The Invisible Man: Inspirations, Interpretations, and a Deep Analysis -- A Spooky Spotlight on H. G.
When H. G. Wells first published “The Invisible Man” in 1897, the title alone ensured its success. Invisibility fascinates, attracts, and terrifies. It’s allure rests in the ability to escape notice (and with it criticism, self-consciousness, and the power of the other’s gaze), to be freed from social pressures (to be pretty, dress well, be polite, stay put, etc.), and to have the freedom to enter any unlocked space without challenge. An invisible person can eavesdrop and learn new information, can quietly monitor the behavior of loved ones, and can behave the way they want to without fear of attracting immediate notice. There is a liberating feeling behind this attraction: a longing to escape criticism and evade disapproval. Who disapproves of the table manners, posture, or fashion choices of an invisible man? The fantasy lies in the ability to be unshackled from the weight of self-consciousness, and levitated out of our own shame and embarrassment by proxy.
Several recent polls have found that invisibility remains among the top ten most desired super powers (usually accounting for 10 – 14% of the votes), and the ability to fade into the background has made super heroes with this feature the darlings of introverts and shrinking violets throughout comic fandom. But it also attracts the interest of peeping toms, fetishists, and predators: as with most fantastical things, invisibility has a palpable dark side. Of course the most obvious fact that we must notice when pondering the possibility of an invisible man is that he must be naked: unless his invisibility comes from a magic ring or cloak with disguises his clothes as well, his presence in a room with us is inescapably tinged with sexual implications and tones of voyeurism.
Since Wells’ novel was adapted into the 1933 Claude Rains film – which deftly tiptoed around sexual innuendo – most invisible people in cinema have tackled the issue of the concept’s erotic subtext. The intentions of the invisible person obviously color the mood of any book or movie, but when a character wakes up in the middle of night and hears breathing emanating from an empty corner, the lurid implications of being able to snoop on people only when one is naked become immediately obvious. It is for this reason that invisibility comes not only with an allure, but with a horror: while it might be wonderful to have the gift personally, we fully acknowledge that it would be nothing less than terrifying for anyone else to possess it. What could an invisible person do to us? How could we defend ourselves?
In an age when many people put a strip of tape over their laptop cameras – to prevent hackers from engaging them and watching them unawares – we are keenly aware that invisible men need not be a metaphor to frighten us. Identity thieves, hackers, and tech terrorists have used the invisibility of our digital identities to make unobservable crime possible. What Griffin does to the vicar of Iping – breaking into his house and pocketing his gold while invisible – is done every hour over the internet: a man in Russian breaks into the account of a single mother in Nebraska without being seen or heard, and sightlessly empties her coffers. The metaphor of an invisible man has never been quite so pertinent as it is today…
Of course, invisibility in literature is as old as history itself. Some the earliest references come from Greek and Roman mythology – such as the “Ring of Gynges” spoken of by Plato. In this revealing story, a shepherd discovers a ring of invisibility that he uses to seduce the Queen of Lydia and murder the king. It hints at both sides of the issue: the possibility (invisibility could raise a shepherd to a king) and the horror (even a king has no defense against an invisible man), and can be read as both a tale of fantasy and horror.
In the early modern era, the idea of rings, caps, or cloaks of invisibility found their way into European fairy tales. “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” is a Grimm Fairy Tale relating how twelve princesses managed to sneak out of their castle every night to dance the night away. Disturbed by the cost of buying them new shoes, their father promises to reward any man who can discover their secret: the first to succeed will have his pick of the daughters as a wife, but any who fail will be executed. The mystery is solved by a shabby veteran who is given a magic cloak by an disguised enchantress; using this, he spies on the princesses while invisible, and uncovers their secrets to the delight of the king.
Less magical stories made their way into modern literature, usually with more of an aura of horror. Most famously, Fitz-James O’Brien wrote “What Was It? A Mystery” in which a man is falling to sleep on his bed when a creature lands on top of him. Wrestling in the darkness, he is quickly aided by friends who turn up the gas to reveal – nothing. Yet he has a hold on something, and his friends quickly verify this. Horrorstruck, they tie it to the bed and wait for it to surrender. The beast ultimately starves to death, and when a plaster cast is made of the corpse, an unearthly monster’s visage is revealed. Twenty years later, Guy de Maupassant wrote a similar story, “The Horla,” about an invisible alien entity which latches onto a hapless man, leeching his strength with its vampiric power without ever being seen. Chillingly, the creature only makes its appearance known by drinking standing water, and by kneeling on its victim’s chest during his sleep. The man is driven to the brink of madness, and comits arson in a desperate bid to free himself from an enemy that he cannot see.
