The Invisible Man is a novel concerned with immorality and the question of how humans would behave if there were no consequences. By turning himself invisible in a scientific experiment, Griffin secures an enormous amount of freedom. When telling the story of how he turned himself invisible to Doctor Kemp, Griffin recalls, “My head was already teeming with all the wild and wonderful things I now had the impunity to do.” The key word here is impunity: because he is invisible, Griffin (theoretically) does not face consequences for his actions. He uses this freedom to commit immoral acts, such as burgling the vicarage and shooting a policeman. Through Griffin’s actions, the novel presents a bleak view of human agency, suggesting that if there were no consequences for their actions, many people would choose to commit evil.
Crucially, Griffin does not originally make himself invisible in order to commit evil. Rather, he is a former medical student who is interested in scientific experiments, and becomes fascinated by his discovery that it would be possible to make human tissues invisible. Before making himself invisible, he tries to test the invisibility process on his neighbor’s cat first, torturing the animal in the process. He then ultimately leaves the cat to fend for itself and likely die, knowing that he will not have to face any consequences because he is also invisible. Griffin’s invisibility—and the lack of accountability that comes with it—causes him to sacrifice any moral principles he might have had. This is confirmed when Griffin burns down the apartment in which he was staying in order to conceal the evidence of his experiment, before going on a rampage of theft, injury, and, eventually, murder.
Whether or not readers believe Griffin was evil to begin with, the experience of being invisible makes committing immoral acts too tempting to resist. Free from consequence, Griffin burgles shops in London and the Iping vicarage, shoots a policeman, murders Mr. Wicksteed, and also tries to kill Thomas Marvel and Doctor Kemp. His evil acts culminate in a plan for a “Reign of Terror” that he hopes to inflict on the general public. Having total freedom through invisibility and anonymity corrupts Griffin to the core. Not only does he lose his moral principles, but he gradually comes to want to inflict terror on complete strangers en masse. This suggests that freedom and anonymity can make people more likely to commit immoral acts, and worse, it might inspire them to unleash full-blown chaos.
The novel’s exploration of whether invisibility would make people commit immoral acts is a rehashing of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s examination of this same question in Book 2 of the Republic. Plato discusses a mythical artefact named the Ring of Gyges, which makes its wearer invisible. Glaucon (another philosopher engaged in the “dialogue”) argues that anyone wearing the ring would commit evil because morality is socially constructed, and thus if there are no social consequences to one’s actions, then an act isn’t strictly immoral. Socrates disagrees, and points out that anyone who wore the Ring of Gyges and used it do whatever they wanted without fear of consequences would actually become a slave of their own desires. This lack of control would ultimately harm the wearer.
The Invisible Man reflects Socrates’ conclusion. Although Griffin boasts that “an invisible man is a man of power,” he does not appear to be very happy or fulfilled by his pursuit of evil. Throughout the novel he is portrayed as being bitter, irritable, and prone to violent rages; never once is he shown to be happy or satisfied with his life as an Invisible Man. Furthermore, the secret of invisibility, along with his crimes, is discovered by various people around him, including Mrs. Hall, Marvel, and Doctor Kemp. Rather than being anonymous and free, a district-wide search is conducted to find Griffin and punish him. The fact that he is ultimately murdered by a mob suggests that it is perhaps not actually possible to commit evil without suffering some kind of consequences in the end.
Freedom, Anonymity, and Immorality ThemeTracker
Freedom, Anonymity, and Immorality Quotes in The Invisible Man
She was all the more inclined to snap at Hall because the stranger was undoubtedly an unusually strange sort of stranger, and she was by no means assured about him in her own mind. In the middle of the night she woke up dreaming of huge white heads like turnips, that came trailing after her at the end of interminable necks, and with vast black eyes. But being a sensible woman, she subdued her terrors and turned over and went to sleep again.
The stranger did not go to church, and indeed made no difference between Sunday and the irreligious days, even in costume. He worked, as Mrs. Hall thought, very fitfully. Some days he would come down ready and be continuously busy. On others he would rise late, pace his room, fretting audibly for hours together, smoke, sleep in the armchair by the fire. Communication with the world beyond the village he had none.
It was inevitable that a person of so remarkable an appearance and bearing should form a frequent topic in such a village as Iping. Opinion was greatly divided about his occupation. Mrs. Hall was sensitive on the point. When questioned, she explained very carefully that he was an “experimental investigator,” going gingerly over the syllables as one who dreads pitfalls. When asked what an experimental investigator was, she would say with a touch of superiority that most educated people knew that, and would then explain that he “discovered things”. Her visitor had had an accident, she said, which temporarily discoloured his face and hands; and being of a sensitive disposition, he was averse to any public notice of the fact.
