Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The Narrator Character Analysis

The entire novel is told from the perspective of the narrator, a forty-year-old man who writes technical manuals for a living. He is undeniably based on Robert Pirsig, the book’s author, as the two’s biographies overlap quite similarly. However, this similarity is never stated explicitly in the book. The narrator’s identity began after a man he refers to as Phaedrus was given electroshock therapy to treat mental illness. Following that therapy, the narrator’s consciousness replaced Phaedrus’s, though they occupy the same body. As the book progresses, the narrator recounts what he has pieced together of Phaedrus’s history, in parallel with his narrative of the trip he and his son Chris take across the United States. Through a series of directed talks he calls Chautauquas, the narrator explains the philosophy of Quality that Phaedrus developed, and uses motorcycle maintenance as a metaphor to illustrate how this philosophy can be practiced.

The Narrator Quotes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance quotes below are all either spoken by The Narrator or refer to The Narrator. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Quality Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the HarperTorch edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance published in 1974.
Chapter 1 Quotes

What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua...that’s the only name I can think of for it...like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 8-9
Explanation and Analysis:

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I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question "What is best?," a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and "best" was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 9-10
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 2 Quotes

And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Motorcycle Maintenance
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 3 Quotes

A second flash...WHAM and everything brilliant—and then in the brilliance of the next flash that farmhouse—that windmill—oh, my God, he’s been here! -- throttle off—this is his road—a fence and trees—and the speed drops to seventy, then sixty, then fifty-five and I hold it there.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

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Laws of nature are human inventions, like ghosts. Laws of logic, of mathematics are also human inventions, like ghosts. The whole blessed thing is a human invention, including the idea that it isn’t a human invention. The world has no existence whatsoever outside the human imagination. It’s all a ghost, and in antiquity was so recognized as a ghost, the whole blessed world we live in.…Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 43-44
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 5 Quotes

What we have here is a conflict of visions of reality. The world as you see it right here, right now, is reality, regardless of what the scientists say it might be. That’s the way John sees it. But the world as revealed by its scientific discoveries is also reality, regardless of how it may appear, and people in John’s dimension are going to have to do more than just ignore it if they want to hang on to their vision of reality. …
What you’ve got here, really, are two realities, one of immediate artistic appearance and one of underlying scientific explanation, and they don’t match and they don’t fit and they don’t really have much of anything to do with one another. That’s quite a situation. You might say there’s a little problem here.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), John Sutherland
Related Symbols: Motorcycle Maintenance
Page Number: 68-69
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 6 Quotes

But he saw a sick and ailing thing happening and he started cutting deep, deeper and deeper to get at the root of it. He was after something. That is important. He was after something and he used the knife because that was the only tool he had. But he took on so much and went so far in the end his real victim was himself.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 7 Quotes

What has become an urgent necessity is a way of looking at the world that does violence to neither of these two kinds of understanding and unites them into one. Such an understanding will not reject sand-sorting or contemplation of unsorted sand for its own sake. Such an understanding will instead seek to direct attention to the endless landscape from which the sand is taken. That is what Phædrus, the poor surgeon, was trying to do.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 14 Quotes

This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural. It’s just that it’s gone on so long you have to be an archeologist to find out where the two separated. Rotisserie assembly is actually a long-lost branch of sculpture, so divorced from its roots by centuries of intellectual wrong turns that just to associate the two sounds ludicrous.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Motorcycle Maintenance
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 15 Quotes

Quality—you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Seed Crystal
Page Number: 231
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 17 Quotes

Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 258
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 18 Quotes

Phaedrus’ refusal to define Quality, in terms of this analogy, was an attempt to break the grip of the classical sandsifting mode of understanding and find a point of common understanding between the classic and romantic worlds. Quality, the cleavage term between hip and square, seemed to be it. Both worlds used the term. Both knew what it was. It was just that the romantic left it alone and appreciated it for what it was and the classic tried to turn it into a set of intellectual building blocks for other purposes. Now, with the definition blocked, the classic mind was forced to view Quality as the romantic did, undistorted by thought structures.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 282
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 19 Quotes

This means Quality is not just the result of a collision between subject and object. The very existence of subject and object themselves is deduced from the Quality event. The Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects, which are then mistakenly presumed to be the cause of the Quality!

