Louts and strivers, united by their desire to exploit the weak: H.G. Wells expounds a dark vision of humanity in ‘The Invisible Man’

December 16, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 16, 2014

Herbert George Wells’s sixth book, The Invisible Man, in 1897, continued a very productive writing career that had begun in 1895 with the publication of a debut novel and two other works. Wells’s first volumes included a short-story collection, a comic novel (The Wheels of Chance, which revolved around bicycling), and four science-fiction novels. One of those works, The Wonderful Visit, is obscure; the others are anything but.

The Time MachineThe Island of Dr. MoreauThe Invisible Man and Wells’s seventh book, The War of the Worlds, published in 1898, develop seminal science-fiction tropes. Not only are these themes — time travel, scientific overreach, all-out war against implacable alien foes, the ability to move without being seen — threaded throughout the history of science fiction, Wells’s very stories themselves have been produced for television and film many times.

Since 2004, no fewer than five movies inspired by The War of the Worlds have been released; it was also (very loosely) the basis for a 1980s TV series and a classic 1953 movie. The most recent Island of Dr. Moreau film appeared 18 years ago; it followed in the footsteps of three 1970s adaptations as well as versions from 1959, 1932 and 1921. There have been five movies based on The Time Machine, with a sixth due out next yearThe Invisible Man has inspired an even longer string of movie and TV screen (non-)appearances, including a TV series unfamiliar to me that aired from 2000 through 2002, although the book’s most famous screen incarnation might still be the 1933 version starring Claude Rains in the title role.

However, I hadn’t read any of Wells’s novels until recently. I thought that The Time Machine was interesting but dragged at pointsThe Invisible Man represented a definite step forward for Wells as a writer. He didn’t fully adopt the device of the omniscient third-person narrator; instead, the book often purports to be the account of an unnamed narrator, even though there are a few passages that depict events which no third person could reasonably be expected to know about or to have witnessed.

Despite that, The Invisible Man functions on a higher literary plane than The Time Machine. It is, thankfully, lighter on the long speeches, expressing its themes more subtly than did Wells’s first novel.

The book begins on a snowy February day in the rather backwards rural English village of Iping. A stranger leases the guest parlor at the Coach and Horses, the local bar and inn, and almost immediately establishes a tetchy relationship with Mrs. Hall, the proprietor.

The visitor sat and listened to her retreating feet. … He took a mouthful, glanced suspiciously at the window, took another mouthful, then rose and, taking the serviette in his hand, walked across the room and pulled the blind down to the top of the white muslin that obscured the lower panes. This left the room in a twilight. This done, he returned with an easier air to the table and his meal.

“The poor soul’s had an accident or an operation or something,” said Mrs. Hall. “What a turn them bandages did give me, to be sure!”

She put on some more coal, unfolded the clothes-horse, and extended the traveller’s coat upon this. “And them goggles! Why, he looked more like a divin’-helmet than a human man!” She hung his muffler on a corner of the horse. “And holding that handkercher over his mouth all the time. Talkin’ through it! … Perhaps his mouth was hurt too — maybe.”

She turned round, as one who suddenly remembers. “Bless my soul alive!” she said, going off at a tangent; “ain’t you done them taters yet, Millie?”

When Mrs. Hall went to clear away the stranger’s lunch, her idea that his mouth must also have been cut or disfigured in the accident she supposed him to have suffered, was confirmed, for he was smoking a pipe, and all the time that she was in the room he never loosened the silk muffler he had wrapped round the lower part of his face to put the mouthpiece to his lips. Yet it was not forgetfulness, for she saw he glanced at it as it smouldered out. He sat in the corner with his back to the window-blind and spoke now, having eaten and drunk and been comfortably warmed through, with less aggressive brevity than before. The reflection of the fire lent a kind of red animation to his big spectacles they had lacked hitherto.

