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Literature / The Invisible Man

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The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance is an 1897 novel by H. G. Wells, Trope Codifier for many Invisibility tropes. Not to be confused with the 1951 novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

The Invisible Man tells the story of an encounter the people of a sleepy English town have with a mysterious newcomer who conceals himself entirely with bandages. The townspeople grow ever curious at the secretive, dangerously short-tempered man and his experiments. Frustrated by the inquisitive nature of the locals, the man goes into a rage, tears away his bandages, and reveals to the people that he is in fact completely invisible.

From this point on, the story follows the invisible man's trail of destruction and terror across the land as he attempts to either find a cure for his condition or take over the country (whichever is more likely).

Like many classic works it's been adapted into other media many times. The most famous is the film version by Universal in 1933 starring Claude Rains. The BBC did a relatively faithful adaptation as a miniseries in 1984. In 2017, Big Finish released a full-cast Audio Adaptation boasting Sir John Hurt in the title role, and it was released only a few weeks after his death. A second film adaptation, starring Oliver Jackson-Cohen in the title role, was released in 2020.

The Invisible Man provides examples of:

  • Abusive Offspring: Griffin stole money from his own father and drove him to take his own life.
  • The Adjectival Man
  • Agony of the Feet: The people trying to catch Griffin try setting a trap by putting glass powder on the ground, because they know he is barefoot.
  • Author Appeal: Griffin's invisibility came about not only through chemistry, but also through experiments with light and optics. Wells himself studied optics at some point in his life; the subject later comes up in The Time Machine.
  • Ax-Crazy: Griffin can become murderously psychotic when agitated...which doesn't take much.
  • Badass Bystander: Several supporting characters actually prove to be quite resourceful, brave and dependable throughout the novel.
    • The bartender and customers at the Jolly Cricketers, who shelter a fleeing Marvel and save him from Griffin's wrath.
    • Two constables manage to go toe to toe with Griffin and successfully drive him off (despite him being armed with a gun and an axe!).
    • An entire Angry Mob of Badass Bystanders assists Kemp in killing Griffin at the end.
  • Bandaged Face: Trope Codifier, if not Maker
  • Blessed with Suck: Griffin quickly discovers invisibility ain't all its cracked up to be.
  • Bratty Half-Pint: Several of these are prone to teasing Griffin during his infrequent walks around town. They run away giggling and singing annoying songs whenever he wheels upon them angrily.
  • By the Lights of Their Eyes: A variant: when Griffin makes a cat invisible, the process doesn't work on the tapetum lucidum, so the cat appears to be a pair of glowing eyes floating around.
  • Chemistry Can Do Anything
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Wells makes it as clear as he could at the time that Griffin has an absolutely filthy mouth. Take a drink every time we hear about his "imprecations."
  • Conspicuous Gloves: Gloves, together with the bandages, are the most conspicuous parts of Griffin's disguise.
  • Culturally Sensitive Adaptation: The 1984 Soviet film adaptation completely turns the tables compared to the original, making Griffin a humble Tragic Hero and Kemp a greedy villain.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Griffin worked so hard to achieve invisibility, he never bothered to plan for the downsides of it.
  • Dies Wide Open: Griffin dies like this.
  • Dirty Coward: Kemp, at least according to one of the constables assigned to protect him. When he runs away while they're fighting Griffin, "the second policeman's opinion of Kemp was terse and vivid." To be entirely fair to Kemp, he's actually trying to lure Griffin away into a trap (and besides which, the policeman might feel differently if he was the special target of a crazed invisible assassin).
  • Dramatic Irony: In one scene, Marvel is told by two strangers about the Invisible Man and his exploits...unaware that Marvel has been indeed forced into servitude by the man, who is standing beside him.
  • Driven to Suicide: Griffin's father, after Griffin stole money from him to fund his work.
  • Eagle Land: Somewhat interestingly, the only customer in the Jolly Cricketers who carries a personal firearm is a visiting American.
  • The End... Or Is It?: Zig-Zagged. Thomas Marvel keeps the money that Griffin stole and uses it to open his own inn. On his days off, he locks himself in his study and reads the notebooks which are still in his possession, with the intent of one day replicating Griffin's work. However, several pages have been washed and Marvel has no understanding of advanced scientific formulas or Latin, so it is unlikely anything will come from this.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: When Griffin's packages arrive at the Coach and Horses, the cart driver's dog bites Griffin.
  • Funetik Aksent: Many of the characters' accents are written phonetically. One example being that Mrs. Hall calls her husband "Gearge" (George).
  • Gratuitous Laboratory Flasks: Griffins orders a crap ton of lab equipment to fill his room at the inn with, in a chapter appropriately titled "The Thousand and One Bottles", wherein Griffin drives Mr. and Mrs. Hall nuts with how much chemistry equipment he sees fit to fill his room at their inn with. And apparently he had to get a lot of his stuff on the fly, since, aside from a rack of test tubes and a laboratory-grade scale, most of the stuff he's using is repurposed from more conventional household items including salad oil bottles.
