The Invisible Man and the Invisible Hand

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Date: Summer 1999
From: The American Scholar(Vol. 68, Issue 3)
Publisher: Phi Beta Kappa Society
Document Type: Article
Length: 6,466 words

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The author H.G. Wells has not been taken seriously by the academic establishment, mainly because his style of writing seemed like a throwback to the 19th century. Wells focused more on the content of his books than on how they were written. A re-assessment of Wells is offered with reference to the book "Invisible Man."

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H. G. Wells's Critique of Capitalism

When H. G. Wells died in 1946, his place in the history of twentieth-century literature seemed assured. At his funeral, J. B. Priestley referred to him as the "great prophet of our time." Shortly thereafter, Prime Minister Clement Atlee headed a Service of Public Homage for Wells, at which Winston Churchill spoke to honor his memory. During his long literary career, Wells had been one of the most popular and financially successful writers in the English language. Moreover, he was admired by the general public as a sage or visionary, so revered that in his later years he could command audiences with Stalin and Roosevelt. But today Wells is seldom taken seriously, and if he is discussed in literary circles at all, it is almost always among specialists in science fiction. In the long run, authors are remembered for what literary critics say about them, and Wells was never embraced by the professional literary establishment. As popular as his books were (or perhaps precisely because they were popular), they have at best hovered on the periphery of the academic canon of twentieth-century literary classics. Most critics concluded that Wells was the loser in the famous debate on the nature of fiction that he carried on with Henry James in a series of essays, reviews, and letters. Advocating an aesthetic perspective, James emerged as the champion of modernist fiction, above all its sophisticated handling of point of view, while Wells, who valued content over form and social message over artistic technique, seemed like a throwback to the nineteenth century, incapable of appreciating the epistemological subtlety of the avant-garde novel.

We are left with a paradox: as the founder of the genre of science fiction, Wells is perhaps the greatest prophet of modernity, and yet literary critics classify him as the antithesis and antagonist of modernism. No one wrote more extensively or prophetically about characteristically twentieth-century developments, from air power to the atomic bomb (Wells coined the phrase), from international finance capital to experiments in socialism, from world wars to the horrors of colonialism. From the literary critics' point of view, Wells's sin was to write about modernity, but not in the style of modernism.

As we near the end of the century whose course Wells did such a good job of predicting back in the 1890s, the time seems ripe for a reassessment of his reputation, or at least a re-examination of his importance in modern (if not modernist) literature. Whatever Wells's fate has been within the academy, the general public has never deserted him. His great science fiction novels have stayed in print continuously and, made and remade as motion pictures, they have helped shape the consciousness of twentieth-century humanity around the globe. The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man: if any works can lay claim to the title, these are the myths of our modern world. Independence Day, the blockbuster hit of the summer of 1996, was a transparent rip-off of War of the Worlds, with a computer virus cleverly substituted for the bacteria that defeated Wells's invading Martians. However unsophisticated Wells's stories may be in narrative technique, they evidently have a power that keeps them alive in the minds and hearts of the public.

Moreover, at a time when literary criticism has come to focus increasingly on economic, social, and political issues, Wells may deserve a fresh look. In economic terms, he was one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. He did as much as anybody to shape the course that socialist theory and practice took in modern Britain; he may also be regarded as one of the architects of the welfare state. Wells believed that the only rational economy is a command economy, one in which a board of experts scientifically plans, directs, and coordinates all economic activity from its central position, thereby keeping entrepreneurs from pursuing their individual interests. He hoped that the twentieth century would be the century of socialism, the era when humanity finally took responsibility for its destiny and planned centrally for its future. As we come to the end of the twentieth century, the cause of socialism--in both theory and practice--is, to say the least, not looking as robust as Wells would have hoped. Thus our re-evaluation of Wells should include a critical look at his socialist ideas, to see how accurately he foresaw economic developments in the twentieth century. If his prophetic powers in economic matters were not as great as they were in science and technology, it is worth considering what may have distorted his vision in that area.

