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Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Invisible Man | Quotes


I am an invisible man. ... I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Narrator, Prologue

This quotation sets up the premise of the book. The narrator seeks to create an identity for himself that people can see.


I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.

Narrator, Chapter 1

The narrator describes his central conflict: trying to identify himself in a racist society filled with expectations of what it means to be a black man.


Overcome 'em with yeses.

Grandfather, Chapter 1

The riddle of advice the narrator's grandfather gives while on his deathbed haunts the narrator his entire life. At first he takes it to mean simply "obey," but he later decides that his grandfather meant to "pretend" to agree.


You are my fate, young man.

Mr. Norton, Chapter 2

Mr. Norton prides himself on his generosity toward black youths, saying that their fates are intertwined. In reality, however, Mr. Norton is only interested in perpetuating his own legacy. He has no interest in the struggles or achievements of individual students like the narrator.


I'll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning.

Dr. Bledsoe, Chapter 6

Dr. Bledsoe is the dean of the most influential African American college, claiming to empower black youths. In reality, Dr. Bledsoe would willingly sacrifice any of his students to maintain his personal power.


Ambition is a wonderful force ... but sometimes it can be blinding.

Young Emerson, Chapter 9

These words, spoken by Young Emerson, highlight the narrator's fatal flaw. The narrator's desire to make a name for himself within the Brotherhood blinds him to the truth of their racist ideals and their plan to sacrifice the residents of Harlem.


We are the machines inside the machine.

Lucius Brockway, Chapter 10

Brockway is the most important employee at Liberty Paints, but he receives no credit for his work (and asks for none). Lucius's unrecognized contributions to the company's success mirror the unrecognized contributions of many African Americans in America's history.


When I discover who I am, I'll be free.

Narrator, Chapter 11

The narrator spends the entire novel trying to create an identity for himself, but he is enslaved by others' perceptions of what a black man should be. At the end of the novel, he burns the symbols of his enslavement, and even though he is alone underground, he finally feels free.


I yam what I am.

Narrator, Chapter 13

After eating warm yams that remind him of his Southern childhood, the narrator takes the first step toward accepting his heritage as part of his unique identity.


I was caught between guilt and innocence, so that now they seemed one and the same.

Narrator, Chapter 19

This quotation highlights the moral ambiguity of the novel. Who should the narrator be accountable to for his crimes if he is invisible—and is he really guilty if he has been pushed into a corner?


Where were the historians today? And how would they put it down?

Narrator, Chapter 20

The narrator is deeply concerned with making a name for himself in history—with being remembered for his contributions rather than just his race. He realizes, however, that white men write history and can choose which details to include or omit. For a while he tries to appease white men to be remembered, but he later decides that it's okay to live "outside of history."


His name was Clifton and they shot him down.

Narrator, Chapter 21

At Clifton's funeral the narrator feels compelled to say his friend's name over and over, ensuring that he is seen as an individual and not as an emblem for the struggles of the black community.


By pretending to agree I had indeed agreed.

Narrator, Chapter 25

The narrator learns the harsh truth that by refusing to stand up to the Brotherhood, he has aided their plan to cede power to Ras, sparking the race riots. At the end of the novel, the narrator is filled with as much moral ambiguity and confusion over "treacherous" behavior as he was in the beginning.

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