Invisible Man, The by H.G. Wells

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Book Information  
AuthorH.G. Wells
TitleInvisible Man, The
GenreScience Fiction
Book Reviews / Comments (submitted by readers)
Submitted by Geoff Foster (Mugwump) 
(Oct 19, 2003)

Nineteenth century England: the sleepy village of Iping in Sussex. Out of a biting snowstorm comes the mysterious scientist (or 'experimental investigator') Griffin. Swathed in bandages and bearing a trunk containing scientific journals and assorted materia medica, to the locals he is a reclusive oddity, igniting the fires of their curiosity. To Mrs. Hall, proprietor of the Coach and Horses, he is the ideal tenant who pays his rent on time and in full - to be protected from prying eyes at all costs.

But when Griffin's explosive rages begin to arouse the irk of those around him, and he attempts to pay his keep with money stolen under mysterious circumstances from the local church, even the redoubtable Mrs. Hall's patience reaches breaking point.

Faced with an angry parochial horde, Griffin is forced into revealing his dreadful secret: beneath the bandages lies nothing  he is completely invisible.

In the throes of paranoia, the villagers attempt to apprehend this nightmarish phantom, but Griffin escapes Iping (terrorizing as many of the locals as possible), and sets about enlisting the help of others to help him exact revenge upon the society that has rejected him. After a brief and unsuccessful liaison with the pusillanimous vagrant Mr. Marvel, Griffin arrives at the house of an old university acquaintance, Dr. Kemp. It is here that the Invisible Man regales the story of his life, experiments, and how being invisible wasn't quite the blessing that he first envisioned.

Recognising that Griffin is a dangerous psychopath whose plan is to utilise his powers to enact cruel and despotic domination over mankind, Kemp secretly betrays his presence to the terrified community about him. Eventually cornered by a vengeful mob, Griffin is subdued and then murdered.

One of Wells's most famous works, The Invisible Man is a perfect example of the author's penchant for concise, pared-to-the-bone SF.

Weighing in at less than 140 pages  an inconceivable length for today's purveyors of prolix fiction  this novel hits the ground running with Griffin's arrival at Iping, and maintains its frenetic pace right up to the mischievous final chapter; the author's easy writing style a joy to behold.

Characterisation is kept to a workable bare minimum here, and much of Griffin's history must be inferred from brief snippets of illuminating dialogue.

It's interesting to note that many literary experts cite this particular tale as the genesis of 'super hero story'. If this is indeed the case, one can only wonder at how the ur-text became so hopelessly corrupted. Certainly Griffin is a quantum leap away from the contemporary Hollywood super hero, whose predilection for daring acts of sugar-sweet altruism is likely to leave even the most optimistic of viewers with acute tooth-decay.

Ostensibly, the story is a classic reworking of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein: man's unquenchable thirst for knowledge and scientific truth bites back! However, it's in Griffin's discussions with Kemp that we begin to see the glimmerings of a darker subtext: prejudice and discrimination.

Firstly the question we must ask is - why would any person want to be invisible?

Well of course, there the benefits of invisibility are manifold (or so it would seem) and hence the question appears fairly inane. But what if the power of invisibility was used not as method for gain, but rather a means of escape? Escape from a world that is too painful to bear?

Consider Griffin's attempt to remind Kemp of his appearance at University: '...a younger student, almost an albino, six feet high, and broad, with a pink and white face and red eyes...'

It is in this passage that we perhaps glimpse the true reason behind Griffin's obsession with invisibility. What better way to silence those cruel sotto voce sniggers than to be able to vanish completely? In a society that abhors and rejects physical difference, the ultimate form on anonymity is invisibility.

Of course, the brutal irony here is that in this state of ultimate anonymity, Griffin becomes even more different, and therefore more abhorrent, to those that surround him. Instead of finding peaceful safe refuge from intolerance and prejudice in Iping, he becomes an even bigger 'monster' than the towering, crimson-eyed albino ever was.

Ultimately the power of invisibility proves to be entirely illusory. In order to maintain an invisible state, Griffin must walk naked, cold and thoroughly miserable beneath the harsh elements. He cannot eat without fear of discovery, and whilst his body arrests no light, the tracks he leaves on the ground can be followed by even the youngest of children.

Mocked by his one true hope for escape, is it any wonder why Griffin descends into utter madness, eventually erupting into a paroxysm of rage at society, it's very presence utter torment?

Even in death, Griffin can find no safe-haven from mankind's prejudice, the seething mob delivering one final, crushing indignity:

'Cover his face! For Gawd's sake cover that face!'

At one moment a biting satire on bucolic life, at another, a crushing indictment on man's inhumanity, The Invisible Man is science fiction at its finest.

Highly recommended.

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