The Invisible Man | Study Guide

H.G. Wells

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The Invisible Man | Chapter 21 : In Oxford Street | Summary



Griffin tells Doctor Kemp the next part of his story. After setting fire to his old apartment, Griffin leaves in an exalted mood; he "experienced a wild impulse to jest, to startle people" and "generally revel in [his] extraordinary advantage." He immediately discovers a disadvantage to his invisibility when a man carrying a basket violently knocks into Griffin's invisible body with his basket. A cabman outside a public house in London then violently pokes his finger into Griffin's invisible ear. Griffin responds to both assaults by striking back, which creates chaos on the street. Griffin flees the frenzied scene and joins the "afternoon throng of Oxford Street," where he is further bruised by pedestrians and a hansom. "Stark naked," he is freezing, because he had "not reckoned that, transparent or not, [he is] still amenable to the weather and all of its consequences."

Griffin escapes the crowd by hopping in a cab, but his mood deflates. He leaves the cab when a woman enters it. A dog detects his presence, which "incontinently made for [him], nose down." He flees from the dog in search of a quieter area. Instead, he runs into a street with a Salvation Army marching band—playing a hymn called "When shall we see his Face"—and a crowd of spectators. Two observant urchins (merchants) detect Griffin's presence when they notice his muddy footprints on the newly whitened steps of a house. When one urchin notices Griffin's foot is bleeding, Griffin realizes that although his body is invisible, his leaking blood is not. He once again flees, chased by a small group of people following his footprints.

Griffin eventually eludes his pursuers and finds his way to less-frequented streets. He itemizes for Doctor Kemp a litany of the physical injuries and discomforts he experiences the first day of his invisibility. Among them is catching a cold, causing him to sneeze and making it difficult to hide. He is saved from detection, however, when people rush past him, drawn by "a mass of black smoke streaming up above the roofs and telephone wires." His boarding house is on fire.


H.G. Wells further explores the advantages and disadvantages of scientific achievement by providing examples of the advantages and disadvantages of invisibility. He also shows flaws in Griffin's scientific approach. Griffin does not consider how invisibility will affect the body's response to physical stimuli, such as the weather. Griffin curses his folly for not thinking things through before he conducts his experiment. Nor does Griffin consider how his feet will track mud and how blood could reveal his presence. Instead, his single-minded purpose blinds him to consequences. This reflects Wells's opinion of how advances in science and progress do not necessarily improve the human condition. Instead, they are often implemented with little consideration of their consequences for society, and they result in human suffering for all but a narrow segment of society who benefit from them.

The theme of humanity versus science is also developed by Wells's decision to create a contemptuous, flawed character, played out in Griffin's ever-inflated sense of self-importance. Griffin considers himself superior to ordinary, common folk, such as the girl he stops to talk to in his hometown. Yet those same common persons—street urchins and workers in London—come close to detecting Griffin's presence, not the learned individuals or scientists who possess specialized knowledge.

The line from the hymn "When shall we see his Face" is an allusion to a Biblical verse in which God says, "You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live" (Exodus 33). Griffin considers this line an "unconscious irony," both because no one can see his face and because of religious people's belief in a God who cannot be seen. Wells often juxtaposes religion and supernatural beliefs with science and factual knowledge, placing them close together for comparison throughout The Invisible Man.

The reference to "Crusoe's solitary discovery" is an allusion to a chapter in Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe in which Robinson Crusoe finds a man's footprint in the sand and does not know if it came from the devil or an intruder. Without other clues to make sense of the footprint, Crusoe is unable to identify its origin. Griffin is confident his footprint, which a group of people pore over, will be just as "isolated and incomprehensible" as the one Crusoe found.

Suspense builds as Griffin is in a "scrape" and has to figure out a way to attend to his physical needs while avoiding detection—and continue his research with only the parcel and three books he mailed to himself.

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