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 304
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 21 Quotes

No, he did nothing for Quality or the Tao. What benefited was reason. He showed a way by which reason may be expanded to include elements that have previously been unassimilable and thus have been considered irrational. I think it’s the overwhelming presence of these irrational elements crying for assimilation that creates the present bad quality, the chaotic, disconnected spirit of the twentieth century.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 327-328
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 24 Quotes

There has been a haze, a backup problem in this Chautauqua so far; I talked about caring the first day and then realized I couldn’t say anything meaningful about caring until its inverse side, Quality, is understood. I think it’s important now to tie care to Quality by pointing out that care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristics of Quality.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Motorcycle Maintenance, The Glass Door
Page Number: 353
Explanation and Analysis:

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Stuckness shouldn’t be avoided. It’s the psychic predecessor of all real understanding. An egoless acceptance of stuckness is a key to an understanding of all Quality, in mechanical work as in other endeavors. It’s this understanding of Quality as revealed by stuckness which so often makes self-taught mechanics so superior to institute-trained men who have learned how to handle everything except a new situation.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Motorcycle Maintenance
Page Number: 366
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 25 Quotes

The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That’s impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is ... not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both. When this transcendence occurs in such events as the first airplane flight across the ocean or the first footstep on the moon, a kind of public recognition of the transcendent nature of technology occurs. But this transcendence should also occur at the individual level, on a personal basis, in one’s own life, in a less dramatic way.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 373-374
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 26 Quotes

If you’re going to repair a motorcycle, an adequate supply of gumption is the first and most important tool. If you haven’t got that you might as well gather up all the other tools and put them away, because they won’t do you any good.

Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going. If you haven’t got it there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it there’s absolutely no way in this whole world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed. It’s bound to happen. Therefore the thing that must be monitored at all times and preserved before anything else is the gumption.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Motorcycle Maintenance
Page Number: 389-390
Explanation and Analysis:

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A very strong case can be made for the statement that science grows by its mu answers more than by its yes or no answer. Yes or no confirms or denies a hypothesis. Mu says the answer is beyond the hypothesis. Mu is the "phenomenon" that inspires scientific enquiry in the first place! There’s nothing mysterious or esoteric about it. It’s just that our culture has warped us to make a low value judgment of it.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Mu
Page Number: 413
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 29 Quotes

Quality! Virtue! Dharma! That is what the Sophists were teaching! Not ethical relativism. Not pristine "virtue." But areté. Excellence. Dharma! Before the Church of Reason. Before substance. Before form. Before mind and matter. Before dialectic itself. Quality had been absolute. Those first teachers of the Western world were teaching Quality, and the medium they had chosen was that of rhetoric. He has been doing it right all along.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 484-485
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 31 Quotes

I can imitate the father he’s supposed to have, but subconsciously, at the Quality level, he sees through it and knows his real father isn’t here. In all this Chautauqua talk there’s been more than a touch of hypocrisy. Advice is given again and again to eliminate subject-object duality, when the biggest duality of all, the duality between me and him, remains unfaced. A mind divided against itself.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus, Chris Pirsig
Page Number: 517
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 32 Quotes

For God’s sake relieve him of his burden! Be one person again!

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 528
Explanation and Analysis:

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Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before, and is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through: We’ve won it. It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 531
Explanation and Analysis:

