7 Ways to Read The Invisible Man (1897) by H. G. Wells

I’m probably chancing my arm writing a post about Wells’ The Invisible Man (1897) on a crime fiction blog, as it is a work of science fiction. However, apart from the fact it is a really good read, I think a case can be made for it also being a psychological crime narrative of sorts, which tracks the journey one man takes into criminality and madness, whilst pursuing a scientific experiment. Below is the blurb from the Penguin Classics edition (2005) of the novel to remind or introduce you to the story’s premise:

With his face swaddled in bandages, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses and his hands covered even indoors, Griffin – the new guest at The Coach and Horses – is at first assumed to be a shy accident-victim. But the true reason for his disguise is far more chilling: he has developed a process that has made him invisible, and is locked in a struggle to discover the antidote. Forced from the village, and driven to murder, he seeks the aid of an old friend, Kemp. The horror of his fate has affected his mind, however – and when Kemp refuse to help, he resolves to wreak his revenge.

The Invisible Man

H. G. Wells tells a good story but I also think he uses his story as vehicle for exploring a number of big issues. So for the rest of this post I am going to be looking at 7 ways to read to this novel…

Way No. 1: Identity – What does it mean to be human?

How important is being visible to being human? The more and more I read of The Invisible Man, the more this question seemed to present itself. When the Invisible Man reveals to the inhabitants of Iping the fact he is invisible, one character responds by saying ‘that’s not a man at all. It’s just empty clothes,’ thereby reversing the popular phrase of ‘clothes make the man’ (which goes as far back as Ancient Greece) and suggests that a lack of visibility (in terms of the Invisible Man’s body) negates the Invisible Man’s claims to being human. Even the Invisible Man sees the absurdity of his initial disguise saying, ‘And for this I had become a wrapped-up mystery, a swathed and bandaged caricature of a man,’ with the word ‘caricature’ once again intimating that he is less human. Additionally, during the aforementioned scene of the Invisible Man’s ironic unmasking, he says ‘You don’t understand… who I am or what I am.’ The last part interested me in particular as it again implies a change in the Invisible’s Man’s human status.

the invisible man

Visibility and the loss of, is an important separate issue which I will look at later, but it seemed a good starting place for looking at what it means to be human and also inhuman – a quality the Invisible Man increasingly exhibits as the story progresses. Although it is intriguing that the Invisible Man’s inhumanness begins before he becomes invisible, though his invisibility exacerbates and accelerates the process. For example the Invisible Man admits that in order to finish his work he had to steal money from his own father, an action which caused is father to commit suicide. His response to is one of ‘detachment’ and he does ‘not feel a bit sorry for… [his] father,’ who he perceives as a ‘victim of his own foolish sentimentality.’ This example emphasises the Invisible Man’s emotionally inappropriate and arguably inhuman response to his own actions and their consequences. Moreover, the Invisible Man’s lack of feelings is something he identifies himself saying that ‘the intense stress of nearly four years’ continuous work left me incapable of any strength of feeling. I was apathetic …’

Other characters also regard him as inhuman such as his old university friend, Doctor Kemp who says, ‘he is mad… inhuman. He is pure selfishness. He thinks of nothing but his own advantage’ and later: ‘the man’s become inhuman… He has cut himself off from his kind. His blood be upon his own head.’ Moreover, Kemp also points out how the Invisible Man has removed himself ‘from his kind,’ e.g. humanity, not just symbolically and literally through making himself invisible but also through his choices in behaviour. He seems to have almost created a “new species,” e.g. humans you can’t see and even once the Invisible Man reveals that his name is Griffin, the narrator does not consistently use his real human name, suggesting that Griffin’s invisibility is what now defines him and forms his new identity. To complete the Invisible Man’s inhumanness, when he is finally caught he is likened to a hunted ‘stag,’ which again points to the violent relationship he has with other humans.

