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Visibility, Interiority, and Temporality in The Invisible Man
Rachel A. Bowser
Georgia Gwinnett College

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 see how H. G. Wells’s canon has often engaged the relevant issues. The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) is fundamentally invested in what makes humanity recognizable as such, while a text like The Time Machine (1895) considers the point at which an individual may no longer be recognizable as fully physically or psychologically human. In The Invisible Man, we get a protagonist who literalizes an “adventure of interiority”—Griffin marauds through the novel with an invisible exterior and an exposed interior, [End Page 21] in which not only experience but food is assimilated. This embodied depth is consistently portrayed as an intractable burden within the novel. That burden, combined with a recurring preoccupation with time measurement in the novel, invites the reader to interrogate the promise of deep interiority as offered by realist fiction: the promise of continuous psychological presence over time. My reading finds Wells’s novella engaging the modes of novelistic characterization, and doing so by disassembling the binaries on which those modes rely.2 More exactly, this reading argues that Wells’s uncertain and inconsistent timeline, his impossibly burdened, deep character, and that character’s crucially absent surface expose the fiction of authentic interiority and evidence the horrific inability of interiority to manifest a legible identity.

From the beginning, temporality is at issue in The Invisible Man; Wells suggests a conflicted temporal paradigm, an uncomfortable collision of temporal registers. The opening sentence discloses the multiple temporal registers that preside over the novel’s world: “The stranger came early in February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow, the last snowfall of the year, over the down, walking as it seemed from Bramblehurst railway station, and carrying a little black portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand” (32). In this opening, we have calendar time, but an only vaguely specified calendar time: “in early February.” We also have seasonal time, “one wintry day,” but are nearing the conclusion of that unit of seasonal time: it is “the last snowfall” of the year. Finally, we have an allusion to another temporal register—the railway; Griffin “seemed” to be walking from a railway station.

The explosion of railway travel in nineteenth-century England had vast effects, many of them inhering in time measurement. In The Railway Journey (1987), Wolfgang Schivelbusch has persuasively argued for the impact of railway travel on nineteenth-century perceptions, noting that the railway effectively eliminated previous sensory experiences of travel (the exhaustion of a horse, the feel of the terrain beneath one’s feet or carriage) and in doing so divorced the experience of time from the experience of space. Patricia Murphy, in Time is of the Essence (2001), discusses some more concrete effects of railroads, particularly as regards the inter-town time standardization that railway travel required: “Recalcitrant localities deplored ‘railway-time aggression’ and a certain rail official, fearing that punctuality would become compulsory, even declined a request to furnish information for schedules” (14). Railways catalyze enough of a change in the temporal order to usher in a new order: railway time.

Temporal markers continue to appear as the text builds its mood. In one chapter, these markers revolve around the repairing of a clock in Griffin’s room: “At four o’clock, when it was fairly dark and Mrs. Hall was screwing up her courage to go in and ask her visitor if he would take some tea, Teddy Henfrey, the clock-jobber, came into the bar” (39). Again in this sentence we [End Page 22] get multiple registers of time; it is four o’clock, and also it is “fairly dark.” As Mrs. Hall approaches the room to admit the clock repairman, more temporal paradigms appear: “The only light in the room was the red glow from the fire—which lit his eyes like adverse railway signals, but left his downcast face in darkness—and the scanty vestiges of the day came in through the open door” (39). This sentence includes two different measures of time, the railway and “vestiges” of daylight, and both are somewhat ambiguous. There are only “vestiges,” and “scanty” ones at that, of daylight, and the metaphorical railway signals are ambiguously attributed: does the light from the fire make Griffin’s eyes themselves look “like adverse railway signals,” or does the fire light his eyes as “adverse railway signals” would? The uncertainty of the metaphor seems to reflect an uncertainty about a subject’s relationship to the new paradigm of railway time: can a person actually inhabit or experience railway time (do the eyes themselves appear to be railway signals) or is a person only acted upon or imposed upon by railway time (are the eyes illuminated as if by railway signals)? The chapter goes on to narrate the fixing of a broken clock, the slowness of which enrages Griffin. The protracted nature of this episode, centered on a broken timepiece, foregrounds the inadequacy of systems for measuring time.

