I wrote this essay on the topic of novels that introduce many of their important themes in the first chapter or section.
Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is a complex novel with many themes, the majority of which are introduced in the prologue. Themes of invisibility, violence, inaction vs. action, and the contradictions of African American culture are all presented.
The speak introduces himself as an invisible man, an entity created by others' inability to see him. He is a creature from nightmares, made unreal by the perceptions of his fellow humans. The novel following this explanation in the prologue is the story of how a man with such an obviously strong personality came to be unseen. Also, by calling himself a figment of nightmares, he makes all people who cannot see him "sleepwalkers;" he implies that most of the characters in the book will live under the dreamlike conditions of their own illusion of reality. From Ras the Destroyer, working for a dream that can never come true, to Sybil, seeing the Invisible Man as a sexual archetype, the characters of the book live in constant states of dreaming.
Casual violence permeates the novel. When the IM attacks a man on the street simply because the man bumped him, he is restrained only by the realization that the man thinks he is being attacked by a phantom. This savage beating in the prologue is the first point of casual violence in a book that includes black men fighting each other as entertainment for whites and culminates in bloody chaos in the "jungle of Harlem." For the IM, violence is a rite of passage and a necessity; for the white society around him, it is a way to revert the black man to a primitive, atavistic nature, thus making them more animal than man. Violence becomes a dangerous tool of subjugation because sometimes it can result in tragedy for the whites, but it remains a necessity because of its extreme power.
As he struggles to decide when to take action, the IM must choose between hibernation and invisibility or exposure and leadership. As he speaks in the prologue, he gives a definition: "A hibernation is covert preparation for a more overt action." So he hibernates, afraid that he might miss the moment when his action is to take place. The rest of the book continues to ask the crucial question: action or inaction? Should he fight? Should he stand up for himself following Bledsoe's letters? Should he lead his people? Always, the choice is ambiguous and confusing but, for the IM, necessary.
While high off a reefer, the IM begins to see the "nodes" of history: the points where time takes on the qualities of a current, flowing and eddying. He learns to stand outside of time and to see that, in his own story, "The end is in the beginning." The structure follows this statement, beginning with the inevitable end to all in it, but also ending with a resolution for a beginning. The IM can enjoy the benefits of a lengthy hibernation because he is unconcerned with the passing of time.
In the prologue, the IM has a dream in which he witnesses a revival-type meeting celebrating blackness and talking about how it is a dangerous, powerful, unpredictable element of society. Yet he cannot stand to live in darkness; in the prologue he says, "the truth is the light and light is the truth." Light is synonymous with whiteness, and its importance to the racially black IM is perhaps the most significant theme of the novel. In the prologue, the IM explains that he is given form only by the light in his room; that he is not "dead" because of that form. Later, he is a pawn of both whites and blacks, but he is also the essential drop of black in the most popular of white paints. He learns to use whites as they have used him, and as he sees his fellow black men doing. He is appalled by the selling of the caricature-like puppets, but he becomes one to gain status. This confusion and ambiguity is foreshadowed in the prologue later on in his dream, when he speaks to an old black woman who tells him that she both loves and hates her dead white master, who used and humiliated her. This ambivalence, she explains, is why she slowly poisoned him, just as the IM's dying grandfather will later demand that all black men do to their white masters. This contradiction is why the IM will both love and hate the blacks and whites alike around him.