As a first step in this reconsideration of Wells, I have chosen to discuss one of his most enduring novels, The Invisible Man, which turns out to be one of the most interesting from an economic perspective. Though ultimately critical of Wells's achievement in the novel, I believe that, like many of his works, The Invisible Man has a greater depth of content and seriousness of purpose than has hitherto been realized.

First published in 1897, The Invisible Man tells the story of Griffin, the University College student who finds a way to make himself disappear. Driven to his experiments by an ambition that has always been fierce, Griffin grows increasingly megalomaniacal once he becomes invisible. He thus takes his place in a line of literary portrayals of mad scientists that stretches back to Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein. Interest in The Invisible Man has understandably tended to focus on the scientific aspects of the tale, especially the questions Wells raises about the ethics of modern technology.

But as often happens in Wells's work, the science fiction situation he creates in The Invisible Man provides a vehicle for exploring a larger set of economic and political problems that preoccupied him throughout his career. In particular, though Griffin's invisibility has scientific causes, it largely has economic effects--above all, on the movement and transfer of money. To put it bluntly, the chief use Griffin makes of his invisibility is to rob people of their cash:

   The story of the flying money was true. And all about that neighbourhood,
   even from the august London and Country Banking Company, from the tills of
   shops and inns ... money had been quietly and dexterously making off that
   day in handfuls and rouleaux, floating quietly along by walls and shady
   places, dodging quickly from the approaching eyes of men. And it had,
   though no man had traced it, invariably ended its mysterious flight in the
   pocket of that agitated gentleman.

Wells calls attention to the difficulty of tracing the movement of money. In our age of offshore banking and money-laundering schemes, we hardly need to be reminded that the circulation of money can be mysterious even without a literally invisible man behind it. Perhaps, then, Wells's The Invisible Man is an economic as well as a scientific parable, with money as its central subject.

For Wells, Griffin's invisibility symbolizes the working of an impersonal, decentralized, and--in Wells's view--dangerously chaotic market economy that fails to respect the dictates of either traditional communal ties or established government authorities. In effect, what is most significant about Griffin is his invisible hand. In his Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith had argued that in an unfettered market economy, an invisible hand guides the self-seeking actions of individual entrepreneurs for the good of the community as a whole. As a socialist visionary, Wells uses his parable of the Invisible Man to call Smith's economic theories into question, presenting Griffin as a monster of egoism and finding chaos and catastrophe where Smith had seen order and progress. Thus, The Invisible Man offers an opportunity to examine Wells's critique of capitalism, both the substance of his arguments and the motives behind his hostility to the free market.

The key to understanding The Invisible Man is the dual setting of the story. Most of the novel takes place in the rural village of Iping and other rustic parts of England. But in Griffin's flashback narrative of how he became invisible, the scene shifts to the urban metropolis of London. Wells juxtaposes the tradition-bound, community-oriented existence of a rural village with the anomie and rootless cosmopolitanism of a modern city. In moving from London to a country village, Griffin creates the novel's dramatic tension, a confrontation between antithetical ways of life. As Wells describes Griffin's situation: "His irritability, though it might have been comprehensible to an urban brain-worker, was an amazing thing to these quiet Sussex villagers." Wells portrays Iping as a tight-knit community: everybody knows everybody else and everybody minds everybody else's business. The citizens of Iping are closed-minded and superstitious, easily upset by anything that might disturb the regularity of their existence. In the opening pages of the novel, Griffin arrives in Iping as the quintessential stranger, unknown to anyone in the village and visibly alien by virtue of his grotesque appearance.

In these circumstances, the only thing that can guarantee Griffin's acceptance in Iping is money. The novel opens with a prototypical market transaction. Griffin gets a room at the inn, not because of "human charity," as he at first suggests, but because of his ability to "strike [a] bargain" and pay the going rate. Money in and of itself already confers a kind of invisibility on him. Even in a town of busybodies, he is able to remain anonymous; as nosy as the innkeeper is, she does not even bother to learn Griffin's name as long as he pays his bills on time. We thus see how money transforms a traditional community. The citizens of Iping are used to dealing face to face and only with people well-known to them--as one of the villagers says: "I'd like to see a man's face if I had him stopping in my place." But a complete stranger is able to live among them by virtue of the power of money, which stands for the impersonal working of the market.