The following chapter begins with a sentence as temporally evocative as that in the first chapter: “So it was on that twenty-ninth day of February, at the beginning of the thaw, this singular person fell out of infinity onto Iping Village” (44). The statement is odd, chiefly because it doubles back on the narrative to the end of creating inconsistency: Griffin has, of course, already arrived in Iping by this point; his arrival has in fact been narrated in the opening chapter. Curiously, this later iteration seems to offer a temporal revision of the novel’s opening. In the first chapter, we are told that Griffin arrives in Iping in “early February,” which is both vague and at the month’s opening; here, we are told that he arrives at the very end of February, a leap day, which is both precise and at the month’s close. In the former, the conclusion of a season is emphasized (“the last snowfall”); here, the beginning of a season is hinted at (“the beginning of the thaw”). All of this amounts to a revisiting of a past event in order to revise or contradict its timeline. Further, the new date of Griffin’s arrival—leap day—is itself the manifestation of the incompatibility of all the temporal registers invoked. Both in the opening sentence of the first chapter and the opening sentence of the third chapter, we have references to calendar and seasonal time. A leap day, which occurs every four years to compensate for the fact that the two temporal registers are not synonymous, is an accommodation that testifies to the incommensurability of the calendar system and the planet’s solar orbit. It is this aberrant day of temporal incompatibility that, by the third chapter, marks Griffin’s arrival in Iping. Finally, Griffin’s mode of arrival has changed from the first chapter to the third. At the novel’s beginning, he “seemed” to be walking from the railway station; in the third [End Page 23] chapter he “fell out of infinity.” The first formulation is predicated on precision and aggressively synchronized schedules. The latter formulation references a temporal concept that defies any system of measurement.

The myriad temporal contradictions and conflicts create the sense of a text preoccupied with time, its revisions and reformulations. This preoccupation is familiar to many of Wells’s readers via The Time Machine, in which the author spins a novella from an exploration of temporality. In it, as the Time Traveler begins his narration of his journey, he focuses on the temporal details in a familiar way, noting that the Time Machine “began its career” at 10 a.m. The traveler mentions pulling the levers and noticing time’s sudden advance to “half past three!” Finally, when he returns home after his journey, the traveler remarks that he has returned on the same day he left, at nearly 8 p.m. These temporal details surrounding the journey’s origin and conclusion not only are a predictable focal point for a novella explicitly about time, but also seem to presage Wells’s preoccupation with Griffin’s temporal details in The Invisible Man. In the latter, the revisitations of the novel’s opening are repeated, and apparently never entirely satisfactory, attempts to locate an origin, repetitive reinscriptions of a narrative whose beginning is inconclusive. The doubling back and accompanying temporal revisions signal a narrative attempt to establish Griffin’s character within shifting temporalities. This amounts to something of a narratorial admission that, for the purposes of getting hold of and developing a full character, time does not measure up the way it needs to. The “causal connection operating through time” to which Ian Watt refers seems unreliably present in Griffin’s narrative of origins.

In his critical edition of the text, Leon Stover works to get hold of the character via the influence of a contemporary reviser of time, Charles Darwin, by whom Wells was deeply influenced. In a lengthy footnote about Darwin’s general influence on Wells, Stover finds “some Darwinian significance in The Invisible Man” (50, n.39), inhering primarily in the extent to which Griffin is a figure desirous of societal evolution.3 Griffin clearly fancies himself a revolutionary figure, ready to inspire a new world order. He at one point declares Iping to be in “a beast of a county….And pigs for people” (182). Griffin, one assumes, represents the next evolutionary step from these beasts. Indeed, once he is in a state of antagonism with Kemp, Griffin sends a letter declaring, “This is day one of year one of the new epoch—the Epoch of the Invisible Man. I am Invisible Man the First” (187). The social revolution Griffin imagines, which ultimately fails to come about, even initiates a new temporal order. Griffin goes on to characterize this new epoch, which will be brought about through a “Terror,” consisting of one execution a day.

Beyond collective social upheaval, the text imagines the individual advantages invisibility will bring to Griffin. As he tells Kemp the back story of how he discovered the secret of invisibility, Griffin remembers, “I beheld, unclouded by a doubt, a magnificent vision of all that invisibility might mean [End Page 24] to a man—the mystery, the power, the freedom. Drawbacks, I saw none” (187). Upon making himself invisible, he feels overwhelmed by the possibilities: “My head was already teeming with plans of all the wild and wonderful things I now had impunity to do” (150). Marvel, the derelict Griffin compels into his service, and a random mariner discuss at length the benefits of invisibility:

‘And just think of the things he might do! Where’d you be if he took a drop over and above and had a fancy to go for you? Suppose he wants to rob—who can prevent him? He can trespass, he can burgle, he could walk through the cordon of policemen as easy as me or you could give the slip to a blind man! Easier! For those blind chaps hear uncommon sharp, I’m told. And wherever there was liquor he fancied—’

‘He’s got tremenjous advantage, certainly,’ said Mr. Marvel. ‘And— well.’

‘You’re right,’ said the Mariner. ‘He has.’


And yet it becomes clear that many of the annoyances Griffin hoped to avoid via invisibility are heightened instead. The most obvious advantage of invisibility is escaping surveillance. And yet the chaos caused when the residents of Iping realize an invisible man is in their midst precipitates the opposite result. Griffin laments, “It will be in the papers. Everybody will be looking for me, everyone on their guard” (104). He even finds he is susceptible to new versions of surveillance. When he first takes his invisible self out in public, a dog immediately sniffs him out: “I had never realized it before, but the nose is to the mind of a dog what the eye is to the mind of a seeing man” (154).

