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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The Plot

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571

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.

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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.

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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 money for the fugitive. As news of the invisible man spreads around the countryside, he makes his way to Port Stowe, where he finds refuge with an old university mate of his, Dr. Kemp. Kemp harbors his friend, who is revealed to be named Griffin, and is fascinated by the achievement of his former classmate. Kemp becomes alarmed, however, as Griffin describes in gruesome detail the scientific experiments he carried out to perfect his invisibility and how, in his single-minded pursuit of his discoveries, he stole money from his father, causing his bankruptcy and eventually his death, events for which he seems to feel little remorse. It is apparent that the process has unhinged Griffin’s mind as well as transforming his body.

As Griffin begins to rail about his newly found power over others and proposes a reign of terror to be visited by him on the general population in retaliation for the general neglect of his achievements, Kemp decides to turn him over to the authorities. Griffin, however, escapes once again and in a gratuitous act murders a man in broad daylight. Because of his betrayal, Kemp now becomes the object of Griffin’s wrath. In cooperation with the police, he sets himself up as a decoy. The invisible man finally is cornered and killed by a smashing blow from a worker’s spade. In death, he loses his invisibility and reappears.

The novel ends with a strange epilogue. The tramp, Marvel, with the money he stole for Griffin, buys a pub, which he names The Invisible Man. He regales his customers with tales of his exploits. After hours, Marvel peruses Griffin’s notebooks, which contain his scientific notes. Marvel has hidden these notebooks from the police and Dr. Kemp. In the solitude of his pub, he dreams of rediscovering the formula for invisibility and achieving the power and wealth he assumes that such a state would afford.

Form and Content

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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 frightened populace. Griffin dismisses the terror that he has caused, and Kemp quickly sees that his colleague has lost all sense of proportion. Griffin has become a kind of monster, dedicated only to his scientific cause.

A horrified Kemp feigns an interest in Griffin’s plans, realizing that to oppose him openly would only result in more violence: Griffin does not hesitate to injure people who stand in his way. To him, they are stupid obstacles, and he has no qualms about obliterating them or twisting them to his purposes. It is painful to witness his torturing of Marvel, a poor tramp. 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 things that Griffin would deny him.

Because Griffin’s explanation of his experiments and of his scornful view of humanity are withheld almost until the end of the novel, Wells is able to maintain extraordinary tension and suspense. How has Griffin made himself invisible? Why has he done so? How has his invisibility affected him? The answers to these questions are held until the denouement of the novel, until the narrative has worked through several exciting scenes of pursuit and destruction. Not until the unbearable nature of Griffin’s isolation is complete is he given an opportunity, in the scenes with Kemp, to explain himself.

These final scenes constitute Griffin’s confession, defense, and defiance of society’s conventions. At this point, he sounds demented—a man overtaken by his intellectual passions, in the grip of ideas that have shriven him of his humanity. Although Griffin’s cruelty would seem to deprive him of any sympathy, 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 and deluded, fragile, and misled—a representative of erring humanity, vulnerable and tragic.

Places Discussed

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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 vehicles that present constant danger to him since they cannot see him and he cannot watch in all directions all the time. Even a large emporium or retail store where he tries to take refuge is too crowded to serve as a safe haven. Eventually, he robs a theatrical costume place on Drury Lane, a street in the theater district, taking money and a disguise that will, he hopes, enable him to survive long enough to get out of London and into the rural village of Iping.

Port Stowe

Port Stowe and Port Burdock. Fictitious towns on the southern coast of England, across the English Channel from France, to which Griffin goes in the hope of finding a ship on which he can began a journey to reach Spain or Algiers, where he can survive without clothes in a warmer climate. Instead of boarding a ship, Griffin remains in the area in the home of a former scientific colleague, Dr. Kemp. When Kemp proves uncooperative, Griffin then decides to launch a reign of terror in the area and become its absolute ruler. However, he ends up dying in a village street.

Literary Techniques

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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.

Social Concerns

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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

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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.


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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 version of The Invisible Man is often uncredited. A popular novelist, Wylie wrote The Murderer Invisible (1931), a takeoff on Wells's novel, and the screenplay for The Island of Lost Souls (1932), an adaptation of Wells's novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. The black-and-white film was originally seventy-one minutes long but was later cut to fifty-six minutes. The picture helped actor Claude Rains become an international celebrity, even though as The Invisible Man his face is hidden by bandages until the character's death scene at the movie's end. He is ably supported by a cast that includes Gloria Stuart and William Harrigan. The special effects were created by John P. Fulton and contribute greatly to the film's success because of their realism. Fulton had assisted with the burning of the mill in Frankenstein (1931) but made his reputation with the innovative techniques he employed in The Invisible Man. He would later receive three Academy Awards: one for Wonder Man (1945), another for The Bridges of Toko-Ri (1955), and another for The Ten Commandments (1956). Many cinema historians regard The Invisible Man as his masterpiece. The seventy-one minute version of The Invisible Man is still entertaining and suspenseful because of its crisp direction, the spirited performances of its cast, and its seamless special effects.

