Two weeks ago, Janai and I finished reading H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. Published in 1897, the book is considered one of the earliest works of the science fiction genre. As the title suggests, the story’s central figure is a mysterious man who has discovered a chemical formula that makes him invisible. Early portions of the narrative describe the curious musings of English villagers who are mystified by a strange figure covered from head to toe with a face obscured by blue shades and a scarf. The invisible man, readers learn, works feverishly, but with little success at several different inns over a period of weeks. Residents hear occasional yells and the shattering of glass, but nothing conclusive about his identity, or the nature of his work can be established.
One night, after sneaking into a local couple’s home, the invisible man confronts a resident named Mr. Marvel. After reassuring Marvel of his actuality, the unseen voice seeks to enlist the villager with a remarkable introduction. “I’ve chosen you…. You have to be my helper. Help me—and I will do great things for you. An invisible man is a man of power.” Terrified at an encounter that is accompanied with the threat that his potential accomplice not betray him, Marvel, pleads, “whatever you want done, that I’m most willing to do.” The invisible man does not disclose what these “great things” are, though the invisible man’s threats suggest neither he, nor Mr. Marvel find such claims convincing.
After clandestinely entering another home, the invisible man confronts a certain Dr. Kent. As a rational, scientific type, the doctor doubts whether the invisible form is who he claims to be: an old colleague named Griffin. Like Mr. Marvel, Kent is finally convinced after physically encountering a being who, though visibly imperceptible, occupies space. Griffin expresses his hope that the doctor assist in an ambitious, if opaque plan. As in the case of Marvel, the invisible man’s promises of grandeur are followed by curses to any act of disloyalty.
In an extended conversation with Kent, Griffin explains that though he unintentionally discovered the formula for invisibility, the possibilities it presented were irresistible. Wells is likely alluding to the story of the Ring of Gyges in Plato’s Republic (bk. II), in which a shepherd in service of the ruler of Lydia finds a ring that makes him invisible. Though an alluring prospect, invisibility is useful only for inflicting harm or fulfilling base desires such as voyeurism. Griffin discovers that invisibility, in his own words, is “useful for getting away, [and] it’s useful for approaching.” Admitting that whatever power invisibility gave forfeited the kinds of pleasures only possible for the seen, he explains,
I made a mistake, Kemp, a huge mistake in carrying this thing through alone. I have wasted strength, time, opportunities. Alone—it is wonderful how little a man can do alone! To rob a little, to hurt a little, and there is the end. What I want Kemp, is a goal-keeper, a helper, and a hiding place, an arrangement whereby I can sleep and eat and rest in peace, and unsuspected. I must have a confederate. With a confederate, with food and rest—a thousand things are possible.
Clearly Griffin’s “power” is potency for destruction. Without the ability to be redeemed—in Griffin’s case, his visible full humanity being restored—he is left with nothing more than terrorize and enjoin others in an attempt to compensate for the existence he lacks. A kind of insanity deludes him into believing men such as Dr. Kent will gladly join him in a murderous rampage. Unable to hide from humanity, Griffin believes a “judicious slaying” is fully justified. He says,
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 establish a Reign of Terror. Yes; not doubt its 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 them.
Griffin is a type of Satan, fallen from grace, yet exercising his strength by enjoining others in a path of devastation. The invisible man’s reckless actions further alienate Griffin. He confesses to Kent that he burned a house to the ground, accompanied with a flimsy justification: “it was the only way to cover my trail—and doubt it was insured.” The world as Griffin desires it to be simply isn’t sustainable—destructive acts diminish his freedom.
Kent offers to give Griffin quarter only to hand him over to the authorities after he locks the invisible man in a room. Enraged, Griffin escapes with the authorities following in hot pursuit. After Griffin murders a man at random, local villagers develop a plan to systematically track him down. They achieve success after detecting his form and inflicting a fatal blow with a shovel. Upon his death, Griffin’s body becomes visible again.
Theologically, The Invisible Man is a parable of evil. The story features a creature who falls short of full potential intended by his creator. Most importantly, Griffin does so willingly. As Augustine argued in his book On Free Will, evil is located not in any created substance, but an “evil will,” that is, misdirected desire. Augustine writes, “evil deeds are evil for no other reason than that they are committed from lust, that is, wrongful cupidity (e.g. greed).” Griffin chose invisibility because it presented the opportunity to wield power over fellow creatures, even if this power brought no ultimate benefit to him nor them. Remarkably even in his misery, the invisible man did not want restoration, only the prospect of magnifying terror and destruction.
The story’s epilogue features an inclusio which brings readers to a place the story began: An Inn. A landlord has acquired the three volumes that held the secrets to Griffin’s invisibility. Someone had cast them into a ditch, evidently hoping to destroy them. Wells describes the man, clandestinely combing through the book’s pages.
Presently he relaxes and leans back, and blinks through his smoke across the room at things invisible to other eyes.
“Full of secrets, he says. “Wonderful secrets!”
“Once I get haul of them—Lord!”
“I wouldn’t do what he did; I’d just—well!” He pulls at his pipe.
So he lapses into a dream, the undying wonderful dream of his life.
Herein we have pictured the enduring temptation to defect, to fall away, to sin. Pride’s temptation is believing that if we had power, we would use it differently. But like the owner of the Inn, a satisfactory alternative is stubbornly evasive.