"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Comedy of terror in The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance by H. G. Wells (1897)

I just read the novel The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance (1897) for the first time on Monday. 

Maria Parrino, in The Gothic Encyclopedia, defines the grotesque thusly: "The grotesque deals with distorted or unnatural forms set in an extravagant arrangement aiming at a disturbing comic effect."

Unnatural and extravagant certainly typify the early science fiction stories and novels Wells produced in the Yellow Nineties. And The Invisible Man is first and foremost filled with disturbingly comic instances and scenes.

At first these are at the expense of Iping locals who have to contend with inexplicable chaos after the arrival of a mysterious stranger. This is particularly the case with the Halls, whose Coach and Horses inn becomes the stranger's bolt-hole.

Beyond these comic opening chapters, the reader might expect a growing sympathy for the stranger's predicament. But Griffin, the stranger, is at the mercy of his own limited ingenuity from the moment he decides, before the novel begins, to use his invisibility for personal profit. 

Make no mistake: Griffin is a real villain. (And an albino villain, another "first" for Wells. This is an aspect of the novel I was unaware of and have never seen mooted in film and TV adaptations).

From Matthew Beaumont's introduction to the Oxford World's Classics paperback:

....A physicist and former chemist, Griffin is no more than 'a shabby, poverty-struck, hemmed-in demonstrator, teaching fools in a provincial college' (p. 83) when he first apprehends that it might be possible to make the 'whole fabric' of his body (p. 82), including in the end his blood, completely colourless and transparent. As he himself points out, he is 'almost an albino', 'with a pink and white face and red eyes', and this lack of skin pigmentation makes it easier for him to decolourize his tissues (p. 71): ' "… I could be Invisible," I said, suddenly realising what it meant to be an albino with such knowledge' (p. 82). In addition, his albinism reinforces his embattled sense of being a social outsider. In the nineteenth century, after all, albinos were exhibited at carnivals and fairs, and classed among degenerates. Because of his albinism the Invisible Man is already cut off from his kind.

     Sick of confronting a sense of personal, professional, and social impotence, Griffin is driven, in his dream of making himself invisible, by what Friedrich Nietzsche, exactly a decade before the publication of The Invisible Man, identified as ressentiment  —  the vindictively resentful attitude fostered in the individual as a result of the negation of the self that, as opposed to the 'noble morality' of 'the masters', is characteristic of 'slave morality'.1 In this respect, his psychological condition anticipates that of the eponymous character of Wells's later novel The History of Mr Polly (1910), who hates 'the whole scheme of life', which he regards as 'at once excessive and inadequate of him', and who consequently falls, each day, 'into a violent rage and hatred against the outer world'.2 But Griffin is far more malicious than Mr Polly. He is sociopathic. At one point, in order to fund his research, he steals from his own father, who then kills himself because he is secretly in debt.

     Frustrated in his ambitions, Griffin 'find[s] compensation in an imaginary revenge', to frame it in terms of Nietzsche's formulation — his dream of becoming an invisible √úbermensch.3 After discovering 'a general principle of pigments and refraction', Griffin devotes himself to his obsessive scientific labours in the laboratory he has surreptitiously set up in a cheap apartment in central London; and devises an elaborate method that makes it possible, 'without changing any other property of matter', as he puts it in his retrospective narrative, 'to lower the refractive index of a substance, solid or liquid, to that of air — so far as all practical purposes are concerned' (p. 80).4 'Wounded by the world', the Invisible Man thus sets out to dominate it through his command of experimental science, and so to make himself one of the 'masters of the world'.5