Universal produced five sequels to the 1933 picture: The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The Invisible Woman (1941), The Invisible Agent (1942), The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944), and Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man (1951). John P. Fulton created the special effects for all except the last of these, for which David S. Horsley was responsible. The Invisible Man Returns is the best of these films and tells a good yarn. The direction by Joe May is fast-paced. The screenplay was written by Curt Siodmak and Lester Cole and was based on the story by Siodmak and May. A German expatriate, Siodmak became a successful novelist and screenwriter. The eighty-one minute, black-and-white film features Vincent Price in the title role.

The Invisible Woman is a comedy featuring Virginia Bruce as the title character and John Barrymore as Professor Gibbs, who advertises for women to participate in his experiments. The Invisible Agent was more successful. Its plot focuses on a heroic spy operating in Germany for the Allies. The direction by Edwin L. Marin is adequate and Siodmak's screenplay has some punchy lines. John Hall plays the lead and is supported by Ilona Massey and Peter Lorre. The picture is what one would expect it to be as an effort to uplift its audience's spirits during a terrible war. The Invisible Man's Revenge features John Hall as the crazed Robert Griffin. John Carradine supports as Peter Drury, who in this film is the actual discoverer of the secret of invisibility. Produced and directed by Ford Beebe, with a screenplay by Bertram Millhauser, this picture is listless, in spite of Fulton's superb special effects. Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man was produced by Howard Christie, directed by Charles Lamont, and written by Frederic I. Rinaldo, John Grant, and Robert Lees. It features Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, and Arthur Franz in a tale of an invisible boxer trying to prove that he did not murder his manager. Children still enjoy this film, although why they do is itself a mystery.

In 1958, the British ATV television network broadcast twenty-six half-hour episodes of the black-and-white The Invisible Man. It was broadcast in the United States by CBS during the 1958- 1959 television season and in the summer of 1960. It was created and produced by Ralph Smart. The series' star's identity was kept secret as a publicity ploy, although rumor has it that Tim Turner played the role of Dr. Peter Brady, The Invisible Man. The supporting cast of Lisa Daniely, Deborah Waiting, and Ernest Clark may have wished for anonymity, too. Brady accidentally makes himself invisible and becomes a British secret agent — very trite and silly stuff. In 1975, NBC broadcast Universal TV's made-for-television motion picture The Invisible Man. The seventy-two minute color film was directed by Steve Bocho and starred David McCallum. A television series of fifty-five minute episodes that was created and produced by Harve Bennett and Steve Bocho followed during the 1975-1976 season. In spite of much advance publicity and the popularity of the series' star McCallum, the series failed in the ratings. In 1976, producer Harve Bennett revived the series as Gemini Man, starring Ben Murphy as a secret agent. It too failed to win a large enough audience to warrant its continuation.

A modernized film version, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, was released in 1992. Directed by John Carpenter, it starred Chevy Chase, Daryl Hanna, Sam Neill, and Patricia Heaton. Some reference books mistakenly list the 1957 motion picture The Invisible Boy as based on Wells's novel. This successful picture is, in fact, a distant sequel to the science-fiction movie classic Forbidden Planet (1956).


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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.

McConnell, Frank. The Science Fiction of H. G. Wells. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. Emphasizes the novel’s grim realism and considers nineteenth century works that may have influenced Wells’s unique sense of the apocalyptic and his powerful descriptions of society in disorder. Analyzes Griffin’s character and his proneness to violence, Wells’s depiction of middle-class society and how it organizes itself to capture Griffin, and the role of Marvel as a comic character and victim.

Mackenzie, Norman, and Jeanne Mackenzie. The Time Traveller: The Life of H. G. Wells. Rev. ed. London: Hogarth Press, 1987. Compares Griffin to Wells’s other mad scientists and discusses Wells’s ambivalence about science, his choice of characters, and the place of the characters in his thinking about science and nature.

Williamson, Jack. H. G. Wells: Critic of Progress. Baltimore: Mirage Press, 1973. Discusses Griffin’s inhuman qualities and the role of the intellect as a theme in the novel. Explores the precise evocation of setting, Wells’s handling of point of view, and his tendency to overlook inconsistencies in order to build his narrative.

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