As Griffin realizes he can be perceived in various ways, the text also finds ways to represent a character with no appearance. The first chapter ends with a record of the noises his invisible body makes: “Once or twice a curious listener might have heard him at the coals, and for the space of five minutes he was audible pacing the room. He seemed to be talking to himself. Then the armchair creaked as he sat down again” (38). Auditory evidence reminds us that while Griffin’s body is invisible, he still has a body and it can be detected. The body is more than the visibility of its parts.

Even more terrifying than the prospect of invisibility making one a more fervently sought subject of perception is the prospect of invisibility making it impossible to shut off one’s own perceptions. Griffin narrates one particularly horrifying detail of becoming invisible: “I shall never forget that dawn, and the strange horror of seeing that my hands had become as clouded glass, and watching them grow clearer and thinner as the day went by until at last I could see the sickly disorder of my room through them, though I closed my transparent eyelids” (148). While invisible to the world around him, Griffin cannot stop his intake of visual perceptions from that world. Griffin’s discovery exempts him from being an object of others’ vision, but it simultaneously forces him to be a relentlessly seeing subject. [End Page 25]

What we have in Griffin, then, is a conflicted evolutionary figure. Socially, Griffin has moved beyond many of the restrictions of his contemporary society, only to find his circumvention has paradoxically rendered him more constricted. The matter of his biological evolution is similarly paradoxical. In a very literal way, the matter of representing invisibility is a matter of absenting the body. To the extent that Griffin’s invisibility represents an evolutionary leap, the leap is over the body. Invisibility seems, in fact, to erase the body. Once the body is erased, all that remains is intellect, the pure and intangible depth of the mind/body dichotomy. Frank McConnell refers to Griffin as “pure disembodied intelligence and greed” (119). This appears to be a step beyond the evolutionary advances of The Time Machine’s Eloi; more than merely smoothing out the vulnerabilities of the body (aging, infirmity, disability), Griffin has managed to erase the “stamp of lowly origins” by erasing the form that bears it. And yet paradoxically Griffin’s efforts to erase the body render him more subject to its needs.

Among the advantages of bodily invisibility is the apparent exemption from any number of purposeful physical assaults. And yet, the people to whom he “outs” himself, Marvel and Kemp, cannot resist poking and prodding about to find his body. Frustrated, Griffin cries, “The fact is, I’m all here: head, hands, legs, and all the rest of it, but it happens I’m invisible. It’s a confounded nuisance, but I am. That’s no reason why I should be poked to pieces by every bumpkin in Iping, is it?” (75). In explaining his situation to Marvel, and combating Marvel’s apparent suspicion that Griffin is a ghost, Griffin exclaims, “I am just a human being—solid, needing food and drink, needing covering too—But I’m invisible” (85). Marvel’s temptation to interpret Griffin as beyond the human world, and even the reader’s temptation to consider him aberrantly human, are undercut by Griffin’s own formulation of being “just” a human.

Of course, part of being “just” human is being subject to any number of vulnerabilities. As Griffin relates the story of his invisibility to Kemp, he emphasizes a number of unanticipated weaknesses. Because he must remain naked to remain invisible, Griffin is highly susceptible to the effects of climate: “Foolish as it seems to me now, I had not reckoned that, transparent or not, I was still vulnerable to the weather and all its consequences” (152). This means not only vulnerability to cold and rain in terms of discomfort, but also in terms of visibility. Anticipating a snowstorm, Griffin notes, “If it settled on me it would betray me!” (158). The problem extends to various conditions:

Rain, too, would make a watery outline, a glistening surface of a man—a bubble. And fog—I should be like a fainter bubble in a fog, a surface, a greasy glimmer of humanity. Moreover, as I went abroad—in the London air—I gathered dirt about my ankles, floating smuts and dust upon my skin.

(164) [End Page 26]

Notably, while exposure to precipitation or dirt makes Griffin visible, it does not make him especially recognizable as a person. Rather, the elements render him “a glistening surface of a man,” “a fainter bubble…a surface, a greasy glimmer of humanity.” The form these elements present is a radically reduced version of a subject. The novella gives us additional reason to consider Griffin’s own vulnerability in conceiving himself as a fully realized human subject in its disclosure of his albinism, which, within the context of Griffin’s explanatory narrative, is highlighted as a feature that makes invisibility all the more achievable. The extent to which this physical feature would have been viewed as “freakish” within Griffin’s cultural context invites us to consider the extent to which his achievement of invisibility would have had the advantage of liberating him from such stigmatized exposure. Paradoxically, the vulnerabilities of his newly evolved invisibility expose him to a different version of freakishly reduced humanity. This vulnerability stages a conflict between man’s place within the evolutionary narrative and man’s status as fully and distinctly human.

