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The Invisible Man | Themes

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Deeply interested in both science and the social condition, Wells explored questions related to humanity and science and the connections between the two. A central theme throughout many of Wells's works was power without morality.

Invisibility

Characters with extraordinary qualities, such as invisibility or superpowers, are common in literature, and at least a few invisible characters had appeared in novels, fairy tales, or mythology before Wells's publication. For example, in Sir Launfal: A Portrait of a Knight in Fourteenth Century England, by Thomas Chestre, the servant, Gyfre, is invisible. In fairy tales, a cloak of invisibility often made characters invisible, as evidenced by the fairy tale "The Emperor's New Clothes." Similarly, in Ovid's Metamorphoses, a character, Arethusa, becomes invisible by transforming into a stream.

Wells was the first author, however, to portray an invisible character who is not supernatural.

In The Invisible Man, Griffin achieves invisibility as a result of scientific advances. This invisibility represents the double-edged sword of scientific achievement: its advantages and disadvantages, its benefits to society, and its potential harm. In Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction, science fiction scholar James Gunn points out that Griffin made himself invisible not for the benefit of society but for his own personal purposes. While Gunn states that Wells approved of scientific achievement to shake up the status quo, he questioned the use of scientific achievement for personal gain rather than social progress when such personal gain was antisocial. Kemp acknowledges the dangers of such an instrument of invisibility to humanity when he declares that Griffin is "mad ... inhuman ... pure selfishness." He states Griffin is thinking "of nothing but his own advantage, his own safety." Kemp's realization that Griffin plans to use his invisibility for self-serving purposes, even if they involve killing people, causes him to consider Griffin evil and a threat that must be eliminated. Following this announcement, he and Adye devise a plan to capture Griffin.

Knowledge

The quest for knowledge, or how people seek to understand the natural world, is a central theme of the novel. Throughout the novel Wells emphasizes the use of logic and tangible, concrete evidence to support assumptions about the natural world. For example, Mrs. Hall frequently attempts to understand Griffin by asking him questions. In the first chapter, she attempts to find an explanation for Griffin's bandages by asking, "So that if I may make so bold as to say it, sir—." Because Griffin cuts off her comment, she is unable to get answers to her questions.

Other characters, such as Fearenside, use simple observation to explain the natural world. When Fearenside sees a blackness in Griffin's torn trouser pants, he connects this concrete evidence with his existing knowledge of creatures who have black and white skin in patches and concludes Griffin is a piebald. Wells shows the flaws in this approach when it comes to understanding something that defies the known principles of science. Because Fearenside and the other villagers in Iping lack knowledge about the science of invisibility, they draw the wrong conclusions. Kemp is the only person with enough scientific knowledge to accept the concept of invisibility when Griffin presents it to him. But even he initially resists, saying, "I demonstrated conclusively this morning that invisibility—" because invisibility did not meet the criteria of logic and reasoning when he studied it. Faced with tangible evidence, however, he accepts the existence of the condition.

Humanity versus Science

Wells explores the conflict between humanity and science by examining the effects of science on the social condition and on individuals. Does scientific and technological progress benefit or harm society? How does it affect free will? Griffin's invisibility is a symbol for scientific achievement. How Griffin uses his invisibility reflects his immorality, or lack of humanity.

Wells also poses the question: Did his invisibility make Griffin evil, or was Griffin evil before he became invisible? In other words, do humans have the free will to resist the effects of scientific progress or are their effects inevitable? Which is stronger: humanity or science? The novel shows that every scientific achievement or invention, even invisibility, has some impact on society.

Power versus Morality

The theme of power versus morality extends beyond science in the novel to encompass interpersonal, social, and political relationships and interactions. Wells shows that civilization is based on varying levels of controls and restrictions, and that power must be guided by a sense of morality. With his plan for a reign of terror, Griffin represents a clear threat to humanity and social order.

Wells shows, however, that there are no absolutes in determining the morality of an action. This is evident in Kemp's repeated examinations of his conscience. For example, when Griffin takes shelter in Kemp's house, he exacts a promise from Kemp that he will not tell anyone he is there. Then, after reading the newspapers, Kemp realizes the danger Griffin may pose because of his invisibility and "the things he may do." Thus, he decides to write a note telling the constable that Griffin is in his house. First, though, he asks himself, "Would it be a breach of faith if—" before deciding that it would not be immoral to break his word when not doing so could cause public harm.

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