Review: The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells

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The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells book cover
The Invisible Man (1897) is one of H. G. Wells’s earliest and best known science-fiction novels, which he wrote during a burst of brilliance that also yielded The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. When a stranger arrives at an inn in the small town of Iping, the locals’ interest is piqued. A reclusive and peculiar character, the stranger locks himself away in his room to conduct scientific experiments and is never seen without heavy clothing and a fully bandaged face. The villagers persist in trying to uncover the stranger’s secret, much to his annoyance. When it is eventually revealed that the stranger, Griffin, has made himself invisible through pioneering, if not reckless, scientific techniques then all hell breaks loose. Griffin becomes an instant outcast and his surly manner only intensifies as he struggles to survive, a theme that proves common to his existence as the reader has Griffin’s shady past recounted to them. When Griffin eventually snaps and instigates a Reign of Terror on the inhabitants of Iping the stakes are raised and disaster becomes inevitable.

Through The Invisible Man, Wells discusses the scientist’s place in the world, and the methods and values of scientific research. Indeed, the novel’s structure mimics that of scientific enquiry: In the first section the villagers all attempt to discover the secret of the mysterious stranger using different forms of reasoning, Griffin with his invisibility representing The Unknown. In the second part of the novel, with the facts established, the focus turns to the evaluation of these facts and their implications. The villagers groping attempts to unravel the mystery are contrasted with the clear-minded and incisive processes of scientific research and their responses to the facts, whilst comic in tone, highlight man’s tendency to retreat to superstition and religion when challenged by circumstances outside of his sphere of knowledge or experience.

Griffin’s invisibility is symbolic of his lack of social status. As a scientist he has little value and chooses to ostracise himself from society, in part for the good of his scientific endeavours: The pursuit of scientific discovery requires a clear and concerted effort on the part of the scientist, and yet society is unwilling to support such research as there is little practical application that arises directly from it. Griffin’s main value is derived from his knowledge and scientific research, but his findings are misunderstood and his output is not valued by regular people as it has no common, applicable value in their eyes. Through The Invisible Man, Wells defines this as a problem and one that must be addressed if science is to be accepted as a calling and theoretical scientists given the room to work and survive in a practical society. That society fails to value Griffin or his work is the cause of his invisibility. At the time The Invisible Man was written science in Britain was slowly beginning to gain a place of respect in society, in some part in response to the rising emphasise that the Germans were putting on scientific enquiry and the benefits this was bringing them, and Wells was clearly supportive of this shift. In line with this, his science-fiction features a creative form of science, not restricted by strict empirical evidence but rather free to speculate and test bold theories. Relaying his own story, Griffin, channelling Wells, criticises the stifling conformity of nineteenth-century teaching and practices within the sciences in Britain – the most direct indicator of Wells’s leanings within the text.

But such free and bold science can be dangerous as well as revolutionary. The Invisible Man then, is not only a promotion of a new brand of theoretical science, but also a warning against the power of knowledge and the unintended consequences of scientific discovery.

As an albino, Griffin is an outcast before he makes himself invisible, and The Invisible Man is a social commentary on the outsider as much as anything, and how a man with nothing is treated by society. Indeed, The Invisible Man of the title may refer either to the scientist in society, or the invisible of society.

As a character, Griffin is a peculiar fellow; driven by a scorched anger and with very little to redeem him, even early on, when his biggest offence is an impolite tone. Already estranged from society, his invisibility only confirms the situation. The explanation of how Griffin achieved invisibility is well thought out, if not a little implausible to the modern reader, but less detail has gone into characterisation and there is no psychological depth to Griffin. For an intelligent man, he is incredibly impractical – having, seemingly, set up no plan for when he became invisible, or anticipated any of the consequences. His turn from malcontent to instigator of his Reign of Terror is melodramatic in the extreme, if not entirely ludicrous.

Most of the characters remain rather shallow, with more energy reserved for the ideas contained within the novel. That the characters are all one-dimensional is hardly the point, but that some of the dialogue feels clunky and inauthentic, and the prose creaks along in places, is a greater issue. Technically then the writing is flawed in some ways, with Wells failing to pull off many of the literary devices he attempts. Although the prose and the world depicted is very much of its time, Wells’s commentary on society and science remains full of valuable insights.

The first section of the novel is actually quite amusing, as the locals try to find out more about the stranger in their midst. Admittedly some of the caricatures are a little condescending, but there are certainly human truths at the heart of the characters, and though the storyline leaves a lot to be desired one shouldn’t turn The Invisible Man aside purely on this basis. It should be remembered that Wells was pioneering a form of writing, for which no adequate template existed – that his success in ordering his ideas was inconsistent is to be expected.

Wells was able, as are all great science-fiction writers, to speculate on and project scientific advancement, but here the novel is about more than the specific technologies described and how they impact the characters’ lives, here is a discussion of the scientist’s place in the world, and the perils of scientific experimentation. Many critics have dismissed The Invisible Man as a fairly weak effort on Wells’s part, but there is more to it than that: The Invisible Man is a warning against science without humanity. That the novel has spawned a number of adaptations and remains one of the best known works of early science-fiction is testament to Wells’s imagination, if not his writing.

This really feels quite dated, and I think there is better science-fiction from the period, better Wells even, but it's short and has some interesting ideas - definitely not one I'd wholly discount. 


Useful Links
Reviews of The Invisible Man on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Invisible Man on Amazon (US)

4 comments:

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I find the same with Wells - the ideas are good but the story can fall a bit flat.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Yes, it's a pity - but then there's something raw about the books that quite appeals. If nothing else Wells was succinct, so you never get too bogged down in a read. :)

Heather said...

Great review. I haven't read this since I was a kid, but I have it on a list of books to re-read. I'm looking forward to seeing what I get out of the book as an adult.

Matthew Selwyn said...

I reckon younger readers my enjoy the story for itself a little more than adult readers - I look forward to hearing your response as a more mature reader :)