The above examples illustrate that Griffin’s invisibility does not afford him the kind of power or ease of maneuverability he anticipates. In making this point, the text is more emphatic about one limitation than any other: Griffin is essentially paralyzed by his appetite.4 In The Invisible Man, we find that Griffin’s need to eat trumps the achievement of invisibility in an astounding way: the food he ingests makes him visible again.

For a fairly brief science fiction novel, the amount of textual space commanded by food and eating is remarkable. We are asked to understand the difficulty of Griffin’s situation primarily through understanding his need to eat. His hunger is emphasized when he first arrives at Mrs. Hall’s inn; Mrs. Hall makes him a meal of bacon and eggs straight away when he arrives; he waits till she leaves the room and “approache[s] the table with a certain eagerness” (35). Griffin is eventually flushed out of the inn because Mrs. Hall begins withholding his meals. Upon identifying himself to Dr. Kemp, Griffin immediately admits that he is starving and needs food. What Kemp brings him does not satisfy his hunger, and he insists that he needs more food—we are told that he “made a heavy meal” (125). With this description, we are given the sense that food is not only a necessity but a “heavy” burden.

After eating and refreshing himself, Griffin begins to give Kemp an account of his life since becoming invisible. Having fulfilled the immediate needs of his appetite, Griffin remembers how his appetite figured into the saga of invisibility. Particularly, he recalls that once he had found shelter and a disguise (an elaborate costume that covers his invisible surface, complete with face bandages and a prosthetic nose), he decided to indulge in food:

I decided to treat myself to a sumptuous feast…I went into a place and was already ordering lunch when it occurred to me that I could not eat unless I [End Page 27] exposed my invisible face. I finished ordering, and told the man I should be back in ten minutes and went out exasperated. I don’t know if you have ever been disappointed in your appetite…I could have smashed the silly devils. At last, faint with the desire for tasteful food, I went into another place and demanded a private room. ‘I am disfigured,’ I said, ‘Badly.’ They looked at me curiously, but of course it was not their affair—and so at last I got my lunch.


Here, Griffin finds that in order to eat the food he so desires he must claim to be unfit for public exposure—a paradoxical turn of events for a character that has no form to expose. Further, this instance of frustrated appetite insists on eating as not just a basic bodily need, but also a “desire for tasteful food.” Later in this argument I will return to the peculiarity of Griffin’s particular excuse (“I am disfigured”), but for now I want to emphasize both the paradox of Griffin’s need to absent an absence (to not expose his “invisible face”) and the obstacle to both need and desire that invisibility constitutes.

It is with this meal that Griffin discovers the primary disadvantages of invisibility, remembering that he was so desperately hungry because, “I was fasting; for to eat, to fill myself with unassimilated matter would be to become grotesquely visible again…I never thought of that” (164). This peculiar difficulty is highlighted in the scene with Mr. Marvel, where Griffin outs himself as invisible and solicits Marvel’s help. After Marvel has reluctantly accepted the possibility of an invisible man, he eyes the empty space in front of him and asks, “You ‘aven’t been eatin’ bread and cheese?” Griffin replies, “You’re quite right and it’s not quite assimilated into the system” (42). This exchange suggests to the reader the unappealing prospect of having to witness digestion. The conversation continues, with Marvel observing that it is “sort of ghostly,” and Griffin confiding that, “Of course, all this is not half so wonderful as you think” (84). Griffin later admits to Kemp, “I always like to get something about me before I eat….Queer fancy” (125).

These multiple appearances of scenes of consumption all ask us to think about the process of digestion, by which consumables are assimilated into the self. Witnessing digestion is witnessing the body becoming and maintaining itself. Such becoming and maintaining introduces yet another temporal register into the narrative. With the image of Griffin waiting for his food to become part of his anatomy, and therefore invisible, Wells highlights digestion as a temporal process. The exposure of an otherwise invisible process of assimilation reduces Griffin to the content of his stomach and is clearly a psychological vulnerability—Griffin admits a “queer fancy” for covering up before eating.

The assimilation of food into Griffin’s body invites us to think about the more abstract assimilation of experience into identity. It is the narration of this assimilation, by which a character has experiences that contribute to the subjectivity she inhabits, that allows for what we think of as depth in characterization. As Griffin slowly digests his bread and cheese, his literal [End Page 28] depth, his anatomical internality, becomes visible and is emphasized as quite material. The visible bread and cheese, unassimilated in Griffin’s vacuous body cavity, his desire to ‘get something about him’ as he eats—these scenes allocate materiality to individual depth. Because Griffin’s material depths are an obstacle to his invisibility, because they are a social vulnerability that he feels the need to cover up, what we have is the figuration of depth not as an aesthetic triumph or a reassurance of psychological wholeness, but rather as a nuisance, an intractable burden.