  • Groin Attack: When fleeing Kemp's house, Griffin gives Colonel Adye a good kick to the nuts (while simultaneously choking him and knocking him down the stairs!).
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Griffin. Lampshaded by Kemp after he finds that Griffin has overturned his nightstand:
    "Fit of temper," said the Invisible Man. "Forgot this arm; and it's sore."
    "You're rather liable to that sort of thing."
    "I am."
  • Harbinger of Impending Doom: Dr. Kemp at first ignores a terrified local who runs around yelling, "'Visible Man a-coming!" but soon learns better.
  • Hard-to-Light Fire: Griffin's first experience sneaking around invisibly occurs because, having prepared to ignite his apartment and destroy all clues to what he's been up to, he realizes he has no matches and needs to swipe some from downstairs.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: The original subtitle "A Grotesque Romance." "Romance" in this sense referred to the fact the story was going to be unrealistic. Wells, after all, was known for calling his science fiction work "scientific romances."
    • Iping is also described as "gay with bunting" for Whit-Monday.
  • Hero Antagonist: Griffin gets far more focus than any other character in the novel, while Dr. Kemp is ultimately the one to foil him. From Griffin's perspective, Kemp is a traitor and a villain, but to everyone else, their roles are obviously switched.
  • Improvised Weapon: Throughout the book, Griffin and his enemies all frequently make use of whatever is to hand in order to defend themselves or to attack.
  • Inhuman Eye Concealers: Griffin usually augments his Bandaged Face with dark glasses in order to conceal his invisible eyes - either so he can hide his true nature while in public or so he can make himself easier to talk to in private conversations. This is usually the case in adaptations of the story as well.
  • Invisible Jerkass: And Jerkass is a very charitable way to describe Griffin.
  • Invisible Stomach, Visible Food: the Trope Codifier.
    • Food eaten by someone invisible is visible until it is digested. A bit eerie. And useful for seeing said people.
    • Griffin smokes a cigar at one point, and Kemp can see the smoke swirling around inside his mouth and nasal passages.
  • Invisible Streaker
  • Invisibility
  • It's All About Me: Griffin is a classic sociopath in that he doesn't give a damn about anyone but himself. Over the course of the book he commits multiple counts of theft, arson, and at least one murder (with several others attempted and one possible: he didn't bother to check if the man survived) and all the while the main theme of his conversation with Kemp is about how unfair the world is to him.
  • Laughing Mad
  • Lovable Coward: Thomas Marvel.
  • Mad Scientist: Although he really flips out when he turns invisible, Griffin's brain was clearly being consumed by his project long before that. When he returns to his hometown for his father's funeral, he wanders around in what would be now called a dissociative state.
  • Misapplied Phlebotinum: Though Griffin does state that he can turn cloth invisible, he never makes himself invisible clothes.
  • Muggles Do It Better: Griffin's "reign of terror" is pretty short-lived, once the locals get to hunting him down.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: In something of an in-story Alternate Character Interpretation, the narrator raises this trope as a possibility for why Griffin seemingly abandons his weapon and disappears for several hours after he kills Mr. Wicksteed, the first (and possibly only) victim of his short-lived Reign:
    He was certainly an intensely egotistical and unfeeling man, but the sight of his victim, his first victim, bloody and pitiful at his feet, may have released some long pent fountain of remorse which for a time may have flooded whatever scheme of action he had contrived.
    • The narrator even throws Griffin a bone by pointing out that he was possibly walking around with the iron bar simply for self-defense, not intending to actually hurt anyone with it.
  • Naked People Are Funny: Griffin steals the clothes of Cuss and Reverend Bunting. The former only has his pants taken, while the poor Reverend loses "every single stitch" of his clothes. He is described as making a "memorable flight" through the village in order to escape the Invisible Man's wrath, barely concealing his nakedness using a rug and newspaper.
  • Naked People Trapped Outside: Although, granted, it isn't much of a problem for Griffin.
    • This also befalls Reverend Bunting after Griffin steals his and Cuss' clothes. At first he manages to salvage his dignity since he's inside the parlor at the Coach and Horses, but after the Invisible Man doubles back to the inn in a rage, the Reverend is forced to escape out a window with naught but the hearth rug and a newspaper to cover his nudity.
  • New Era Speech: It's a warning letter, not a speech, but the spirit is the same.
  • No Face Under the Mask: The iconic scene in which the title character removes the bandages from his face.
  • One Bullet Left
  • Police Are Useless: Averted. Jaffers the village constable in Iping is rather quick on the uptake, and Port Burdock's Colonel Adye is a pretty brave (if reckless) policeman as well, able to deduce that Griffin stole the money he gave to Mrs. Hall. His two subordinate constables are also pretty badass, fending Griffin (who has a gun and an axe) off with fireplace pokers. They're not wholly successful, but only for the same reasons that anyone would have difficulties against an opponent who was invisible.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Griffin casually drops the N word in one scene and makes antisemitic comments about his Jewish landlord. Hard to say how much of this is Values Dissonance and how much is a deliberate effort to make him unlikable by the relatively-progressive Wells, but it definitely comes across as this trope to modern readers.
