“Now that those who practise justice do so involuntarily and because they have not the power to be unjust will best appear if we imagine something of this kind: having given both to the just and the unjust power to do what they will, let us watch and see whither desire will lead them; then we shall discover in the very act the just and unjust man to be proceeding along the same road, following their interest, which all natures deem to be their good, and are only diverted into the path of justice by the force of law. ”
[Glaucon, Plato’s Republic, Volume II (Jowett trans.)] ( PS.03)
# 2 (of 2013)· The Invisible Man
→ a novella by H.G. Wells (1879)
Invisibility. It’s science fiction’s little darling, a prankster’s gold-mine and a criminal’s wet dream. Literature and film have both courted the idea for centuries, but the question is, why is this idea of being unseen so intriguing that it has survived (to be trite), the test of time? Maybe it is because our sense of taste, unlike our sense of fashion, is unnervingly immutable. Maybe it’s because invisibility is a flexible symbolic tool that can suggest anything from stealth to the overlooked or forgotten. Or maybe it is because the general idea of being a human that no one can see directly challenges the strength of our own moral uprightness, and that of course tickles the hearts of our own inner philosophers.
We can all imagine what havoc would be wrought on the world if for instance, morally and brain-cell deficient idiots got their hands on this power, but in the end a more interesting thing to imagine would be what the standard, law-abiding, person would do if granted the same power. Even this has been addressed directly and indirectly in fiction –by most accounts, invisible people are never up to any good, because hey, why follow the rules when you are in a position to get away with anything?
One of the earliest works dealing with invisibility comes from a well known philosophical heavy-weight, Plato, in his work Republic, quoted above. In one section of this multi-volume text, a character, Glaucon tells the story of Gyges, a shepherd who one day finds a magical ring that gives him the power of invisibility (ring any bells, Tolkien fans?). To save you the trouble of having to pick through a long wall of archaic text, the story goes that Gyges immediately uses the ring to infiltrate the royal palace, seduce the queen, and usurps the throne for himself, after of course killing off the king. The point to Glaucon’s story was to make the argument that anyone who possessed such a ring, or more abstractly, the ability to completely evade detection, will be corrupted by it. Gyges in the beginning wasn’t necessarily a bad person- he was arguably a “normal” guy who turns to criminality because there was nothing stopping him from immediately using the ring for criminal purposes. A typical person is thus bound by justice, he argues, purely because of a fear of punishment, and when given a chance to otherwise escape the eyes of justice, will succumb to personal greed.
“The Invisible Man is coming! The Invisible Man!” [p 63]
H.G. Wells’ own science fiction, or as they called it in his day “scientific romance”, novella is basically a re-exploration of Glaucon’s central idea. The the story follows the main character, a scientist named Griffin, who decides to and succeeds in brewing a formula that can turn him invisible, and tries to use this to gain power and perhaps fame. A typical mad scientist, you say? Yes you’re right, except Griffin doesn’t have any of the endearingly or entertainingly odd characteristics of the typical mad scientist portrayal that we see in recent entertainment. He is a terrific humanization of the dark side of science — science without an ethical filter, and thus a thoroughly disturbing character.
“I shall never forget that dawn, and the strange horror of seeing that my hands had become as clouded as glass, and watching them grow clearer and thinner as the day went by, until at last I could see the sickly disorder of my room through them, though I closed my transparent eyelids.” [p 90]
The most intriguing thing about the novel however, wasn’t the main character, but H.G. Wells’ treatment of invisibility. The amount of detail and set backs that Wells adds to his version of invisibility makes it seem like a very practical, if not realistic take on what such a power could be like if it existed in the real world. Unlike in the Tale of Gyges and many other stories dealing with the subject, isn’t all fun and games. First, the process of going invisible is slow, painful and (I believe) irreversible — not quite on par with invisibility cloaks or magical rings per se. Second, Griffin though invisible, remains solid is all the more subject to abuse by people’s elbows and by cars because no one can see him. Third, his invisibility does not extend to the things that aren’t a part of his body, so most of the time he has to wander around naked in order to escape detection. Fourth, he has to go hungry most of the time because the undigested contents of his stomach remain visible. Fifth, he can’t sleep because his eyelids are transparent. Finally to top things off, he has a hard time walking without seeing his own feet and he can still be detected by things like his footprints and smell. In a way the capitalization of the minutiae of this flawed version of invisibility is Wells’ own way of dooming his central character to fail.
“…There lay, naked and pitiful on the ground, the bruised and broken body of a young man about thirty” [p 135]
And fail Griffin does–not that the reader really expected this story to have a happy ending– but the ending is sort of pathetic and disturbing at the same time(i.e. no happy feelings at all). We as readers know from the start that this guy would meet his end in a bad way, considering all of the wrenches H.G. Wells throws at him. Griffin the character is a more pessimistic take on Glaucon’s character, Gyges. The main character of this novella, like Gyges is at the beginning, neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad, and as the power of invisibility falls in his hands we see it will corrupt him. I found it interesting that in book, Griffin’s loss of anonymity parallels as him slowly losing himself to the greed that he is trying to satisfy with his newfound power– essentially, the more he shed his disguises, the more he relied on invisibility, and the more he became known, the less (figuratively) invisible he became. At first he appears as some mysterious stranger in town, but soon we learn that he is invisible, who he is, his ambitions, and his deeds. Griffin is ambitious, but selfish to a fault thus he feels no remorse in his first crime: stealing from and thus prompting his father’s suicide. When he gains the power of invisibility, he slowly gets worse–using ( and also probably killing) his neighbor’s cat as a test subject, stealing, manipulating, and killing others who get in his way. He is science that looks only towards progress without an ethics filter, and in a sense deserved his brutal and pitiful end, in which he is chased, beaten and scorned rather than aggrandized by fear.
My Post-Read Thoughts:
As the first classical piece of literature I’m seriously tackling outside of the ones prescribed to me by academia, I thought it was an enjoyable read. The language was easy to understand, though there are some lexical choices that distinctly reveal this to be something from the 1800’s ( PS.01). I love Well’s reworking of invisibility — the scientific nonsense that he added and all the little annoying details about the cat’s tapetum not bleaching properly or food and smoke being visible during consumption were interesting limitations that made the power seem a bit more real than other versions that rely on magical trickery ( one has to wonder though, what happens to his waste products– do they remain invisible?). While the story isn’t quite “spine-tingling” as the back-cover summary seems to tell me, it is a disturbing little piece of literature, though not quite on par with GoreMaster Edgar A. Poe. I like the little open ended epilogue in which the much abused, ex-helper, homeless man friend of Griffin tries to secretly decipher Griffin’s notes on invisibility. Who knows what would happen another Invisible Man were to appear…
Overall Rating : 8/10. A nice quick read, though there were some parts that were dull.
[PS.00] The page references I supply for the quotes in this review are based of a bootleg copy of the Bantam Classics edition. I know it is a bootleg because on one page, it tries to tell me that “hankercherf” is a valid English word.
[PS.01]Some of the language and metaphors in this book are amusingly outdated. For instance, in Chapter 19, the character Griffin attempts to explain how hard he had worked on his little invisibility project by exclaiming how he worked “like a n*****”. That kind of metaphor isn’t quite in use or appropriate anymore, is it? It is kind of an amusing look into the social conventions in Wells’ day.
[PS.02] The Invisible Man is available in electronic form here, if you decide you want to check it out.
[PS.03]The Tale of Gyges in Plato’s The Republic (translated by Jowett) is available here (under Glaucon’s section)