#57 = Volume 19, Part 2 = July 1992
H.G. Wells and the Ring of Gyges
In the second book of Plato’s Republic, Glaucon tells the story of
Gyges the Lydian, who one day found, quite by chance, a ring that could make him
invisible when he turned it one way on his finger and visible again when he
turned it the other (359c-360b). Armed with this magic power, "he
immediately managed things so that he became one of the messengers who went up
to the king, and on coming there he seduced the king’s wife and with her aid
set upon the king and slew him and possessed his kingdom" (360a-b). Gyges’
career naturally poses certain ethical problems, which Glaucon goes on to
elaborate. Suppose, he asks, that other people could make themselves invisible:
No one could be found, it would seem, of such adamantine temper as to
persevere in justice and endure to refrain his hands from the possessions of
others and not touch them, though he might with impunity take what he wished
even from the market place, and enter into houses and lie with whom he
pleased, and slay and loose from bonds whomsoever he would, and in all other
things conduct himself among mankind as the equal of a god. (360b-c)
Glaucon does not mean his premise of another ring of Gyges to be taken
literally. Invisibility is a symbol (and a powerful one) of the ability to
escape detection. The tale of Gyges is used to ask in an imaginative form a
question that is basic for the Republic and is asked in a number of other
forms in that dialogue: why should we do right if we can get away with doing
wrong? This is a difficult and important question, and answering it takes the
rest of the Republic, with its state-building, philosopher-kings, the
divided line and the cave, the educational program for guardians, the
incomprehensible perfect number governing all human births, and the myth of Er—and
even then not everybody is convinced. But Western literature gives us another
answer to Glaucon’s question, one which takes the premise of the ring of Gyges
literally and which is consequently shorter, simpler, and more entertaining: H.G.
Wells’s short novel The Invisible Man.1
In looking at The Invisible Man as a reworking of the Gyges story, I
shall be arguing that Wells took the premise of invisibility from Plato and
developed it in his own way, along the lines characteristic of Wellsian fantasy.
By the same token, I shall be considering the novel as Wells’s own treatment
of some issues raised in the tale of Gyges and as his own answer to Glaucon’s
questions in the Republic.
1. Like Gyges, Wells’s protagonist discovers a way of making himself
invisible, and like Gyges, he has no moral or social scruples to keep him from
turning his new-found power to criminal ends. Griffin’s sins range from bad
table manners (§17:107-09) and surliness to murder, and they get progressively
worse throughout the book. In the early chapters, he is quarrelsome and
self-centered with the villagers of Iping, and he goes on from there to
burglarize the vicarage, bully a tramp into helping him steal, and vandalize the
town in a fit of foul temper. We learn still worse things about him in a
flashback, when he tells an old school-friend, Kemp, how he became invisible.
Griffin stole from his own father to finance his experiments. "The money
was not his," he says without remorse, "and he shot himself"
(§19: 125). Once he had made himself invisible (after a heartless preliminary
trial on a neighbor’s pet cat), he burned his apartment house to cover his
tracks and stole food, clothes, and money.
Griffin, then, has the temperament of Plato’s unjust man—a determination
to advance himself at others’ expense and a thorough lack of moral scruples.
He also has Gyges’ special power, invisibility, which should enable him to get
away with anything—at least as Glaucon tells the story. On Glaucon’s
premise, he should be able to wreak immense havoc on the world. Griffin, in
fact, thinks as much. Newly invisible, he gleefully concocts "plans of all
the wild and wonderful things I had now impunity to do" (§20:138). An old
sailor who reads about the invisible man in a newspaper is more explicit about
the possibilities, and his catalogue sounds very much like Glaucon’s
enumeration of the things the possessor of the ring of Gyges could get away
And just think of the things he might do! Where’d you be, if he took a
drop over and above, and had a fancy to go for you? Suppose he wants to rob—who
can prevent him? He can trespass, he can burgle, he could walk through a
cordon of policemen as easy as me or you could give the slip to a blind man!
