The Invisible Girl

by Mary Shelley

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 816

Mary Shelley's "The Invisible Girl," originally published in 1833, is a gothic short story about romance, anger, and loss.

The narrative focuses predominantly on Henry Vernon, a young man whose fiancée, Rosina—an adopted ward of his mercurial father, raised alongside Henry himself—is cast out of the house when their romance becomes known. Henry and his father, Sir Peter Vernon, assume the girl is dead, and Henry is introduced in the early stages of his heartbroken search to find her remains. After a rough journey across the water with two sailors for hire, he is shocked by what he finds: Rosina is still alive and living in a decrepit tower by the sea, having become known to the locals only as "The Invisible Girl." The lovers are reunited, and Sir Peter offers his blessing for the two to be wed at last. The unexpected happy ending is a deliberate inversion of the story's expected arc: it is not a tragic ghost story after all, but a romance.

In the opening passage, the unnamed narrator of "The Invisible Girl" offers a disclaimer of sorts to the reader: "This slender narrative has no pretensions on the regularity of a story, or the development of situations and feelings; it is but a slight sketch, delivered nearly as it was narrated to me." This foreshadows the story's nested structure—a self-aware narrator speaks directly to the reader, recounting a story told to him by the woman occupying a strange tower he has happened upon while lost in the Welsh countryside. She, in turn, tells him a story she can be assumed to have learned from her son, one of the sailors hired by Henry Vernon. He, presumably, must have heard the story from Vernon himself. Whatever details the reader finds therein have been removed at least four times from the original source.

This narrative malleability reflects one of the primary tragedies afflicting the characters in the story: at one point or another, they each suffer from incomplete information. Sir Peter Vernon is surprised to discover the romance between Henry and Rosina, and he is so infuriated to learn that they have been deceiving him that he sends Henry away and casts Rosina out of the house. When she doesn't return, Sir Peter is beset with grief and guilt at his overreaction.

Henry, soon after, seeks Rosina's remains. He is so certain that she has succumbed to the elements that it doesn't occur to him to seek his living fiancée, only to mourn her and hope to find her body. Rosina, in turn, hides from Sir Peter's famous anger, unaware that he is grieving his lost ward and wholly regrets sending her away.

Mary Shelley's work is often critiqued from a feminist perspective, and "The Invisible Girl" fits well into that critical framework. Rosina, despite being the titular character, is entirely defined by and diminished by the men in her proximity—she becomes figuratively "invisible" through Sir Peter's anger, stoked by his disagreement with her own goals and desires, and literally "invisible" through her fear at being seen by anybody who might then report her whereabouts.

Both of these men, it is worth noting, seemingly do love Rosina. But this love is expressed in terms that, often, deprive her of any personal agency or interiority. She is fondly described as sweet, kindhearted, affectionate, and uniquely able to soothe Sir Peter's temper. Each of these qualities, however admirable they may be, is not beneficial or fulfilling to Rosina herself in any way, except in that they endear her to the men in the story. The only time in the...

(This entire section contains 816 words.)

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narrative that Rosina is depicted doing anything for her own leisure or benefit—with the exception of hiding from an angry man, one might argue—is in the portrait that first draws the narrator's attention. In it, she is shown in a rare moment of self-indulgence: instead of playing music for Sir Peter or showing affection to Henry, she is reading a book.

Though the titular "Invisible Girl" is not a ghost, and the story itself incorporates no supernatural elements at all, these layers of abstraction emphasize a folkloric "ghost story" quality inherent in the writing. Shelley's prose is deeply atmospheric, her characters tragic, her imagery lush and sensory, and her resolution predicated on an almost magical stroke of sheer luck—that the bereaved main character should conveniently happen upon his dead beloved, alive and well again, ready to restart their life together.

That Rosina herself should have become, however briefly, a legend among the villagers is apt—if the story itself is a "slight sketch,” derived from and distorted by word of mouth as it is passed on from person to person, so, too, is Rosina as the Invisible Girl: a mysterious woman appearing only in the periphery, disappearing as soon as one might try to take a clearer look.