In the Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, Ellison explores death as a recurrent theme in several unusual ways. Not only do we, the readers, observe physical deaths of characters throughout the novel, but we also see many symbolic deaths through the progression our main character on his quest for an identity. Ellison seems to articulate a theme regarding death, which reveals that following death, humans find life. This life may be in the form of an inspirational legacy, or a new individual identity, but this theme is clearly depicted through the characters whom we witness before death and after death in Ellison’s story.

Importance of Physical Death in the Invisible Man

When a character dies in the Invisible Man, his life becomes more significant to the remaining characters than it was while he was alive. People focus more on what the character represented than what the character actually did, which serves as an inspiration for the actions of those who remain. This is evident in the deaths of the Invisible Man’s grandfather and coworker Tod Clifton.

Invisible Man’s Grandfather

Throughout the novel, the Grandfather is remembered for his speech before his death more than many other actions he performs while he's living. Before his death, the Invisible Man describes him as “a quiet old man who never made any trouble”(16) [1]. He diexternal image vn1999-bremer-old-man-small1.jpgd not seem to have that much of an impact on anyone while he was alive. Yet, his advice to “overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death” (16)[1] has a lasting effect on the Invisible Man. At first, he does not understand this advice but states “It had a tremendous effect on me.” [1] During the course of the Invisible Man’s life, his grandfather’s advice returns to him in the form of dreams and memories, especially when he gives into the white man. For example, the Invisible Man notes, “his Grandfather would call this treachery” (40) while he is trusting Mr. Norton and questions whether the white man is taking advantage of him.

The reason that Ellison chooses the Grandfather to die is because he wants the Grandfather to act as a conscience for the Invisible Man. His voice constantly reminds the narrator not to trust the white man, but reap the benefits from being submissive to their needs. This ultimately helps the Invisible Man at the end when he uses his submissive status to bring down the Brotherhood when he decides to “yes then till they puked and rolled in it” (509) just like his Grandfather suggests. At this point, his grandfather becomes more than just a person who died. However, he but a model how to live with the white man and is much more important to the Invisible Man. [1]

Tod Clifton

When Tod Clifton dies in the novel, the symbolism of his death was more important than the fact that he died. Therefore, Tod's death made him a more influential figure to people than he ever could be during his life.
While he is alive, Tod Clifton is merely a member of the Brotherhood. He teaches the Invisible Man how to relate to people in speeches, but is not completely successful himself. While talking about a man named Garvey, he tells the Invisible Man, “He must have had something to move all of these people! Our people are hell to move.” (367) This implies that Clifton is having a difficult time reaching the people in Harlem and must not have that much of an impact on their daily life. [1]
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Once Clifton dies, people everywhere are outraged and he becomes a symbol of hope. His death, caused by the white police, acts as a symbol of race relations and connects the people more than any of his life's work did. The Invisible Man says, “It was necessary to make it known that the meaning of his death was greater than the incident or object that caused it. Both as a means of avenging him and of preventing other such deaths.” (448) [1]

The Invisible Man realizes that people racism outrages people. He realizes, however, that racism is not as public as it should be. His job is to make Clifton an example of a person who was killed for his race and unite the people to fight this cause, which is why he organizes a funeral. At this funeral, the community comes together to mourn Clifton’s death. Some people hang up banners saying, “BROTHER TOD CLIFTON, OUR HOPE SHOT DOWN” (450) [1] and the community member march in the street together in the sweltering heat to honor Clifton’s death. However, the Invisible Man asks, “Why were they here? Why had they found us? Because they knew Clifton? Or for the occasion his death gave them to express their protestations, a time and place to come together, to stand touching and sweating and breathing and looking in a common direction?”(452). He notices that people are using Clifton's death as a way to express their discontent with society, even if they did not know the person. [1]

What is even more miraculous to the Invisible Man is the number of people that show discontent. During the hymn at the funeral, the Invisible Man notices “Even white brothers and sisters were joining in” (453). This shows that people related more to the message of social injustice brought by Clifton’s death than the actual person and the fact that he is no longer alive. [1]

Literary Allusions

The effect of the death of the grandfather on the Invisible Man is similar to the effect that the grandmother’s death has on Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. The similarity is in the grandparents, whose advice keeps them immortal. After Janie is caught kissing a boy, her grandmother tells her that she wants Janie to marry for status rather than love and have an easier life than she did. Janie follows this advice twice. She marries Logan, who she is not in love with, and she later stays with Jody even though she is unhappy with him. After Jody dies, she recollects her grandmothers words realizes that she hates her grandmother when she says “Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon… and pinched it to a little bit of thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter's neck tight enough to choke her” (89). Even though she ultimately rejects her grandmother’s advice, Janie is kept alive after death by her grandmother's words, and has a more profound effect on Janie’s life than she did while she was alive. [2]

Clifton’s death also resembles the death of Jesus Christ in the Bible. Although Jesus was very prominent while he was alive, his legacy and the story of his death lead to an entire religion. Jesus Christ’s actual death is similar to Clifton’s death in the fact that Jesus was considered a rebel by the authorities for preaching his beliefs and was murdered by the Romans, who are similar to the police who killed Clifton. According to the book of Luke, Jesus' funeral consisted of the people coming together in the community on Sabbath to give him up to God. [3] After about 2000 years, many people do not remember the specifics of Christ’s life, but remember him as a symbol of hope, like Clifton, and represents a group of people coming together to support the message of religion and the virtues he stood for.external image LAZARUSCOMEFORTH.jpg[8]