One would think that Wells would welcome this power as a force for progress. As he himself demonstrates, a market transaction allows perfect strangers, who may even have reasons to be hostile to each other, to cooperate in a limited way for their mutual benefit. Money seems to be a way of greatly expanding the range of social interaction. And in Wells's portrayal, villages like Iping certainly could use some broadening of their horizons. On the whole, Wells treats the villagers comically, making us laugh at their conventionality and superstitiousness. Nevertheless, he seems to take their side, accepting their way of life as the measure of normality and presenting the Invisible Man as the sinister figure, the one who in his secretiveness and obsessive concern for privacy disrupts the peaceful functioning of the village community. Wells reserves his truly sharp criticism for the modern city--London.

In the London section of the narrative, Griffin's invisibility oddly comes to symbolize the weakness and vulnerability of modern man, the way he becomes a nonentity under the pressure of mass society, the way he gets lost in the shuffle of the urban crowd. Griffin has of course high hopes for what his invisibility will allow him to do, but once he actually becomes invisible, almost the first thing he discovers is how much trouble his new condition is going to cause him. Emerging triumphantly, into the streets of London, expecting to "revel in [his] extraordinary advantage," Griffin finds himself instead buffeted by the mass of people in the big city: "But hardly had I emerged upon Great Portland Street ... when I heard a clashing concussion and was hit violently behind.... I tried to get into the stream of people, but they were too thick for me, and in a moment my heels were being trodden upon." Hoping to be a god in the eyes of his fellow Londoners, Griffin at first finds that he is quite literally nothing to them. They walk right into and over him.

Griffin's invisibility thus becomes a striking image for everything Wells is trying to show about the impersonality of the market economy. In the small village of Iping, Griffin's problem is that all eyes are upon him: everybody wants to butt into his business. His problem in London is just the opposite: he is completely ignored. In London, no one knows anybody else, or at least a man can be virtually unknown to his next-door neighbors. Wells seems to suggest that even without his fiendish experiments, Griffin would be, in effect, invisible in London. The modern urban metropolis is a peculiarly attenuated form of community, in which people live together but have very little in common. Wells emphasizes this point by choosing as Griffin's London landlord "an old Polish Jew" who speaks Yiddish at a key moment. London is not simply a paradoxical community of strangers; it is a community of foreigners who sometimes do not even speak the same language.

For Wells, then, to be invisible in London is to be an individual in a vast, impersonal market economy that provides no genuine roots or community and hence turns a man into a purely necessitous being. Throughout the story Griffin is surprisingly obsessed with the basic human needs: food, clothing, shelter. He ends up embodying everything Wells finds wrong in capitalist existence. With nothing to stabilize his life, Griffin is always on the go, unable to find rest. He is continually scheming against his fellow human beings, always trying to take advantage of any situation. He encounters all the problems of the emancipated individual in the modern, enlightened world. In this context, it is highly appropriate that Griffin is a scientist, a man who tries to live by reason alone and who rejects all traditional religious beliefs. The villagers are particularly upset by his "never going to church of a Sunday."

Cut off from any sense of community, the Invisible Man becomes a monster of egoism, governed only by his own will and desires. As his colleague Dr. Kemp describes him: "He is pure selfishness. He thinks of nothing but his own advantage, his own safety." Thus Griffin serves as Wells's representation of homo economicus, the man who pursues his rational self-interest to the exclusion of all other considerations. In particular, the Invisible Man becomes Wells's symbol of the pure consumer. In a marvelous scene, Griffin invades the bastion of bourgeois consumerism, a department store. The phenomenon was sufficiently novel in Wells's day for him to feel compelled to have Griffin explain the concept: "[I] found myself outside Omniums, the big establishment where everything is to be bought,--you know the place,--meat, grocery, linen, furniture, clothing, oil paintings even,--a huge meandering collection of shops rather than a shop." Griffin's invisibility gives him access to the full panoply of consumer goods capitalism produces. But Wells adds a twist to his myth of the Invisible Man to suggest the self-defeating character of the capitalist economy and its consumer rat race. Although Griffin is able to acquire anything he wants, Wells dwells upon the difficulties he encounters consuming those goods. If he eats the food he craves, it renders him temporarily visible to his enemies until his body can assimilate it. If he puts on the clothing he covets, he becomes similarly vulnerable.