Way No. 2: The Uncanny

From very early on in the story, the Invisible Man becomes a symbol for fear, anxiety and uncertainty over the unknown. This is exemplified in the wary way people interact with him when he first arrives at Iping and how the local people try to alleviate their uncertainty by coming up with logical, common sense reasons for his unusualness and difference. Some suggest he is a fugitive of the law and is hiding behind bandages to prevent recognition. Others suggest he is disfigured due to an accident or illness. All of these ideas attempt to place the Invisible Man within what is known. Moreover, when the Invisible Man tries to explain his predicament to them they try to ‘resist…’ his explanation as it places him outside of what they know and afterwards the inhabitants try to further resist the truth with ‘nervous scepticism… [as] it is much easier not to believe in an invisible man.’ Additionally, when the Invisible Man removes his clothes to reveal his invisibleness, the inhabitants are horrified, ‘It was worse than anything… They were prepared for scars, disfigurement, tangible horrors, but nothing!’ This initially puzzled me as why is nothing more frightening than physical disfigurement? Yet I think the answer lies in the fact that the former situation is beyond what we as humans know and experience whilst disfigurement although unpleasant is situated comfortably within the world as we know it.

These ideas led me to Freud’s (1919) work on the uncanny, a frightening or eerie sensation we feel when we experience something which is both familiar and unfamiliar, thereby causing an unsettling effect. These experiences are often linked back to childhood and subconscious anxieties and a repetition of events is also a factor in what makes something

Incredibly lifelike robots are also classed as an example of the uncanny

Incredibly lifelike robots are also classed as an example of the uncanny

uncanny, rather than just conventionally unnerving or scary. This is mirrored in the tale as the uncanniness of the situation increases as the inhabitants of Iping have repeated encounters with the Invisible Man. These encounters begin from a distance, with people seeing him walking at dusk, leading to him being termed a bogeyman or one of the ‘bogies’ – which in itself is a symbol of terror for children. Then some of the residents begin to have closer one on one encounters with the Invisible Man such as the Vicar and his wife, who have their house burgled at night by him. There is also Dr Cuss who comes to realise the Invisible Man has no visible arms, yet is still able to pinch Cuss on the nose and finally before the unmasking of the invisible man, Mr and Mrs Hall experience having inanimate objects fly at them (though really thrown by the Invisible Man). The latter two incidences particularly emphasise the dual nature of the uncanny including familiar objects or experiences, which have been tinged with the unfamiliar. Moreover, experiencing things in real life which we suppose are only in the realms of fantasy or in our dreams is another instance of uncanny, which is also depicted in the novel. For example, in our dreams we might go through an experience where our limbs although unencumbered struggle to move, yet in the story a character experiences this in his waking hours when he ‘suddenly… became aware of a strange feeling at the nape of his neck. He tried to raise his head, and encountered an immoveable resistance,’ which turns out to be the Invisible Man of course. In addition when the Cheshire CatInvisible Man first tried out his invisible making process he did so on cat. Yet this was not entirely successful as every part of the cat went invisible except the eyes – which I felt was almost like a nightmarish version of the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Again this can be seen as an uncanny moment as although cats are familiar, the flawed outcomes of the invisibility process make this car less so.

Way No. 3: The Outcast

I don’t think you would be surprised to hear then that the Invisible Man is treated like an outcast due to his differences, but I think this idea can be taken further to look at how the Invisible Man mirrors negative experiences socially marginalised people can face, be their marginalisation due to race or disability for example. Christopher Priest (2005) in the introduction to this story evinces this, writing that ‘science fiction writers have sometimes explored social invisibility as a metaphor for alienation’ (Priest, 2005: XX). A racial reading of this story can be made as being made to feel like an outcast, is one negative consequence of racism. For example, early on in the story a Mr Fearenside thinks the Invisible Man must be ‘a piebald… black here and white there… a kind of half breed’ and suggests that he hides himself because he is ashamed of his difference. Furthermore, a Mr Gould ‘resolved to undertake detective operations… [which] consisted for the most part in looking very hard at the stranger… or asking people who have never seen the stranger, leading questions about him.’ For me Gould’s ‘detective operations’ reminded me of the negative ways people can react to those from other races or cultures, relying on outward appearances and seeking confirmation for their prejudices from those who have no alternative information to counter their viewpoint. In a later chapter the Invisible Man also experiences name calling and stone throwing which again reinforces his outcast status. In addition, characters who agree with Fearenside’s viewpoint in turn make the Invisible Man’s presumed skin condition almost like a disability or deformity and one person even suggests he is foolish for not cashing in on it at fairs.

