Invisible Man

Students trace an unnamed African American narrator's "Hero's Journey" from innocence to self-discovery in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, examining the novel's harsh critique of American society.

Unit Summary

In this unit, students will analyze and experience Ralph Ellison’s acclaimed 1952 novel, Invisible Man. This National Book Award winning work follows an unnamed African American narrator from the Deep South to Harlem, New York as he searches for meaning and truth. Exploring themes of racism, identity, and truth, Ellison brings readers on a journey of invisibility and self-discovery that poses a harsh critique of American society. While reading the novel, students will trace the narrator’s “Hero’s Journey” journey from innocence to self-discovery. They will simultaneously analyze Ellison’s use of the narrator’s journey to deliver his own messages on race and racism in American society, including harsh critiques of some of the most prominent figures in African American history.

The primary literary analysis skills focus of the unit will be on analyzing the narrator and how the author uses the narrator’s development to communicate his themes. Students will trace the major motifs and symbols of the novel, also with an eye to theme development. In addition to the reading of the novel, students will read several non-fiction pieces, analyzing how each author develops his or her point of view. Throughout the unit, students will discuss, debate and write about questions mapped to the Common Core standards and modeled on question types from the new (2016) SAT exam.

This unit has four Supplementary AP Projects, related to the theme of race and identity in the United States. Over the course of these projects, students will analyze a documentary film and a work of non-fiction, both of which are produced by influential African American thinkers and grapple with issues of race and identity in the United States. Students will compose a rhetorical analysis essay (similar to FRQ 2) and an original position piece (similar to FRQ 3) based on these readings. Then, students will compose responses to the FRQ 2 and FRQ 3 essay prompts from the 2017 AP English Language and Composition exam. To learn more about including these Supplemental AP Projects in this English 12 unit, please see our Guide to Supplemental AP Language and Composition Projects

Texts and Materials

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Core Materials

  • Book: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (Vintage Books, 1980.)  


This assessment accompanies Unit 1 and should be given on the suggested assessment day or after completing the unit.

Unit Prep

Intellectual Prep


Intellectual Prep for English Lessons

  1. Read and annotate the novel with the key thematic questions in mind.
  2. Consider the key thematic questions in light of the novel. How would you answer them? Also consider possible sub-questions that students should investigate/debate to deepen their answers.
  3. Take the exam, including writing an essay in answer to the prompt.
  4. Read and annotate the paired texts.
  5. Consider possible connections between the paired nonfiction texts and the novel.
  6. Watch Invisible Man: The Hero's Journey by PBS Learning Media
  7. Read Exploring the Controversy: The "N" Word by PBS on using the "N" word in class
  8. (Optional) Create visuals for the classroom: list of motifs/symbols, character lists/trackers, themes and thematic questions, elements of the Hero’s Journey.

Intellectual Prep for AP Projects

Essential Questions


Theme-Based Questions:

  • Racism and stereotypes: What is the impact of stereotypes on individuals? On society? How does racism impact individual identity?
  • Identity: How do others’ expectations and actions impact our own identities? How do loneliness and isolation impact identity development? Specifically, how does racism impact individual identity? How do treachery and betrayal impact the identity of the betrayer? The victim?
  • Lies and Deception: What is the truth? Are lies and deception ever justified? Can they ever achieve a good end? 

Author’s Craft Questions:

  • Author’s Craft: How does an author use symbols and motifs to create theme? (fiction) How does an author develop and defend an argument? (non-fiction and fiction)
  • Motifs and symbols: blindness, invisibility, masks, dolls, briefcase, sleeping/waking, darkness/light, colors

Writing Focus Areas


Note: This essay structure is adapted from the SAT

Write an essay in which you explain how the author builds an argument/develops a theme. In your essay, analyze how the author uses one or more of the features listed in the box below (or features of your own choice). Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.

  • Features for fiction: characterization of the narrator; motifs and symbols; allusions to historical figures, events and/or documents; characterization of secondary characters; the stages of the Hero’s Journey
  • Features for non-fiction: evidence, such as facts or examples to support claims; reasoning to develop ideas and connect claims to evidence; stylistic or persuasive elements such as word choice or appeals to emotion to add power to the ideas expressed.



Literary Terms

irony, motif, symbol, theme, mood, narrator, tone, characterization, metaphor, extended metaphor

Roots and Affixes

fall- (fallacious), gest- (gesticulate), ir-(irrevocably), inter-/intra-(intercede), mal- (malicious), dis-(dissimulation, disillusionment, dispossessed)


Prologue: disposition (3), insolently (4), overt (5), fallacious (5), ambivalence (10), shirk (14)

Chapter 1: naïve (15), exulted (16), treachery (17, 40), humility (25), extol (29)

Chapter 2: stagnant (35) prestige (45)

Chapter 3: gesticulating (72), inhibitions (76), discourse (77), submissive (81, 82), nostalgia (92), degradation (93), amorphous (95)

Chapter 4: predicament (99, 105), tersely (100)

Chapter 5: irrevocably (109), intercede (115), humble/humility (119, 120)

Chapter 6: relics (137), conciliatory (141), revelation (143)

Chapter 7: recede (p. 155), indisputably (p. 157), furtive (p. 158), affirmation (160)

Chapter 8: antagonism (166, 168, 181, 211)

Chapter 9: malicious (179)

