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Literary Analysis of H.G. Wells's The Invisible Man
Politicians often propose legislations to resolve current problems, but in doing so, few consider the long-term effects of their proposals. On a smaller scope, individuals must also think about their actions to prevent the emergence of unexpected drawbacks. In The Invisible Man, H.G. Wells demonstrates this exact theme of personal responsibility. He employs characters, motif, and symbols to emphasize the theme that successful execution of a plan requires careful contemplation of its consequences.
In the story, the protagonist, Griffin, displays character traits that exemplify his negligence of consideration for his plan of invisibility, leading him to inevitable consequences. As Griffin pleads for Dr. Kemp’s assistance, he explains his yearning of “‘...elaborate plans for the complete realisation of the advantages my invisibility gave me (as I still imagined) over my fellow men’” (Wells 139-140). In this narrative, Griffin plainly admits his illusion of the associated benefits transforming from a visible human being into an invisible character. The corrupt thought of his metamorphosis’s advantages motivates Griffin to impulsively secure its realization without considering the ramifications of its establishment. However, only as an invisible man is Griffin able to understand the implications of his transformation as he expresses:
“The more I thought it over, Kemp, the more I realised what a helpless absurdity an invisible man was -- in a cold and dirty climate and a crowded civilised city. Before I made this mad experiment I had dreamt of a thousand advantages. That afternoon it seemed all disappointment. I went over the heads of the things a man reckons desirable. No doubt invisibility made it possible to get them, but it made it impossible to enjoy them when they are got. Ambition -- what is the good of pride of place when you cannot appear there? What is the good of the love of woman when her name must needs be Delilah? I have no taste for politics, for the black-guardisms of fame, for philanthropy, for sport. What was I to do? And for this I had become a wrapped-up mystery, a swathed and bandaged caricature of a man!” (Wells 156)
Through this complaint, Griffin expresses sincere regret of the misjudgment that leads him to the failure of his dreams, even after invisibility has been attained. He now realizes the challenges an invisible man faces in all aspects of life, from obtaining the basic necessities to withstanding the vicious weather. It is clear that without understanding of what he is about to embark, Griffin’s plan for the acquisition of advantages over his fellow men is falling apart. Without comprehending the multitude implications of his alteration, he fails to accomplish what he yearns for most, the ultimate ability to derive pleasure from life. According to critic Robert Crossley, Griffin demonstrates the inevitability of failures when he uses alchemy, a false science, to obtain invisibility, “…aiming ‘to transcend magic’ and attain ‘the mystery, the power, the freedom’ of invisibility...As simultaneous researcher and subject of research, victim and beneficiary of the experiment in invisibility, Griffin is also the voice of suffering as much as the embodiment of ambition. Indifferent to the anguish of others...” (Crossley 36). Griffin’s careless character becomes the victim of his own experiment, a consequence of his own creation. As the protagonist, Griffin’s character development clearly illustrates a shift in attitude towards his invisibility, from admiration to contempt, as he begins to understand the nature of his atrocious experiment that he initially does not expect.
In contrast to the impulsive Griffin, Dr. Kemp provides a character foil that illuminates the theme of carelessness leading to failures from a different perspective. As Dr. Kemp contemplates the implication of Griffin’s presence in his home, he quickly realizes how dangerous Griffin is to Iping, “‘He is invisible!’ he [Dr. Kemp] said. ‘And it reads like rage growing to mania! The things he may do! The things he may do! And he’s upstairs free as the air. What on earth ought I to do?’” (Wells 110). Upon carefully looking at the local newspapers, Dr. Kemp evaluates the threat that this invisible man possesses. Not only does this demonstrate Dr. Kemp’s compassionate character as opposed to the heartless Griffin, but it also portrays Dr. Kemp as an attentive and cautious person in contrast to his quick-tempered colleague. Later, upon considering the fate of Iping, Dr. Kemp proposes a plan to Adye to stop Griffin, “‘But how?’ cried Kemp, and suddenly became full of ideas. ‘You must begin at once. You must set every available man to work. You must prevent his leaving this district. Once he gets away, he may go through the countryside as he wills, killing and maiming. He dreams of a reign of terror!’” (Wells 165-166). Amidst the frantic atmosphere confronting a loose murderer, Dr. Kemp maintains his calmness, evaluating the situation carefully and directing the constable to increase defensive counter-forces against Griffin. Because of his decisive and frank manner coupled with proper attention to the consequences of his situation, Kemp is able to exercise some control over the horror of the town, and eventually is the victor, demonstrating the importance of prudence in character. As critic Bruce Beiderwell says, “The simile likening the rational, respectable, and responsible Kemp to a hound extends the discomforting associations that Wells has developed around Griffin” (Beiderwell 122). The contrast that Wells provides proves his message concerning the failure of Griffin. The success of Dr. Kemp at saving his life is further prioritized by the failure of Griffin at sparing his. Through character foil, Wells artfully characterizes Kemp as a thoughtful and cautious individual whose effort is eventually rewarded by the sparing of his life as opposed to the impulsive Griffin whose failure to consider the effects of his actions costs him his life.
