The Invisible Man | Study Guide

H.G. Wells

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The Invisible Man | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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H.G. Wells is often called the father of modern science fiction; his influence is felt from Star Wars to cyberpunk. Published in 1897, his novellaThe Invisible Man describes a young scientist, Griffin, who discovers a way to become invisible. The novella explores the psychological changes that result when a human finds he can move and act outside the rules of conventional society. Griffin becomes a thief and in his isolation begins to lose his mind, terrorizing the people around him until finally they respond with violence. The themes of isolation, violence, and the dangers of scientific overreach are central to the story of The Invisible Man.

The Invisible Man has been adapted for radio, stage, and film. Readers today are as fascinated by the idea of invisibility, its possibilities and dangers, as they were over 100 years ago when the novella was first published.

1. Critics believe The Invisible Man was inspired by a tale from Plato's Republic.

Wells read the Greek philosopher Plato's work The Republic as a teenager and was strongly influenced by it. He felt Plato's ideas were "like the hand of a strong brother taking hold of me and raising me up, to lead me out of a prison of social acceptance and submission." The Republic included the story of Gyges, who found a ring that could make him invisible. Like Plato's Gyges, Wells's Griffin has no moral beliefs to keep him from misusing his power, but while Plato's protagonist commits murder and becomes a tyrant, Wells's Griffin tries, but fails, at tyranny, and at everything else he attempts.

2. The main character in The Invisible Man can be seen as both a representation and a victim of socialism.

Wells was a socialist, believing that the community should own the means of production and distribution of goods. Critics have noted that the main character in The Invisible Man, Griffin, might represent the forces of socialism as he disrupts the local economy by robbing people of their money. While Griffin might represent socialism in his struggles against the marketplace and the negative effects of his isolation from the community, he is eventually brought down by that community when it unites to capture and kill him.

3. One film adaptation of The Invisible Man stars comedians Abbott and Costello.

In 1933 director James Whale helmed the first film adaptation of The Invisible Man. Three sequels followed. Then slapstick comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello took on the novel in 1951, making Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man. Critics called it "packed with corn and laughs." While the plot of this comic movie has very little to do with Wells's novella beyond the central idea of invisibility, the film does include a couple of shots from one of the earlier films involving an invisible guinea pig and a picture in the laboratory that shows Claude Rains, the actor who played the invisible man in the 1933 film.

4. The 1933 adaptation of The Invisible Man was considered one of the best horror films of the 1930s.

The 1933 film version of The Invisible Man was directed by James Whale, who had previously directed the wildly popular Frankenstein. In his first movie role, Claude Rains played the title character, though his face wasn't seen until the last moments of the film. The New York Times review of the movie stated, "Photographic magic abounds in the production ... The story makes such superb cinematic material that one wonders that Hollywood did not film it sooner." A group of 30 horror writers, editors, and filmmakers—including Ray Bradbury—agreed, calling The Invisible Man the fifth greatest horror film of the 1930s.

5. In 2015 scientists created a sense of invisibility on test subjects.

The Invisible Man is based on a concept that appears impossible, but scientists have managed to create a sense of virtual invisibility. In 2015, 125 subjects took part in an experiment by Swedish neuroscientists. The subjects wore a head-mounted virtual reality display, and when they looked down at their bodies, they saw only empty space. Then the scientists touched subjects with a paintbrush, while mimicking the same movements in empty air with a paintbrush held in their other hands. When the movements were synced, the subjects began to experience their bodies as invisible. The researchers pushed the experiment still further, explaining:

We'd have a kitchen knife enter the field of vision and make stabbing motions at the invisible body while we measured heart rate and sweat in the subject. When the illusion had been created, there was an elevated sweat skin response, and a higher heart rate, as if their brains were interpreting this threat in empty space as a threat to their own body.

6. Wells's background in science greatly influenced his writing.

Wells went to a series of private schools as a child, though it was difficult for his mother, a maid, to afford them. She apprenticed him to a draper, but he was dismissed for carelessness. Then he became a schoolteacher and studied at night for a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in South Kensington, later called the Royal College of Science. He studied biology and zoology, physics, and geology and began to write in his spare time. Wells's science education gave him the background to make his semi-scientific fiction, including The Time Machine and The Invisible Man, much more convincing.

7. A song by Queen was inspired by The Invisible Man.

The band Queen, perhaps best known for their song "Bohemian Rhapsody" (1975), released a song called "The Invisible Man" in 1989. Written by the band's drummer, Roger Taylor, while in the bathtub, the song was inspired by Wells's novella. While the man in the song isn't actually invisible, he feels invisible because he was rejected by a girl. The line "Look at me, look at me" runs throughout the song.

8. Wells attributed his writing career to "two broken legs," his own and his father's.

Wells's parents ran a shop selling plates and dishes, which barely made them enough money to live. When Wells was seven, he was supposed to start work in the shop, but he broke his leg. During his recovery, his father and various neighbors brought him books, and he began a lifelong love of reading.

The second broken leg took place four years later. Wells's father made some money as a professional cricket player, but he fell off a ladder and broke his own leg. As a result, the family's income was further diminished. When Wells's mother was offered a job as a housemaid at a nearby estate, she took it. Between Wells's apprenticeships as a draper and a chemist, he returned to the estate where his mother worked, and read its many books voraciously. The two events helped him realize he wanted more than a shopkeeper's life and led him to university and a writing career.

9. Wells called his writing genre "scientific romance."

The term "scientific romance" was first used in the 1840s and quickly came to mean a kind of literary science fiction. The phrase may have come from the French roman scientifique, which in direct translation means "scientific novel" but was often translated as "scientific romance." Reviewers called Wells's novels, including The Invisible Man, "scientific romances," and Wells liked the term so much that he named a collection of his novels The Scientific Romances of H.G. Wells.

10. Novelist Henry James and Wells had an infamous feud.

Henry James, known for realistic novels that explored characters' consciousnesses and points of view, was politically and socially very conservative. Wells, on the other hand, was an avowed socialist. When they first communicated, James wrote to Wells that he found Wells "the most interesting 'literary man' of your generation; in fact the only interesting one."

Their relationship quickly deteriorated, however, as James realized that Wells thought writing should be useful and practical. As Wells put it, "To you literature, like painting, is an end, to me literature like architecture is a means, it has a use." In 1915 Wells wrote a satire called Boon that parodied James's writing style. James responded that he believed writing should show the "fullness of life and the projection of it, which seems to you [Wells] an emptiness of both." Wells wrote back a semi-apology, stating:

I had rather be called a journalist than an artist, that is the essence of it, and there was no other antagonist possible than yourself. But since it [Boon] was printed I have regretted a hundred times that I did not express our profound and incurable contrast with a better grace."

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