Novel November

The Invisible Man

by H. G. Wells


Reading Review by Michael Channing

The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells

I thought I had read this book long ago. I have it in an omnibus collection of Wells novels, which I was pretty sure I read all the way through, but maybe not. Whenever I think of The Invisible Man, I immediately think of the the scene in which the titular, visibility-challenged character unfurls the bandages from his face before a shocked gathering of observers to reveal the absence of a head. The reader knows what's about to happen, but the characters don't, which makes it a fantastic, suspenseful scene, one that plays beautifully in the Universal Pictures version. Therein lies the problem. I remember the movie more than I do the book.

In the film, the not-seeable man is driven insane by his condition. The drugs that affect his refractive abilities also infect his brain and turn him murderous. That’s how I always thought of the transparent man, as a scientist made insane by his quest for knowledge. The lesson is: there are things man was never meant to know, and knowing them will undo you.

But this is not the case in the novel. In the novel, the not-visible-to-the-eye guy is a dick before he ever tests the process on himself. In order to fund his experiments, he steals money from his dad. His dad thinks he lost the money through clumsy accounting and commits suicide. The unseeable dick doesn’t even go to his own father’s funeral. Then immediately after becoming transparent, he sneaks out his apartment building and covers his tracks by burning the building to the ground. Were there people inside? Inviso-dick don’t know, doesn’t care. So the novel doesn’t offer the character as a possible tragic figure, punished for his hubris. He’s a villain from the start.

So what’s the lesson in the book? What’s the moral of the story? For me, it was quite apparent whenever Griffin, he-who-cannot-be-seen, makes grandiose plans or threats with the declaration, “I’m the Invisible Man!” It’s a laughable boast because his “power” does nothing to help his aspirations. He can’t get a room at a boarding house, can’t buy food, can’t hire a coach, can’t get hired for work, can’t do anything without covering every centimeter of skin, which makes him the super-obvious-and-suspicious man. Maybe if he were alive today he could masquerade as a trans Muslim woman and go about in a full burka, but I’m sure that would raise more red flags than he would like. What he touts as great power is really more of a hinderance. The books lets us know he’s physically strong, but otherwise he’s a naked dude wrestling with his opponents. Sure he has the element of surprise, but that requires being perfectly still and silent, not breathing, and if he wants to travel incognito, he’s still a naked man in the rain and snow. Keep that in mind. He’s naked for most of the book. That leaves him open to be wounded, and bleeding completely gives away his presence, as does rain, or snow, or frosty air, or dogs, or cats. There is absolutely no advantage gained by rendering his molecular structure so his cells can’t reflect light, which was a painful and agonizing process. His dreams of glory were dowsed at the moment of inception. There’s your lesson. He represents scientists too blinded by power to realize obtaining that power renders it immediately null. That’s a good moral, but I had that other one stuck in my head, burned there by the film, and I couldn’t appreciate the book on its own merits.

Though Griffin expects everyone to quiver in fear and bow down, they all react sensibly to his threats, either defending themselves or trying to eliminate the non-viewable scientist. Even Griffin’s fellow scholars see his “gift” as the curse it is. Whenever he offers someone the secret of invisibility and the status of god among men, they quite reasonably turn it down as the dumb idea it is. Wielding a weapon immediately renders you visible. You have to be nude and mime-silent nearly your entire life. You can’t see your toenails to clip them when they start to curl under. People will constantly run into you, stumble over you, sit down on you. No thanks.

Everyone but the titular character sees the immense problems with becoming permanently transparent. Maybe if you could change from in- to visible at will, then you might have something. But the book never says reversing the process is even possible. He’s a strong guy, and he does a lot of damage and terrorizes a small community for a short while. But ultimately he doesn’t do anything that those with normal reflective properties can’t. Except he does it while nude. Maybe the whole invisibility thing was just a way to live out a fetish. Some people will do anything to get off. #notallinvisiblemen

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