  • Professor Guinea Pig: Griffin takes his invisibility treatment after previously only trying it out on a cat. Granted, since he'd removed himself from the science world and needed an albino subject, his options were pretty limited, plus he was trying to escape his suspicious landlord.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning
  • Reign of Terror: Griffin says that's what he'll try to achieve in England (and the world, eventually) with those exact words.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Supernatural Powers!
  • Shout-Out: In chapter 17, before meeting Griffin, Kemp thinks over "remote speculation of social conditions of the future, and lost [himself] at last over the time dimension."
  • Sinister Shades
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: One early sign of the bandage-wrapped stranger's villainy is his frequent unspecified cursing. One character's encounter with invisible Griffin consists of him overhearing somebody swearing in an apparently-empty road.
  • The Sociopath: Griffin is chillingly unconcerned about anyone but himself even before he goes invisible (i.e. he robs his father, who kills himself in response. Griffin doesn't especially care). Not to mention his erratic temper and his grandiose belief in his own plans.
  • Staircase Tumble: While escaping from Kemp's house, the invisible Griffin violently knocks Colonel Adye down the stairs.
  • Sunglasses at Night: Justified, since he's trying to hide the fact that his eyes are invisible.
  • Sure, Let's Go with That: A substantial part of Chapters 20-23 is Griffin, having just assumed that Kemp is going to act as his confederate, lecturing Kemp about how he became invisible complete with confident assertions about how 'they' are going to change the world or dismissive claims how whatever horrible thing Griffin did was in fact totally justified. Kemp's usual response to this can pretty much be summed up as "Uh-hmm, uh-hmmm, yep, yep, sure, absolutely, that totally sounds like a sane and rational thing to do, yep," to keep Griffin talking and distracted until the policemen that Kemp has summoned show up. Needless to say, as the things Griffin casually describes himself doing become increasingly horrible, Kemp's efforts to keep the pretence that he's totally on Griffin's side become increasingly strained.
  • Take Over the World: The reign of Invisible Man the First.
  • That Man Is Dead
  • This Was His True Form: Griffin becomes visible upon his death.
  • Unbuilt Trope: Along with being the one of the first novels to have a invisible person, the novel is also one of the first to explore the numerous problems and disadvantages that would come with being invisible. Such as the fact, he can't eat and drink as they would render him visible to people along with various things such as dirt and mud. Also the fact he can't stay completely invisible in the England weather as he is naked and is forced to make people help him.
  • Uncertain Doom: The novel never does confirm whether Adye dies from the gunshot or not. Even Kemp himself who witnesses the shooting is unsure of whether he lived or not, and the epilogue is maddeningly vague about whether Adye's questioning of Marvel about the notebooks happened before or after the shooting.
    "He's killed Adye. Shot him anyhow."
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Constable Jaffers sure is laid back upon discovering that the man he's come to arrest is invisible. At first he tries to convince himself that Griffin is merely difficult to see in the dimly-lit room, but soon can't ignore the truth. Despite this, he's described as being so practical-minded that he not only doesn't flip out and panic but proceeds with his duties (or tries to) as if an invisible thief is the most normal thing in the world.
  • Villain Protagonist: Kemp isn't introduced until about halfway through and for most of the story Griffin is basically the main character.
  • Vomit Discretion Shot: Unique variant; while Griffin never actually vomits, and the fact that his food remains visible until fully digested is a plot point, no actual description of what it looks like is given (the closest is a suggestion that it looks vague and indistinct as it's gradually being digested into his system). Even Kemp, who witnesses Griffin eating and does describe how it appears when the man smokes, doesn't say a word about being grossed out by watching food being chewed, swallowed, or liquefied in mid-air.
  • Weird Moon: The third paragraph of Chapter 17 tells us that "The moon in its first quarter hung over the westward hill". Yet the first paragraph of Chapter 18, one to three hours after the above, says "Outside the night was very quiet and still, and the new moon was setting over the down." Apart from the fact that a new moon rises and sets with the sun — so if one is setting, it can't yet be night — there's simply no way that the moon can go from first-quarter to new in only a few hours.
  • Wham Line: "I robbed the old man—robbed my father. The money was not his, and he shot himself." Before this point, it is not impossible for the reader to sympathize with Griffin, despite his being a Jerkass, because he seems driven to his worse actions by the suspicion and mistreatment of the rural provincials and the stresses of his unusual situation. This is where Griffin's true personality really starts becoming apparent.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: In universe, Kemp wonders what happened to the invisible cat and the costume shop owner Griffin assaulted and left tied up. Griffin couldn't care less about either.
    • As noted above, we also never entirely learn the fate of Adye.
  • With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: Griffin may not have been all that stable before the invisibility experiments, but their effects on him pushed him over the edge.

Alternative Title(s): The Invisible Man A Grotesque Romance