The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance Analysis

H. G. Wells

The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance begins on a wintry day in February. A mysterious, oddly dressed stranger arrives at the Coach and Horses pub in the town of Iping in rural Sussex. His entire body is covered: Even his face is swathed in a muffler, and his eyes are hidden behind dark glasses. Although the landlady and her husband, the Halls, are curious about his bizarre appearance, they readily agree to rent him a room because it is the off season. The next day, the stranger’s luggage arrives, consisting of several crates of chemicals and books. Because of his furtive and solitary nature, the stranger quickly becomes the object of local gossip.

Mrs. Hall, who believes he has been in a horrible disfiguring accident, soon perceives unbelievable things in her guest’s eccentricities. It appears that he has no lower half to his jaw, for example, and as his brusqueness becomes more violent, she suspects that there is more to his behavior than can be explained by mere physical deformity. After he runs out of money, a rash of petty thefts in the village point to the strange lodger as the culprit. His invisibility finally is discovered when Mrs. Hall calls in Jaffers, the local constable, to evict him for not paying his bill. The village inhabitants panic.

Naked and on the run, the invisible man coerces a tramp, Thomas Marvel, to aid him in his escape. Marvel retrieves three scientific notebooks from the Coach and Horses and steals...

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Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man begins with several mysterious scenes involving a stranger who keeps bundled up and will not leave his lodgings. He is irascible and contemptuous of other people’s curiosity about him. He tells his landlady that he wishes to be left alone to conduct certain experiments. His behavior is somewhat understandable because people do try to pry into his affairs, and they are far less intelligent than he is. He believes that he has no one in which to confide because everyone treats him as a curiosity.

Only gradually does the stranger’s plight make itself known. He has somehow made himself invisible, and he is desperately trying to reverse the process that has erased his living substance. However haughty he may seem, his unique dilemma is exciting and troubling. How will he cope with this unprecedented situation? Indeed, he is so self-absorbed that nothing else matters. He cannot be troubled to consider anyone else’s feelings or how his behavior and the implications of his actions are a threat to society. Rather, his position seems to reinforce his feelings of superiority. Who could possibly be his match, or realize the implications of his invention?

The invisible man’s identity is not revealed until he takes refuge with an old friend, Doctor Kemp, whom the invisible man (now identified as Griffin) hopes to include as a collaborator in his experiment and as a buffer between himself and a hostile and...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Iping. Fictitious town in southern England’s Sussex County, where Griffin, a scientist who has made himself invisible, seeks refuge from the crowds and dirt of London. He hopes that the village will provide him with a place where he can continue his research without being disturbed by the people who live there, all of whom he considers of inferior intelligence. He also hopes that the village, with its relatively clean air and streets, will enable him to commit robberies whenever he needs money and remain undetected. Later, when he runs amok in the village, H. G. Wells satirizes, actually even mocks, the inhabitants of British villages who can have no idea what they are up against in the person of the Invisible Man. Griffin makes chaos of the town’s celebration of Whit-Monday, the day after Whitsunday or Pentecost, when the small town has a kind of carnival in celebration of the holiday.


*London. Great Britain’s capital city, where Griffin first becomes invisible. He soon learns, however, that London is no place for an invisible man. The streets are full of dirt that quickly makes his feet visible. The air is full of dirt that settles on his body and makes his form visible if he stays outside for any length of time. Moreover, London’s weather is too cold for him to go naked in the streets, and he must remain naked to be completely invisible. The streets are full of people, carts, and other...

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Literary Techniques

The Invisible Man exemplifies one of Wells's principles for writing science fiction: Introduce only one fantastic element into a story, but make the rest of the novel part of the ordinary world. The Sussex of The Invisible Man is ordinary, filled with ordinary people during an ordinary winter. From the outside comes the invisible Griffin. Much of the plot involves people responding to the mystery of the "strange man." This ordinariness helps create suspense because no extraordinary super-scientist or great detective is available to solve the problems created by Griffin. Ordinary people must make do. This ordinariness also adds to the force of the novel's conclusion. The brilliantly imaginative Griffin is destroyed by a society that cannot tolerate his unusual nature, as well as by his own ordinary ambitions and greed.

Ideas for Group Discussions

One reason the idea of the invisible man has had a persistent hold on the imagination of twentieth-century audiences could be its function as a metaphor for modern life. Science has made Griffin invisible, and no matter how hard he tries to affect the people around him, he is not seen nor is he understood. He tries to assert power in society, but rather than frightening people, he makes them angry. His efforts to assert himself result in society killing him as if he were an animal. This could touch modern imaginations in two ways: the feeling of being unseen no matter what one does, and the feeling that to be different from socially accepted norms is to be loathed. In the first way, Wells's The Invisible Man has something in common with Ralph Ellison's otherwise very different novel Invisible Man (1952). Both express the anger and unhappiness felt by people when those around them refuse to even admit they even exist. In both cases, an allegorical figure struggles to be seen and have his self-worth acknowledged, and in both cases their efforts are met with hostility.

