The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance
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By the end of this unit, students should be able to
- summarize the plot and identify the major events;
- discuss Griffin’s role as both protagonist and antagonist;
- describe the main characters and explain their internal and/or external conflicts;
- discuss the role of several minor characters and explain what they contribute to the narrative;
- identify and discuss major themes in the novel and describe how they are developed through symbols and motifs in the text;
- explain how the novel’s structure and shifting point of view create mystery and suspense;
- discuss the various connotations of invisible and grotesque and explain how the title of the novel can be interpreted in different ways;
- identify aspects of the novel that are still relevant today.
A celebrated English author of fiction and nonfiction, H. G. Wells is best known for four novels he wrote at the end of the 19th century: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). Publishing The Time Machine launched Wells’s literary career, establishing him as a popular, innovative voice in fiction writing, and the novel, followed in quick succession by the other three works, accounts for his subsequently being recognized as having created the science fiction genre in literature. In each of the four novels, science plays a central role, but Wells found his themes in how advancements in science and technology might affect individuals and society.
As a distinguished man of letters whose interests included science, history, politics, economics, and sociology, Wells understood and appreciated the value of technological advancements. However, by the end of the 1800s he had witnessed several decades of the continuing Industrial Revolution in England and recognized that progress does not come without peril in regard to the changes it effects in society. He also recognized that separating the pursuit of knowledge in science and technology from a respect for humanity and moral principles leads to disaster. Thus the themes in Wells’s fiction, as in The Invisible Man, are often less concerned with scientific achievements and more concerned with moral corruption in the pursuit and application of scientific knowledge.
The protagonist in The Invisible Man, identified only as Griffin, illustrates the disaster that ensues when a scientist operates beyond the bounds of human society. Young, ambitious, and obsessed with achieving a scientific breakthrough, Griffin isolates himself in his lab while he studies molecular physics and experiments with light refraction—eventually succeeding in making himself invisible. He is, however, unable to reverse the effects of his experiment. Trapped in his state of invisibility and beset by internal and external conflicts, he becomes a violent criminal, divorced from his own humanity and determined to dominate others through the power afforded him in being invisible. Ultimately, he succeeds in destroying himself. Griffin’s story, the focus of the novel, is one of discovery and destruction, stunning success and profound moral failure.
Through Griffin’s moral degeneration and his interactions with the novel’s other characters, Wells examines the constitution of society, the roles people play in it, and the ways individual lives and society change when impacted by the application of scientific research and discovery. The Invisible Man is essentially a cautionary tale that raises questions about the ability of humans to preserve their humanity while unlocking the secrets of science in the pursuit of knowledge, power, and personal ambition. Also, the connotations of the novel’s title invite readers to consider issues relating to personal identity and social isolation in the world of the future, a world that will be even more technologically advanced.
In its subjects and themes, The Invisible Man remains as relevant today as when the visionary H. G. Wells wrote it more than a century ago. The novel endures as well in capturing readers’ imaginations while guiding them through a plot filled with twists and turns, dramatic suspense, and occasional humor and social satire in its treatment of several secondary characters.
About this Document
- An in-depth introductory lecture
- Discussion questions
- Vocabulary lists
- Section-by-section comprehension questions
- A multiple-choice test
- Essay questions