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H.G. WELLS: SCIENTIFIC ROMANCE AT THE FIN DE SIÈCLE (Part 3)

THE INVISIBLE MAN

At first sight, The Invisible Man does not appear to be as deeply and obviously saturated with the overriding shared obsessions of the Fin de Siècle period as The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau. However, a close reading of Wells’s 1897 romance can also reveal it to be still greatly informed by the cultural milieu created by both the advances in knowledge, burgeoning industrialisation, and the overriding sense of despair of the period. Subtle references to the aesthetic movement can also found between the lines at various points.

The Invisible Man may also perhaps not appear quite so startlingly original as The Time Machine, as it had in fact been preceded by other tales featuring invisible assailants:  both Christopher Priest and Bergonzi furnish us with literary antecedents such as Fitz-James O’Brien’s ‘What Was It?’ (1893), Guy Du Maupassant’s ‘The Horla’ (1887) and Ambrose Bierce’s ‘The Damned Thing’ (1893). However, in these short stories, the characters’ invisibility remains either unexplained or rooted in some form of magic or occultism, in addition to their being seen from the point of view of other characters, who posit their own respective “Invisible Men” as unfathomable and uncanny “others”. Wells’s tale, in contrast, continues the trend initiated by The Time Machine, and continued in The Island of Doctor Moreau, of providing us with a quasi-scientific explanation of the phenomenon:

Visibility depends on the action of the visible bodies on light. Either a body absorbs light, or it reflects or refracts it, or does all these things. If it neither reflects nor refracts nor absorbs light, it cannot of itself be visible […] if you put a sheet of common white glass in water, still more if you put it in some denser liquid than water, it would vanish almost altogether, because light passing from water to glass is only slightly refracted or reflected or indeed affected in any way. [90]

And so on. As Bergonzi points out, “Wells was probably the first writer to combine the traditional theme with a sober and plausible-seeming explanation drawn from contemporary physics and chemistry.” [113] Furthermore, Wells applies the full force of his imagination to the consideration of the full implications of Griffin’s invisibility. The character spends most of his time desperately cold because, as his clothes are not invisible, he has to remain naked if he wishes to avoid detection. If he receives an injury, he needs to hide because his blood “Gets visible if it coagulates” [81]. When he eats or smokes the lines of his inner anatomy can be traced through the particles of undigested food or smoke in his body. As Priest has said, “Griffin is not a ghost, Griffin is not irrational. Wells is writing a modern novel, turning his back on the magic-lantern effects of the past.” [xix-xx]

With this novel, Wells displays his flair for comedy (which would eventually culminate in Kipps (1905) and The History of Mr. Polly (1910), amongst other works) in his depiction of the inhabitants of the fictional village of Iping. In fact, it could be said that The Invisible Man is as much their novel as it is Griffin’s, at least in its earlier chapters. Instead of seeing Griffin as a frightening monster, we see him as filtered through the perceptions of these “no-nonsense” landlords, clock menders and GPs, who, as Bergonzi has pointed out, “are very much aware of his preposterous elements” [115]. Thanks to the novel’s title, the reader is aware from the outset of what Griffin “is”, but the villagers first have to work through various misapprehensions before they learn the truth. The landlady, Mrs. Hall, at first exclaims that “The poor soul’s had an accident or an op’ration or something,” [8] which immediately belittles Griffin’s apparent uncanniness through a cipher of half-hearted sympathy. Fearenside (whose name perhaps can be read as “fear inside”), the cart-driver, mistakes what would traditionally be the uncanny “other” for the colonial “other”:

Well – he’s black. Leastways his legs are. […] I tell you he’s as black as my hat. […] That marn’s a piebald, Teddy. Black here and white there – in patches. And he’s ashamed of it. He’s a kind of half-breed, and the colour’s come off patchy instead of mixing. I’ve heard of such things before. [20]

 This racial typing of Griffin perhaps illustrates how outward physical appearance is a crucial component of one’s identity. Without a visible physical form, the boundaries of Griffin’s identity are much less clearly demarcated; in fact, without any physical appearance, can Griffin still be considered to be human at all? This blurring of the boundaries of physical human identity is what creates the “horror” or uncanniness of the novel’s central conceit. 