Griffin himself formulates his dilemma precisely: "I went over the heads of the things a man reckons desirable. No doubt invisibility made it possible to get them, but it made it impossible to enjoy them when they are got." Here Wells anticipates later, post-Marxist critiques of capitalism, particularly that of the Frankfurt School. Capitalism may succeed in allowing consumers to acquire the goods they want, but it prevents people from enjoying them. Indeed, by generating an infinity of desires and involving consumers in an unending process of acquisition, the market economy, in this view, dooms them to perpetual dissatisfaction.

However cleverly Wells employs the figure of the Invisible Man to develop a critique of capitalism, I believe that his critique fails. For one thing, its target is broader than he realizes. In most of The Invisible Man, Wells is not criticizing capitalism in particular but modernity in general. The aspects of life he questions--large-scale organization, urban existence, the masses of people, cosmopolitanism, rationalist and anti-traditional behavior--characterize all modern regimes, socialist as well as capitalist. If anything, capitalism mitigates the negative effects of mass society by dispersing economic power and preserving private pockets of resistance to the Leviathan state. The experience of socialist communities in the twentieth century suggests that in a centrally planned command economy, human beings are in fact more likely to feel like zeros, with even their rights to private property and private initiative taken away. As for Wells's point about consumption under capitalism, it rests on a false analogy. Nothing in the real world corresponds to the difficulties Griffin encounters in enjoying what he acquires; they are entirely peculiar to his situation as an invisible man. In fact, most consumers under capitalism want their consumption to be visible. Ever since Thorsten Veblen, critics of capitalism have been complaining about "conspicuous consumption." Wells may have a point in his critique of capitalist consumption, but his particular fictional vehicle for expressing it does nothing to prove it.

Indeed, Wells's central metaphor fails to work in one respect so fundamental that it obviates the need for a detailed, point-by-point refutation of his position. There is only one Invisible Man in Wells's story. Far from functioning in a market system, he enjoys a kind of monopoly. Hence he operates without the checks and balances that are vital to Adam Smith's notion of the invisible hand. Smith never denied that human beings are egoistic. But his point was that as selfish as individual people may be, when that selfishness is made to operate within the system of a market economy, it is forced to serve the common good. Thus Wells's science fiction parable fails to offer a fair test of Smith's economic principles. In fact, Smith would be likely to agree that making a man invisible would turn him into a monster of egoism, for it would set him free from the normal discipline of the market, where businessmen keep each other in check precisely by observing each other's actions, ever on the lookout for any competitive advantage. In Smith the individual entrepreneur is not invisible; indeed the working of the invisible hand depends entirely on the visibility of businessmen as they meet in open competition.

I prefer therefore to concentrate on analyzing not the logic of Wells's position, which is weak, but the motives behind his hostility to the market economy. The most peculiar aspect of The Invisible Man is the atavism of Wells's position. He generally sides with the backward, unsophisticated villagers against the forward-looking scientific genius, Griffin. Wells seems in fact to be guilty of economic and political nostalgia in The Invisible Man, looking back longingly to an earlier and simpler age when communities were small and tightly knit and human beings could count on directly cooperating with each other to solve their problems. Wells fundamentally distrusts the central insight of Smith and capitalist economics: that the market provides a way of rationally ordering the productive activities of human beings without the need for central direction or even without the actors knowing each other personally.

