illustrated portrait of the Invisible Man, whose features are obscured by black cloth

The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance

by H. G. Wells

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Critical Evaluation

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The Invisible Man has an honored place as one of the first works of modern science fiction. H. G. Wells, a science student and teacher, was keenly interested in how the twentieth century would develop its technical knowledge. He was equally concerned with the morality of the scientific experimenter. Griffin is one type of scientist, aloof, aggressive, and contemptuous of his fellow humans. Ordinary people irritate him. They seem petty compared to his lofty concern with the mechanisms of nature. His knowledge isolates him; he thinks only of his discovery and the power that his special knowledge gives him. Consequently, he becomes a menace to society.

Wells does not reveal the full implications of Griffin’s threat to order until the last pages of the novel. At first, Griffin is a mysterious stranger seeking seclusion. His gruff manner is partly excusable because he is fending off the prying questions of his landlady and other villagers. After his plight as an invisible man is revealed, the narrative shifts to an absorbing, intricate account of how he tries to remain at large. The moral implications of his discovery are not considered while society is still mobilizing to cope with this new phenomenon.

Only when Griffin feels cornered and takes refuge in Dr. Kemp’s home does Wells fully reveal Griffin’s mind and character. For the first time, Griffin has a scientific colleague to whom he can unburden himself. Griffin believes that Kemp will understand the scientific details and share his commitment to terrorizing and remaking society. Griffin reasons in this faulty manner because he has completely lost contact with his fellow man. He sees society only as material that he can manipulate.

Griffin is so absorbed in his own views that he does not detect the revulsion Kemp feels for his murderous plans. Griffin means to use science as an instrument of terror; the scientist will become a dictator, deciding who shall live and who shall die. In the process, the scientist himself becomes a monster, oblivious of humanity.

In a sense, Wells has rewritten Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s classic Frankenstein (1818). In that novel, Victor Frankenstein tries to improve humanity by using parts of human bodies to create a perfect being. Frankenstein also isolates himself from his community, allows his enthusiasm for scientific discovery to outweigh moral considerations, and consequently produces a monster. Frankenstein, however, reacts to his terrible invention with horror and contrition, realizing that he has separated himself from humanity. Griffin, on the other hand, is the model of the disinterested scientist. He is solely concerned with his experiments. He will destroy anything that impedes his scientific progress. He is the modern professional, cool and self-contained. He has no emotional involvement with anything but his experiments.

That Dr. Kemp should triumph over Griffin suggests that there are natural limitations to the damage a scientist such as Griffin can inflict on society. Griffin fails to gain Dr. Kemp as a collaborator precisely because Griffin does not recognize Dr. Kemp’s humanity. Because Griffin is himself the monster, he guarantees his own doom. Society will crush him just as he plans to crush it.

There is something heroic in Griffin’s dedication to science, but his quest is perverted. Science offers the possibility of specialized knowledge, of improving the human condition, and of learning more about nature. The scientist, however, must realize that he is a part of what he studies and that he cannot set himself apart from it. Frankenstein cannot make a perfect human being because he himself is imperfect and the human body parts he uses to make his monster are flawed as...

(This entire section contains 969 words.)

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well. Similarly, Wells shows that Griffin becomes a criminal as soon as he becomes invisible because of his defective nature. Invisibility merely increases his sense of isolation from society and intensifies his sense of uniqueness and superiority; invisibility does not contribute to Griffin’s understanding of nature.

Griffin’s cruelty is a striking feature of his characterization. It is painful to witness his torturing of the poor tramp, Marvel. Like the other characters in The Invisible Man, Marvel is a vivid, colorful creation. He is given a distinct voice. He may seem pathetic, an easy target for Griffin’s jeers, but his individuality and his right to his own life are precious values that Griffin would deny him. In Griffin’s hands, science becomes a tool of tyranny, a way of denying all individuality, a way of blending all of humanity into the mad scientist’s vision of carefully controlled experiments. People become test subjects.

Because Griffin’s explanation of his experiments and of his scornful view of humanity are withheld until nearly the end of the novel, Wells is able to maintain extraordinary tension and suspense. How did Griffin make himself invisible? Why did he do it? How does his invisibility affect him? The answers to these questions are held until the denouement of the novel, until the narrative works through several exciting scenes of pursuit and violence. Not until the unbearability of Griffin’s isolation is complete is he given an opportunity to explain himself.

These final scenes constitute Griffin’s confession, defense, and defiance of society’s conventions. He acts as though his invention entitles him to violate morality, even to murder. At this point, he sounds demented, a man overtaken by intellectual passions, in the grip of ideas that strip him of his humanity.

Although Griffin’s cruelty seems to deprive the reader of any sense of sympathy for him, the novel ends with a touching image of him, “naked and pitiful on the ground, the bruised and broken body of a young man about thirty.” The scene suggests that Griffin is also a victim, hardly yet mature, deluded, fragile, and misled, a representative of erring humanity, vulnerable and tragic.


Critical Context