This stranger’s name is Jack Griffin. He isn’t injured; instead, of course, he’s rendered himself invisible by a scientific process of his devising.

Griffin, a big, powerfully built man, was always a self-centered sort. But his astonishing accomplishment only encourages his vanity and arrogance; when Griffin isn’t busy feeling sad for himself, he’s plotting or working to steal from or subjugate other people.

He’s taken refuge in Iping so he can learn how to undo his invisibility. But the villagers soon grow suspicious of the belligerent stranger in their midst. Once they do, open warfare quickly erupts between the two sides.

Griffin recruits a comically hapless hobo named Thomas Marvel to carry his checkbook, scientific journals and stolen money. (As Griffin quickly discovered, objects that appear to transport themselves without assistance draw unwanted attention.) The duo repairs to the larger town of Port Stowe, but Marvel absconds from his tormentor at the first opportunity.

After being injured in an attempt to restrain and punish his aide-de-camp, Griffin hides in a house that turns out to belong to one Dr. Kemp, an old college classmate. Griffin explains how he got into his current predicament — this passage, somewhat reminiscent of The Time Machine, spans about 30 pages — and then confides his plan to impose a “reign of terror” on the locality.

The local authorities, alerted to Griffin’s presence, aren’t willing to submit, however, and the story turns into a manhunt. Eventually, even the invisible Griffin proves to be a poor match to an alert and united proletariat.

The ending is tragic in a classical sense. Griffin’s downfall — his reluctance to cut his losses and travel to a safer location, one where his existence is unknown — is born from the same hubris that gave him the confidence and drive to devise the science of invisibility in the first place.

Whereas The Time Machine ended its main narrative with a stinging revelation and contained a reflective epilogue, in The Invisible Man it’s the epilogue that carries a jolt. It turns out that Marvel has confiscated Griffin’s checkbook and journals without being detected; having purchased an inn, the new landlord spends his evenings attempting to decipher the arcane formulas jotted down by the invisible man:

His brows are knit and his lips move painfully. “Hex, little two up in the air, cross and a fiddle-de-dee. Lord! what a one he was for intellect!”

Presently he relaxes and leans back, and blinks through his smoke across the room at things invisible to other eyes. “Full of secrets,” he says. “Wonderful secrets!

“Once I get the haul of them — Lord!

“I wouldn’t do what he did; I’d just — well!” He pulls at his pipe.

So he lapses into a dream, the undying wonderful dream of his life. And though Kemp has fished unceasingly, and [policeman] Adye has questioned closely, no human being save the landlord knows those books are there, with the subtle secret of invisibility and a dozen other strange secrets written therein. And none other will know of them until he dies.

It’s ludicrous to assume that the bird-brained Marvel will ever comprehend Griffin’s lab notes. But one wonders just what mischief that journal might conjure once it passes into the hands of more intelligent parties…

The mixture of comedy and foreboding here is an apt note on which to end The Invisible Man. The book’s vision of humanity is grimly binary: One is either a lout or a striver. The former type appears to be incapable of improving his own lot; the latter type — which Kemp seems to be — is wholly obsessed with just that endeavor.

But there’s a commonality between these two types. Each one will exploit other individuals as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Griffin’s plotting a reign of terror is of a piece with Marvel absconding with Griffin’s book when the chance arises. And that is of a piece with Kemp reporting Griffin to the authorities almost as soon as his old college acquaintance goes to sleep. (Kemp’s betrayal, I should note, takes place before Griffin reveals the full scope of his megalomania.)

Thankfully, Wells imparts this vision without much lecturing. The Invisible Man has more action and comedy than its predecessor, but there are stretches that will test the patience of younger readers. (As implied above, Griffin’s recounting of how he came to be invisible approaches the dry academic quality of the less appealing parts of The Time Machine.) Readers who prefer contemporary fiction would do best to stay away, but lovers of historical science fiction, or of British fiction from the late 19th century, should enjoy The Invisible Man.

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