I once taught a Business Ethics course at a Chinese university (not that the West is any better). One of the exercises I did with the students is to ask them to list the things they would do if they could be invisible. I did it enough times that the answers were generally predictable. There was always the tiny number who had wildly imaginative ideas, followed by the minority who thought to become superheroes or super-policeman of some variety to stop evil doers. But inevitably, the majority thought to use it for material gain or personal interest, usually involving robbing a bank. Thus reading The Invisible Man (1897), it was a intriguing to discover H.G. Wells examined the mindset behind the desire.
Though Wells thought to use chemistry and biology to make a man corporeally transparent in order to test his limits, it was in fact the Greeks who first came up with the moral barometer. Called Gyges Ring, the wearer was rendered invisible—in pure fantasy terms. Both triggers for ethical discussion, Wells uses the device in his story of Griffin, a man who has discovered the formula for invisibility. Shifting immediately into reverse, he seeks to escape his fate by isolating himself to research the antidote. Arriving at an inn in the small English village of Iping at the beginning of the story, the curious owner is mollified by Griffin’s willingness to pay without haggling in advance, and asks no questions why he is covered head to toe in cloth. Baggage arriving shortly thereafter with all manner of bottles and vials inside, the owners believe they have a scientist as a lodger—a strangely accoutered scientist, but a scientist nonetheless. But when strange events begin happening in the small village, most noticeably a burglary under near impossible circumstances, more and more questions start coming Griffin’s way. The questions becoming drama, the little town is never the same after.
The Invisible Man is thus a character study of a man who, in effect, wears Gyges Ring 24/7. Trying to do right and remain as normal as he can given his bizarre situation, Griffin’s initial forays into what would commonly be held as ‘anti-social behavior’ are for a cause many would deem justified: to return to normal human opacity. But as his plight worsens, and the situation around him becomes more tense, the behavior shifts to occupy not only the gray area of morality, but the dark side, as well. As one expects with Wells, the novel has an agenda. The conclusion clearly spelling it out, I will leave it for the reader to discover, but suffice at saying the Greeks would have welcomed it into their discussions.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a brilliantly written character study of a man plagued by the constraints of civilized society and desiring something more from life. His transformation accomplished by ingesting a chemical slurry, the effects are temporary, however. He is able to return to normal life and maintain appearances regardless of what strange things may go bump in his night. Given this choice, Stevenson’s novel makes for interesting comparison to Wells’. While one suffers from a single poor choice and the other from regular poor choices, both authors strike at the heart of something in the human condition. Self-destructive behavior resulting from the desire to achieve goals via the unnatural, something inhuman as it were, each author recognizes the demons working within each soul as something normal, and not easily controlled. I don’t think either author intended commentary on science, i.e. the chemistry Griffin and Jekyll work up are plot devices leading to larger ideas, but there remains the idea that science, in particular applied science, is opening the range of possibilities and circumstances in which humanity’s inner turmoil can be expressed, or, for lack of a better word, turned loose.
Before closing the review, it’s worth mentioning one of the interesting secondary aspects of The Invisble Man. The story taking place almost entirely in the small English town of Iping, Wells captures the feel of such close social environs. Janny Hall and Mr. Hall, the inn owner and her husband, fit the small town character profile perfectly, as does the constable Mr. Jaffers—a man associated with far less unusual circumstances than those Griffin brings to his peaceful little village. Digging into the social fabric, Wells goes the Dicken’s route to include society’s less privileged. One of the people Griffin colludes with is a tramp, Thomas Marvel, a man whose fate is drastically changed by his experiences with Griffin. Wells sympathizing rather than downgrading Marvel as many writers of higher social standing in Wells’ time indirectly would, it remains a sure sign of the author overriding such social concerns for humanity, and is a small but positive aspect to the novel.
In the end, The Invisible Man is a science fictional take on Gyges Ring that, like Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, depicts the downfall of a man who pushes his desires too far and must cope with the consequences. Griffin’s mummy wrapped face with big glasses now the classic image of the invisible man, the story has had an influence on culture as humanity battles with the use of its creations, since.