Sometimes you go to a book expecting one thing, and find something very different. When I opened up 'The Invisible Man,' I had expected a mad science story, and in some ways that’s what I got. In other ways, this is more of a comedy story. In yet others, a mystery. And there are plenty of other elements too.
This parliament of ideas HG Wells brought to the story made it difficult for me to decide exactly which direction I could take an analysis of the book. All I really knew was that I was enjoying the book much more than I expected.
And then it hit me.
The real reason the book was so compelling wasn’t because of a genre convention, or an aspect of plot, or some ingrained theme. There wasn’t one specific area for me to cover like I ordinarily do with these analysis essays. What made 'The Invisible Man' so damn good was something simultaneously much simpler, and much more broad.
It is an excellent example of character.
See, as the various movie adaptations make clear, the idea of a man turning invisible lends itself to a number of possible storytelling avenues – the mad scientist hubris story, the terrifying horror story, the slapstick comedy, the slow paced mystery. HG Wells clearly understood this too – and decided to implement every avenue.
More impressive, he managed to do this independently of every other, rather than blending the options together. And even further than that – he pulled it off within a very short word count.
And this is all brought together by a titular character with much more depth and complexity than he had any right to possess.
'The Invisible Man,' then, is a perfect villainous character study.
Let’s dive into why that is, and what it has to do with genre fusions.
The book begins with that mystery angle. In a small town hotel/restaurant, a Stranger walks in wearing a long coat and hat, his face and body completely hidden, saying very little. The fact of hiding something is abundantly clear – especially when, just a page later, he is revealed to be covered in bandages.
Just like with the presence of a mask in a more visual medium, the Stranger, by way of his inherently conspicuous yet ambiguous outfit, embodies this sense of mystery as a character.
The what of the mystery is introduced to us almost immediately – the man and his costume.
But a what is only one part of a good mystery – the other part is the why.
The characters have their own theories, mostly pertaining to an accident of some kind. But this clearly is not the real answer. After all, thanks to the title of the book, we already know the answer to the mystery. So the fact that this mystery is still so compelling is genuinely remarkable, and testament to how well written these early chapters are.
See, 'The Invisible Man' is the perfect example of how to build up a mystery.
There is one main reason for this – pacing.
I already mentioned how short this book is, but as an extension, it is made up of short chapters, each with a singular focus. The mystery is perfectly paced because every one of these chapters gives us one more piece of the puzzle, either one more question, one more reveal, or both, through the medium of different characters arriving in the building.
Details in this manner are given to us both gradually and rapidly thanks to the short chapters and short word count.
But this mystery is only a short part of the story – after 32 pages of a 144 page book, the mystery is brought to a perfectly timed conclusion when the Stranger removes his headgear, including the bandages, and reveals – nothing.
He becomes, so to speak, a headless man. But only three pages later the rest of the clothes come off and the mystery is ended in a way that is equal parts shocking and funny. Here then, is an invisible man. Impossible and real.
It’s worth taking a break here to mention that it isn’t merely the pacing and gradual reveal of more and more of the mystery that is so compelling. Crucially, the whole thing is tied together through excellent character work, and two characters in particular.
One is Mrs Hall, owner of the establishment this section of the narrative takes place in, and the other is of course the Stranger – the Invisible Man – himself.
Not only is there real suspense and mystery with this arriving Stranger, there is natural and effortless comedy and tension between him and Mrs Hall, not to mention the other interfering characters who introduce themselves over this section of the book.
In the beginning of the story, even though the Stranger is a jerk, constantly swearing and being either dismissive or outright insulting to the other characters, the humour, as well as the depth and complexity he presents as a result of the combination of these two elements, forms a point of relatability and likeableness that ensures we’re invested in this character. This is important for later on.
And of course, it isn’t simply verbal comedy driving the investment. There is also that slapstick element I mentioned before – having characters interact with an invisible man in genuinely funny and unexpected ways that I don’t want to spoil for you. Not to mention the weird and impossible fights that take place from here on out. Simply put, HG Wells has put thought into invisibility and its effects. More thought than was necessary but it leads to a much fuller, much more developed invisible character than I had expected.
And of course, it leads to some really funny encounters.
Truthfully, the story could have ended with this last reveal of the invisible man, as he escapes from being arrested, and it would have still been perfect. But the author wasn’t done with this concept yet, and neither was the titular character.
It is here that our main genre shift takes place.
On top of being a perfect mystery story, 'The Invisible Man' is also the perfect anti-ghost story. Gone is the death, the reanimation, the telekinesis and the walking through walls. Everything supernatural about the ghost has been removed in favour of the most primal element of phasmophobia – the idea of being hunted by something you cannot see, but which can see you.
Here is simply a man who, through science alone, learned how to make himself invisible – and decided to go on a reign of terror.
This is the ‘later on’ for which our investment in the character was so important. Even now, when he takes a darker turn, because of the investment that had been built up in those earlier mystery segments, we want to stick with the character, to listen to his thoughts and opinions, to follow him as he does whatever he does.
To be clear, the invisible man is a bad guy. He is a villain.
But because of those all so important opening moments, he is one of those likeable villains. Never so evil that it’s impossible to root for him. While we would despise such a figure in reality, and can therefore empathise with everyone around the invisible man, equally we can empathise with the invisible man himself purely on entertainment value, not to mention the depth he has been written with.
But what, exactly, does invisibility grant you? What benefits are there, that can allow an invisible man to become an even remotely imposing threat?
Well, first there’s the obvious – he cannot be seen. This makes escape easy, not to mention stealth attacks, plus the raw fear factor this supplies.
But the most important factor in making an invisible man a fearsome foe is through the character himself – qualities he would have regardless of how visible he is.
