Prologue Summary

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The novel opens with an unnamed Black man explaining that he is “invisible.” This, he contends, is not based on any paranormal elements or folkloric “spooking.” Rather, people out in the world simply do not choose to see him. It has something to do with their “inner eyes,” he explains, as distinct from their physical ones. They pass over him, bumping into him and looking around him as though he isn’t there.

The narrator explains that being unseen can feel unnerving, and it has both advantages and disadvantages. It’s frustrating to be ignored by society, he admits, but it also means he can get away with things that other people can’t—during a fight with a man on the street one night, for example, he beat his opponent to near-death, but he was never caught. The papers the next day cited the incident as an “attempted mugging,” with no mention of the narrator’s presence.

The narrator has also been covertly living rent-free in the basement of a segregated whites-only building. He’s managed to avoid detection there for several years by staying in a partitioned-off section forgotten by the aboveground tenants.

While living in the basement, the narrator has been stealing from Monopolated Light & Power for years by secretly flooding the basement with electric lighting and appliances. His appetite for electricity is gratuitous, driven in equal parts by a genuine affinity for light and a deep spite toward the power company. His ceiling is entirely covered with filament bulbs, which he notes are extra-expensive to operate compared to their fluorescent counterparts. He has one phonograph now, he adds, but he intends to collect another four to run all at the same time.

Isolated and content, the narrator notes that this invisibility contains within it a sort of irresponsibility. He lives his life in secret, accepting little culpability for his actions aboveground.

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Chapter 1 Summary