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The Narrator Character Timeline in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The timeline below shows where the character The Narrator appears in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
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The narrator rides a motorcycle through the American Central Plains with his eleven-year-old son Chris. It is... (full context)
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Chris and the narrator are on a trip from Minneapolis to Montana with the narrator’s friends, John Sutherland and... (full context)
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...dissatisfied-looking group of Monday morning commuters that she saw earlier. The four resume travel, and the narrator begins to discuss a “disharmony” he observes in John and Sylvia’s marriage. Despite the narrator’s... (full context)
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The narrator also recollects a time he visited the Sutherlands’ house and found they had a leaky... (full context)
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The narrator realizes from these anecdotes that John and Sylvia are distressed by technology—or humankind’s mechanistic tendencies... (full context)
Chapter 2
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The group enters the prairies of the Great Plains from the Central Plains. The narrator recognizes inclement weather on the horizon and remembers a rain-soaked trip to Canada he took... (full context)
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...points out that the group has missed a turn but they decide to continue anyway. The narrator remembers a time when he decided to take his motorcycle to a shop instead of... (full context)
Chapter 7
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The narrator says that the time has come to explain his own relation to Phaedrus. At a... (full context)
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At a stop, John and Sylvia express their anger at the narrator for moving so slowly. As they continue riding, however, a light shower begins. The rain... (full context)
Chapter 8
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...in noticeably higher spirits after a relaxing night at a hotel. While others run errands, the narrator tunes his motorcycle and muses that the process is a largely rational one. He expands... (full context)
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The narrator goes to a friendly mechanic’s shop to get a motorcycle part, and notices that the... (full context)
Chapter 9
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The party makes its way through the Yellowstone Valley. The narrator begins a Chautauqua that explains the two types of logic: inductive and deductive. Inductive logic... (full context)
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The narrator enumerates the steps of the scientific method and explains that its primary role is to... (full context)
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...can’t get out of the passing lane and nearly collides head-on with the motorcyclists. Shaken, the narrator and his companions rest at a bar. (full context)
Chapter 10
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The narrator begins to elaborate on Phaedrus’s quest for the “ghost of rationality.” He reproduces a quote... (full context)
Chapter 11
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The narrator wakes up and his surroundings feel very familiar to him. The group decides to reach... (full context)
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...He is sent to Korea. His writings from this period are more emotional than before. The narrator recalls fragments of Phaedrus’s encounters with the country’s unfamiliar culture. Another memory dates from Phaedrus’s... (full context)
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...him to ask the sorts of larger questions that the scientific method cannot support. As the narrator relates this story, he also describes the group’s ascent through the scenic mountains of Montana. (full context)
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...conceptions of things, which exist independently of sense data but are reinforced by sensory input. The narrator gives the example of a motorcycle, which is an a priori concept that is modified... (full context)
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To the narrator , Kant’s thought is a revolutionary breakthrough in reason, reminiscent of Nicholas Copernicus’s theory of... (full context)
Chapter 12
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The narrator distinguishes his Chautauqua orations from the work a novelist might do, saying that he prefers... (full context)
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The narrator tells his companions about the man they’ll be visiting in Bozeman, an abstract painter named... (full context)
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Though the narrator ’s account obscured this chronology, Phaedrus did not move to Bozeman immediately after his epiphany... (full context)
Chapter 13
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The narrator is nervous to return to the college in Bozeman, because it holds a great deal... (full context)
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The narrator praises the logical prowess of Phaedrus’s Church of Reason speech. He goes on to explain... (full context)
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The narrator also observes that Phaedrus’s devotion to the Church of Reason likely came as a result... (full context)
Chapter 14
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The party arrives in Bozeman, and the narrator ’s surroundings feel familiar, but slightly alien. The group meets DeWeese at the idyllic home... (full context)
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...instructions for assembling a barbecue and says he’s been having trouble following them. This launches the narrator into a discussion of a set of instructions from a Japanese bike manual, which required... (full context)
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The narrator ’s lengthy speech leaves the dinner party dumbfounded. After the rest of the guests leave,... (full context)
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The narrator continues, telling the story of the Ancient Greek figure named Phaedrus. The Phaedrus of ancient... (full context)
Chapter 15
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After two days of hanging around Bozeman, John and Sylvia head home. The next day, the narrator and Chris revisit the college where Phaedrus taught. When the father and son enter the... (full context)
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A woman comes upon the narrator in the classroom, and recognizes him as Phaedrus. She may have been one of his... (full context)
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On his way out of the classroom, the narrator comes across Phaedrus’s old office, and is overcome with memories of his philosophical breakthroughs. He... (full context)
Chapter 16
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The narrator and Chris begin their hike into the mountains. He compares their trek through the mountains... (full context)
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...the hike, Chris acts stubbornly and refuses to do a task he’s asked to do. The narrator continues to muse about Phaedrus’s new grade-less teaching scheme. The goal is to discourage students... (full context)
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...alternative systems, but next semester gives up on the system and grades normally again. In the narrator ’s words, he awaited a “seed crystal” to solidify his thought. (full context)
Chapter 17
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Chris becomes visibly demoralized as the hike continues. The narrator recognizes that his son fears he won’t be able to climb the mountain. To distract... (full context)
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The narrator recalls the aftermath of Phaedrus’s assignment that asked his class to define Quality. The students... (full context)
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Chris struggles with the climb. The narrator guesses that his son is treating the ascent like an ego-fulfillment task, an approach that... (full context)
Chapter 18
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Chris falls down, angry about the hike. The narrator does not condemn his son’s bratty behavior, and the pair resumes hiking. Meanwhile, the narrator... (full context)
