The narrator of the novel Invisible Man is not literally invisible. Because of other's inabilities to see him for who he is, he has taken to living life underground, in the subway system of New York. The novel focuses on the man's quest for identity and his search for himself. At first, he is a young black man who travels from the South to Harlem and is praised for his public speaking ability. But, the narrator soon learns that the racism of other people limits who he can be.
In the beginning, the narrator lives in a small town in the South. A model student, indeed the high school's valedictorian, he gives an eloquent, Booker T. Washington-inspired graduation speech about the struggles of the average black man. The local white dignitaries want to hear, too. First, however, in the opening "Battle Royal" chapter, they put him and other black boys through a series of self-abusive humiliations. Are these the white folk whom Washington thought blacks could look to as neighbors? Probably not—but they do give the narrator a scholarship to an all-black college clearly modeled, in spite of disguises, on Washington's Tuskegee University .
One afternoon during his junior year, the narrator chauffeurs Mr. Norton, a visiting rich white trustee, out among the old slave-quarters beyond the campus, stopping by chance at the cabin of Jim Trueblood, who unintentionally—in his sleep—committed incest with his daughter, who's now pregnant. After hearing Trueblood's scandalous story, and giving him a $100, Norton feels faint and calls for a "stimulant," meaning alcohol. The narrator realizes that he does not have the time to take Mr. Norton to the bars at the edge of town, and instead takes him to the Golden Day, a local tavern patronized by black World War I veterans who, presumably suffering from war-related disorders, are patients at a nearby mental hospital. It's a brutal, riotous scene, and Norton is carried out more dead than alive.
Small wonder that the narrator worries about the college president Dr. Bledsoe's reaction: white trustees aren't supposed to know about the underside of black life beyond the campus. What the campus stands for—the vision of the unnamed Founder (Washington)--comes out in a sermon by the Reverend Homer A. Barbee, a blind but fervently dedicated upholder of that vision. The narrator is uplifted, but unfortunately, Bledsoe expels him for having mismanaged Norton's afternoon. This is an important stage in the narrator's understanding. Bledsoe goes so far trying to please the white power brokers that people like him, the narrator, are sacrificed—rendered invisible. Nonetheless, Bledsoe gives him several letters of recommendation, which should help him get a job that will earn him the money he'll needto return to school.
Upon arriving in New York, the narrator distributes the letters with no success. Eventually, the son of one of "possibilities" takes pity on him and shows him an opened copy of the letter; it reveals that Bledsoe never had any intentions of letting the narrator return and sent him to New York to get rid of him. On the son's suggestion, the narrator eventually gets a job in the boiler room of a paint factory in a company renowned for its "Optic White" paint (used to render any object, from coal to monuments to buildings, blindingly white). The man in charge of the boiler room, Lucius Brockway, is extremely paranoid and thinks that the narrator has come to take his job. He is also extremely loyal to the company's owner, who once paid him a personal visit. When the narrator tells him about a union meeting he happened upon, the outraged Brockway attacks him. They fight, and Brockway tricks him into turning a wrong valve and causing a boiler to explode. Brockway escapes, but the narrator is hospitalized after the blast. While recovering, the narrator overhears doctors discussing him as a mental health patient. He learns through their discussion that shock treatment has been performed on him.
After the shock treatments, the narrator attempts to return to his residence when he feels overwhelmed by dizziness and faints on the streets of Harlem. He is taken to the residence of Mary, a kind, old-fashioned, down-to-earth woman who reminds him of his relatives in the South and friends at the college. Mary somewhat serves as a mother figure for the narrator. While living there, he happens upon an eviction of an elderly black couple and makes an impassioned speech decrying the action. But when the police arrive soon after, the narrator is forced to escape over several building-tops. Upon reaching "safety," he is confronted by a man named Jack, who implores him to join a group called the Brotherhood—a thinly veiled version of the supposedly color-blind Communist Party—that claims to be committed to the betterment of conditions in Harlem, and the entire world. The narrator agrees.
At first, the rallies go smoothly and the narrator is happy to be "making history" in his new job. Soon, however, he encounters trouble from Ras the Exhorter, a fanatical black nationalist similar to, but not based on Marcus Garvey who believes that the Brotherhood is controlled by whites. Ras tells this to the narrator and Tod Clifton, a youth leader of the Brotherhood, neither of whom seem to be swayed by his words.
The narrator continues his work in Harlem until he is called into a meeting of the Brotherhood. Believing that he has become too powerful an "individual"—this in a movement where individuals count for nothing—they reassign him to another part of the city to address the "women question." After the narrator gives his first lecture on women's rights, he is approached by the wife of another member of the Brotherhood. She invites him to her apartmentwhere she seduces him. The narrator is soon called to return to Harlem to repair its falling membership in the black community.
When he returns to Harlem, Tod Clifton has disappeared. When the narrator finds him, he realizes that Clifton has become disillusioned with the Brotherhood and quit. He is selling dancing Sambo dolls on the street, mocking the organization he once believed in. Soon after, Tod, resisting arrest, is fatally shot by a police officer. At his funeral, the narrator delivers a rousing speech, rallying a crowd to reclaim his former widespread Harlem support. He's criticized in a clandestine meeting with Brother Jack and other members for not being scientific in his arguments at the funeral; he angrily retaliates and Jack loses his temper to the extent that a glass eye flies out of its socket. The narrator realizes that the half-blind Jack has never really seen him either, and that the Brotherhood has no real interest in the black community's problems.
He is trailed by Ras the Exhorter's men as he returns to Harlem; buying sunglasses and a hat, he's mistaken for a man called Rinehart in several scenarios: a lover, a hipster, a gambler, a briber, and finally, a reverend. He sees that Rinehart has adapted to white society at the cost of his own identity. He decides to take his grandfather's dying advice to "overcome'em with yeses, undermine'em with grins, agree'em to death and destruction...." and "yes" the Brotherhood to death by making it look like the Harlem membership is thriving when it's actually crumbling. He seduces Sybil, the wife of one of the Brothers, in an attempt to learn of the Brotherhood's new activities.
Riots break out in Harlem and the narrator gets mixed up with a gang of looters. Wandering through a ravaged Harlem, he encounters Ras, who now calls himself Ras the Destroyer. After escaping Ras's attempt to have him lynched (by throwing a spear Ras had acquired through the leader's jaw, permanently sealing it), the narrator is attacked by a couple of white boys who trap him inside a coal-filled manhole/basement, sealing him off for the night and leaving him alone to finally confront the demons of his mind: Bledsoe, Norton, and Jack.
At the end of the novel, the narrator is ready to resurface because "overt action" has already taken place. This could mean that, in telling us the story, the narrator has already made a political statement about how change could occur. Therefore, it is storytelling and the preservation of the history of these invisible individuals that cause political change.