Aside from his obvious visual strangeness, swathed as he is in bandages, the villagers also find Griffin’s short temper and anti-sociality unfathomable. Wells is quite clear on this: “His irritability, though it might have been comprehensible to an urban brain-worker, was an amazing thing to these quiet Sussex villagers.” [23]

This can possibly be seen to open up a reading of the novel wherein the scientist and “brain-worker” Griffin represents an advance scout of the forces of “progress.” As Wells had witnessed with his own birthplace of Bromley, small, insular communities such as this were in increasing danger of, if not extinction, then at least profound modification, thanks to increasing urbanisation and industrialisation. Wells was aware that it was only a matter of time before the villagers’ “sleepy” way of life became a thing of the past, and Iping became merely a suburb of a large city or a factory town. At this point in his writing career, as we have seen, Wells was still highly sceptical about the positive potentialities of science and added to this was his romantic and nostalgic view of southern English rural life. While “progress” was perhaps seen as almost an end in itself for the average middle-class Victorian, Wells, at this point at least, shared with the aesthetic movement a healthy cynicism as to whether this was in fact the case, or, at least, the whole story. This view, as we have seen in Chapter 1, is particularly evident in The Time Machine, where the result of too much of this “progress” is degeneration and decay. 

Griffin, and his less ambitious counterpart, Kemp, can be seen in some ways to carry echoes of the decadents. For example, Griffin’s seeming disdain of orthodox religion is evident when he shows no feelings of guilt or remorse towards the death of his father (from whom he had stolen money) and states that “The current cant required my attendance at his funeral, but it was really none of my affair.” [95] This dismissal of Christianity as simply “the current cant” could almost have come out of the mouth of Dorian Gray himself. Although Kemp initially promises Griffin that he will keep his presence in his house a secret, Kemp still decides to report it to the police when Griffin’s homicidal tendencies become evident: Bergonzi considers this to reveal Kemp to be “interestingly, a pragmatist in ethics” [117]. Also, Kemp’s flippant statement that, “I never blame anyone. […] It’s quite out of fashion,”’ [119] again carries unmistakeable echoes of Wilde. 

In the final chapter, “The Hunter Hunted”, far from creating a “Reign of Terror” [125] and being hailed as the country’s ruler as he intended, Griffin has become a helpless and naked outcast and fugitive. Nor does it take what is basically a lynch mob long to catch him and brutally beat him to death (echoing perhaps the treatment of the colonial “other”, for whom Griffin was initially mistaken, in some parts of the world). Alfred Borello has said:

Only when death restores him to visibility do the people realise what they have done. As Griffin’s skeleton, veins and flesh appear, the biting irony of their act is underscored. What they deemed to be a mad, inhuman creature is after all a man, vulnerable and weak as themselves. [61]

The defeat of this particular “Bogey Man” [23] is shown to be a hollow and wholly inglorious victory. The villagers, when presented with the consequences of their actions, in the form of the “battered” Griffin, “naked and pitiful on the ground,” [148] they are immediately aware of this. Bergonzi points out that “Here the Invisible Man is neither absurd nor terrifying, but simply pathetic” [118]. The outsider from the encroaching industrial, urban world has been vanquished, but this is only a temporary victory. “Progress” in time will come to swallow up Iping and its inhabitants, and their traditional “sleepy” and insular way of life will be destroyed forever. Perhaps Wells saw these forces as being in some ways as insane and unreasonable as Griffin himself.

Like the Time Traveller and Doctor Moreau before him, Griffin is a Promethean overreacher in the Frankenstein mould, illustrating that science, in the hands of highly subjective and ambitious individuals, can lead to evil and grotesque tragedy. Like Moreau he is both an egotist and a misanthrope. Again Wells is displaying a sceptical view towards the potential of science, a view at odds with the popular perception of a writer that believed technology to be the cure for all humanity’s ills. 

CONCLUSION

Bergonzi suggests that the death of the Invisible Man can be seen to represent a turning point in Wells’s artistic life:

Griffin, at the point of his death, has become a scapegoat figure hunted out of society: it is perhaps not altogether fanciful to suppose that what is being ‘cast out’ is not merely the dangerous pretensions of contemporary science, but also the young Wells’s identification with a highly romanticized kind of scientist-magician [120]

Whilst this is certainly indicative of Wells’s maturation as a writer and thinker, it also indicates a moving on from what this study has identified as his early work’s Fin de Siècle tendencies. The transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century saw Wells’s work become increasingly positivistic in outlook, eventually leading to the later conception of him as an unquestioning advocate of scientific and technological progress. This view of Wells was perhaps cemented in the public’s consciousness by the popularity of Alexander Korda’s over-simplistic cinematic adaptation of The Shape of Things to Come (1933- filmed in 1936), in addition to Wells’s own tireless pamphleteering. The turn of the century also saw his work become increasingly didactic and it is Bergonzi’s contention that, with this shift, much of the artistry and mythic qualities of his work were lost. Brian Aldiss comes to much the same conclusion when he states that:

