Wells: The Invisible Man

October 27, 2009

The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance (1897)
H.G. Wells (Modern Library, 2002)
175 p.  First reading.

Graham Greene divided his books into “novels” and “entertainments”, the latter being a little less probing than the former.  Had Wells done the same, The Invisible Man could have been fairly classified as an entertainment. It is imaginative, well written, and intelligent, but it hasn’t the weight of The Island of Dr. Moreau, or even of The Time Machine.

This doesn’t make it unenjoyable by any means.  The power of invisibility, like the power of unaided flight, is one of those things that has engaged my imagination since I was a child. It would seem that one could do all sorts of delightful things if invisible.  And perhaps one could, but Wells puts a spanner in the works of these happy fantasies: suppose you became invisible, but couldn’t make yourself visible again.  What happens then?

What happens then is that invisibility becomes a curse.  If you wanted to avoid becoming a sensation to be poked and prodded, you would have to conceal your invisibility from the world, which, if you think about it, would not be easy.  How would you eat?  How would you buy anything?  How would you get money?  You would even find it difficult to walk around outside when others don’t do you the courtesy of walking around you.  You might very well find yourself driven to crime in order to survive.  Rather than live as a fugitive, you might be tempted to use your invisibility to terrorize and dominate your neighbours.

All of these possibilities, and others, are explored in Wells’ story.  Reading it, the desire for invisibility begins to look morally suspect.  After all, what advantages are gained from invisibility?  One chiefly gains the ability to do or see things that one is not supposed to do or see.

The Invisible Man could be read together with Wells’ short story “The Country of the Blind”, which I have mentioned before.  In the short story, the hero is the only person in the community who can see; in the novel, the hero is the only person who cannot be seen.  There are some interesting resonances between the two.

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