The Invisible Man was published in 1897, on the brink of a new century and at a time of enormous societal upheaval. Scientific advancements such as the proliferation of electricity and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution meant that people’s lives and belief systems were changing at an incredible pace. As a result, the novel appears to straddle two worlds: the world of the future and that of the past. In the narrative, the future is associated with urban life and middle-to-upper class people, whereas the past is embodied by the lower-class townspeople of Sussex. The social, economic, and educational barriers preventing lower-class people from accessing scientific knowledge and technology suggest that futurity and progress may remain elusive to much of the population even as scientific advancement and societal change as a whole are accelerating.
Broadly speaking, in the novel, the future is represented by Griffin and Doctor Kemp, whereas the past is embodied by the ordinary townspeople of Iping, a village in Sussex. Griffin and Doctor Kemp met as medical students; although Griffin never qualified as a doctor, both men now practice science (whether officially or surreptitiously) and thus represent scientific knowledge, experimentation, and technological advancement. Furthermore, both are of a higher class status than the other characters and are associated with urbanity, as both hail from London.
In contrast, the people of Iping are provincial and somewhat “backward.” Indeed, when Doctor Kemp arrives in Iping and hears the rumors about the Invisible Man, he reflects: “One might think we were in the thirteenth century.” The townspeople are not well-educated and are of a lower class, as seen by their accents and dialect. The contrast between Griffin and Kemp with the townspeople suggests that the future will be more urban than rural, and will be dominated by scientific knowledge and technological advancement. This reflected (accurate) predictions at the time The Invisible Man was published about what the twentieth century would hold.
The townspeople’s lack of economic, social, and educational privilege means that they are ignorant of the scientific advancements with which Griffin and Doctor Kemp are familiar. This indicates that they may be “left behind” in an increasingly technologically advanced world. Some townspeople, such as Mrs. Hall, pretend to understand Griffin and the work that he conducts in order to appear smart. However, the chaos and confusion caused by Griffin’s arrival in Iping results from the fact that Mrs. Hall and the other townspeople do not understand him and the scientific experiments that have rendered him invisible.
The issue of class tensions come to a head in the relationship between Griffin and Thomas Marvel, a “tramp.” Griffin enlists Marvel to help him, promising him special rewards that he will be able to obtain through his invisibility. He takes advantage of Marvel’s vulnerable status, and when Marvel tries to turn him into the police, Griffin attempts to kill him. The fact that Griffin is invisible astonishes Marvel and makes him agree to serve Griffin. Due to his poverty and lack of education, Marvel is completely powerless compared to Griffin, and Griffin deliberately chooses Marvel as an accomplice because he knows that Marvel is vulnerable. This episode demonstrates how technological advancement in the future may be used to further exploit and oppress vulnerable populations.
The novel ends on an ambivalent note regarding the future and the past, particularly as they are related to different social classes. It is revealed that Marvel remains in possession of Griffin’s notebooks, which contain the instructions to make a person invisible. Although at this point Marvel “has a reputation for wisdom” within the village, he cannot understand the notes, as they have been written in code. As such, there remains a barrier between Marvel and the information that would give him access to “the future”—a future of scientific knowledge and advancement.
The Future vs. the Past ThemeTracker
The Future vs. the Past Quotes in The Invisible Man
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.
“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.”