The Invisible Man
by H.G. Wells
You probably weren't expecting us to talk about clothes, eh? Heck, we weren't expecting to talk about clothes either. But clothing is all over this book, so we kind of have to. Clothing here can tell us a lot about characters.
There's Thomas Marvel, whose shabby clothes tell us he's poor. (When we meet him, he's deciding between two pairs of boots, one too cold, the other too big – and both probably given to him for charity.) Then there are Cuss and Bunting, who lose their clothes to the Invisible Man and are too proper to go about undressed. Mr Bunting tries out "the hearth-rug and a West Surrey Gazette" (12.44), because anything is better than being naked.
If we're going to talk about clothes, we have to talk about the Invisible Man, who can only be seen when he's wearing clothes (and who spends a large part of this book completely naked, but not in a steamy way).
So who cares that he doesn't wear clothing? Well, wearing clothing is often considered the most basic part of living with people. So when the Invisible Man walks around naked, he's partly saying, "your traditions don't affect me." This was probably even more noticeable for Wells' original Victorian audience who might associate nakedness with primitive cultures. When the Invisible Man doesn't wear clothing, he's almost marked as a savage or even as an animal (which then plays into all of the language about "hunting").
(Careful readers will remember that the Invisible Man made some wool invisible before he made himself invisible. So why not just get some white clothes and make those invisible? Some critics think this is a mistake on Wells' part; but it could just be that the Invisible Man didn't have a chance to make invisible clothing after he destroyed his whole set-up on Great Portland Street.)
Even though we can't see them, the Invisible Man's actions tell us a lot about his character. When he wants to prove to Marvel that he's real, he starts throwing stones at him. He could have, you know, shaken Marvel's hand or given him a pat on the head, but no. When the Invisible Man is upset (or mildly annoyed…or just awake), he often resorts to violence.
Similarly, when it's a question of violence, some characters run away (Kemp, Marvel) and others stay and fight (the American with the gun, Adye, the police). This tells us a lot about their character. Shmoop is super tough – we definitely (probably, maybe) would have stuck around.
Where someone lives is one way for us to easily determine someone's economic status: compare Kemp's house to Griffin's boardinghouse to Marvel's homelessness. It also tells us something about their personalities. For example, Kemp has a nice house that he keeps nice. So, when there's a spot on the floor, Kemp notices it (17.10). Griffin, on the other hand, treats his shelter like pond scum – that is, if you can burn down pond scum.
Speech and Dialogue
Speech and accents are great ways to identify characters. In fact, the country people of Iping can be hard for us to understand because their accent is so thick – but hey, we know it's them. And we also know right away that the Invisible Man isn't from around Iping because he speaks totally differently. (Britain is famous for having many local accents.) We can also tell a character's relative education thanks to their speech – what slang they use, what letters they drop, what words they don't understand. Speech is a powerful tool, and Wells uses it, well, powerfully.
Thoughts and Opinions
The great thing about looking at a blank canvas is that everyone can project their own feelings onto it. That pretty much happens with the Invisible Man, too. Everyone is curious about what's under those bandages, but they all have different reactions.
Mrs. Hall is proud to have an "experimental investigator" at her inn, but Mr. Hall is (drunkenly) suspicious. Teddy Henfrey is suspicious, too, but largely because he's offended at being caught trying to get info out of the stranger. Cuss is curious and jealous of the stranger's scientific set-up. Everyone has an opinion, and these opinions reveal a lot about their characters.
Even Kemp's opinion of the Invisible Man is telling. When they first meet, Kemp loses his scientific mind momentarily and begins to feel for this down-and-out dude. But after he hears about Griffin's adventures, he decides to betray his friend for the greater good. What does that tell us about Kemp's priorities?