Quotes

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Last Updated January 4, 2023.

Irresponsibility is a part of my invisibility; any way you face it, it is a denial. But to whom can I be responsible, and why should I be, when you refuse to see me? And wait until I reveal how truly irresponsible I am. Responsibility rests upon recognition, and recognition is a form of agreement.

In this passage from the prologue, the narrator foreshadows several important elements of the upcoming text: the danger of invisibility, the extent to which his invisibility will afford him unknown freedoms, and especially the degree to which he will leverage his “invisibility” to exempt himself from culpability for his major transgressions and for his presence in society at large. In one notable example, he beats a man nearly to death and then argues that he, invisible and ethereal, can’t truly be considered responsible for the attack because his existence itself is debatable.

But you mustn’t waste your emotions on individuals, they don’t count.

While Brother Jack courts the narrator with an employment opportunity over coffee in chapter 13, he mentions this sentiment offhand as the two discuss the Brotherhood. This hints at Jack’s betrayal to come: when, in the book’s final chapters, the narrator realizes the chaos in Morningside is by the Brotherhood’s design, he realizes Jack and the others have intentionally chosen to tangibly sacrifice a life and property in a Black neighborhood to serve their greater cause.

Who slept with whom and with what results; who fought and who won and who lived to lie about it afterwards. All things, it is said, are duly recorded—all things of importance, that is. But not quite, for actually it is only the known, the seen, the heard and only those events that the recorded regards as important that are put down, those lies his keepers keep their power by. But the cop would be Clifton’s historian, his judge, his witness, and his executioner . . . and I, the only witness for the defense, knew neither the extent of his guilt nor the nature of his crime.

In chapter 20, after the narrator watches the murder of Brother Tod Clifton at the hands of the police department, he is struck by the realization that Brother Clifton’s story will most likely only be recorded into history by those who knew him least: the police officers responsible for his death. In their telling, his purported guilt will be established after the fact to suit whichever narrative justifies their use of excessive force in retrospect.

The narrator is equally frustrated to realize that he himself lacks answers about his friend’s final days—he is mystified by Clifton’s choice to embrace a performance with racist caricatures instead of continuing his well-paid work at the Brotherhood, and the actual terms of the police altercation were unclear to him as a viewer.

Not only could you travel upward toward success but you could travel downward as well; up and down, in retreat as well as in advance, crabways and crossways and around in a circle, meeting your old selves coming and going and perhaps all at the same time.

This quotation from chapter 23 represents a fundamental inversion of the narrator’s understanding of success and a crucial breakthrough in his worldview. His early dreams revolved almost entirely around an uninterrupted vertical trajectory, working his way to the prestige of Dr. Bledsdoe or the wealth of Mr. Emerson. Instead, his experiences eventually demonstrate that one’s measurable success in life is often most relevant in comparison to one’s own past—that rather than move up to meet others where they are, one’s most dramatic contrast is often with oneself.

(This entire section contains 782 words.)

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This quotation from chapter 23 represents a fundamental inversion of the narrator’s understanding of success and a crucial breakthrough in his worldview. His early dreams revolved almost entirely around an uninterrupted vertical trajectory, working his way to the prestige of Dr. Bledsdoe or the wealth of Mr. Emerson. Instead, his experiences eventually demonstrate that one’s measurable success in life is often most relevant in comparison to one’s own past—that rather than move up to meet others where they are, one’s most dramatic contrast is often with oneself.

This will prove to be especially relevant by the novel’s end, as the narrator’s later “invisible” life underground is notably less prestigious than any of his prior lives. He has transcended his ebb and flow toward “success” entirely, winding up in a literal basement and willfully exempting himself from the metrics of prestige in the outside world.

Our buckets filled, we filed out into the street. I stood there in the dark feeling a rising excitement as their voices played around me. What was the meaning of it all? What should I think of it, do about it?

This passage from chapter 23 encapsulates one of the narrator’s significant character traits: a willingness to get swept up in the momentum surrounding him without asking too many questions. Throughout the text, he repeatedly joins in what others are doing without considering whether that is what he, personally, wants to do—much of his story, in fact, can be attributed to his inactions rather than his actions.

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