Easier! For these here blind chaps hear uncommon sharp, I’m told. And
wherever there was liquor he fancied—— (§14:88)
As it turns out, Griffin’s ambitions go well beyond trespassing and
burgling. After the flashback, he decides to graduate from petty crime to
[The] Invisible Man, Kemp, must establish 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 the disobedient. (§24:169-70)
Accordingly, Griffin, in a letter to Kemp, issues a proclamation:
This announces the first day of the Terror. Port Burdock is no longer
under the Queen, tell your Colonel of Police, and the rest of them; 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. (§27:182)
There is a name for this sort of activity in the Republic, and it is
much discussed in that dialogue, with Thrasymachus in book 1 as its energetic
advocate. It is called becoming a tyrant, a person who seizes power by force and
exercises it as he pleases, just as Gyges did.2 It is the ultimate
success of Plato’s unjust man, and the Republic undertakes the hard
case of proving that even the tyrant’s heady success is not worth the
wrongdoing needed to achieve it.
What, in fact, becomes of Griffin’s tyrannical ambitions? Not much,
actually. Griffin does manage to make a lot of noise, throw a scare into the
countryside, steal some money, and (let us not forget) commit a couple of
murders, but The Invisible Man is pervaded by a growing sense of the gap
between Griffin’s grand ambitions and what he can actually pull off. What
brings him down is not Platonic ethics or metaphysics or his failure to become a
philosopher-king. It is rather something which is ignored by Plato but which
fascinated Wells: the practical problems of invisibility, and beyond that, the
inescapable physical and biological limitations on human power.
Wells elaborates Griffin’s problems in minute detail. He can become
invisible only by undergoing a treatment which is slow, painful, and absolutely
irreversible. His invisibility does not extend to objects in contact with his
body. Hence his clothes remain visible, so he must go about either wrapped in
bandages or stripped naked. He must also go hungry, for unassimilated food in
his stomach remains visible too. On these points, Wells is loading the dice
against his character.3 Gyges could become invisible painlessly,
simply by turning his ring; he could reverse the process at will; and he had no
problems with clothes, undigested food, and the like. But Griffin discovers
further problems with invisibility per se, not simply under the difficult
conditions under which Wells allows it to him. Walking is hard when he cannot
see his own feet. He is continually struck and bruised by passers-by and nearly
run over by traffic. He can still be detected by keen-scented dogs, sharp-eared
blind men, and obnoxious small boys who can see his footprints. He fears
discovery from rain and snow falling on him, from mud that gets spattered on
him, even from fog swirling about him. Even before he turns to serious crime,
Griffin is reduced to being a fearful, skulking fugitive, "a wrapped-up
mystery, a swathed and bandaged caricature of a man!" (§23: 165).
Invisibility is of little more help when Griffin sets out to become a
criminal. He is a washout as a thief, for the money he steals remains visible
—fistfuls of it floating in midair. Griffin presses a tramp into service to
hold the money for him, but the man proves reluctant and unreliable, and he has
to be continually watched, beaten, and threatened. He eventually escapes, taking
the money with him. Griffin does rather better at straightforward violence, but
for all the havoc he causes he is still only a dangerous thug, not a tyrant—not
even the tyrant of Port Burdock. Far from controlling society, he finds himself
increasingly isolated from it and forced to skulk about in wild places as a
naked savage while society mobilizes against him. In the end he is caught and
beaten to death by a mob, a crude but effective form of the united community.
2. So far, I have presented Griffin as a failed Gyges figure—a man who,
like Gyges, sets out to use invisibility to get away with great crimes but who,
unlike Gyges, runs afoul of the problems created by his invisible state. The
similarities between Griffin and Gyges raise two questions about what Wells is
doing in The Invisible Man. Did he draw on Plato for his premise, and if
so, what did he do to Plato in the process?
