H.G. Wells was on a real hot streak in the 1890s. He had just become a professional writer and had already invented (or gave modern form to) a bunch of classic science fictional concepts, like time travel (in The Time Machine ) and alien invasion (in The War of the Worlds ). The Invisible Man was published in 1897 and like many of Wells' other stories, it features an eccentric and possibly mad scientist-inventor. Only this time, instead of traveling through time or making animals into people, the main character of The Invisible Man – spoiler alert! – creates an invisibility formula.
Of course Wells didn't invent the mad scientist or the concept of invisibility. The mad scientist is an idea that we can probably trace back to Daedalus from Greek myths (or at least to Frankenstein). In fact, we could trace the invisible guy back to Greek myths, too. In the Republic, Plato wrote a story about the Ring of Gyges that allowed the wearer to become invisible. Long story short, the ring gets used for evil. (Does that sound like J. R. R. Tolkien's ring from The Fellowship of the Ring? It should.) There are also a bunch of really fun horror stories from the 1800s about invisible monsters, like Fitz-James O'Brien's "What Was it? A Mystery" (1859), Guy de Maupassant's "The Horla" (1887), and Ambrose Bierce's "The Damned Thing" (1893).
What makes The Invisible Man special is that it's not about a monster – it's about a man. It's the story of how one person can fit into society; or rather, fail to fit into society.
But wait: this isn't just a tale of any old guy. The Invisible Man is actually a lot like his creator, H.G. Wells. They were both poor, they both worked as teachers, and they both had innovative ideas. And, of course, they were both invisible. Yep. There's a scene in Wells' autobiographical novel Tono-Bungay (1908) where the main character moves to a big city and feels invisible. It doesn't surprise us: who doesn't feel invisible when they're young and just starting to make a name in the world?
The Invisible Man has been the basis for a lot of exciting movies and TV shows, and that's how we generally remember the story today: a fun story about a crazy invisible guy. Let's remember, though, that Wells' story goes much, much deeper.
(A quick note on editions: The Invisible Man was first published over the course of a few weeks in Pearson's Weekly magazine. It was printed as a book the same year, but not before Wells made some stylistic changes. Other than adding an entire epilogue, most of the changes aren't major, but you might want to double-check your copy to see which version you're reading.)
Have you ever been alone in a crowd? Or been at a party where no one talked to you? Or have you ever felt like no one rewarded you (or even congratulated you) for hard work you had done? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then you know what it's like to be invisible.
Some people think The Invisible Man is just a story about a mad scientist meddling with things that man was not meant to know. But really, it's a story about a guy who doesn't fit in with his surroundings. The Invisible Man is a man without family or good friends, whose neighbors don't understand (or care) about his work. Now, we don't endorse homicidal killing sprees and reigns of terror (hobbies of H.G. Wells' Invisible Man), but we can certainly feel for him, over a century after he first came into existence. We may not know what it's like to be literally invisible, but we all know what it's like to feel invisible and isolated.