Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

Ordinarily, I don't read science fiction novels. There's no particular reason for my aversion; I simply don't like the genre. However, I do think it's interesting to go back and read some things from the true pioneers in the field. For example, I would never shy away from an Isaac Asimov novel, nor would I turn down the chance to read something by H.G. Wells. That's why I recently read The Invisible Man, which Wells first published in 1897.

I have of course heard references to The Invisible Man, either in literature classes or in the movies. For example, if you've seen the 2003 movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, then you know that The Invisible Man is one of the central characters. Nevertheless, I didn't pick up the book until a couple of days ago. Here's my review of it.

When the story opens, we're in the small village of Iping in England. A mysterious stranger comes to rent a room from Mrs. Hall, the owner of the lodging house. The stranger pays for several weeks in advance and doesn't seem bothered by the prices that Mrs. Hall quotes. The one thing that does bother him, however, is being interrupted. The stranger likes to keep to himself, and loses his temper whenever Mrs. Hall knocks on this door or enters his room without waiting for an answer.

Mrs. Hall finds this behavior to be a bit odd, but she doesn't complain much because there aren't any other lodgers and she needs to money. The stranger claims to be a research scientist, and he makes a great to-do about having his packages sent to him. Apparently, he has a multitude of jars, bottles, containers, and other apparatus that he needs in order to conduct his experiments. He seems very edgy without his equipment and pesters Mrs. Hall and her husband about it until they find a carrier willing to bring the things to the lodging house.

In the meantime, Mrs. Hall and her husband have frequent discussions about the stranger. He always appears wrapped up from head to toe in clothes and bandages. They speculate that he has been in an accident or that he is otherwise deformed, and that's why he doesn't want to be seen by people. Their talk is rather harmless, really, until they start gossiping amongst the townsfolk. The strange man arouses everyone's curiosity, and several people try to get a glimpse of him, including the local doctor who enters the stranger's room for a talk and emerges with the conviction that the man has no hands.

Soon the stranger runs out of money. Mrs. Hall confronts him, and he says he is waiting on payment from someone else. These demands for payment coupled with the fact that people are growing increasingly suspicious of the stranger cause him to leave. From that point in the story, the Invisible Man, for that's who the stranger is of course, is on the run.

The second half of the book consists almost entirely of The Invisible Man telling an old university acquaintance about the reasons he wanted to become invisible in the first place and about the way in which he was able to accomplish it. Wells touches upon the science of invisibility, but I have no way of knowing if what he says on the subject is accurate or not.

At any rate, the Invisible Man's troubles are not over, and the climax of the book is a confrontation with the townsfolk. You'll have to read the book if you want to know how that confrontation ends!

On the whole, I thought this was an interesting little novel. It is very short, and can be finished in one or two sittings, so if you're looking for something you can get through quickly, The Invisible Man might be a good book for you to try. The first half of the book is very well-paced and held my attention throughout. But when Griffin (that's the invisible man's name) launches into his monologue, my interest flagged a little. He talks without interruption for a very long time, which made the plot essentially come to halt. Yes, the reader finally was able to hear about Griffin's background, but telling it in the form of a straight narrative like that was rather boring.

As with some of Wells' other novels, there are messages and metaphors throughout the pages. For example, a conclusion that is often drawn about this book is that a person's true character appears only when that person is invisible to others. Not many of us would steal things or hurt others when we can be seen and identified, and the threat of jail keeps us honest. But if we were invisible, it might change our minds. Thus, whether or not someone is actually an honest person doesn't really depend on what they do when other people are watching, it depends on what they do when no one can see them.

Another obvious message in the book is to be careful what you wish for. Griffin cursed his life when he was visible and wanted nothing more than to disappear. He finally got his wish, but things didn't quite turn out the way he thought they would. This is a timeless message, and one that is as relevant today as it was when Wells first wrote this story more than one hundred years ago.

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