Wells shares the suspicions and fears of capitalism that typically grip the citizens of pre-modern and economically undeveloped communities. As Friedrich Hayek has argued in The Fatal Conceit, to such people the operation of the market economy looks like magic. The merchant, the entrepreneur, the financier--all these basic actors in the market economy apparently produce wealth out of nothing and thus, to the common man, seem like sorcerers. Wells's portrait of Griffin confirms all the common man's suspicions of the businessman: that he is unproductive, that he is secretive in his dealings, that all he does is move around money that belongs to other people, that essentially his acquisition is a form of theft, that he lives off the work of others. Like many people, Wells cannot understand or appreciate the special contribution that the entrepreneur makes to the good of the economy as a whole. In A Modern Utopia, he makes the revealing statement that "trade is a bye-product and not an essential factor in social life." In fact, the entrepreneur, by means of his special knowledge of market conditions and his willingness to assume risks in an uncertain world, makes it possible for goods to be available when and where people want them. Anyone who believes that the entrepreneur does not earn his profits is essentially claiming that we live in a risk-free world.

Like many nineteenth-century Englishmen with socialist leanings, Wells had trouble accepting the messiness and apparent disorder of the complex system of the market economy, which works precisely by dispersing economic knowledge, power, and control. Wells was not overtly nostalgic for the Middle Ages and its feudal system in the way Thomas Carlyle and William Morris were, but he did, in effect, return to medieval ways of thinking in his insistence that order has to be imposed on society from above--that only with leaders centrally directing economic activity can it take a rational form. Throughout The Invisible Man, we can see that Wells does not like the idea of a character operating outside the ken of any central authority and hence beyond any centralized control. The Invisible Man personifies everything Wells distrusts in the spontaneous order of the market. Griffin is the least predictable of human beings. He can appear anywhere at any time and throw a wrench into the working of the most elaborate government plan. He is indeed the bureaucrat's worst nightmare: how can you regulate a man if you cannot even see him?

Toward the end of the story, Griffin begins to behave like the archenemy of government authority, the terrorist. He hopes to undermine the power of the government by means of random acts of violence that will demonstrate its inability to assert its authority and maintain order. Thus The Invisible Man builds up to a confrontation that reveals Wells's vision of the well-ordered

society. Faced with the threat of murderous violence from Griffin, the community finally organizes--into a huge manhunt from which even an invisible man cannot escape. Griffin has been a challenge to what Foucault and others call the panoptical character of government, its ability to see into every corner of society and thus to oversee all the activities of its citizens. With a nationwide dragnet, Wells's authorities will make sure that Griffin can no longer elude their surveillance:

   Every passenger train along the lines on a great parallelogram between
   Southampton, Winchester, Brighton, and Horsham, travelled with locked
   doors, and the goods traffic was almost entirely suspended. And in a great
   circle of twenty miles round Port Burdock, men armed with guns and
   bludgeons were presently setting out in groups of three and four, with
   dogs, to beat the roads and fields. Mounted policemen rode along the
   country lanes, stopping at every cottage.

Wells inadvertently shows his true colors here. This vision is profoundly totalitarian. Hostility to the Invisible Man easily passes over into hostility to ordinary commerce and indeed to the free and spontaneous movement of any individual.

The nationwide dragnet lays bare what has all too often been the nightmare result of the socialist dream: society turned into an armed camp, what Wells himself describes as a "state of siege." Nothing in the country is to move without the government knowing about it; all rights to privacy have been suspended. At a number of points earlier in the story, Griffin is protected by the traditional Anglo-Saxon regard for civil rights. Even when the authorities suspect him of having committed crimes, they punctiliously observe the procedures designed to protect the individual against unjustified government intrusion into his life, such as the requirement for search warrants. Initially contemplating cruel methods to snare Griffin, including "powdered glass" on the roads, the local police chief worries that these might be "unsportsmanlike." But by the end of the story, all sense of the individual's rights has been dissolved and the government conducts an all-out war against one of its citizens. Wells is able to make a case for the unique danger of an invisible man, but one may still be struck by the disproportion between the power of a solitary individual like Griffin and the vast forces mobilized to capture and destroy him. In the end, Wells shows the rebellious individual literally crushed by the weight of the community arrayed against him: what Wells calls "the pressure of the crowd."

