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 1

12th Grade

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.

Texts and Materials

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Core Materials


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

Key Knowledge

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

AP Projects




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

Core Standards


Unit 2

A Doll's House

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