Chapter 10: insinuation (197), optic (201), dissimulation (211), maliciously (218) impudent (226), irrevocably (230)

Chapter 11: detachment (233)

Chapter 12: disillusioned (256), contempt (256, 257), 

Chapter 13: recant (265), dispossessed (278), sentimental (291), smug (292), indignant (293, 331)

Chapter 14: indecision (306), dispossession (307), chauvinism (312)

Chapter 15: self-mocking (319), serene (327), impertinence (328)

Chapter 16: indoctrination (351), inevitable (352)

Chapter 17: fanatic (357), ideological/ideology (357, 359), precarious (362), sectarianism (365)

Chapter 18: unperturbed (384), inscrutably (389), nebulous (390)

Chapter 19: avert (411), sensuously (412, 431), superfluous (421)

Chapter 20: agitation (428, 429, 430)

Chapter 21: spiel (445)

Chapter 22: tactician (463, 464, 465)

Chapter 24: inextricably (515)

Chapter 25: evade (537), partition (568)

Epilogue: vindication (574), transcendence (574)

Idioms and Cultural References

Prologue: Edgar Allen Poe, epidermis, boomerang, Edison, Ford, Franklin, Dante, klieg light, “third degree”

Chapter 1: boomerang, smoker (17), rococo (18), “coon” (22), Sambo (26), Booker T. Washington (18 & 29)

Chapter 2: “Founder’s Day” (37), White Man’s Burden (37), Emerson (41), “Lawd” (65), banknote (69)

Chapter 3: chain gang (71), “stool-pigeon” (82)

Chapter 5: puritanical (110), Horatio Alger (111), Homer (117), Emancipation (118), “humble carpenter of Nazareth” (119), Aristotle (120)

Chapter 6: N-(p. 139), leg shackle (p. 141), reference to lynching (143)

Chapter 7: “chew the rag” (p. 155), Red Cap (p. 157)“the Jim Crow” (p. 155), “Up North” (p. 158)

Chapter 10: “scabs” (197), “racket” (197), “fink” (219)

Chapter 11: lobotomy (236), Buckeye the Rabbit (212), Brer Rabbit (242)

Chapter 12: spat (256), Wall Street Journal (257), dissonance (259)

Chapter 13: “Field N –“ (265), “scobos” (269), Marcus Garvey (272), “paddie” (274), “double talk” (291)

Chapter 14: “dunning” (296), Chthonian (299), “divan” (301)

Chapter 15: pince-nez (328), “pigeon drop” (330), “rabble rouser” (331)

Chapter 16: Nijinsky (349)

Chapter 17: El Toro (357), nationalists (364), “across a barrel” (365), “sudsbuster” (366), “zoot suiter” (366), “Uncle Tom” (369)

Chapter 18: “hostess gown” (411)

Chapter 20: Sambo (431)

Chapter 21: “zoot-suiters and “hep cats” (451)

Chapter 22: “sideshow” (466), “Cyclopean” (474)

Chapter 23: charlatan (504), touche (512)

Chapter 24: Joe Louis (516), Paul Robeson (516)

Chapter 25: ex post facto (550), Uncle Tom (557)

Epilogue: avant-garde (572), mea culpa (574)

Content Knowledge and Connections


The Great Migration, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Communism and the Labor Movement, Existentialism, Marcus Garvey and Black Nationalism

Previous Fishtank ELA Connections

Lesson Map


  • Invisible Man pp. 46 – 70

Explain how the author uses the Trueblood family as a social critique.


  • Invisible Man pp. 162 – 184

Explain how the author develops the motif of blindness in Chapter 9.


  • Invisible Man pp. 423 – 444

Explain how the author builds suspense in Chapter 20.


  • Invisible Man pp. 479 – 512

Explain how the author uses symbols to develop theme.


  • Invisible Man pp. 535 – 556

Analyze the development of the symbol of the briefcase.



AP Projects


3 days



In the documentary, Ralph Ellison: An American Journey, Professor Cornel West claims that, “It is impossible to be a serious student of American culture and Afro-American culture without working through Ellison. He is a brook of fire through which one must pass.”

Write an essay in which you take a position on West’s argument that reading Ellison is “a brook of fire through which one must pass.” Use appropriate, specific evidence to illustrate and develop your position.


3 days



Read "Niagara Movement Speech" by W.E.B. Dubois. W.E.B made this speech in 1905 at a meeting of the Niagara Movement, a civil rights group organized by Dubois and William Monroe Trotter. In the speech, Dubois introduces a call to action and a list of demands for social, political and economic equality for African Americans. Read the passage carefully. Then, in a well-developed essay, analyze how Dubois uses the first paragraph to prepare his audience for his message. Support your analysis of his rhetoric with specific references to the text.

Common Core Standards

Language Standards
  • L.11-12.6 — Acquire and use accurately general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.

Reading Standards for Literature
  • RL.11-12.1 — Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

  • RL.11-12.2 — Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • RL.11-12.3 — Analyze the impact of the author's choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

  • RL.11-12.4 — Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.)

  • RL.11-12.5 — Analyze how an author's choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

  • RL.11-12.6 — Analyze a case in which grasping point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).

Speaking and Listening Standards
  • SL.11-12.1 — Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11—12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Writing Standards
  • W.11-12.1 — Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

  • W.11-12.4 — Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.