Both stories prefigure Ambrose Bierce’s masterpiece of invisibility, “The Damned Thing,” which gives takes O’Brien’s grotesque monster and de Maupassant’s ethereal alien and turns them into a vicious predator (the word is apt, for Bierce’s story would later inspire the “Predator” series of horror movies about a violent, invisible alien). Bierce’s tale follows the journal of a man who has been torn to pieces by a cougar. The inquest studying his death slowly realize that he had been tracking an animal which he believed to be made of colors that the human eye cannot detect, and that – shortly before he was torn to ribbons – he had a premonition that “The Damned Thing” would overtake him.
Yet none of these stories involved an invisible man. They were extraterrestrials, entities from other dimensions, vampires. It wasn’t until 1897 that a story was written about a scientists whose experiments on stray animals led him to the discovery of a natural means for becoming invisible. Yet that story was not written by H. G. Wells: the same year that “The Invisible Man” was published, a woman named Katherine Kip published the very similar “My Invisible Friend.” It followed the horrible failure of a medical student’s transition from visibility to the unseen, after successfully transforming cats in his boardinghouse laboratory: Wells’ 20th chapter is essentially borrowed from Kip (though it probably couldn’t fairly be called plagiarism). Kip’s story is a cross between fantasy and a parable, and while it may have suggested the idea to Wells, what he gave to the world would be entirely different from any of the invisible literature previously written.
What makes “The Invisible Man” so different is its realism and its social moral. At its root, “The Invisible Man” is a Darwinian study of the conflicts between community and individualism. Griffin – an Ubermensch in the classic Nietzschean sense – considers himself superior to the mass of men, and thus considers his needs and desires superior. From the moment we meet him, his stoic, Byronic charisma is humorously foiled by the gregarious yokels of Iping: extraverted, loudly opinionated, nosy, and egalitarian, they are at first sympathetic with Griffin’s plight, but rapidly take offense to his desire for privacy.
Like any good rural Englishmen (or Americans, for that matter), they are tremendously turned off by elitism, suspicious of education, and unimpressed by the accomplishments of their social betters: “come, come,” they seem to say to Griffin, “we’re all English here, after all; no need to keep secrets in a town like this – let’s have it out.” They resent his superiority, are suspicious of his education, and despise his secrecy (viewing his private business as public property). From a Darwinian perspective, Griffin may indeed symbolize a higher evolved race of men, but his unwillingness to cross pollinate with the rest of humanity – to share his learning and help improve the lives of all mankind – causes him to break from the pack, and as in the animal kingdom, persons who leave the protection of community are destined to become enemies of the herd.
In his mind, the human race was just like every other band of mammals, and stood to gain the best advantage from collaboration, cooperation, and community. Griffin’s self-proclaimed “lone wolf” status makes him a danger to the rest of the pack, and like any other rebel in the animal kingdom, will not cease endangering the group until he has been destroyed by the rest of his species
Scientifically, Wells was drawn to the idea of eugenics, and the betterment of the race, but he deeply feared the idea of a fracture between the social classes, as illustrated in “The Time Machine” where the working classes have devolved into brutal troglodytes and the educated population have inbred themselves into fragile sylphs. By failing to cooperate and engage with the Sussex bumpkins, Griffin poses a threat to the cohesiveness of the human race: his individualism and elitism serve as stumbling blocks to the security of the human community, and as a result, this novel which could easily have been a sci-fi fantasy becomes a sci-fi horror. Kemp, on the other hand – equally as elite, equally as educated – is motivated by duty to his fellow men (be they chatty rustics or cosmopolitan sophisticates), and bridges the gap between the classes with his open heart and devotion to order.
From a Darwinian perspective, a community can only thrive if its individuals are allowed to push the boundaries – to excel and grow – as long as they use their strength to benefit the larger group. In “The Invisible Man” – as in most of Wells’ stories – the guilt is shared: the conservative, reactionary community holds back the Excellent Individual, and the Excellent Individual poses an existential threat to the security of the race.