To see and yet not to be seen; to be forced to see, even when one closes his eyes, seeing everything — surroundings, society, the world — all the time; to remain essentially unseeable no matter how one dresses oneself up, no matter how one tries to interact with society; these are horrors that echo a modern age in which the worst of the world's events are relentlessly broadcast, and the immense complexity of society can make one feel utterly insignificant. The Invisible Man brilliantly plays upon these aspects of modern existence, working them out in a complex allegory in which Griffin becomes any one of the novel's readers, crying out for acknowledgement, for anyone to notice and admire. Discussions almost inevitably turn on Griffin's isolation, his differentness, and his pain. He may be a disagreeable character, but his anguish is all too recognizable.

1. Does Wells offer any well-thought-out explanations for how a person could make himself invisible?

2. Why would Wells place Griffin in a small village? What purpose does this serve?

3. Why are the villagers not more afraid of Griffin?

4. How responsible is Griffin for his own actions? How should society respond to him?

5. Griffin makes a remarkable discovery. Why is he not showered with admiration and money?

6. Compare Griffin to Marlowe's Dr. Faustus. How are they similar? Are Wells and Marlowe working out similar themes with their characters? Who is the Devil in The Invisible Man?

7. How do people cope with being socially invisible? Is insanity ever the result?

8. How good of a story is the novel? Is it well plotted? Are its events exciting? Are its images vivid?

9. What is the significance of Griffin's whiteness and red eyes at the end of the novel?

10. What is the meaning of having a tramp hoard Griffin's notes? Is Wells saying anything about what happens to scientific discoveries or about human aspirations?

Social Concerns

In The Invisible Man, Wells again works out the theme that nothing is gained without something being lost. Medical student Griffin discovers how to make himself invisible, only to lose his mind when he does so. This novel is also a cautionary tale, warning that intellectual achievement is still vulnerable to the animal self in human beings. In addition, The Invisible Man is a social comedy, inviting laughter as the rural population of Sussex responds to the "strange man" all "wrapped up from head to foot." Instead of inspiring fear, as he hopes, with his pranks while invisible, Griffin angers the villagers. Surrounded by colorful English stereotypes who have their own plans for him, Griffin loses everything, clothing, money, his notes, and his life. At the novel's end, a tramp, with ambitions for wealth and power that parody Griffin's own, hoards the scientist's notes and dreams "the undying wonderful dream of his life" even though he understands not a word of what Griffin has written.

Literary Precedents

The dark comedy The Invisible Man has attained the stature of a modern myth in part because it addresses fundamental problems of Western civilization. What price should people pay for knowledge? How much knowledge is too much? Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe addressed these questions in The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus (1592), in which a learned man sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge. Faustus uses his new powers for self-gratification. Having the knowledge of the universe at his command, he satisfies his animal desires. At the end, he despairs of salvation, having wasted his native intellectual powers. The character Faust reappears in many forms after Marlowe gives his legend shape. Goethe's own Faust (Part I, 1808; Part II, 1832) investigates the blessing and curse of being at once an intellect capable of noble achievements and an animal given to base desires. The Invisible Man faces the modern world, recognizes its potential for great scientific advances such as his own, and does not understand to what purposes his knowledge may be put.

Griffin also owes some elements to Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). In a search for a scientific way to enable the good in people to overcome the evil in them, he develops a potion that surprises him. It unleashes Mr. Hyde, Jekyll's animalistic self that had been restrained by the doctor's intellectual and moral self. As with Jekyll's potion, invisibility releases Griffin's irrational self — that which wants instant gratification and is quick to anger and slow to understand its limitations.


Dozens of motion pictures and television shows have used the motif of a man or woman becoming invisible. All owe their inspiration to Wells's novel or the first important motion picture adaptation, Universal's 1933 The Invisible Man. This film was produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr. and was directed by James Whale. The direction is excellent, capturing the eccentricities of the novel's characters, as well as the dark humor of Wells's original. The screenplay by R. C. Sherriff and Philip Wylie features snappy dialogue. Robert Cedric Sherriff was a playwright and novelist whose popular play Journey's End (1929) was the basis for the motion picture Aces High (1975). Philip Wylie's contribution to the motion picture...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Costa, Richard Hauer. H. G. Wells. Boston: Twayne, 1967. Explains the influence of science on the novel, compares the novel to Wells’s earlier science fiction, and explores the struggle of the characters to cope with new scientific attitudes.

Hammond, J. R. An H. G. Wells Companion: A Guide to the Novels, Romances, and Short Stories. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979. Describes the sense of excitement that greeted the first publication of the novel, its circumstantial and realistic setting, the sharp observation of social details, and the economical and dramatic structure of the narrative.


(The entire section is 277 words.)