While the text insists on Griffin’s material depth, it seems more uncertain about the matter of his psychological depth. Repeatedly, the narrative refers to him in terms that suggest reduced subjectivity. The hints that Griffin, once invisible, is something other than a man occur throughout the text. When Mrs. Hall catches a glimpse of his invisibility, she perceives Griffin to be reduced to one body part: “But for a second it seemed to her that the man she looked at had an enormous mouth wide open—a vast and incredible mouth that swallowed the whole of the lower portion of his face” (39). Fittingly, the one body part Griffin appears to be and the action it appears engaged in are the ones that obsess Wells’s novels: he appears as a giant mouth consuming itself.

Mrs. Hall is not the only character who has trouble perceiving Griffin as a fully realized body. Griffin himself notes this problem with his new condition. Upon assembling his disguise, which consists of an elaborate costume, full face bandages, dark glasses, and a prosthetic nose, he pauses to consider the persuasiveness of his appearance: “Then came a curious hesitation. Was my appearance really—credible?…I was grotesque to the theatrical pitch, a stage miser, but I was certainly not a physical impossibility” (170). Griffin doubts the credibility of his costume; in other words, he doubts his ability to pass as a person. While he is briefly certain that he is “not a physical impossibility,” he quickly realizes (after being frustrated in his first attempts to order food at a restaurant) that his invisibility is actually a burden, and laments, “for this I had become a wrapped-up mystery, a swathed and bandaged caricature of a man!” (172). By this point, Griffin’s perception of himself has radically diverged from his idea that invisibility promises an evolutionary advance beyond ordinary man. Here, he has become rather less than a man, “a caricature of a man.” There is an additional irony in Griffin’s language; he aptly describes himself as a “wrapped-up mystery.” The metaphor seems perfectly apt to describe a visible person. Conventionally, we understand an individual’s true substance, her psychological make-up, her depth, to be that which lies hidden beneath her surface. Until she reveals that substance through behavior, she remains a “wrapped-up mystery,” swathed in the veneer of surface appearances. In becoming invisible, Griffin erases his own surface; to get by in the world, he must reinscribe an even less legible one. That is, he cannot manifest the immaterial essence the novel insists on for deep characterization without simultaneously manifesting a legible surface. [End Page 29]

The extent to which Griffin’s absent surface impedes the possibility of his being recognized or represented as a subject extends beyond his own and Mrs. Hall’s language. When Griffin identifies himself as an invisible man to the drunk, Mr. Marvel, Marvel thinks he must be hallucinating the voice. Griffin asks, “You think I’m just imagination?” “What else can you be?” Marvel replies (84). Marvel’s question is of course a fair one, and the narrative itself seems unwilling to answer. As the invisible Griffin terrorizes the Iping townspeople, he is repeatedly referred to as “the figure.” Sentences read, “Keep Off!, said the figure,” and “‘What the devil’s this,’ came in angry expostulation from above the collar of the figure” (75–76). If Griffin is, on a narrative level, something other than a man or a character, if he is just a figure, what is he a figure of?

One way into this question is to attend to the narrative’s precise way of representing (and not representing) its primary character. While Griffin has very material and temporarily visible depth, as illustrated by his digesting stomach, he has no narrative depth. In his introduction to the critical edition of the text, Stover credits the novel for being, within the science fiction genre, exceptional in its “depth of characterization” (3). What Stover refers to as “depth” is not any specific narrative technique, but rather the production of an impression in the reader: Griffin comes across as a believable character because he demonstrates a range of emotion and behavior. Stover writes, “Griffin is drawn with the same individuality given the protagonists of…novels of domestic manners” (3). Stover uses “depth” to connote aesthetic achievement, the sense that a character has been well developed. When I suggest that Griffin has no narrative depth, I mean that the representation of the thing that Stover has an impression of—psychological interiority—is actually absent. McConnell notes as much:

There is real grace and supreme narrative skill, in fact, in the way Wells conveys to us the reality of Griffin without ever narrating any act or thought of Griffin’s that he does not reveal to someone else in the novel. The “Invisible Man” is also “invisible” in terms of the narrative technique itself.


What McConnell calls a “narrative quarantine” amounts to the fact that Griffin’s psychological interiority is not represented. We know Griffin’s thoughts insofar as he speaks them, we know his motivations and the way his experience has been assimilated insofar as he discusses it, but we are not given access to the process of thinking or assimilation as it occurs in his head. Keith Williams, in his book H.G. Wells, Modernity and the Movies (2007), makes the same observation: “Unlike other characters, he is never given the ontological guarantee of private moments of introspection when he is merely ‘self-present’ (even his own ‘backstory’ is audited by Kemp, rather than recollected as internal flashback)” (55). The opportunity to “get inside a character’s head,” which in Watts’s analysis is so definitive of novels, is in this novel absent in the case of Griffin. [End Page 30]

Additionally, there are moments when the novel’s narrator, who has no access to Griffin’s interiority, seems to lose sight of him altogether. When Griffin is running from Iping authorities, the narrator defers knowledge about his location:

Thereafter for some hours, the Invisible Man passed out of human perceptions. No one knows where he went or what he did.…One wonders what his state of mind may have been during that time, and what plans he devised.…At any rate he vanished from human ken until midday, and no living witness can tell what he did until about half-past two.


