"The Invisible Girl" Themes
The main themes in “The Invisible Girl” are invisibility and agency, isolation and interiority versus exteriority, and lack of knowledge.
- Invisibility and agency: Rosina’s figurative invisibility symbolizes the lack of agency she experiences as a young woman whose role and character are primarily defined by men.
- Isolation and interiority versus exteriority: The abandoned tower symbolizes Rosina’s isolation, as well as the conflict between her inner and outer selves.
- Lack of knowledge: The characters in the narrator’s tale base their actions on incomplete information, while the narrator himself admits that his story is not objective truth, but only a “slight sketch.”
Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 815
Invisibility and Agency
In "The Invisible Girl," Mary Shelley uses Rosina's figurative and narrative invisibility to highlight and symbolize her lack of agency as a young woman living as a baronet's ward.
Throughout the story, Rosina embodies two different characters, and both are predominantly delineated by and defined by the men around her. At the Vernon estate, she is Rosina: a mild-mannered, sweet, obedient girl who so fears confrontation with Sir Peter that she avoids friction of any kind. As she grows, she becomes so effective at cheering him up and soothing his temper that he becomes resistant to the notion that she might ever marry and embark on a life of her own. Because of what she does for him, he is too fond of her to let her go.
Even by Henry, who knows (and loves) her best, she is described in terms that relate primarily to her treatment of others. She is described in the narrative as sweet, kindhearted, and affectionate, with further variations on the same theme appearing throughout. These qualities aren't about anything inherent to Rosina's own experience; rather, they’re about what she does for the men around her. Though she plays the mandolin well enough to soothe Sir Peter in his angriest moments, for example, she is never described by either of the Vernons as "creative" or "skilled"—those traits would reflect qualities that involve her own pleasure and accomplishment, and might suggest that she has internal motivations for sustained practice. While she clearly does have those traits, and while they bring joy to the Vernon men, they seem to register more as variants of her caretaking abilities than anything else.
In her second character iteration, she's known simply by the men of the village as "The Invisible Girl." Despite her reclusiveness, she hasn't changed even as her role has shifted—she lights a beacon, using her resources to benefit those around her even while hiding in a tower to avoid detection.
Isolation and Interiority versus Exteriority
The tower is a convenient metaphor for both isolation and the conflict between interior and exterior.
In the beginning of the story, when the narrator arrives, he is struck by the dramatic contrast between the tower's interior and exterior. The outside of the tower embodies what he terms a "savage rudeness"—such harshness and disrepair that the comfortable interior is almost jarring. The painting of the Invisible Girl, in particular, is in such contrast to the surroundings that the narrator muses that it seems to be "at war with the rudeness of the building."
Though meek, obedient Rosina herself could never be called "harsh" or "rude," this dichotomy mirrors her own struggle to avoid conflict with Sir Peter, whom she fears to such an extent that she suppresses her own needs and hopes in perpetuity. Her own exterior and interior are at permanent odds with each other, and what goes on inside her psyche is vastly camouflaged by what shows on the outside.
When she disappears, Rosina is so afraid to anger Sir Peter that she even sacrifices her own health and well-being. Instead of finding shelter with someone else, or even trying to return to the Vernon home, she moves into an abandoned building and nearly starves. That this building should be a tower is fitting—a tower creates a vast distance from the occupant and the rest of the world, mirroring Rosina's figurative and emotional isolation with extreme physical isolation.
Lack of Knowledge
By finishing Henry Vernon's tragic story with an unexpectedly happy ending, Mary Shelley plays a trick of sorts on the reader. For the majority of the...
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narrative, the reader expects to be reading a tragedy at a minimum, and quite possibly a ghost story. Instead, Shelley surprises the reader with an unanticipated romance—Henry and Rosina are reunited, healthy and alive, a happy couple at last. In a sense, this unexpected reversal by the author places the reader in Sir Peter's shoes: the baronet operated under the assumption that he had a full, omniscient view of his domain, which allowed him to be surprised (and enraged by) the secret romance occurring where he couldn't see it.
From the story's beginning, the narrator emphasizes that the tale itself is only a "slight sketch"—having passed from person to person within the narrative on its way to the reader, it is presented as a loose retelling and not an objective truth.
A lack of knowledge is reflected in the individual characters’ experiences just as much as it is by the narration. At one time or another, each character is damaged by incomplete information—Sir Peter is unaware of the romance developing when he isn’t looking; Henry is searching for Rosina's remains, assuming she's deceased; and Rosina is too afraid of Sir Peter's anger to return home, unaware that it has long since evolved into grief and remorse.