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Chris pretends to have hurt his ankle. The narrator carries Chris’s share of the equipment and they continue hiking. While the two rest, Chris... (full context)
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The narrator emphasizes that Quality bridges the gap between romantic and classic modes of thought. Phaedrus’s refusal... (full context)
Chapter 19
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During the night, the narrator dreams that a glass door separates him from his wife and two sons. In this... (full context)
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Just as Phaedrus’s breakthrough is recounted by the narrator , he and Chris break out of the tree line. Chris sprints to the summit... (full context)
Chapter 20
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The narrator and Chris take a nap on the summit. When he wakes, the narrator hears some... (full context)
Chapter 21
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As he and Chris descend the mountain, the narrator muses that he cannot evaluate how truthful it is that the Tao and Phaedrus’s Quality... (full context)
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Chris and the narrator complete their descent and arrive in Bozeman at night. Exhausted, they check into Bozeman’s main... (full context)
Chapter 22
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The following morning, the narrator and Chris say farewell to the DeWeeses and leave Bozeman. The narrator begins a new... (full context)
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The narrator and Chris head through Missoula and continue westward. They pause to camp by the side... (full context)
Chapter 23
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The narrator ’s recurring nightmare is described in detail. A glass door separates him from his wife... (full context)
Chapter 24
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The narrator awakes from his nightmare, feeling disoriented and worried. He and Chris get back on the... (full context)
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The travelers get breakfast and the narrator helps Chris write a letter to his mother. Back on the road, the narrator continues... (full context)
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The narrator and Chris have made good time on the motorcycle. They pass through Grangeville, Idaho and... (full context)
Chapter 25
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The narrator moves away from “stuckness” to discuss a problem of a different nature: the romantic aversion... (full context)
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The rational tediousness of technology is superficially remedied by stylization—a strategy the narrator finds ineffective. Instead of veneering classic understanding with romantic esthetics, the two modes of thought... (full context)
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...prevents one from separating one’s self from one’s surroundings. This reformed individual consciousness is, to the narrator , the starting point for more sweeping improvements to life worldwide. (full context)
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The narrator and Chris camp out for the night and prepare to head into Oregon the next... (full context)
Chapter 26
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The next morning, the narrator muses that he will likely never sell his motorcycle. The countryside reminds him of a... (full context)
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The narrator then addresses a concept he calls “gumption,” which is what motivates an individual to perform... (full context)
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The narrator divides gumption traps into two broad categories: “setbacks,” which come from external circumstances, and “hang-ups,”... (full context)
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The narrator and his son stop for lunch. The narrator reflects that his relationship with Chris is... (full context)
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Back on the road, the narrator begins to discuss the internal gumption trap of ego. Ego insulates the individual from the... (full context)
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...so doing achieve the required peace of mind. Boredom is the opposite of anxiety, and the narrator encourages readers to take a break as soon as boredom sets in, or else learn... (full context)
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The narrator and Chris rest in a small, relaxed town. As they resume travel through the desert,... (full context)
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Finally, the narrator details psychomotor traps, which can be engendered by unsuitable tools, physical discomfort, or a lack... (full context)
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The narrator concludes his discussion of gumption traps by warning that an understanding of possible traps isn’t... (full context)
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The narrator notices that the people sharing the road with them appear more distracted and alienated than... (full context)
Chapter 27
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This chapter describes in greater detail the narrator ’s recurring nightmare involving the glass door. The narrator addresses the “figure in the shadows”... (full context)
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Chris, alarmed, wakes the narrator , and tells him he had been yelling in his sleep about killing someone. The... (full context)
Chapter 28
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...Chris’s mother is infuriated by the time the two wasted. This flashback seems to inspire the narrator to seek hospitalization once he and Chris reach San Francisco. (full context)
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The narrator decides to recount the conclusion of Phaedrus’s story. Phaedrus asks his colleague Sarah where he... (full context)
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Chris asks the narrator what the purpose of their traveling is. The narrator tells his son that their goal... (full context)
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The narrator and Chris arrive at Crater Lake and the narrator is perturbed by how disingenuously pristine... (full context)
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The narrator recollects a fragmented memory of Phaedrus commenting to the Assistant Chairman that he hadn’t noticed... (full context)
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The narrator and Chris reach a town called Grant’s Pass, where they stay in a motel. On... (full context)
Chapter 29
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In town, the narrator and Chris take care of errands. The narrator finds a welder to take care of... (full context)
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The narrator observes that people on the American coasts are much more emotionally isolated than they are... (full context)
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The narrator gives some historical context for Plato’s rejection of the Sophistic rhetoricians. Plato so vehemently repudiated... (full context)
Chapter 30
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The narrator and Chris pull off the freeway and drive aimlessly until they find a motel for... (full context)
Chapter 31
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The next morning, Chris is aloof, and he and the narrator ride south along the coast. They stop to look off a cliff, and the narrator... (full context)
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The narrator observes that Chris’s inquisitive, combative nature reminds him of Phaedrus. The two stop at a... (full context)
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Chris asks the narrator why he refused to open the glass door between himself and his family at the... (full context)
Chapter 32
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As the two ride along the coast, Chris continues to repeat “I knew it.” The narrator realizes how his split identity has harmed Chris, and urges himself to come to grips... (full context)
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The two take their helmets off and the narrator notices that they no longer have to yell to communicate. Chris stands up on the... (full context)
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The narrator tells Chris that he should have no problem approaching his motorcycle with the right attitude.... (full context)