Whilst it is clear the Invisible Man is an outcast once he becomes invisible, I found it interesting that Griffin before becoming invisible had albinism. This helped him with his invisible making process but it also suggested to me that in some ways Griffin was already socially marginalised before becoming invisible, as in some cultures and places albinism is a socially stigmatising condition.

Way No. 4: Why is invisibility so frightening?

The Invisible Man 3

I began my readings of The Invisible Man, by looking at the significance of lacking visibility and that is something I want to look at more closely here. When reading the book I often thought to myself this very question, why is invisibility so frightening? Of course it is beyond what we know but I think there is more to it than that. In particular I think it constitutes a threat, as invisible people would be hard to govern or control and taps into our anxieties surrounding surveillance, as whilst invisible people would be hard to survey, they themselves would be able to watch us with impunity – a situation I think is understandably alarming. Moreover, since invisible people are fallible like visible humans it is not inconceivable that such people would commit crimes and use their invisibility to their own advantage (something which the Invisible Man proves all too well). In fact the Invisible Man says ‘an invisible man is a man of power’ and that is arguably because he can do what he likes with the chances of him being caught and punished immeasurably lowered. So someone with that potential would be quite frightening.

Way No. 5: A Frankenstein Comparison

Frankenstein

This was another reading of the novel which became increasingly more manifest as the story progressed and I felt like there was a strong parallel between the Invisible Man and the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) as both of these characters struggle to form relationships with humans and those that are formed disintegrate. Moreover, due to all the negative attitudes these characters encounter from humans they eventually turn on them and become aggressive, though the monster is more selective in his aggression, whilst the Invisible Man’s plan of terror seems much more indiscriminate at times. Additionally I thought the Invisible Man’s own experience of becoming a “monster” quite intriguing as he caused his own invisibility so in a way he simultaneously embodies the role of Frankenstein, the scientist and his creation.

Way No. 6: Ostracism and Social Isolation as roads into Crime

As I mentioned in my introduction to this post, there is a crime narrative running through this story, as the Invisible Man commits more and more acts of crime beginning with theft but ultimately committing murder. Yet I think a key reason why the Invisible Man’s crimes become more violent is because of the rage he feels at being unfairly treated by others, which is exemplified after he has been run out of Iping, ‘I was wandering, mad with rage, naked, impotent. I could have murdered.’ Moreover, he often has to resort to violent acts such as stone throwing to prove his existence and resorts to bribery and threats to get support. Therefore there is a suggestion that if the characters in the novel had treated him sympathetically then the Invisible Man wouldn’t end the way he does. Consequently, there are moments when you feel sympathy for him.

However, such sympathy is of the troubled kind in my opinion, as a key trait in the Invisible Man is that he sees his immoral acts as justifiable and therefore not criminal. Moreover, it could even be said he perceives his invisibility as an excuse for acting above or outside of the law: ‘I was invisible, and I was only just beginning to realise the extraordinary advantage my invisibility gave me. My head was already teeming with plans if all the wild and wonderful things I had now impunity to do.’ He also says that ‘the common conventions of humanity’ do not apply to him as they ‘are all very well for common people.’ Moreover, he comes to a point where he decides that the only vocation an invisible person is suited for is an assassin or killer, which is perhaps a symptom of his growing madness.

