Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Dark Side of Invisibility

The Invisible Man The Invisible Man 
by H.G. Wells

“To do such a thing would be to transcend magic. And I beheld, unclouded by doubt, a magnificent vision of all that invisibility might mean to a man—the mystery, the power, the freedom. Drawbacks I saw none. You have only to think! And I, a shabby, poverty-struck, hemmed-in demonstrator, teaching fools in a provincial college, might suddenly become—this.”  ― H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man  

Wells' novel was originally serialized in Pearson's Magazine in 1897, and published as a novel the same year. Part ghost story and part science fiction tale, Wells’s The Invisible Man begins with the arrival of a mysterious, shrouded stranger in the small village of Iping. 

"The stranger came in early February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow,"(p 1)
A man heavily clothed with hats, bandages and gloves takes a room at a local inn, and quickly unnerves the townspeople with his strange laboratory experiments and odd behavior. A series of burglaries take place in the village, and with her suspicion aroused, the innkeeper Mrs. Hall confronts the stranger. Removing all of his clothing and bandages, the man reveals that there is nothing underneath and that he is invisible. Terrified, Mrs. Hall flees and the police attempt to catch the man, but he throws off his clothes and thus eludes capture.
After running from town to town, breaking into houses and stealing things along the way, the invisible man encounters a former associate, Dr. Kemp. The invisible man, who we finally learn is called Griffin, was a brilliant medical student of Dr. Kemp’s at the university. Griffin theorizes that if a person's refractive index is changed to exactly that of air and his body does not absorb or reflect light, then he will be invisible. He successfully carries out this procedure on himself, but cannot become visible again. 

"The man's become inhuman, I tell you, said Kemp."(p 127)
This is indicative of his internal conflict as Griffin struggles to live with his situation. He rationalizes his crimes rather than making any sane attempt to get people to understand his predicament. He uses force to get people to help him and goes from bad to worse in his attempts to replenish his research materials for experiments in reversing the process that rendered him invisible. As Griffin grows increasingly unstable, he begins to feel self-delusions of grandeur and invincibility that lead to this tale’s shocking conclusion. 

I found the narrative structure compelling because the origin of how the Invisible Man came to be and the revealing of his discovery occurs in the later portions of the novel, only after the reader has committed his curiosity to this odd character; someone whose person is at once sympathetic and villainous.  The structure permits the narrative to grow more and more interesting with each turn of the page. 

The Invisible Man is reminiscent of Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (published a decade earlier) in the creation of an alter ego that quickly goes out of control. That is the interest of this story along with how Wells brilliantly works out the development of the theme if invisibility.  If one could become invisible, what then?   Certainly I found this aspect appealing when I first read the novel and undoubtedly it has contributed to the continuing popularity of this novel.  The moral and psychological questions of how humans behave when the stabilizing gaze of society is not upon them are in play.  One considers: What transgressions can be gotten away with? What boundaries can be trespassed? And, most profoundly how would true social isolation affect one's ability to keep his or her moral and social obligations?  In our age the question of whether morality is genetic comes to mind.  

Whether it is science fiction or rather speculative fiction is a critical concern but does not affect the reader's enjoyment.  This novel belongs in a special place along with Wells other great early science fiction works. And if you really enjoy this story the dark side of man is even more evident in his earlier Darwinian arabesque, The Island of Dr. Moreau.

The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells.  Signet Classics, 2002 (1897).


Parrish Lantern said...

This tale reminds me of Kobo Abe's The Face of Another & one wonders if Abe was aware of it.I personally think so because the Japanese did have access to both Verne & Wells by the start of the 20th Century. Although in Abe's book the protagonist only builds himself a new face, there still exists quite a few similarities between them.

James said...

Thanks for the reference to Kobo Abe. I have his short story collection in my current pile to read, but I will note this one for the future.

Parrish Lantern said...

Which one, is it Beyond the curve? Will be interested in your opinion.

James said...

Yes, it is Beyond the Curve.