A Look Back at Wells' The Invisible Man (1897)

Strangely enough, Penguin Classics didn’t elect H.G. Wells to the status of “classics” until 2005, when most of his novels entered the fold, including the four early classics, The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds.  The reason for this is the lasting stigma of “science fiction,” which is still seen as somewhat sensational, genre-specific, and of little literary value.  In the same way, the great science fiction novels of Pierre Boulle (Planet of the Apes, etc.) and Asimov (I, Robot, etc.) remain stapes of fantasy and science fiction imprints rather than mainstream classics.  So I was delighted to see Wells get the treatment his novels so richly deserve, particularly with the cool, somewhat retro designs which grace each Penguin volume.  Of all of his books, perhaps The Invisible Man is my favorite, as it is not simply a “science fiction” book, but a book that heralds in a completely new genre of literature in general: the superhero/villain narrative.  Every superhero comic owes something to The Invisible Man, and in every supervillain’s DNA we recognize the familiar pattern of Griffin, the infamous “Invisible Man.”  Of course, the book is not entirely original, as it develops a familiar theme found both in Frankenstein (1818) and the much later Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)—that we all have something within us that can be unleashed, call it our “id” or our primal self, which can do deeds of unspeakable good or evil.  The sense of a dark other haunts all of 19th century literature, but Wells adds a crucial ingredient to lift it out of the realm of Gothic literature: science.  The veneer of scientific possibility that hovers over the book, along with its by-the-minute, journalistic detail, makes us believe in the work in a way that Mary Shelley could neither accomplish or cared to attempt.  In short, it’s hard to read this book and not imagine the terror which its original audience most have experienced when first cutting open its pages (a sense that Orson Wells famously captured in his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds).  

The most successful thing about the book is the most difficult for many modern audiences to appreciate; namely, the heavy use of dialect and seemingly casual conversation in the novel.  Wells wanted to capture the routine life of a small English village to create the sense that this story could happen anywhere, and indeed, did happen in your own backyard.  The inn where Griffin first appears is full of small, realistic details that would have drawn amusement and recognition from his readers.  It also evokes a feeling of what Freud termed the “uncanny,” as we don’t expect to see horrific things in a routine setting.  Imagine walking into work, taking off your jacket and sitting down at your desk, only to find a poster of your greatest nightmare stuck on your cubicle wall (which you know you didn’t place there).  The sudden presence of Griffin, looking for all the world like a grotesque dream of humanity, is an enigma that the village has to account for—and tries artfully to avoid for the first several chapters.  His first description is telling, and seems like something out of a Gogol short story:

“all his forehead above his blue glasses was covered by a white bandage, and that covered his ears, leaving not a scrap of his face exposed excepting only his pink peaked nose.  It was bright pink, and shiny just as it had been at first.  He wore a dark-brown velvet jacket with a high blacked linen-lined collar turned up about his neck.  The thick black hair, escaping as it could below and between the cross bandages, projected in curious tails and horns, giving him the strangest appearance conceivable” (7). 

Ironically, the Invisible Man becomes even more conspicuous than any normal man as he walks about in costume.  Before long, everyone has his or her theory about his origins, and their curiosity allows them furtive glimpses of his secret.  Once exposed, he goes on a hell-bent (and somewhat comical) rampage, smashing in store windows, knocking people headlong, and becoming a veritable poltergeist rather than a man of progress and science.  His plans as the Invisible Man are vague, other than his consistent search for a “cure” for his condition, and his insistence that he have a partner in crime to further his mysterious schemes.  Here he sets the template for a thousand supervillains to follow, as he drafts a ne’er do well named Mr. Marvel to become his assistant.  Mr. Marvel wants nothing to do with the Invisible Man, and tries to escape at every opportunity, finally absconding with his treasured “books,” which contain the secrets of his invisible formula.  Mr. Marvel is a comic creation, the perfect foil to the sinister, single-minded purpose of Griffin/The Invisible Man.  This puts us in mind of so many villains who choose bumbling sidekicks who ultimately foil their masters’ most treasured schemes.  Once Marvel abandons him, Griffin falls in with a doctor who he knew at university, hoping that this ‘meeting of the minds’ will help him achieve his ultimate goal.  And what is this goal?  Seeing himself as the next evolutionary stage of mankind, he decides that certain people have to be removed from his utopia.  As he explains,

“And it is killing we must do, Kemp...Not wanting killing, but a judicious slaying.  The point is they know there is an Invisible Man—as well as we know there is an Invisible Man.  And that Invisible Man, Kemp, must now establish a Reign of Terror.  Yes—no doubt it’s startling.  But I mean it.  A Reign of Terror.  He must take some town like your Burdock and terrify and dominate it.  He must issue his orders.  He can do that in a thousand ways...And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend the disobedient.” (125)

Fittingly, Griffin speaks of someone else as the “Invisible Man,” acting as his own disciple in place of Mr. Marvel.  Yet in a sense this is not him, but the darkest impulses of his ‘savage’ humanity, which until his invisibility was held in check by his top hat and tailcoats.  Having no further need for clothes (other than warmth), he sheds all traces of his humanity and becomes a prophet for the New Age, where the weak must be destroyed and all who harbor compassion.  Here he sounds eerily like the Man on Putney Hill from The War of the Worlds, who welcomes the age of the Martians since humanity can purge itself from the weak and the liberal:

“You see, how I mean to live is underground…we form a band—able-bodied, clean-minded men.  We’re not going to pick up any rubbish that drifts in.  Weaklings go out again…No lackadasical ladies—no blasted rolling eyes.  We can’t have any weak or silly.  Life is real again, and the useless and the cumbersome and the mischievous have to die.  They ought to die.  It’s a sort of disloyalty, after all, to live and taint the race.” 

The seeds of Hitler and much of the 20th century are planted in these speeches, which by extension lead to the great supervillains of comics and film—Lex Luthor, Magneto, and even Rorschach and Ozymandias in Moore’s Watchmen.  It’s a fascinating science-fiction twist on the Gothic narrative, and one that makes The Invisible Man prophetic in ways that have nothing to do with invisibility serum. 

The end of the novel comes as a shock for most readers, as it is brief and brutal—yet poetically fitting for the career of The Invisible Man (I won’t divulge it in case you haven’t read it yet).  The novel (more a novella, really) is a quick, exciting read, and bears repeated reads to catch small details and challenge your understanding of Wells’ message.  Christopher Priest’s excellent Introduction (for the Penguin edition) places the book in its biographical/cultural context, while also making us appreciating the novel as a work of art (as a science fiction novelist himself, Priest is uniquely qualified to do so).  The book still speaks to us, if for the simple fact that

“The invisible man is a threat to everything we hold dear.  How do we know this ultimate voyeur is not watching us critically or sardonically as we undress, make love, write private letters, whisper our most intimate endearments?  How can we prevent him from entering our houses, stealing our property?  In the modern world we fear the silent wire-tappers, the Internet spies, the identity thieves, the Trojan software that surreptitiously enters our computers—all of these use the invisibility of electronics to invade our privacy” (xvii). 

These disturbing reflections lie at the heart of Wells’ novel, who imagined an age where no man could ever be private (or safe) in his heart.  Someone could always be watching, whether a lone Griffin or an omnipotent Big Brother.  The world was changing, and Wells’ novels were among the first to fictionalize the dilemmas of the Brave New World.