Additionally as I suggested in my first reading of this story, the Invisible Man is shown to become increasingly inhuman and I think this ties into 19th century theories on degeneration, which feared society was devolving and deteriorating physically and morally. Some of these theories focused on criminality, seeing criminals as evidence of societal degeneration. It can be argued that the Invisible Man becomes such a figure. Not only does he go back to state of not wearing clothes but his descent into crime and madness can also been seen as moral degeneration. Furthermore, I think Wells’ portrayal of the Invisible Man reflects concepts from 19th century degeneration discourse, which may be coincidental, but Wells’ did have an educational background in science, so he may well have come across such concepts. For example Gobineau (1855) says in his Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races that ‘the word degenerate, when applied to a people, means that the people no longer has the same intrinsic value as it had before, because it has no longer the same blood in its veins.’ A refuted idea nowadays, but it is arguably present in Wells’ story as in order to become invisible, Invisible Man has to take some chemicals to change his blood and the Invisible Man’s degeneration follows into crime and madness. Moreover, Nordau (1892) in his work, Degeneration, connects degeneration with egomania and criminality suggesting the effect of being an ego-maniac is to have ‘a want of interest and sympathy’ (Nordau, 1892: 266) and leads to being ‘anti-social’ (Nordau, 1892: 266). I have already evidenced the Invisible Man’s lack of feeling and apathy but I think he could also be construed as an egomaniac as he commits a number of ‘anti-social’ acts and at the end of the novel he plans a reign of terror and dictatorship on a community, imposing his will through violence.

Way No. 7: The Dangerous Scientist

Wells’ would not be the first novelist to warn of the dangers of science and to portray the scientist as a negative and dangerous figure, as there is of course Shelley’s Frankenstein and also Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). The Strange CaseThe theme of the story is encapsulated in the epilogue when the narrator says ‘so ends the story of the strange and evil experiment of the Invisible Man,’ as after all the events of the novel come about due to Griffin’s scientific research into invisibility and like Frankenstein, Griffin does not think of the consequences his experiment could cause. The figure of the scientist especially in Frankenstein and The Invisible Man is shown to be ‘dangerously indifferent to other people’ (DeWitt, 2013: 19) and as a ‘Faustian Figure,’ (DeWitt, 2013: 19). Both of these statements can be applied to the Invisible Man, as his indifference to others is dangerous, leading to suicide, assault, loss and damage of property and death. Moreover, like Faustus (the protagonist of Christopher Marlowe’s (1592) play), the Invisible Man suffers deadly consequences for trying to push the boundaries of human existence and experience. Additionally, talking of science more broadly during the Victorian period, Whitworth (2002) asserts that ‘science in the Victorian period was the theorisation of transformation’ (Whitworth, 2002: 111). Again I think this can be applied to the story as the Invisible Man transforms in a number of ways during the story – physically, psychologically and morally.

Over to you

Have you read The Invisible Man? Loved it? Hated it? Let me know in the comments section below.

Bibliography

DeWitt, A. (2013). Moral Authority, Men of Science and the Victorian Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Freud, S. (1919; 2003). The Uncanny. Lonon: Penguin Books.

Gobineau, A. (1855;1915). The Inequality of the Human Races. trans. Collins, A. London: Heineman. pp. 205-212.

Nordau, M. (1892;1895). Degeneration. New York: Appleton.

Priest, C. (2005). Introduction. In: Parrinder, P. The Invisible Man. London: Penguin. pp. xiii-xxv.

Whitworth, M. (2002). Science and the Scientist in Victorian Fiction. In: Baker, W. and Womack, K. A Companion to the Victorian Novel. London: Greenwood Press. pp. 111-121.

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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2 Responses to 7 Ways to Read The Invisible Man (1897) by H. G. Wells

  1. ravenking81 says:

    Fascinating analysis. I think I own a copy of this. I am going to have to start looking for it 🙂
    If you are interested in the idea of invisibility in fiction I can recommend “Memoirs Of An Invisible Man” by Harry F. Saint. It was made into a truly terrible movie by John Carpenter, but the book is really excellent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you liked the post and are now spurred on to read the book, as it is one of those stories which has an interesting plot, but also has a number of layers. I haven’t heard of the book by Saint so I will have to check that out. Thanks for the recommendation.

      Liked by 1 person

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