject where the theme outlined in the given instructions is prevalent. 

In the case of Invisible Man, race, ideology, and stereotypes are a few of the more prominent themes discussed. However, as we saw with the aforementioned prompt examples, this story has many underlying themes which you may examine for your Invisible Man AP English Lit Essay.

For more help preparing for your AP English Literature exam we suggest you readThe Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs and The Ultimate Guide to 2015 AP English Literature FRQs. And, for writing advice for the AP English Lit free response questions, Albert.io’s AP English Literature section has practice free response sections with sample answers and rubrics.

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