Paul Cantor writes about this as the moment when Griffin “momentarily escapes Wells’ control as a novelist” (128). He continues, “In chapter 26, Griffin finally becomes invisible even to his author. Up to this point, Wells has generally maintained the stance of an omniscient narrator, able to recount all the movements of his characters and even to give us access to their innermost thoughts” (128). Like Stover, Cantor seems to have the impression that Griffin’s inner thoughts have been represented, even though they have not.

Compounding the difficulty of the narrator’s losing track of the protagonist is the fact that Griffin seems limited in what he can reveal about himself. More exactly, his invisibility imposes limits on what he can reveal. When Griffin decides to explain his situation to Kemp he has, for the first time in the novel, an audience for the story of how he achieved invisibility. Griffin is anxious to tell the story, and yet he cannot immediately begin because of a more pressing need: he is famished. Griffin’s invisibility requires him to fast lest the digesting food make him visible. Though Kemp is intensely curious about Griffin’s discoveries, Griffin must defer: “Can’t I have some more to eat before I tell you all that? I’m hungry….And you want me to tell stories!” (125). Griffin is impeded in telling the story of himself, of his singular scientific discovery that produced, paradoxically, the very condition that is responsible for the delay.

I find this detail noteworthy precisely because Wells’s narrative does not represent Griffin’s interiority. Griffin’s testimony is thus the only access the reader has to his psychology, and even that access is restricted for reasons that inhere in the very story Griffin has to tell. Once he is sufficiently refreshed to share his story with Kemp, Griffin remembers the moment in which he realized he could not tell his story: “I had no refuge, no appliances, no human being in the world in whom I could confide. To have told my secret would have given me away—made a mere show and rarity of me” (158). This is a moment of perfect irony for a novel’s protagonist. McConnell notes as much:

Griffin, the man who discovers the secret of invisibility, is both the perfect expression and the perfect refutation of the implied ideals of the ordinarily middle-class novel. Like a good bourgeois hero, he has discovered a secret, a hidden rule, that allows him unlimited power and mobility within his society. But his secret also excludes him from the fellowship of other men.

(115) [End Page 31]

Griffin’s discovery of the secret of invisibility allows him the potential power and mobility McConnell references. But in addition to isolating him from his fellow characters, Griffin’s discovery isolates him from the novel’s readers. Griffin’s admission, which comes immediately before he does, in fact, relate the story of his invisibility to Kemp and therefore to readers, hints at the novel’s own admission—that in telling Griffin’s secret while absenting his interiority, the novel turns him into a one-dimensional “show” and mere “rarity.” That is, Griffin cannot be anything, more or less, than an invisible man. The “quarantine” of his subjectivity is evidence that everything we are to know about him is derivative of his invisibility. Put another way, Griffin’s paradoxical centrality in the novella, and his simultaneous obscurity, particularly with respect to the aesthetic conventions that dominated canonical characterization within the period of Wells’s production, signal the revelatory conflict that I find at the core of the text.

Nancy Armstrong’s How Novels Think (2006) also offers a way to understand the paradox of Griffin’s position when considering novelistic conventions. Armstrong argues that the qualifying characteristic for novelistic protagonists is dissatisfaction with their station in life that prompts a quest to find a better one. “Novels thus gave tangible form to a desire that set the body on a collision course with limits that the old society had placed on the individual’s options for self-fulfillment, transforming the body from an indicator of rank to the container of a unique subjectivity” (4). Griffin is apparently a character engaged in the quest for a better life; his dissatisfaction at his own station presumably inspired the pursuit of invisibility. Further, the precise method of his transformation literally erases any signifying rank on the body. And yet while Griffin’s (invisible) body may be the container of a “unique subjectivity,” the reader has no access to that subjectivity. Instead, the reader only sees Griffin’s body as a container of partially digested bread and cheese. Griffin’s physical invisibility results in a kind of mandated psychological invisibility, an invisibility of subjectivity. The very thing that makes him notable and exceptional, the greatest achievement of his individual intellect, would, if narrated, turn him into a “mere show”; in other words, to reveal his invisibility would flatten Griffin into a one-dimensional spectacle and would afford him less, rather than more, depth of subjectivity. Griffin cannot, therefore, speak about himself. In becoming invisible, he loses the ability to narrate himself. More precisely, he loses the ability to narrate himself into subjectivity.