[The] element of fable or oblique social criticism in Wells’s early work is marked, from the novels to such short stories as “The Country of the Blind” and “The Door in the Wall”. Yet it remains always subservient to the strong flow of his imagination; only when invention flagged did moralising obtrude and the tone become shrill. [Billion 118]

As we have seen, the early scientific romances were very much products of the period in which they were written and close readings of them can reveal a rich discourse upon the concerns of the late nineteenth century’s cultural landscape. In The Time Machine we see illustrated the possible eventual consequences of unhindered scientific and technological progress (at the end of a century that had seen more of this than any other so far), inextricably tied in with contemporaneous fears of degeneration, as suggested by the controversial and still relatively new implications of Evolutionary Theory. As in Nordau’s book, which it is highly unlikely that Wells would have read at the time of writing his novel, links are made between this degeneration and the aesthetic movement. This suggest to us, perhaps, that these two writers, whilst working within vastly different traditions, were articulating ideas and concerns that were common currency at the time. The Island of Doctor Moreau also speaks volumes about the implications of Darwinism: that humans are simply another species of animal and that human-made religions are simply conceits designed to foster a comforting illusion of human specificity. Again, the would-be God, Moreau, his dissolute companion Montgomery, and the dilettantish Prendick, all carry distinct echoes of the decadent movement. The same can be said of Griffin and Kemp in The Invisible Man, and again in that novel we can detect a subtext concerned with the unchecked march of progress and its possible consequences. In Iping’s villagers we see personified the old world under threat. All three novels can be seen to articulate something of the nihilism and despair of an age where every aspect of life was changing so rapidly that few of the time-honoured “truths” by which lives were led could any longer be counted on. If scientific discoveries and technological advancement were due to carry on at the rate they had been, then nobody could predict with any accuracy what kind of a cultural landscape future generations would inherit. As suggested at the outset of this study, close readings of Wells’s early works do indeed reveal him to be an invaluable voice in aiding our attempts to understand what we call the Fin de Siècle period.  

With all these points in mind, it is also important to remember that a large part of Wells’s intention in writing these stories was to create exciting and commercial yarns for a relatively new reading public, hungry for a literature of their own. However, as Bergonzi points out: “It is quite possible that Wells intended his early romances to be no more than works of light entertainment, without deeper implications, but that is no reason why the modern reader should be content to regard them as such”. [166]

See parts 1 and 2

Works Cited

Aldiss, Brian. Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1973.

Aldiss, Brian. Introduction. The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells. London: Everyman, 1993.

Batchelor, John. H.G. Wells. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Bergonzi, Bernard. The Early H. G. Wells. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1961.

Borello, Alfred. H. G. Wells: Author in Agony. Illinois: Illinois University Press, 1972.

Carey, John. The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride & Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. Chicago: Chicago Academy Publishers, 1992.

Gilmour, Robin. The Victorian Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature 1830-1890. Harlow: Longman, 1993.

Hammond, John. An H. G. Wells Companion. London: Macmillan, 1979.

Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism and Degeneration at the Fin de Siécle. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kemp, Peter. H. G. Wells and the Culminating Ape. London: Macmillan, 1982.

Parrinder, Patrick. H. G. Wells. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1970.

Philmus, Robert M. ‘The Logic of “Prophecy” in The Time MachineH. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Bernard Bergonzi. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1976. 56-68.

Priest, Christopher. Introduction. The Invisible Man (1897) by H.G. Wells. London: Penguin Classics, 2005.

Pritchett, V. S. ‘The Scientific Romances’ H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Bernard Bergonzi. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1976. 32-38.

Pykett, Lyn. Introduction. Reading Fin de Siécle Fictions. Ed. Lyn Pykett. Harlow: Longman, 1996. 1-21.

Weeks, Robert P. ‘Disentanglement as a theme in H. G. Wells’s fiction’ H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Bernard Bergonzi. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1976. 25-31.

Wells, H. G. The Invisible Man (1897). London: Penguin Classics, 2005.

–. The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). London: Penguin Classics, 2005.

–. The Time Machine (1895). London: Penguin Classics, 2005.

West, Anthony. ‘H. G. Wells.’ H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Bernard Bergonzi. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1976. 8-24.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Toronto: Broadview, 1998.

About Rob Talbot

Returning from early days of Diabolique, Rob Talbot is a compulsive writer and cult cinema obsessive. He also writes for UK horror magazine Scream, including the popular 'Eurohorror of the Week' column for their website, and has also been published extensively in Starburst and Bedabbled!: British Horror & Cult Cinema, amongst others. Other obsessions include Italian soundtracks, Krautrock, and hard SF novels.

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