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The Invisible Man | Context

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England During the Late Victorian Age

Wells was born during the Victorian era, which spanned 1837 to 1901. Written in quick succession from 1894–97, his earliest novels—including The Invisible Man—reflect the social, cultural, and philosophical influences of this period.

Social class and social conventions played an important role in the daily lives of people in England during the Victorian Age. Members of the upper class were characterized by their sense of superiority, while members of the lower and middle classes often aspired to emulate them, often adopting upper-class conventions in their own lives. This created class tensions between those who conformed to social conventions and those who did not. In The Invisible Man, Wells depicts characters from the country, who tend to be religious, superstitious, and accepting of the supernatural, as more compassionate and community oriented, whereas highly educated characters tend to be disdainful as well as isolated by their false sense of superiority.

Although England managed to avoid the type of revolution France had experienced in the late 18th century or Russia would soon experience in the second decade of the 20th century, it was by no means a democratic society during the late 19th century. It was, however, making progress toward becoming more representative. At the time of Wells's birth, about 20 percent of the adult male population was eligible to vote, and no women could vote. By 1884 two-thirds of adult males were eligible to vote, but it would be another 34 years before women were given that right. During the late Victorian era, arguments against granting more males the right to vote centered on the ignorance of the working class. It was feared that uneducated people, if allowed to vote, would elect people unsuitable for governing. To remedy this situation, the governing class encouraged lower-class people to become educated and improve themselves and their station in life. This helped spread the growth of the middle class, and with it, contempt for the working class. With the Invisible Man's grab for power near the climax of the novel, Wells incorporates allusions to the French Revolution (period of social and political turmoil from 1787-99), the evils of authoritarian or totalitarian governments, and the intersection of politics, science, and economics.

The Development of the Science Fiction Genre

Science fiction has its origins in the 19th century. In 1818, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley published Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, a story about a corpse brought to life. Other authors, such as H. Rider Haggard (1856–1925), Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930), and Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914), wrote short stories and novels that combined science and fantasy to describe hypothetical or future worlds. Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49) pioneered the literary form for these types of stories, and Jules Verne (1828–1905) helped to popularize the emerging genre, which included the following characteristics:

  • other world settings
  • inhuman characters
  • topics such as science, technology, and travel through time and space
  • journey or quest motif
  • dystopia and allegorical commentary

Despite these authors' successes, science fiction was still in its early development during the late 19th century. The creation of mass magazines enabled increased publications and allowed science fiction stories to reach wider audiences. Wells was a leader in the use of mass magazines to publish science fiction stories that appealed to the public for their entertainment value. In doing so, he advanced the spread of the science fiction genre, which has earned him the title of one of the fathers of science fiction, along with Poe and Verne.

Evolution

In 1859 Charles Darwin (1809–82) published On the Origin of Species, revolutionizing the Western world's knowledge of the natural world. Its core topic, evolution, soon came to dominate scientific thought and influence other disciplines, including the humanities and social sciences. Wells was born seven years after the book's publication, into a world in which the concepts of evolution, survival of the fittest, creationism, and free will were an integral part of his education and were debated beyond the school walls. For much of English society, which, in the 19th century, was steeped in the religious mores of Anglicanism and the Bible, there was not an immediate or automatic acceptance of Darwin's theories. People grappled with questions about the theory of evolution and the role of genes, the role of the environment, and humans' abilities to determine their fates. Did humans have free wills or were they at the mercy of their genetic makeups? Could humans shape their environments, or did their environments control them? By the late 19th century the interest in evolution had reached a fever pitch, and many writers, including Wells, were using literature to explore these issues.

Positivism

Positivism was a popular philosophy and movement during the mid-to-late 19th century. Based on the ideology of the French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857), positivism held that all knowledge of the natural world must be provable by scientific evidence, logic, or mathematical measurements. If something was not provable through one of these methods, it was not true. Positivism led to an increased emphasis on logic, reason, scientific deduction, and theories of knowledge.

Positivism influenced both theoretical and behavioral scientists and schools of thought. In the mid-19th century, English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806–73) built on it, creating an empirical theory of knowledge. English sociologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) later coupled it with evolutionary thought to create an evolutionary philosophy. One of its tenets was that people's actions are a result of social, psychological, and biological factors, and people do not have the free will necessary to choose their actions. Positivism, which influenced this new assumption, sought to reform criminals rather than punish them for actions beyond their control.

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