Griffin, who cannot communicate or reveal his identity to the Iping community, remains estranged from that community to the point of violent antagonism. Ultimately, after declaring his “Reign of Terror,” Griffin is hunted down and beaten to death by an angry mob. This brutal death seems to make well enough the point that Griffin’s narrative has stopped, but Wells takes the matter one step further. The Invisible Man ends with an epilogue that explains how the tramp, Marvel, has acquired Griffin’s scientific notebooks [End Page 32] and keeps them hidden away. The narrator tells us that while “Kemp has fished unceasingly, and Adye has questioned closely, no human being save the landlord knows the books are there, with the subtle secret of invisibility and a dozen other strange secrets written therein” (204). Griffin’s notebooks, in which he guarded the scientific discoveries that enabled his invisibility, are not only hidden away, but they are controlled by someone to whom they are illegible. The narrator describes Marvel looking through them: “His brows are knit and his lips move painfully. ‘Hex, little two up in the air, cross and a fiddle-de-dee. Lord! What a one he was for intellect!’” (202). While Marvel does, in fact, have an idea of the identity Griffin would have wanted known— “What a one he was for intellect!”—the content of that identity, the intellect’s precise accomplishments, is nothing more than crosses and fiddle-de-dees to Marvel. Marvel goes on to dream of all the wonderful things he would do were he invisible, a dream the narrative calls “the undying wonderful dream of his life” (203). Despite having just lived through the invisible man’s reign of terror and despite being compelled into Griffin’s service to help negotiate the myriad obstacles incurred by invisibility, Marvel covets invisibility. His own imagined narrative of what invisibility could mean is starkly incompatible with the narrative he has just lived.

Instances of incompatibilities, most of them rooted in the conceptual complications of scientific innovation, recur in my reading of the text: incommensurate temporalities, Griffin’s narrative of the advantages of invisibility as opposed to the actual narrative of the burdens of invisibility, Marvel’s imagination versus his lived experience. The most sustained inconsistency, nigh impossibility, is the premise of the novel itself: a narrative, the form of which is given to increasing the protagonist’s visibility, all about an unrepresentable character. Unrepresentability is, in many ways, the foundational horror of the text. When Griffin finally reveals himself to Mrs. Hall and the Iping villagers, the narrative admits as much:

It was worse than anything. Mrs. Hall, standing open-mouthed and horror-struck, shrieked at what she saw, and made for the door of the house. Every one began to move. They were prepared for scars, disfigurements, tangible horrors, but nothing!


How, this moment asks, does one prepare for the horror of nothing? The passage notes that the observers are prepared for “disfigurements,” among other things, which brings me back to Griffin’s excuse for needing a private room to eat in a restaurant: “I am disfigured; badly.” While the witnesses at Mrs. Hall’s feel prepared for “disfigurements,” they find themselves unprepared for the literal disfigurement Griffin reveals. While an invisible man cannot be anything more than a figure, while the text itself refers to Griffin as “the figure,” and while I have discussed him as a figure for various aspects of narrative convention, his ultimate condition, the one that he himself invokes, is one of disfigurement. [End Page 33]

The novel’s references to Griffin as “a figure” and to his being “disfigured” are well-served by the insights of Paul De Man’s influential work on the nature of linguistic figures (The Rhetoric of Romanticism, 1984). An invisible man cannot be ekphrastically represented; there can be no meaning on his physical surface, just as, in a linguistic figure, there is no immediate meaning.5 Unable to capture the meaning at hand, the linguistic figure points elsewhere, to another image or idea for meaning; in that “act” of pointing, however, the linguistic figure exposes itself as wavering between incompatible premises: the reliance of language on oppositional networks for the conveyance of meaning, and the instantiation by language of those oppositional networks. This matrix of deconstruction, disfiguration, exposure, and invisibility maps onto the paradox at the center of The Invisible Man. In the absence of a bodily appearance, the representation of the invisible man must point elsewhere, to the depths of his psychology and interiority for meaning (which is itself the gesture that novels tell us always points to the real meaning of a character). But the opposition between the thing the figure is and that which it is not does not hold up under the exposure of positionality. For Griffin, the opposition between surface and depth, material exteriority and immaterial interiority, the “bodily frame” and the essence of human subjectivity, is exposed as absent. The opposition of these binaries emerges as the precondition for representation on interiority; the failure of this oppositional network means there can be no representation of Griffin as subject. As it is put by Keith Willams (who sees Griffin as a figure for the absent presence of cinema), “…in Wells’s novella…the most philosophically vertiginous conceit is that nothing is being concealed except for the vacancy itself” (54). When Griffin claims that he is “disfigured,” he discloses his precise position. The horror of Mrs. Hall at seeing the “nothing” that he presents exposes the horror of a narrative that is unable to represent interiority in the absence of exteriority, or unable to represent depth without a surface; or, to turn back to Darwin, unable to embrace the unique intangibles of humanness without allowing the “stamp of lowly origins” to signify as well. The novel’s conclusion, with Marvel pondering his own impossible narrative of invisibility, repeats the erasure innate in linguistic figures. Marvel’s fantasy of reliving Griffin’s narrative of invisibility reminds us of the novel’s own earlier attempts to revisit its beginning again and again, unable to settle on precise details and unsettling the reliability of its temporal paradigm. The novel both performs the invisible man’s impossibility of signification and undoes its own account of that impossibility by concluding with the hope of beginning the process again.