Griffin himself is a fascinating psychological study. Addicted to steroid-like strychnine, he is driven into a primitive rage against humanity. The ultimate sociopath, he begins his career of crime by robbing his father to fund his studies – an act which drives the “sentimental” man to shoot himself. This does little to prick Griffin’s heart at first, since he has developed a Nietzschean master morality, viewing himself as superior to the lot of men, and his needs therefore more valuable. He experiments on cats without concern of their fates, beats and robs a frightened hunchback (without ever bothering to find if the man escaped his bonds or suffocated in his gag), robs a parson, burns down his apartment complex out of egotistical revenge, and murders at least two men: an unarmed policeman standing his ground, and a curious steward walking down a country lane.
And yet, Griffin has some moral weaknesses that gradually consume him and convert into paranoia. Hounded – despite his supposed lack of conscience – by his father’s suicide, he continually refers to the event, and even dreams of being buried alive at the funeral. Originally self-assured, our transparent sociopath becomes so consumed with fear of the outside – and rage at those who would disobey him – that he passes up several opportunities to escape the law to try to murder his so-called enemies. It is fitting that he only becomes visible in death: it is only in his mortality that Griffin is linked to mankind – only in his pitiful death that he finally becomes relatable and human.
To better understand the novel, it is critical that we understand something of Wells himself, and of the fiction that has made his name a household word. The canon of science fiction follows a very direct descent. From Thomas More to Johannes Kepler, Francis Godwin, and Cyrano de Bergerac, thence to Swift, off to Mary Shelley, handed to Hoffmann, then on to Poe, who is followed by the first absolute master, Jules Verne. Verne’s natural heir would become perhaps the most influential contributor to the genre. Herbert George “Gip” Wells would make monumental strides in the subjects of interplanetary war, space voyaging, undersea exploration, time travel, invisibility, cloning, the “mad scientist,” modern warfare, and speculative history.
After 1906 Wells’ speculative fiction output had rapidly dried, and was only sporadic (and never particularly effective, unique, or good) after that point. During the fifteen years that he did write speculative fiction (which, to clarify, includes sci-fi, weird tales, ghost stories, horror, mystery, fantasy, alternate history, apocalyptic fiction, utopian fiction, and paranormal: all genres which Wells contributed in sizeable ways), Wells wrote nearly two dozen short stories of horror and the supernatural, most of which were of high literary merit as well as being entertaining. His style was often rich with color and mood, fortified by realistic characters, and made fascinating through the ethical and philosophical conundrums which their creator hurled at them.
Wells’ writing was outstandingly effective during this period, and – had they not often explored subjects of horror, fantasy, and science fiction – they would have attracted academic attention for the skill which he demonstrated at prose, theme, and characterization. Wells’ fiction bears resemblance to that of many of his generation’s most renowned realists: Jack London, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, and – most especially – Stephen Crane, both is substance and in style. Wells befriended Crane and Conrad, and their writings were collectively seismic in their effect on literature during the 1890s. Stories such as “The Moth,” “The Cone,” “The Story of the Late Mr Elvesham,” The Country of the Blind, “The Door in the Wall,” and “The Red Room” could be considered standalone literary masterworks regardless of their speculative nature, and it is for this reason that Wells – before his literary decline in the 1920s and 1930s – was considered by many to be Charles Dickens’ natural heir in social fiction just as he was known unequivocally to be Verne’s successor in fantasy.
His novels and stories alike often had a Dickensian feel, and even his horror stories almost universally carried a social theme. Wells was an infamous progressive – both scientifically and politically – and his stories are filled with scenes of abusive power, the destructive effects of conservatism, and the failures of capitalism and imperialism. Wells’ visions of the future, though sometimes utopian, were often ghastly and horrific. He foresaw the pitfalls of ethnocentric colonization and the terrible potential of the class wars. This is perhaps best illustrated in The Time Machine, which introduces another Wellsian theme: evolution.