At just the point when the Invisible Man threatens to elude the control of the authorities in England, he momentarily escapes Wells's control as a novelist as well. 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 inmost thoughts. But suddenly he loses sight of his own creation:

   Thereafter for some hours the Invisible Man passed out of human
   perceptions. No one knows where he went nor what he did. But one can
   imagine him hurrying through the hot June forenoon, ... and sheltering ...
   amid the thickets of Hintondean.... That seems the most probable refuge for
   him.... 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 about
   midday, and no living witness can tell what he did until about half-past

This is an odd moment in Wells's fiction. He is usually content to tell his stories in a straightforward manner, not troubling himself over issues of perspective or point of view. But here he calls attention to the fictionality of his story, and indeed throughout the rest of this chapter he presents himself uncharacteristically as a limited narrator who is forced to resort to rank speculation: "We can know nothing of the details of the encounter" or "But this is pure hypothesis." Wells seems uncomfortable with his new situation. For once he is not in total control of his story; he cannot supply the full explanation of the action in which he usually delights. Thanks to the elusiveness of the Invisible Man, Wells's own story threatens to become a mystery to him.

In this rare moment in his fiction, we get a glimpse of what unites H. G. Wells the novelist and H. G. Wells the socialist: both believe in central planning. As a writer, Wells was used to plotting his novels carefully so as to maintain strict control over their structure. Even among novelists, he is distinguished, at least in his early science fiction works, by the leanness of his plots, the fact that he generally excludes extraneous matter and keeps a tight focus on his thematic concerns. He almost never grants freedom to his characters. They exist only to carry out his plot and express his ideas. One reason Wells has not been a favorite among literary critics is that his novels strike many of them as thematically didactic and technically unsophisticated--which is another way of saying that he does not go in for the sort of modernist fiction that grants a certain autonomy to the characters and their points of view. The world of a Wells science fiction novel may be beset by chaos and cataclysms--dying suns, rebellious beast-men, invading Martians, giant insects run amok--but the book itself is always well ordered and clearly under the author's command.

This obsession with control seems to have carried over into Wells's attitude toward politics and economics. He expected society to be as orderly and centrally planned as one of his novels. As a novelist, Wells was always looking for closure, for the artfully plotted story that would take shape once and for all time. But in the free market, stories do not work out with the clear shape and neat outcomes of well-written novels. The market is always in flux, continually adapting to changing circumstances in the natural world and to the changing desires and attitudes of consumers. Hence Wells's dislike for the market. Like that of many artists, Wells's socialism has an aesthetic dimension. As a novelist, he had one model of order constantly in front of him: if a novel has a shape, the reason is that a single consciousness planned the work. Wells's aesthetic distaste for contingency prejudiced him against the spontaneous order of the market economy. He was used to the static perfection of a work of fiction, in which nothing is left to chance and the author takes responsibility for tying up all the loose ends before he reaches the conclusion. In speaking of his own temperament in A Modern Utopia, Wells describes how "the mere pleasure of completeness, of holding and controlling all the threads, possesses [him]." This ideal of control provides an excellent blueprint for fiction (a tautly plotted story) but a poor one for society (totalitarianism).

To understand Wells's hostility to the Invisible Man and the capitalist order he represents, we must return to his characterization of Griffin. In the Frankenstein tradition, Griffin is a portrait of the scientist as a young artist. Wells deliberately eliminates all the collaborative aspects of scientific research by presenting Griffin as a solitary creative genius, operating, like a Romantic artist, alone and on the fringes of society. As we have seen, Wells is highly critical of his Invisible Man, to the point of imaginatively siding with his enemies. And yet, like most authors, Wells cannot help sympathizing to some extent with his protagonist. Indeed, it would be odd if Wells, the visionary science fiction writer, did not in some way identify with Griffin, the scientific visionary.

