Being Invisible Themes
by Thomas Berger

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Being Invisible Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

There are two kinds of invisibility in Being Invisible. One is involuntary: Wagner becomes invisible in society as he loses his job and women use and discard him. Although talented, Wagner is essentially an unheroic figure who tries to survive each day. His very goodness may be what dooms him: Unwilling to be spiteful and unwilling to bully, he is abused; society simply will not reward a good man for being good. Examples surround him of no-talent fools and bullies who live better lives than he does. In Wagner's complex urban world, the people who stand out and advance up the social hierarchy are those who are loud enough to call attention to themselves; it is as if urban society has no respect for talent or unselfishness, using and then discarding talented, good people.

The second kind of invisibility seems to contradict the first. It is voluntary. Wagner has the literal ability to disappear; he can choose to fade from view in any situation, making his invisibility a refuge from some of the pain of his life. When invisible, he can be an observer without being an actor in life. This has two implications for Wagner: One is that he can choose to do as he wishes, but he elects not to act to his advantage, suggesting that he has a weak personality. The second implication is that his miserable life may be his own fault; perhaps he has encouraged his own social invisibility. F. Scott Fitzgerald declares, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." This seems to be what Berger has achieved: Society is responsible for Wagner's invisibility and Wagner is responsible for his own invisibility, and the novel still functions. This seeming contradiction gives the novel its tension, creating subtle friction throughout.