Stephanie's Reviews > The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
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May 08, 11

bookshelves: classic, science-fiction
Read on May 01, 2011 — I own a copy

This review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com

Rather like an individual whose vices include smoking, tanning, and excessive drinking, science fiction typically doesn’t age well. I’ve cringed my way through countless SFnal classics attempting to determine what it is about them that has seen them catapulted to cult-like status. Science fiction, of course, is almost necessarily a reflection of the present, rather than of the future: reading an SF volume is a way of gauging the fears and concerns of the era from which the writer is currently writing. Thus, while so many volumes seek to elevate themselves in one area, they often fall flat in others (women’s lib, hello). For me, the best SF is that which works as a simple allegory, those novels that rely on a single trope, and which simply explore the resulting actions and reactions of those around. I’ll take a story about two characters stuck in a room over one that spans galaxies any day. And given this, it’s perhaps no surprise that HG Wells has found himself another fan with The Invisible Man. This, of course, wasn’t my first encounter with this famous novel: I have vague memories of reading a bright yellow volume of the same as a kid, and I’ve seen and read countless variations on its theme since. But this, like the Wyndham or Cormier novels I’ve recently worked through, just to name a few, is one that rather benefits from an old fogey-style reading rather than a cynical school kid-style one.

Iping is your quintessential small town: everyone is known to everyone else; it has its own particular quirks, habits, and customs; it’s narrow in scope, set in its ways, and terribly, terribly insular. And while all of this works perfectly well so long as the status quo is preserved, any changes to its compositional fabric are all but doomed to have some sort of desultory effect. So when a mysterious, inhospitable stranger arrives at The Coach and Horses Inn, we know it’s only a matter of time until things begin to go horribly awry.

A lodger of any sort is cause enough for gossip and chatter in Iping, but the Inn’s newest patron is one who is roughly as evocative as possible. Who is this surly, vituperative stranger who refuses company and gives away nothing of himself? Just how does he spend his days? The lodger, an inherently peculiar thing at the best of times, only elicits increased surveillance and curiosity as he further and further withdraws, attending to his own needs and declining to interact with others. But curiosity, if left unsated, quickly turns to suspicion, and such is the case here. As this strange individual does everything he can to retreat away from the watchful eyes of those around him, they become more determined to learn his secret. But it’s a secret that is both utterly astonishing, and terrifying.

The lodger (whose name is deliberately withheld for the majority of the volume) is, of course, invisible, a condition that is the result of scientific experimentation. And while this notion might not be anything novel or challenging to today’s readers, who’ve seen this idea trotted out as often as a champion show pony, Wells turns the idea into a thing of frightening proportions, and works allegorical wonderment on so many levels.

The most salient of these, is of course, the dangers associated with science. Not science itself, perhaps, but the hubris associated with it: humanity’s search for omniscience, that desire to not only know, but to control the natural. The lodger, in his efforts, has overstepped the bounds of humanity into the sphere of godliness, and it’s something that can have nothing less than disastrous results. By transforming himself, he has not only lost his outward sense of humanity, but given that he is no longer (to a degree, at least) restricted by the bounds of physicality/humanity, he is, by extension less restrained by those of morality. The lodger thus descends into a sort of amoral madness where he resorts to not only extreme pragmatism as a way of justifying his behaviour, but where his actions become almost senselessly motivated. Without the boundaries imposed by the visage of humanity, the lodger regresses to a violent, aggressive state–yes, comparisons with The Island of Dr Moreau and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are inevitable.

But there’s so much more to this book than the simple idea of being punished for overstepping the bounds of science. Apologies for name-dropping Foucault, but the notion of surveillance is utterly key in this novel. Foucault, of course, posited that regulation, documentation, monitoring, and surveillance are all key elements of ensuring that individuals within a given society behave the way that they should. People behave differently if they are being observed, for example. And other norms, such as that of naming–something which does not happen to our lodger until very late on in the book–are also essential to behavioural control. Thus, if our lodger is subject to none of these behavioural mechanisms, in what way will he respond? Truly, what would you do if you were not bound by the punitive force of others’ gazes? To me, this is perhaps one of the most chilling ideas present within this slim little volume: the fact that our humanity, our civilisation, is only a veneer kept in place by the sanctions of those around us.

A third concept, and one that is perhaps on par in terms of eerieness as its predecessor, is that of xenophobia. While the invisible man wreaks havoc and eschews morality at just about every turn of the novel, it’s not entirely without precipitation. From the outset he is othered–the townspeople, in their curiosity, treat him as some sort of curious attraction, or a puzzle that must be solved. And when the reality of his condition is revealed, their response is a mixture of fear and revulsion. The townspeople, including those who knew the invisible man in his pre-transparent days, quickly resort to a classy mob mentality, with even educated individuals, such as the invisible man’s university friend Dr Kemp, turning on him out of fear of his differences. Humanity’s terrifying ability to turn on the unknown and the different is at the forefront here, and it makes for a truly horrifying read. In fact, both the invisible man and the townsfolk end up resorting to the very same pragmatic ends-justifies-the-means approach. And where science is blamed for the actions of the former, it can be in no way identified as the cause of the actions of the latter. Given the complex, changing societies in which we live today–where there are many “others”–this is a sobering, poignant thought.

The Invisible Man is far more than a novel that rests on a cool trope and some well-written fight scenes. It’s complex, dark, cynical, and in its final scenes, surprisingly moving. As an examination of the flawed nature of humanity, and the ease with which the facade of our civilised state can slide, it’s a standout work indeed.
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