Thus, in addition to providing a symbol of the capitalist order, the Invisible Man can be viewed as a self-portrait of Wells. Like his creator, Griffin is a man ahead of his time, so far ahead that the public fails to appreciate his genius. Griffin may thus give us a glimpse into his creator's dark side by revealing more than Wells intended about his own psychology. Griffin thinks of himself as a god among men--indeed, he plays that role to the servant he adopts, Thomas Marvel, who even addresses him as "Lord." Specifically, Griffin thinks of himself as a Nietzschean superman, raised above the conventional moral restraints that ordinary men feel compelled to observe. But at the same time, Griffin is a brilliant study of what Nietzsche calls ressentiment. In many ways, his invisibility scheme is an attempt to compensate for his deep feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, and powerlessness. Coming from humble origins, perpetually short of money, Griffin is a classic case of a man who tries to rise in the world by virtue of his wits; he wants desperately "to become famous at a blow." By his own account, he is jealous of other researchers and paranoid that they will steal and take credit for his discoveries. Griffin reveals himself to be obsessed with petty frustrations, chiefly the drudgery of his career as a teacher, surrounded by "gaping, silly students" and under constant pressure to publish or perish.

In short, Griffin feels woefully undervalued by society. He knows that he is more intelligent than the people around him, but many of them make more money or hold more honored positions. Society does not reward intelligence sufficiently to suit him. When he figures out how to become invisible, he is using his intelligence to obtain the rewards and privileges that society has been denying him. Griffin is out to prove something, as he tells the ignorant villagers of Iping: "`You don't understand,' he said, `who I am or what I am. I'll show you. By Heaven! I'll show you.'" Griffin has a profound contempt for ordinary humanity, which he regards as well beneath him in the one quality he esteems: intelligence. That is why he is frustrated by the fact that an ordinary man like Marvel can interfere with his plans: "To have worked for years, to have planned and plotted, and then to get some fumbling purblind idiot messing across your course! Every conceivable sort of silly creature that has ever been created has been sent to cross me." Griffin's contempt for the stupidity of the common man means that he has contempt for the market economy and the way it distributes wealth. After all, it is the market economy that has denied Griffin the rewards he thinks he deserves. The principal use Griffin makes of his invisibility is to redistribute wealth, taking it away from the established owners of property and sending it in his own direction. To the extent that the Invisible Man seeks to undo the injustice of a market economy that in his view does not adequately reward merit, he may be said to be a socialist himself.

I have presented Wells's Invisible Man as at one moment a symbol of capitalism and at another a symbol of socialism: an obvious contradiction. But I believe that this contradiction lies in Wells's novel itself--that he portrays his central figure inconsistently. In many ways Wells was trying to give a portrait of the capitalist mentality in the figure of the Invisible Man, but he evidently invested too much of himself in his protagonist and ended up simultaneously portraying the mentality of a political visionary, a man who tries to remake the world to fit his image of a just social order. Indeed, at several points in the novel, the Invisible Man sounds a lot more like a radical revolutionary than like a capitalist businessman. He conceives the idea of a Reign of Terror to establish and consolidate his power: "Port Burdock is no longer under the Queen.... it is under me--the Terror! This is day one of year one of the new epoch,--the Epoch of the Invisible Man. I am Invisible Man the First." This is hardly the language of the free market. As Griffin's proclamation of a new era indicates, it is in fact the language of revolutionary totalitarianism.

Claiming to be able to spy into any corner of society and arrogating to himself the right to execute anyone he chooses, the Invisible Man becomes the mirror image of the panoptical, totalitarian regime arrayed against him. His model of order is not the free market but absolute monarchy. In proclaiming himself "Invisible Man the First," Griffin is only drawing the logical conclusion from his belief in his mental superiority. He is smarter than all other men, hence he ought to be able to rule them and order their lives. In his own way, the Invisible Man becomes a profoundly atavistic force, wanting to return England to its illiberal past, substituting one-man rule from above for any spontaneous ordering of market forces from below.