In this particular case, that means being a genuinely threatening person. Not by being physically overpowering as a monster would be (although he is a strong man), but by being psychologically threatening. He is imposing as a presence, has charisma, humour, a knowledge of how people think, and a disregard for how they feel. And perhaps the most important thing of all – he is incredibly manipulative.
Furthermore, he has very real human flaws. A terrible temper. Bigotry. Arrogance.
Every one of these factors, both villainous strengths and qualities and human character flaws, is boosted by invisibility, but by ingraining the character with realistic, humanly antagonistic qualities before the invisibility ever plays a part, the character is much more compelling as an antagonist.
It is at this moment – when he is revealed as invisible, and escapes the police – that he turns into the villain you were actually expecting going in. On meeting the secondary character Mr Marvel, the invisible man becomes genuinely scary as he manipulates this friendly man into becoming his puppet, his tool, to do as he wants. This manipulative ability he possesses is not surprising to us, because of the character work that has been accomplished before now, but its true villainous potential is surprising, as he essentially becomes the abusive authority figure.
After this point, tension is built and maintained flawlessly, using much the same tactics as the author employed with building mystery. Only now the purpose of each chapter is not some additional reveal of the ongoing mystery, instead, it is some additional act of manipulation or violence, or some other impressive and frightening decision made by the invisible voice that follows Mr Marvel around.
What’s impressive is that, no matter how much tension is created and expanded upon, the humour persists. And somehow, neither sacrifices the other – both comedy and horror are maintained easily through the simple fact of a talented writer with an integral understanding of pacing.
After some time, we get another genre shift. Having lost Mr Marvel, the invisible man turns to an old doctor friend for a partnership. And it is here that we finally get that hard sci fi mad scientist story I had initially expected.
In truth, there had been some hard sci fi sensibilities from the onset. Even when the actual jargon and experimentation had not been discussed, the realism and attention to detail were clear.
For instance, that the invisible man must wrap up if he wants to be inconspicuous – for he is only invisible when naked. Not to mention how much the reliance on bandages would make him conspicuous regardless, were anyone to discover that an invisible man were real. As an extension of this, he has a bad cold and is constantly sneezing thanks to going out at night in winter with no clothes. And we also get brilliant depictions of the chaos that fighting against an invisible foe would really be like.
There are many other details that I won’t spoil for you. Importantly, these details are revealed over the story, giving us time to digest them rather than having a big info dump like many hard sci fi authors tend to rely on. And also, it never relies entirely on the titular character – we also get realistic, believable reactions from other people on discovering an invisible man – be it fear, stammering, frustration, confusion, surprise, prejudice, hostility. In fact, the large quantities of minor characters allows the author to include all of these responses at one time or another, where a smaller cast of characters would force some of these to be excluded.
However, the invisible man acts as the focus, the core of the story, with other characters feeding into this centre. And there is real depth and complexity to the character, making this fact much more compelling to read.
The other important thing about the way the book shifts into the hard sci fi genre, is that we get this shift through an account given by the invisible man himself. Yes, there had been hard sci fi sensibilities throughout, but now we get to see these more explicitly – both the scientific principles of his state of being, and the developments that were required to turn a man invisible, as well as the vulnerabilities and unexpected issues and weaknesses he didn’t realise he’d have to face with this new power.
The invisible man is still a detestable sort of character, but getting a sense of vulnerability from him in this section of the narrative is really important for pushing that depth even further.
We have had insight to the anxiety, shock, or frustration of having an invisible man around – now we get to experience the similar emotions one experiences on actually becoming that invisible man.
Another crucial part of this character study is to tie together the more human villainy, and the more futuristic qualities given to the man by his invisibility. This is accomplished via the invisible superiority complex our character develops alongside his power high and desire to go on a reign of terror. He scorns his no longer fellow man, feeling nothing but contempt or vague apathy for other people unless they can be manipulated for his own aims.
He is like a disembodied authority that can be feared and critiqued – and understood – in a way our real disembodied authority figures cannot. This is a perfect allegory, like so many good horror antagonists are, that adds an additional layer to the story.
'The Invisible Man' is a perfect villainous character study. And there are three core principles that make this so.
Gradually, but not slowly, giving us more and more insight into the character as a person; their mind, personality, and beliefs.
Giving the character a strong core, in this case not merely invisibility, but the manipulative yet vaguely humorous streak that drives most of his interactions.
As a character study, it's integral to the genre that the core character has lots of depth, with both positive and negative qualities driving them into a conflict.
The last thing I want to mention is the role this novel’s presentation style has in delivering such a compelling character study. It is third person, with simple prose, but comes across in an informal conversational way as though there is some unnamed, impartial narrator giving us the details of this character’s recent actions.
It reads like a legal recounting of events in a court of law, and this writing style is employed from beginning to end. This means that immediately we’re aware the invisible man is going to commit some evil deed sooner or later. Plus, the third person perspective allows us to simultaneously experience the character study – the invisible man himself – and the way every other character feels about his deeds. It is an interesting choice to have a third person character study with more than one POV character, but combined with the legal recounting format, it works so damn well.
I like to write analysis essays of books with as few spoilers as possible, but there’s one more part of the plot I want to talk about before signing off, and it pertains to the ending. If you haven’t read 'The Invisible Man' before, go do that, then come back here. With that said, what do I want to say about the ending?
*There will be spoilers ahead*
Well, I mentioned a little earlier that the invisible man works as an allegory for disembodied authority figures. I find it very powerful then what Wells writes for a finale. The book ends with the invisible man’s brutal death – however, this is only the penultimate chapter. The real final chapter ends with one of the minor characters finding the invisible man’s journal, and justifying to himself the idea of replicating it. The book ends with the idea of powerful men leaving influence behind after death, no matter what evil they committed in life.
In other words, one invisible man was defeated… there can and will always be more.