Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430
H. G. Wells wrote five “scientific romances” in the 1890’s. It is on these novels that his reputation largely rests. The Invisible Man is the third, nestled between The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) and The War of the Worlds (1898). Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), it is a cautionary tale of how science can get out of control and do more harm than good.
Although Wells often is called the inventor of science fiction, The Invisible Man is not really a story of what is scientifically possible but rather is a moral romance about the corruption of power. As a contemporary critic remarked, the imagination is everything, the science nothing. Unlike Jules Verne, with whom he is often compared, Wells was less concerned with the accuracy of his science than with the consequences of it.
Wells was firmly anchored in the values and the preoccupations of his time, a period of intense speculation characterized by a feeling of weariness with the past and a foreboding about the future. There was a sense that the whole elaborate Victorian order was teetering on the brink of collapse, both intellectually and socially. Fin de siècle attitudes appeared in the literary work of Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and, most obviously, Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas of the Übermensch figure prominently in The Invisible Man. The theories of Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx that helped to overturn the intellectual and moral certainties of the nineteenth century and shaped the new world of the twentieth also can be found in Wells’s early romances.
The Invisible Man contains a blend of fantasy and the everyday. It is a comic novel that plays heavily with rural stereotypes of narrow-mindedness and credulity and yet does so with the serious intent of exposing the fragile security of modern life. As Griffin’s invisibility allows animal instincts to surface in him, the threat to public safety stampedes the crowd. Griffin violates the ethics of modern science by pursuing knowledge as a means to power and not for its own sake. Like Dr. Jekyll in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Griffin releases in himself a dark side normally held in check by civilized codes of conduct.
The Invisible Man contains a fable in which Wells examines the myths of nineteenth century culture, particularly the hubris of science, with its pretensions of infallibility and progress. It is a nervous book, full of fear concerning collapse of the sureties of the past and yet apprehensive about the possibilities for the future.