The story is about the struggles of an unnamed boy of American Origin. Though he is not physically invisible, people tend not to see him because of his low stature in society. He lives underground, and that is where he writes the story.
A narrator is a young man between 20 and 30. He is invited to give a speech attended by white men that live in his town. Although he is humiliated in the “battle royal,” he later gives a speech and is rewarded with a briefcase that contains scholarship documents. Later that night, he dreams that the scholarship is not real.
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After three years, the readers encounter the narrator as a young man in college. He Chauffeurs, Mr. Norton, a wealthy trustee around the college. On a visit to a brothel that is frequented by black men, Mr. Norton passes out during a fight that ensues.
When back at the college, there is a sermon given by Reverend Homer talking of the founder of the college. Dr. Bledsoe, the college president, later chastises the narrator as he heard the encounter the narrator had with Norton at the brothel. Bledsoe expels the narrator sending him to look for a job.
Although the narrator has a letter of recommendation, it does not help in his job search. Mr. Emerson’s son reads the letter and reveals to the narrator that the letter portrays him in a bad light. Emmerson’s son helps the narrator secure a low-paying job. The fight between the narrator and Lucius Brockway causes an explosion at the company. The impact makes the narrator unconscious.
At the hospital, the doctors use the narrator as a specimen for an electric shock experiment. The narrator collapses in the street and is rescued by Mary. When the narrator opposes the eviction of Mary through a speech, Brotherhood hires him as their spokesperson. The group demands the narrator should change his name and break from his past. At Harlem, the narrator meets Tod Clifton and Ras. He is later moved to a different area where a white woman seduces the narrator.
On return to Harlem, the narrator discovers the Brotherhood is no longer strong. Clifton is shot dead by police. Because of honoring Clifton, the Brotherhood sees him as a traitor. The Brotherhood is completely weakened and riot breaks in Harlem. As the story by Ralph Ellison ends, the narrator vows to continue staying underground.