“You don't understand,” he said, “who I am or what I am. I'll show you. By Heaven! I'll show you.” Then he put his open palm over his face and withdrew it. The centre of his face became a black cavity. “Here,” he said. He stepped forward and handed Mrs. Hall something which she, staring at his metamorphosed face, accepted automatically. Then, when she saw what it was, she screamed loudly, dropped it, and staggered back. The nose—it was the stranger's nose! pink and shining—rolled on the floor.
“I've chosen you,” said the Voice. “You are the only man except some of those fools down there, who knows there is such a thing as an invisible man. You have to be my helper. Help me—and I will do great things for you. An invisible man is a man of power.”
He stopped for a moment to sneeze violently.
“But if you betray me,” he said, “if you fail to do as I direct you—”
He paused and tapped Mr. Marvel's shoulder smartly. Mr. Marvel gave a yelp of terror at the touch. “I don’t want to betray you,” said Mr. Marvel, edging away from the direction of the fingers.
“Don’t you go a-thinking that, whatever you do. All I want to do is to help you—just tell me what I got to do. (Lord!) Whatever you want done, that I'm most willing to do.”
After the first gusty panic had spent itself Iping became argumentative. Scepticism suddenly reared its head,—rather nervous skepticism, not at all assured of its back, but skepticism nevertheless. It is so much easier not to believe in an invisible man; and those who had actually seen him dissolve into air, or felt the strength of his arm, could be counted on the fingers of two hands. And of these witnesses Mr. Wadgers was presently missing, having retired impregnably behind the bolts and bars of his own house, and Jaffers was lying stunned in the parlour of the Coach and Horses. Great and strange ideas transcending experience often have less effect upon men and women than smaller, more tangible considerations.
And just think of the things he might do! Where'd you be, if he took a drop over and above, and had a fancy to go for you? Suppose he wants to rob—who can prevent him? He can trespass, he can burgle, he could walk through a cordon of policemen as easy as me or you could give the slip to a blind man! Easier! For these here blind chaps hear uncommon sharp, I'm told.
“One could make an animal—a tissue—transparent! One could make it invisible! All except the pigments. I could be invisible!” I said, suddenly realizing what it meant to be an albino with such knowledge. It was overwhelming. I left the filtering I was doing, and went and stared out of the great window at the stars. “I could be invisible!” I repeated.
“To do such a thing would be to transcend magic. And 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. You have only to think! And I, a shabby, poverty-struck, hemmed-in demonstrator, teaching fools in a provincial college, might suddenly become—this. I ask you, Kemp, if you—Anyone, I tell you, would have flung himself upon that research.”
My mood, I say, was one of exaltation. I felt as a seeing man might do, with padded feet and noiseless clothes, in a city of the blind. I experienced a wild impulse to jest, to startle people, to clap men on the back, fling people's hats astray, and generally revel in my extraordinary advantage.
“But you begin to realize now,” said the Invisible Man, “the full disadvantage of my condition. I had no shelter, no covering. To get clothing was to forgo all my advantage, to make of myself a strange and terrible thing. I was fasting; for to eat, to fill myself with unassimilated matter, would be to become grotesquely visible again.”
“I never thought of that,” said Kemp.
“Nor had I.”
I could not go abroad in snow—it would settle on me and expose me. Rain, too, would make me a watery outline, a glistening surface of a man—a bubble. And fog—I should be like a fainter bubble in a fog, a surface, a greasy glimmer of humanity. Moreover, as I went abroad—in the London air—I gathered dirt about my ankles, floating smuts and dust upon my skin. I did not know how long it would be before I should become visible from that cause also. But I saw clearly it could not be for long.
“You don't blame me, do you? You don't blame me?”
“I never blame anyone,” said Kemp. “It's quite out of fashion. What did you do next?”
I thought my troubles were over. Practically I thought I had impunity to do whatever I chose, everything—save to give away my secret. So I thought. Whatever I did, whatever the consequences might be, was nothing to me. I had merely to fling aside my garments and vanish. No person could hold me. I could take my money where I found it. I decided to treat myself to a sumptuous feast, and then put up at a good hotel, and accumulate a new outfit of property. I felt amazingly confident,—it's not particularly pleasant recalling that I was an ass. I went into a place and was already ordering a lunch, when it occurred to me that I could not eat unless I exposed my invisible face. I finished ordering the lunch, told the man I should be back in ten minutes, and went out exasperated. I don't know if you have ever been disappointed in your appetite.
Not wanton killing, but a judicious slaying. The point is, they know there is an Invisible Man—as well as we know there is an Invisible Man. And that Invisible Man, Kemp, must now establish a Reign of Terror. Yes—no doubt it's startling. But I mean it. A Reign of Terror. He must take some town like your Burdock and terrify and dominate it. He must issue his orders. He can do that in a thousand ways—scraps of paper thrust under doors would suffice. And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend the disobedient.