As a devotee of Darwin, Wells – who began his career as a high school science teacher – was keenly aware that repeated patterns of behavior reinforced the outcomes of future generations, and he was convinced that mankind was steadily evolving due to the hardening avenues of society: to wealth, comfort, and prestige for the rich, and to poverty, misery, and subjugation for the poor. In The Time Machine, Wells’ protagonist visits earth centuries after the Gay Nineties, only to find that mankind has changed, having devolved into two distinctly abhuman races. The descendants of the bourgeoisie have become the effete, weak, impractical Eloi and the descendants of the proletariat have become the vicious, brutal, predatory Morlocks. After centuries of stagnation and complacency, Wells conjectures, the rich will become little more than overfed livestock, while the poor – beaten into the earth and hardened by hate – will transform into wolfish animals. During the high point of his career, Wells’ fiction was rarely proscriptive (that is to say, it seldom showed how the world could be made better), but often if not always a warning of the trajectory we are on.
He used evolution to great impact, demonstrating how mankind – by way of our false sense of victory over the elements and the cosmos – were becoming fat, stupid, and weak in the wake of a watchful and hostile Nature. Threats loom at every corner, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to storm humanity’s unguarded doors and rob us of our false sense of security. In Oldstyle Tales’ collection of Wells’ short fiction alone, we find humanity besieged by arbitrarily violent squid, undersea fish-people, beautiful albeit carnivorous flowers, and darkness itself. We are wise, he urges us to realize, to band together, act in our common interest, and cease probing into matters which are not our evolutionary destiny.
There was no better time than the 1890s and 1900s to fear the excesses of exploration: airplanes, submarines, balloons, ships, and even rockets were being designed to carry humanity deeper into the sea, the Arctic, the deserts, the sky, and the universe than our mortal bodies could be expected to travel unaided. H. P. Lovecraft echoes Wells’ sentiments in “The Call of Cthulhu” where he warns against the collaboration of science, suggesting that we have thus far avoided a horrible discovery, but that as each discipline nibbles away at the crust that Nature has developed around its secrets, inevitably we will have swum too far, and will succumb to a greedy and alien world. Although, as a progressive, he recognized the wonderful potential of technology and science for benefitting the current condition of humanity, he seemed wary of its application in the unnecessary colonization of realms which evolution did not naturally grant humankind: the air, the sea, space, the afterlife. Here be dragons.
Throughout his fiction Wells is distrustful of human nature – a puzzlingly paradoxical stance for a political progressive, but one which is too strong and undeniable to wave away as misinterpretation. Humans are shown to be petty, childish, self-absorbed, abusive, negligent, cruel, wanton, stupid, pathetic, spiteful, unforgiving, murderous, hopeless, irredeemable, and self-deluded. They selfishly hoard attention and power for themselves, and avoid doing the right thing even when it is in their own interests: in one episode a woman knows that her husband means to kill her lover, but finds that she is simply unable to conjure the words to say “don’t go; it’s a trap,” and for unknown reasons lazily watches him go off to a miserable death.
The world of science is shown to be little more than a gladiatorial arena of vice, spite, and malice – far from the lauded, genteel salons of the Enlightenment. Exploration of the skies and the seas yield horrendous discoveries which are nonetheless sought out in the pursuit of fame, and violent impulses are dealt to rivals, relatives, friends, and strangers alike. Wells paints a humanity which would be saved by collaboration and peace, but which flocks childishly to competition and superiority. The more we rush to be on top, he warns, the sooner a bruised and battered victor will weakly slump away in search of cover – alone and vulnerable with his fellow men dead on the ground. We are stronger together, better, abler, wiser, Wells warns, but his protagonists often seek distinction and supremacy. They are rarely rewarded.
Wells’ horror stories tend to fall in three categories which sometimes overlap. The first and most common are ghost stories. These deal with – unsurprisingly – a haunting of some degree. Often the haunting is that of a deceased person returning to make some declaration or advance some objective. In “The Moth” a scientist appears to haunt his hated rival in the form of a creature which they both aggressively studied. In “Pollock and the Porroh Man,” a colonial boss is harassed by the severed head of a native medicine man whom he had put to death. At other moments the haunting is vague – its source, purpose, or motives – and the result is an unsettling, discombobulating ghost story. In “The Door in the Wall” the “ghost” is the eponymous piece of unsuspecting architecture. In “The Red Room” it is the intangible spirit of darkness and oblivion.
