As theinvisible man reaches his most mature state of mind, he finally understandsthat the feelings of security induced by invisibility are merely a defense.Casting away this invisibility, the narrator demonstrates a deeperunderstanding of identity, particularly the fact that attempting to pinpoint itis futile. Rather than letting his ideas “keep filing away at my lethargy, mycomplacency,” he chooses to take action and face the world (Ellison 449). It isin this true enlightenment that he realizes a previously unseen meaning behindhis grandfather’s last words. The narrator’s previous interpretation of hisgrandfather’s words to “overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins,agree ’em to death and destruction” (Ellison 13) was taken as a suggestion tofollow white culture subserviently, appealing to “predetermined, stereotypednotions of what role he should play” (Britton).
The no-longer-invisible man seesthat his grandfather was telling him to rise in society—their view of it—and makea difference through their world, in their eyes. The recognition of this subtledifference between this new vision and the initial belief of conformity is whatprompts the narrator to shed his invisibility in attempt to take action andmake a significant difference in society. Only then does he truly understandthat identity is shaped by the eye of the beholder. With this, Ellison conveysa message far greater than one merely against racism, drawing from the natureof society and perception to illustrate that chasing after one’s identity willremain endlessly fruitless until one takes concrete action to make adifference, and it is through this that identity will form.
In hisemergence from hiding, the narrator’s journey reaches the real enlightenment ofthe bildungsroman that is his life. Setting aside the shield of invisibility,the narrator overcomes his surreptitious blindness that is concealed behindbeliefs of his identity as invisible. Ellison illuminates the ambiguity ofidentity through the narrator’s own thoughts and experiences; by ending hisisolation and taking a vow of action, the narrator demonstrates that he finallysees what identity is and has moved on from looking for it, resonating with theinsightful words of Thoreau. In InvisibleMan, Ellison shows that blindness and invisibility are two sides of thesame coin, as are the differing aspects of any personality, and—like a coin—aslight shines on one side, the other lies in shadow. To see both is the truetest of identity.