One can always see a lot in your work—there is always a ‘beyond’ to your books—but into [The Invisible Man] (with due respect to its theme and length) you’ve managed to put an amazing quantity of effects.—Joseph Conrad
The novel form, perhaps especially the Victorian realist novel for which depth in characterization is a hallmark, traffics in a fantasy of establishing psychological interiority as a visible object: we “watch” the development of interiority by sharing a character’s experiences and seeing them assimilated into a psychological whole. The frequently deployed metaphor of “deep characterization” in nineteenth-century fiction has been the subject of much literary scholarship, in which critics often read the metaphor as shoring up aspects of identity that are thrown into crisis by a range of cultural developments. In The Invisible Man (1897), Wells anticipates those literary critics by literalizing and complicating that metaphor, thereby asking the reader to interrogate the fantasy that a “deep self” seeks to sustain. This disassembling gesture inserts Wells’s science fiction novella into the aesthetic purview of the realist novel.
The figure of “depth” for psychological interiority is of course meant to speak to the representation of identity. Nancy Armstrong has recently argued that representing individual identity is the most fundamental work of all novels, writing that wherever and whenever they are written, novels “think like individuals about the difficulties of fulfilling oneself as an individual under specific cultural, historical conditions…novel[s] cannot help but take up the project of universalizing the individual subject. That, simply put, is what [End Page 20] novels do” (10). More narrowly, Armstrong herself along with myriad other critics have argued that the nineteenth-century novel is more fully invested in representing the individual subject than preceding forms of the novel and that it does so through an emphasis on psychological experience as the genuine “essence” of identity. In order to enact this emphasis, the nineteenth-century novel and especially the nineteenth-century realist novel must suggest interiority as the location of authenticity, and it must suggest that an individual’s experiences are reliably assimilated and accruing within that interiority. The “deep” character of the realist novel is the character that manifests accrued and assimilated experience as self.1 To suggest the reliable accrual of experience, the realist novel must imply a continuous and assimilative timeline into which its characters are fit. Ian Watt makes this point in his influential study, The Rise of the Novel (1957):
The novel’s plot is also distinguished from most previous fiction by its use of past experience as the cause of present action: a causal connection operating through time replaces the reliance of earlier narratives on disguise and coincidences, and this tends to give the novel a much more cohesive structure. Even more important, perhaps, is the effect upon characterization of the novel’s insistence on the time process.(My emphasis, 22)
This reliable, causal temporality shores up the representation of interiority that is the lynchpin of the form. The novel is a form so much about interiority that Lukács, in Theory of the Novel (1916), claimed the genre was defined by “the adventures of interiority” (88). Deep interiority, within these arguments, is the promise of continuous and individualized psychological presence and development over time and the promise that one’s interiority constitutes the lasting and knowable essence of one’s self. What we find in The Invisible Man is a pointed apprehension about such promises.
While we are well past the time when treating science fiction as serious literature was anathema to legitimate scholarship, we still do not tend to look to genre fiction for insight on the aesthetic and ideological issues realism has laid claim to; we are not trained to read science fiction for evidence of deep characterization, nor do we tend to think science fiction has anything to say about the aesthetic parameters that make a realist novel recognizable as such. To the extent that the realist project and the aesthetic hallmarks of it are, however, invested in the representation of individuality and questions about human nature, we can...