As a brilliant case study of ressentiment, Griffin provides remarkable insights into the psychology of the modern, alienated intellectual and his typically anti-capitalist mentality. In his feeling that the market economy treats him unjustly by insufficiently rewarding his talent and his genius, Griffin is indeed the prototype of the modern intellectual. This attitude helps explain why so many artists, scientists, academics, and other members of the intellectual and cultural elite have rejected capitalism and embraced socialism. They fantasize that a socialist order would undo the injustices of the market economy because, like Griffin, they secretly imagine that they will somehow be in charge of the centrally planned economy and thus able to redirect the flow of rewards as they see fit. Wells himself provides a perfect example of this mentality, and this may explain why he does such a good job of portraying Griffin. Like Griffin, Wells came from a humble background, spent time as a teacher, and used his wits (a good deal more successfully) to rise in the world and make himself famous. Moreover, despite his socialist leanings, Wells had a great deal of contempt for the common man and believed that society must be ruled from above, by an intellectual elite.

These attitudes surface prominently in The Invisible Man. We have already seen that although Wells ultimately sides with the villagers against Griffin, he presents them in a negative light, ridiculing their simple-mindedness. On their own, they would clearly be incapable of protecting themselves against a genius like Griffin. They would be doomed without the intervention of Dr. Kemp, the medical associate Griffin tries to enlist in his cause but who quickly turns against him. As Wells sets up the situation, one man of intellect is required to counteract the nefarious schemes of another man of intellect. Kemp shows his superior intelligence in the way he immediately sizes up Griffin and grasps the full extent of the threat an invisible man constitutes to England and humanity. Moreover, it is Kemp, and Kemp alone, who comes up with all the plans for organizing society to capture Griffin.

Kemp's role in The Invisible Man reflects the peculiarly aristocratic form that socialism took in late-nineteenth-century England. Socialist doctrine offered a way of clamping down on all the productive forces that had been unleashed by free-market policies, forces that looked chaotic and anarchic to fastidious Englishmen like Wells and seemed to threaten the lingering ascendancy of cultural elites left over from the aristocratic past. Wells hoped to replace the old aristocracy of birth with a new aristocracy of talent, particularly intellectual and artistic talent, but his basic attitude remained aristocratic and anti-democratic nonetheless. One can detect in Wells a strong element of the socialist equivalent of noblesse oblige; his concern for the common man is mixed with a good deal of condescension, if not outright contempt. By virtue of his superior intellect and cultivation, Wells thought himself entitled to show Englishmen how they should live, how they should organize their social and economic existence. This is the peculiar Nietzscheanism of Wells's socialism. Like his contemporary, George Bernard Shaw, Wells managed to combine faith in socialist doctrine with the belief that only a kind of Nietzschean superman could successfully implement it. He believed that if society is to be saved, it cannot be by a collective effort, but only by the work of a single great man, or perhaps a band of great men, an elite brotherhood.

If, then, I have given a contradictory account of The Invisible Man, the reason is that a fundamental contradiction lies at the core of Wells's thinking. He upheld a socialist ideal of community, yet at the same time he saw a form of heroic individualism as the only way of bringing about socialism. Wells's vacillation between socialism and heroic individualism helps explain his conflicted portrayal of the Invisible Man and the basic incoherence of the Invisible Man as a symbol. But it is precisely this incoherence that makes The Invisible Man such a richly rewarding work to analyze. Wells may have set out to present a critique of capitalism, but in the process he ended up providing the materials for a critique of his own position and more generally of the artist-intellectual's predilection for socialism. Above all, Wells's portrait of the Invisible Man teaches us how contempt for the common man and contempt for the market economy actually go hand in hand. Wells's socialism is ultimately aesthetic and aristocratic in nature; it is rooted in nothing so much as his conviction of his superiority, as an artistic visionary, to the ordinary mass of humanity. Evidently, Griffin was not the only megalomaniac in town.

Paul A. Cantor is Professor of English at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Shakespeare's Rome: Republic and Empire; Creature and Creator: Myth-making and English Romanticism; and the Hamlet volume in the Cambridge Landmarks of World Literature series.3

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A55721517