The Invisible Man explores humanity’s increasing ability to manipulate nature through science, including significant manipulations of the human body. At the end of the nineteenth century, medical advances meant that human corporeal (embodied) experience was changing rapidly, and early science fiction writers such as H.G. Wells were keen to explore where these new possibilities could lead. Advancements in medical technology led to the elimination of diseases, a better understanding of human psychology, the emergence of birth control, and other major advances. In chronicling Griffin’s experience as an invisible man (the result of a science experiment), Wells emphasizes the extraordinary power of science, but also the danger inherent within this power. The novel suggests that meddling with nature and the human body in too extreme a manner can have catastrophic consequences for humanity. Indeed, while Griffin’s achievement of rendering himself invisible is remarkable, his attempt to achieve mastery over nature ultimately fails, a conclusion that emphasizes the limits of human power against nature.
Prior to actually turning himself invisible, Griffin is highly optimistic about the process, and is thrilled when he realizes—both through the experiment on the cat and on himself—that it is actually possible to turn living organisms invisible. The scientific explanation of how this he achieves this, though not entirely realistic, demonstrates that the novel fits within the genre of science fiction. Wells makes Griffin’s attempt at invisibility seem scientifically plausible.
This sense of plausibility serves as a kind of warning about the power and possibilities of science. While a horror story about a man who magically turns invisible would be creepy, the scientific underpinnings of The Invisible Man link Griffin’s story to the actual social reality of the time the novel was published. At the time, scientific advancements were drastically changing society at a fast rate, such that things previously thought to be impossible were suddenly becoming possible. This created a widespread sense of awe and uncertainty about the lengths to which scientific advancement could be taken, and how this would impact society. Griffin’s profound scientific achievement—turning himself invisible—serves as a meditation on the power of science and a warning about what can happen when this power is misused.
Once Griffin actually becomes invisible, he realizes that he did not think through all the consequences and limitations of his invisibility. He realizes that he cannot eat anything (food is visible in his stomach), and that he cannot go outside in the snow, rain, or fog: “Rain, too, would make me a watery outline, a glistening surface of a man […] and fog—I should be like a fainter bubble in a fog, a surface, a greasy glimmer of humanity.”
Griffin’s self-description as a “greasy glimmer of humanity” here reveals not only the practical problem of the different ways he can be rendered visible, but also the fact that he has altered the very nature of humanity through his experiment. Griffin quickly realizes that he will need to don clothes in order to go outside and not starve to death, and this fact emphasizes the limitations of scientific alteration of the human body. While humans may be able to manipulate nature in remarkable ways through science and technology, humanity must be cautious about this ability, due to its inherent limitations and potentially catastrophic consequences.
Humans, Science, and Nature ThemeTracker
Humans, Science, and Nature 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.
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.
“Another of those fools,” said Doctor Kemp. “Like that ass who ran into me this morning round a corner, with his ‘’Visible Man a-coming, sir!’ I can't imagine what possesses people. One might think we were in the thirteenth century.”
“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.”
“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.