The Death and Rebirth of the Invisible Man

Throughout the Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison also explores the theme of of rebirth following death. This theme does not only appear when physical deaths occur, but is also symbolically represented throughout the novel in other contexts. The narrator of the story, or the "Invisible Man," is guided through many changes in identity that ultimately lead to his life that is found when he reaches a symbolic societal death. The small changes in identity are small deaths and rebirths that finally lead up to his complete death in society. [1]

The first time we see the Invisible Man symbolically die is when the boiler explodes. In How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster devotes a chapter to death and rebirth in literature in the form of immersion, as symbolizing baptism. In the book, Foster answers the question, "So when writers baptize a character they mean death, rebirth, new identity?" with the statement, "Generally, yes" (159). Then he states that when characters are submersed in water, it sometimes "signifies birth, a new start, largely stripped of spiritual significance" (159). [4] When the boiler explodes, water blasts at the Invisible Man, and bathes him. He says that he was "shot forward with sudden acceleration into a wet blast of black emptiness that was somehow a bath of whiteness," (230) and that he "seemed to sink to the center of a lake of heavy water" (230). Arguably, this immersion is like a baptism and rebirth for the Invisible Man. His symbolic death in his submersion under water is undeniable. [1] Baptism is a key part of the Christian faith, and water is almost universal in different faiths as a symbol of new life or as a cleansing of the past. This is why writers utilize water as a symbol of new life in many literary works such as the Invisible Man.

[[[6|Religious Water Rituals ]] [6]

After the boiler incident, the Invisible Man wakes up in the hospital. The doctors decide to test electric shock therapy on our protagonist, and when he wakes, he fails to remember who he is or where he came from. Although his memory returns to him eventually, this experience symbolizes the death of his prior self. The fact that he wakes up to doctors surrounding him in a hospital makes it even more obvious that the scene is symbolic of birth/rebirth. He leaves, collapses on the street, and is brought to a woman named Mary, who
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represents a mother figure in his life, and who serves to nurture the Invisible Man to new life and to a new identity. Mary in a sense is similar to Jesus’ mother Mary, who brings God’s son into a world where his identity is different than it had been when he was in Heaven with the Father. [1], [3]

Another instance when the Invisible Man is symbolically reborn is when he is asked to join the Brotherhood in order to work for needy people in Harlem. Brother Jack informs the narrator that he needs to break from his past and is given a new name. "…It’s best that you cease [contacting his home] for a while," Jack says (309). " ‘That is your new name,’ Brother Jack said. ‘Start thinking of yourself by that name from this moment’ " (309). The Invisible Man needs to sacrifice his identity in order to be who the Brotherhood wants him to be. [1] This self-sacrifice is similar to what we see in the science-fiction novel, Anthem, written by Ayn Rand. In Anthem, none of the characters are given an individual identity, and when speaking, people use the word "we," and the word "I" has been obliterated from the language. The society in the novel stresses the importance of collectivism and brotherhood, rather than individuality. [5] These themes of collectivism and brotherhood are encouraged by the Brotherhood in the Invisible Man, especially when we see the sacrificial destruction of the narrator’s old identity in order for him to become part of a collective effort.

The Invisible Man later tries to rid himself of his new identity and of his association with the Brotherhood by wearing sunglasses and a hat. Under this disguise, he assumes yet another identity. This identity is that of Rinehart, a man who’s occupation never seems to be agreed upon by the different people who falsely give this title to the Invisible Man. This confusion is symbolic of the jumble of the narrator’s identity, and how he has no insight into what his place in society actually is or should be. [1external image 0451191137.01.LZZZZZZZ.jpg]
The narrator’s descent to societal death, or his realization of his invisibility, is brought about by his final symbolic death. He is "murdered" by the police who walk by and taunt him when he is in the manhole. They get angry at him when he refuses to give them his briefcase. Then, they place the [11]
cover over the manhole, surrounding the Invisible Man with blackness. Again, the Invisible Man is surrounded by water. He says "I felt the tug of sleep, seemed to move out upon black water. It’s a kind of death without hanging, I thought, a death alive" (566-567). The Invisible Man himself recognizes his own societal death. This final straw leads him to the realization of his own invisibility in society. Through the demeaning actions of the police, the Invisible Man comes face to face with his absolute insignificance. After his submersion underground, he is alive with self-awareness. He never fully re-emerges during the final pages of the book because he is writing to the readers from a basement, which is also underground. The readers, therefore, see this symbolic death as the last, and he finds his life amidst this death. [1]

Death and rebirth in the life of the Invisible Man is similar to death and rebirth in the Christian faith.
"1What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life." [3]
This quote from Romans 6 reflects one of the basic beliefs of Christianity. The Apostle Paul exhorts Christians to "die" to the world, and by separating from the world, they find new life and identity in Christ. Similarly, through the Invisible Man's "baptism" by the police, the narrator simultaneously recognizes his insignificance and finds himself.


[1] Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. Vintage International Edition. New York: Random House, Inc., 1995.
[2] Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1st Perennial Classics ed.. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1998.
[3]The NIV Study Bible. New International Version. Michigan: Zondervan, 2002.
[4] Foster, Thomas C.. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. First Edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2003.
[5] Rand, Ayn. Anthem. 50th Anniversary ed.. New York: Penguin Group, 1999.
[6] "Religious Water Rituals." Added: March, 27, 2007. beepbeepitsme.
[7] "Funeral."
[8] "Lazarus Come Forth." West African Children Support Network.
[9] Added: 1999.
[10] From Saint Mary Archangel Michae Coptic Orthodox Church.
[11] "Anthem."