The Invisible Man, H.G.Wells, and Genre Distinction


“Before I made this mad experiment I had dreamt of a thousand advantages. That afternoon it seemed all disappointment.”

Is invisibility a virtue or a vice?

We tend to think it is a desirable quality, yet H.G. Wells tells us the opposite.

The story begins with a stranger stumbling into an inn in February. The simple folk of the local village are very curious about him, particularly because the man’s face is bandaged and bespectacled. In return for their continuous prying, they only receive the man’s aggression and harsh words; but as the story progresses, we find out that he is invisible as a result of an experiment. Although he becomes known as the Invisible Man, his real name is Griffin, and he has grand plans for a Reign of Terror.

The irony is that as soon as Griffin becomes invisible, he realizes the disadvantages of his state and tries to make himself apparent again.

The book has not one pleasant character, for the lead certainly isn’t one. This lead me to think if we could enjoy a book about unpleasant characters, and what is the value in having it so? What would drive an author to write it like this? Then I read a little about Wells and found out that he was not all that impressed with society. A reflection of this sentiment seeps through the narrative.

The idea of a superhuman is another theme which can be traced. Griffin has endowed himself with a superior power, but unlike the classic superhero trope he does not use it for good. Perhaps this also shows Wells’s views on human nature. Another hypothesis is that Griffin is driven to use his power in a negative way because of his previous life as an outcast. He is an isolated genius, and an albino at that. Although the invisibility does away with his looks, he is further isolated by it, and nothing can amend that state.

I read that H.G. Wells might have identified with the image of an isolated genius. One could write a whole essay about this element in the novel: Griffin’s constant rage comes from his inability to share his findings, which itself comes from a sort of selfishness only a creator can possess. I can’t help but think that Wells identified with Griffin, whose death at the end of the narrative could symbolize Wells’s frustration with society and final surrender. At one point, the author seems to exclaim through the pages:

“As though knowing could be any satisfaction to a man!”

Wells comes to mind as a science fiction writer, but The Invisible Man has been called a fantasy. This led me to think — what is the distinction specifically? Obviously, science fiction implies that there is some plausibility in the subject matter, while fantasy is completely outlandish material. The Invisible Man, however, seems to be both. Wells carries a sensible discussion about light and its properties and explains how in theory a thing could be made invisible. The rest is more fantastic than scientific.

“All men, however highly educated, retain some superstitious inklings.”

Turns out, this type of muddled genre is branded speculative fiction. It could be further broken down into sub-genres, such as science fantasy. Apparently Brave New World, 1984, A Handmaid’s Tale could all be classified as speculative fiction. You can read more about it here.

Wells was rather attached to the genre and thought it superior to his rival’s, Jules Verne’s, science fiction style. One Gregory Benford, who wrote the afterword of the edition I read, states that “Wells thought he was better than Verne because he did not limit himself to mere plausibility if by transcending it he could reach for larger dramatic issues”.

Whatever dramatic issue is brought up in The Invisible Man, it is tainted (if not spoiled) by the cyclical occurrence of violence and dislike which become habitual to its characters.  However, if one is willing to dig deep, I believe there is potential for greater themes such as knowledge, self-perception and society, among others.



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