Others involve rapacious demons, or aimless phantoms, but all require that a character be deeply unsettled by the presence of the preternatural. The second most common is the tale of weird science – a combination of weird fiction and science fiction which tracks a natural event with fictitious and fantastical results. Tales of weird science portray Nature as sentient, hostile, and predatory, and scientists as either conniving villains or bumbling chumps. In “The Late Mr Elvesham” a scheming academic robs strangers of their youth to extend his empty life, while in “In the Abyss” an explorer is shocked to discover a piscine empire of anthropoid Deep Ones who worship shipwrecks and use human bones as architectural tools. In “The Strange Orchid” a simple middle-classed flower collector has his blood siphoned by a vampiric orchid. In “The Sea Raiders” a boat of women and children is capsized and its occupants are devoured by a cloud of randomly anthropophagous squid. These tales – both ghostly and weird – often cross over into a third category: horror.
Horror stories, as we well know, require the exposure of some terrible and shocking physical abomination: a murder, a monster, a cave filled with skulls, a sky filled with man-eating birds. “Pollock and the Porroh Man,” “The Sea Raiders,” and “The Strange Orchid” are rife with disgusting details, chilling events, and grisly catastrophes. Some of the stories included in this volume are neither ghostly, nor weird, but merely horrifying. “The Cone” details a nauseating murder, and The Country of the Blind, tells of an isolated settlement where vision is considered the fantasy of a madman due to centuries of inbreeding and genetic blindness. These tales might include supernatural machinery without being a straightforward haunting, like in “The Magic Shop,” which follows a man and his son as they slowly come to realize that the toy shop they’ve entered may not allow them to exit, or “A Dream of Armageddon,” which might be a simple case for Drs. Freud and Jung, or it might be a paranormal vision of earth’s bloody climax. The hallmark of a tale of horror is a moment in the climax when a delusion is transformed, and a sickening truth is uncovered. The squids eat humans. The plant sucks blood. He really is going to murder him. The magic is real. Whether the story is one of abject horror, haunting, or weird science, they all feature dark revelations that speak to Wells’ worldview, one which fears that human selfishness and division will lead us into destruction from without as well as within.
Wells’ legacy today is largely that of a science fiction writer. His contributions to that tradition are unquestionably seminal in the genre’s canon. The works of Douglas Adams, Orson Scott Card, Robert Heinlein, William Gibson, Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Fritz Lieber, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Ursula K. Le Guin, Harlan Ellison, and Stephen King are unquestionably imprinted with his influence. And yet he is far more than a science fiction writer: a pioneer in women’s rights, a bulldog for worker’s rights, an outspoken critic of corruption, abuses of power, and chauvinism. His novels of social commentary and lower-middle class life earned him popular acclaim as Charles Dickens’ literary successor, partially due to their stringent and often caustic progressive ethos, and partially due to his evocative prose – a mastery of substance and style which could at times be mistaken for Stephen Crane, Thomas Hardy, or Jack London.
Wells’ life is not without contradiction: his writings often displayed outrageous racism, sexism, and misanthropy, and their cynical, pessimistic tone contrasts drastically from his utopian politics. The complexities of his life are reflected in his oeuvre, which is at once hopeful and gloomy, enthusiastic and despairing, motivated and dispirited, humanistic and misanthropic. The shades of grey which make up his literary worldview – some dark, some light, and some enigmatically in between – have helped to ensure his legacy would be greater than that of a mere fantasy speculator, but as a talented writer and a visionary.
Since its publication, “The Invisible Man” has offered a fascinating glimpse into the psychology of a sociopath, and the overwhelming power of rage. At its simplest it is an engrossing example of science fiction that envisions the frightening possibilities of technology: to simultaneously become all powerful and utterly vulnerable (something we understand all too well in the Digital Age). At its most complex it is a potent parable of social Darwinism reversed: the high-flying genius whose arrogance, egotism, and misanthropy leave him flung so far from the reach of his fellow man that he is devoured by his own narcissism.
It is a lesson in pride as much as it is a fantasy of possibilities – a study in self-control as much as it is a dream of self-potential. Invisibility continues to fascinate us: the ability to blend in and avoid criticism is impossibly attractive. But we know all too well the horror that it can bring: the paranoia of observation, the vulnerability of voyeurism, and the insecurity of exposure. But perhaps it is the Invisible Man himself who experiences the ultimate human horror – anonymity – an idea that begins to dawn on him as he finds himself friendless, fatherless, and reviled by every person he encounters. Ultimately this is the terror of an invisible man, regardless of the perspective: to enter unnoticed, to see unseen, to be missing but unmissed.