As the title suggests, Wells also uses the motif of invisibility to convey his message concerning the necessity of thought for successful execution of a plan. Thinking of the advantages of invisibility, Griffin explains to Kemp in the second half of the novel that “‘I looked about me at the hillside, with children playing and girls watching them, and tried to think of all the fantastic advantages an invisible man would have in the world’” (Wells 124). Invisibility is the ultimate discovery that would undoubtedly grant Griffin the ability to take advantage of his fellow men, or at least he believes so. In this case, invisibility represents Griffin’s desire to gain power from his transformation, leading him to neglect pondering the drawbacks of his plan. Earlier in the novel, Griffin explains the calamity of the situation as he is harassed by the people of Iping, he says, “‘The fact is, I’m all here -- head, hands, legs, and all the rest of it -- but it happens I’m invisible. It’s a confounded nuisance, but I am. That’s no reason why I should be poked to pieces by every stupid bumpkin in Iping, is it?’” (Wells 47-48). Because of his invisibility, Griffin isolates himself from the rest of the human race, causing other people to bestow upon him a sense of suspicion and distrust. This motif of invisibility symbolizes the downfall of Griffin’s greed for power and desire for advantages as it brings him further and further away from human civilization. Critic Keith Phipps fully encapsulates the meaning of invisibility as Griffin’s ultimate outcast because it causes Griffin to not only be physically isolated from man, but is emotionally and mentally detached from the human race; Phipps states, “For Wells, an invisible man is the ultimate outcast, denied clothing, shelter, food, and all the other basic needs we’ve come to take for granted since we climbed down from the trees” (Phipps). Instead of a talisman as Griffin hopes, invisibility turns out to be a curse on his existence. Appearing throughout the novel, the contrast between the reality of invisibility and the fantasy of its manifestation in Griffin’s mind clearly illustrates the catastrophe encountered as a result of carelessness to consider its consequences.
Furthermore, clothing symbolizes the institution of deprived thought as the precedent of a failing effort. Explaining his circumstances to Dr. Kemp, Griffin discloses that:
“I had thought of painting and powdering my face and all that there was to show of me, in order to render myself visible, but the disadvantage of this lay in the fact that I should require turpentine and other appliances and a considerable amount of time before I could vanish again. Finally I chose a mask of the better type, slightly grotesque but not more so than many human beings, dark glasses, greyish whiskers, and a wig. I could find no underclothing, but that I could buy subsequently, and for the time I swathed myself in calico dominoes and some white cashmere scarves. I could find no socks, but the hunchback’s boots were rather a loose fit and sufficed. In a desk in the shop were three sovereigns and about thirty shillings’ worth of silver, and in a locked cupboard I burst in the inner room were eight pounds in gold. I could go forth into the world gain, equipped.” (Wells 154)
Griffin explains how clothing is both his friend and foe as it offers him a method to assimilate back to humanity, but it is also his obstacle to escaping his grotesque existence. Clothing is a symbol of human qualities, of protection, and of warmth. Yet, it denies Griffin all of those elements now that he is an invisible man and signifies Griffin’s severe isolation. Furthermore, Griffin explains, “‘To get clothing was to forgo all my advantage, to make of myself a strange and terrible thing’” (Wells 146). From this testimony, to hold on to his invisibility means to render Griffin less than a human character. Clothing symbolizes Griffin’s inability to return to normalcy because he sacrifices his human traits for what he believes would bring him ultimate advantages, which it does not. Critic Richard Hauer Costa believes Griffin’s nudity is a symbol of isolation that illustrates Griffin’s lack of thought, declaring that “No writer of his day put so much power into an essentially detached viewpoint. In his first three scientific romances Wells sees humans as stripped of their distinctly human qualities, just as Griffin is stripped of clothing to maintain transparency” (Costa 41). Because Griffin has not considered invisibility as a vehicle that would drive him from civilization, his experiment strips him his humanity, as it strips him his clothing. Griffin’s yearning for the advantages of invisibility denies him his human status as symbolized by his lack of clothes, a result that he has not expected.
