Though often treated as no more than a clever science fiction thriller, H. G. Wells’ Invisible Man (1897), can be grouped with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray as an outstanding morality tale of Victorian England. An element common to all of these stories is the role of an elixir vitae that promises immortality or invincibility. It is a nineteenth century version of the Faustian Bargain, since the “gift” is more a curse than a blessing.
Griffin, the man who makes himself invisible, is an albino. The fact is important on a scientific level. According to the plot line, it makes his formula easier to implement. But there is a psychological aspect to it as well. Being an albino he is already a misfit before he cuts himself off from humanity completely with his plans for terror and omnipotence. The Invisible Man contains elements of social farce, particularly in the beginning when Griffin is seeking refuge in an out of the way Coach and Horses Inn in West Sussex. But even here we note a degree of callousness. While proclaiming his faith in a “new humanity,” a burgeoning social elite, Wells displays an ill-concealed contempt for the rest of mankind. The yokels who frustrate Griffin act as a comic foil but they remain essentially detestable louts.
The artistic and intellectual trappings of The Invisible Man can be located within a definite cultural context. Contemporary readers would have understood Griffin’s “Reign of Terror” as a reference to the nihilist movements that were grabbing headlines of the day. Radicals had assassinated Russian Tsar Alexander II and were laying plots against Queen Victoria. The psychopathic tendencies of Griffin may also be an allusion to the mass murdering Jack the Ripper, who was a virtual “invisible man.” He was never caught and to this day his identity rests on speculation. There is a good message here and it is told in a gripping way. Yet it is inevitable that given the author’s own spiritual anarchism, the lesson of The Invisible Man is more negative than positive. If Griffin is an egomaniac, his opponents come across as prosaic and unenlightened.
Such contrariety is typical of Wells’ writings in which he could scathingly point out the flaws in others, but never the glaring problems in his own life. Nevertheless, Wells’ early storytelling is flawless, and The Invisible Man is an engrossing yarn of a man who values no one but himself, and whose frenzied hubris results in mayhem and his own destruction. At one point Griffin sounds like a modern Lucifer while expounding his views to his former colleague Dr. Kemp: “I beheld, unclouded by doubt, a magnificent vision of all that invisibility might mean to a man—the mystery, the power, the freedom. Drawbacks I saw none.”