My epigraph for this essay comes from a letter to Wells written by Joseph Conrad. Conrad writes, “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” (qtd. in Bloom, 150). By reflecting on the experience of reading Wells’s fiction, [End Page 34] Conrad’s compliment invokes two concepts that my analysis of The Invisible Man considers: what novels ask us to “see,” and how that sight enables us to think something “beyond” what can be seen introspectively of ourselves. The Victorian novel, which purported to represent that identity more fully than preceding modes, does so through techniques that relied on authenticity figured as immaterial, nonrepresentational. Wells’s novella asks what, in the novel mode, is “beyond” representations of characters’ materiality? By extension, what can the depth psychology of nineteenth-century fiction reflect to its reader about her own continuous and interior wholeness? The Invisible Man answers with the intangible “horror” of nothing.


1.  As I suggest, myriad literary critics rely on and interrogate the figure of depth in characterization when analyzing novels. From Watt’s assertion that the form allows the reader to “get inside [the characters’] mind as well as their houses” (175) to Armstrong’s argument in Desire in Domestic Fiction about the establishment of interiority via eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels as a vehicle for the rise of the middle class, a long trajectory of literary critics have recognized and analyzed the suggestion of interior depth in novelistic characterization.

2.  Notably, I am not the first to suggest that The Invisible Man is engaging in a reflection on the form and conventions of an artistic medium. Williams suggests that the diaphanous transparency of the body in Wells’s novella is a response to new discoveries about electromagnetism and paranormal investigations, both of which took transparent non-entities (for example, air) and insisted they were filled with things (see “Ghosts From the Machine”). Ultimately, Williams’s argument sees Griffin, and his manifestation of a present absence, as a figure for the nascent cinema.

3.  Stover’s note about the influence of Darwin’s theories focuses on a paper by Wells’s namesake, Dr. W. C. Wells, who discovered a subject with vitiligo (which the novel calls “piebald”) in Iping in 1813 and whose article on the subject was acknowledged by Darwin to be an important predecessor to his own theories.

4.  Given the extent to which eating and the need to eat obsesses Wells in the other novels, it should be no surprise that much is made of Griffin’s eating. In The Time Machine, the protagonist discovers that the blissful pleasures of Eloi life mask their unhappy fate as food for the Morlocks; one’s status on the food chain is the ultimate determinate of quality of life. In Doctor Moreau, the beast-people are forced to “evolve” into humans in part through prohibitions on what they eat. Once they resume eating meat, they regress back into beasts.

5.  In his influential essay “Shelley Disfigured” (cited here from the version published in The Rhetoric of Romanticism, 1984), De Man elucidates the poststructuralist insight wherein the ability of language’s “surface” signification to create “depth” of meaning is complicated by the discovery of language as positional—that is, language originates the oppositional networks it works within. Figuration is the exemplary moment:

Figuration is the element in language that allows for the reiteration of meaning by substitution; the process is at least twofold and this plurality is naturally illustrated by optical icons of specularity. But the particular seduction of the figure is not necessarily that it creates an illusion of sensory pleasure, but that it creates an illusion of meaning.

(115) [End Page 35]

While figures create an illusory, often specular, promise of meaning, the positional element of the figure, that which instantiated the opposition on which meaning depends (meaning versus nonmeaning), is always residually present. The positional residue exposes meaning as illusory— to be transmittable, meaning relies on the preexistence of oppositional structures that are in fact instantiated by the iteration of language itself. According to De Man, a linguistic figure’s warbling between these incompatible premises calls attention to “the figurality of all signification.” These cycles, in which the promise of meaning collapses under the weight of endless repetition, prompt De Man’s conclusion that “the repetitive erasures by which language performs the erasure of its own positions can be called disfiguration” (115–19). When the oppositional networks on which meaning depends are broken down, language is disfigured.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Nancy. Desire in Domestic Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.
———. How Novels Think. New York: Columbia UP, 2005.
Cantor, Paul A. “The Invisible Man and the Invisible Hand: H.G. Wells’s Critique of Capitalism.” H.G. Wells. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005. 99–114.
De Man, Paul. “Shelley Disfigured.” The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia UP, 1984. 93–124.
Lukács, Georg. The Theory of the Novel. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1974.
McConnell, Frank. The Science Fiction of H.G. Wells. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.
Murphy, Patricia. Time is of the Essence. Albany: State U of New York P, 2001.
Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey. Los Angeles: U of California P, 1977.
Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. Los Angeles: U of California P, 1957.
Wells, H. G. The Invisible Man. Ed. Leon Stover. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998.
———. The Island of Doctor Moreau. Ed. Leon Stover. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996.
———. The Time Machine. Ed. Leon Stover. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996.
Williams, Keith. H.G. Wells, Modernity and the Movies. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2007.
———. “Ghosts from the Machine: Technologisation of the Uncanny in H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man.The Wellsian 1.23 (2010): 20–41. [End Page 36]