In addition to clothing, the weather also symbolizes the consequences of Griffin’s thoughtlessness. As Griffin explains to Dr. Kemp, he says, “‘It was a bright day in January, and I was stark naked, and the thin slime of mud that covered the road was freezing. Foolish as it seems to me now, I had not reckoned that, transparent or not, I was still amendable to the weather and all its consequences”’ (Wells 132-133). Griffin elaborates about the effects of weather on his invisible state of being that he has not expected. The weather symbolizes universality that both serves and destroys men in different circumstances. In this case, it seeks to obstruct Griffin’s plan as an invisible, naked character to remind the readers of the drawbacks of Griffin’s neglect to consider his actions. After Griffin escapes, declaring his plan for havoc on Iping, Dr. Kemp wishes, “‘Heaven send us cold nights and rain! The whole countryside must begin hunting and keep hunting’” (Wells 166). Furthermore, the weather gives Griffin’s enemies hope for rectification. It gives Dr. Kemp optimism confronting this inhuman Griffin. As demonstrated, the weather symbolizes a universal mediator that seeks to obtain balance by both assisting men to destroy evil and intruding with the progression of evil itself, showing that Griffin’s lack of contemplation of all aspects of the plan creates for himself another necessary enemy that continues to impede his intentions. According to Hans Biedermann, when rain, a component of weather, “’…is moderate and not excessive, the earth brings forth new life. But if it is inordinately heavy, it destroys the earth and drowns its new shoots’” (Biedermann 277). As shown in this dissection of the meaning of weather, its presence in excess is detrimental to men, but its absence is also critical to the livelihood of humans, hinting to the idea of balance earlier mentioned. The weather, with all its intricacies, symbolizes opposition to Griffin’s plan by creating unbearable conditions for his nudity to exemplify Griffin’s failure to predict the implications of his plan. Again, Griffin’s poor judgment creates an obstacle for himself as symbolized by the attack from the weather to his nakedness.
Furthermore, the inclusion of dogs as a symbol that obstructs Griffin’s proceeding enhances the author’s message about vigilance. Terrified by the presence of dogs, Griffins states that “‘…every dog that came in sight, with its pointing nose and curious sniffing, was a terror to me’” (Wells 136). Dogs are particularly troublesome to Griffin because of their keen sense of smell. Even though he is invisible, dogs can sense his presence through his odor. Without considering dogs’ sensory sharpness, Griffin yearns for the success of his transformation, but before he knows it, Griffin is confronted by the obstacle he least suspects. Then, Griffin continues to say that “’I had never realized it before, but the nose is to the mind of a dog what the eye is to the mind of a seeing man’” (Wells 133). Griffin now discovers the error of his misjudgment when it is already too late as dogs begin to attack his existence even though he believes that no living organisms could sense him. Because of Griffin’s inability to foresee the complications of his invisibility, he faces problems in a state of existence that he cannot escape. Amidst the complexity of his situation, he has waived all of his options to return to the normalcy of his life because he fails to contemplate the consequences of his transformation. Critic Beiderwell emphasizes, “Dogs are a special curse to Griffin because they detect him by scent, not sight. Still, this faculty does not account for the antipathy dogs express toward Griffin. It cannot be that dogs are merely angered by smelling what they cannot see; in the third chapter, a fully costumed, visible Griffin is bitten by a dog. It seems that dogs instinctively dislike Griffin” (Beiderwell 121-122). Not only is Griffin isolating himself from the human race, but he is also an outcast even from the animals. The irony is that even though the animals can sense him, they still show an instinctive abhorrence towards Griffin. This demonstrates the detriment of Griffin’s thoughtlessness as he is despised by all of society, both humans and animals. Wells illustrates the inevitable ramification of Griffin’s lack of consideration for his plans through the symbol of dogs hating him.
Throughout The Invisible Man, Wells imparts the message of adequate investment of thought concerning the consequences of a plan to ensure its expected outcomes by artfully manipulating characters, motif, and symbols to convey this theme. The uncertainty of the future necessitates one to carefully consider the possible outcomes of his or her plans. It requires one to expect impediments on his or her path and to carefully evaluate a plan in order to overcome these obstacles. As Griffin suffers from his ultimate isolation from society, individuals can learn from his mistake to be more vigilant in their pursuits.
Beiderwell, Bruce. "The Grotesque in Wells's The Invisible Man." H.G. Wells. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005. 115-25. Print.
Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them. Tran. James Hulbert. New York: Meridian, 1992. Print.
Costa, Richard Hauer. H.G. Wells. New York: Twayne, 1967. Print.
Crossley, Robert. H.G. Wells. Mercer Island: Starmont House, 1986. Print.
Phipps, Keith. "The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells (1897)." A.V. Club. 27 Mar. 2009. Web. 13 Oct. 2011. <http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-invisible-man-by-hg-wells-1897,25832/>.
Wells, H.G. The Invisible Man. New York: Scholastic, 2003. Print.