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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.
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.