     Once he has performed the painful metamorphosis that follows his secretive experiments, Griffin gives full expression to his contempt for 'the common conventions of humanity' and the 'common people' who embody them (p. 104). Inspired by his ressentiment, the Invisible Man's vengeful and destructive actions, which culminate in his announcement that he will initiate a Reign of Terror, ensure that he quickly becomes universally feared. He announces 'the Epoch of the Invisible Man', and rumours of his terroristic campaign fan out across the nation (p. 119). The police, in response to the Invisible Man's attempt to implement this terroristic dream, instate 'a stringent state of siege' across an area of several hundred square miles surrounding the place in the countryside to which he has fled (p. 116). But this is too late for one man 'of inoffensive habits and appearance' whom Griffin beats to death, in 'a murderous frenzy', with an iron rod (p. 116): 'He stopped this quiet man, going quietly home to his midday meal, attacked him, beat down his feeble defences, broke his arm, felled him, and smashed his head to a jelly' (p. 116). This is not the 'judicious slaying' Griffin boasted of making when he insisted on establishing his Reign of Terror; it is a 'wanton killing' (p. 110). If he is sociopathic, he is almost psychopathic too. Even the insane moral code to which this monomaniac had hitherto adhered has collapsed.

     Finally, in fulfilment of the function of an ancient scapegoat, the Invisible Man is hunted down and brutally killed in what amounts to a sacrificial ritual performed by the community. 'As if by irresistible gravitation towards the unpleasant,' explained one of Wells's most appreciative contemporaries, the campaigning journalist W. T. Stead, when he came to recapitulate its remorseless plot, 'the invisible man passes through a series of disastrous experiences, until finally he goes mad and is beaten to death as the only way of putting an end to a homicidal maniac with the abnormal gift of invisibility.'6

On the run, Griffin goes to ground at a house in the village of Port Burdock occupied - coincidentally -  by old schoolmate Kemp.

After all the toing-and-froing forced on Griffin, he thinks this reunion is pure serendipity. An invisible man, driven by a profound sense of ressentiment, who dreams of becoming a secret terrorizer of people on a grand scale, must have a safe house for loot and clothes, a place to hide during days of rain and snow and smog. 

Poor old Kemp, snug in a nice little house with a belvedere, carefully tending his own professional scientific ambitions, loses no time alerting authorities. He keeps Griffin talking until they arrive:

      'What I want, Kemp, is a goal-keeper, a helper, and a hiding-place; an arrangement whereby I can sleep and eat and rest in peace and unsuspected. I must have a confederate. With a confederate, with food and rest, a thousand things are possible.

     'Hitherto I have gone on vague lines. We have to consider all that invisibility means; all that it does not mean. It means little advantage for eavesdropping and so forth — one makes sounds. It's of little help — a little help, perhaps — in housebreaking and so forth. Once you've caught me you could easily imprison me. But on the other hand I am hard to catch. This invisibility, in fact, is only good in two cases. It's useful in getting away; it's useful in approaching. It's particularly useful, therefore, in killing. I can walk round a man, whatever weapon he has, choose my point, strike as I like, dodge as I like, escape as I like.'

     Kemp's hand went to his moustache. Was that a movement downstairs?

     'And it is killing we must do, Kemp.'

     'It is killing we must do,' repeated Kemp. 'I'm listening to your plan, Griffin; but I'm not agreeing, mind. Why killing?'

     'Not wanton killing, but a judicious slaying. The point is: They know there is an Invisible Man — as well as we know there is an Invisible Man — and that Invisible Man, Kemp, must now establish a Reign of Terror. Yes; no doubt it's startling, but I mean it. A Reign of Terror. He must take some town, like your Burdock, and terrify and dominate it. He must issue his orders. He can do that in a thousand ways — scraps of paper thrust under doors would suffice. And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend them.'

     'Humph!' said Kemp, no longer listening to Griffin, but to the sound of his front door opening and closing.

     'It seems to me, Griffin,' he said, to cover his wandering attention, 'that your confederate would be in a difficult position?'

     'No one would know he was a confederate,' said the Invisible Man eagerly….

Griffin is a monster without the pathos of Jekyll; he suffers under no metabolic compulsions, like a vampire. He is not even a mad scientist, his scientific discovery as science is beside the point. Invisibility simply and ironically displays the real Griffin: thief, absconder, megalomaniac.


25 February 2021

No comments:

Post a Comment