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The Invisible Man: Inspirations, Interpretations, and a Literary Analysis


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…

II.

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.

III.

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.

IV.