Wells critics generally ignore the first question or answer it in the
negative. Despite some awareness of Plato’s influence on Wells in other
matters, critics impressed with Wells’s powers of imagination (which are
indeed impressive) give little thought to his sources. Rarely are we told more
than that invisibility is a widespread folktale motif that makes a few
appearances in fiction.4 Wells changed folklore mainly by giving the
premise of invisibility a scientific basis—or rather a pseudo-scientific
basis, since Wells knew that it was scientifically impossible and sold his
premise to the reader with some nice double-talk about pulverized glass and
indices of refraction.5
Wells would have had a more specific source for The Invisible Man in a
poem by W.S. Gilbert entitled "The Perils of Invisibility."6
In Gilbert’s verse, a henpecked husband receives the gift of invisibility from
a good fairy in hopes of escaping from his nagging wife. Unfortunately, his
clothes remain visible, and his wife hides his pants—effectively tying him to
the house since (unlike Griffin) he is too proper a Victorian to go unseen in
public incompletely dressed. The connection between Gilbert’s broad gag and
Wells’s tragicomedy is clear enough: Wells amplified, with scientific rigor
and Wellsian thoroughness, the problems encountered by an invisible man with
visible appurtenances. Indeed, "The Perils of Invisibility" would be a
suitable subtitle for Wells’s novella. Still, Wells’s debt to Gilbert only
explains where he got Griffin’s difficulties. For Griffin’s temperament and
ambitions and for the ethical problems posed by his invisibility, we must look
elsewhere. This brings us back to Plato’s tale of Gyges—not because Plato
was alone in using the premise of invisibility or in using it to present the
problems of getting away with wrongdoing (he was not; see my note 4), but
because of some closer links between Wells and Plato.
To begin with some thematic connections, Griffin is unusual among Wells’s
inventor-protagonists in that he uses science to become an arch-criminal. Wells
elsewhere presents cranks, like Cavor in The First Men in the Moon; good
scientists whose work produces disruptive side-effects, as in The Food of the
Gods; and mad scientists, as in The Island of Doctor Moreau. But
nowhere does he give us as dedicated and thoroughgoing a villain as Griffin.
Comparison with Doctor Moreau is instructive here. Critics often bracket Griffin
with Moreau as illustrations of the dangers of scientific knowledge unchecked by
ethical sense. The bracketing is reasonable; Moreau, published just a
year before The Invisible Man, shares some interests with that work, and
its protagonist takes second place to Griffin in Wells’s rogues’ gallery.
Still, the differences are significant. Like Griffin, Moreau is an outlaw
scientist with a dangerous idea—turning animals into human beings by surgical
means—but he is still interested mainly in the principle of the thing,
"the plasticity of living forms" and the use of science to transform
nature. He does not try to exploit science for personal gain, and he does not
form grand schemes to use his Beast People to win money and power. On the
contrary, he gives up any hope of wealth and power in the human community to
pursue his ideas on a remote island. Griffin, despite some initial interest in
invisibility as a scientific problem, soon becomes concerned mainly with the
power it gives him. He wants revenge on a world which, he believes, has slighted
and mistreated him, and he wants to achieve the usual worldly objectives (Gyges’
objectives, in fact) of wealth and power. Moreau withdraws from society to
pursue his ideas. Griffin uses his ideas to seek to dominate society and make it
do his bidding. These ambitions place him closer to Gyges and the Platonic
tyrant and further from Wells’s other scientist-protagonists than is generally
Besides his grand ambitions and general ruthlessness, Griffin has a few other
features in common with the Platonic tyrant. It might be fanciful to see the
tramp whom Griffin presses into his service as an example of the unsavory and
unreliable characters whom a tyrant needs to recruit to help him (Rep.,
567c-568a); the tramp is low in a comic way rather than vicious, although it is
disquieting to find him in the Epilogue trying to recover the secret of
invisibility from Griffin’s notebooks. It is not fanciful to find echoes in
Wells of Plato’s idea that the tyrannical man is enslaved to his appetites,
apt to use up his money, and ready to resort to crime to maintain himself
(574d-575a and elsewhere). Griffin is all these things, although the appetites
to which he is "enslaved" are needs for food and shelter rather than
desires for luxuries. Griffin’s mental disorder near the end parallels Plato’s
contention that the unjust man is really diseased in soul and unhappy (445a-b
and book 9 generally). Wells is not taking up Plato point by point, but his
story is at least consistent with the hypothesis that he had certain Platonic
themes rattling around in his head and undergoing some imaginative elaboration.
More important, Wells was keenly interested in, and greatly influenced by,
the work that presents the tale of Gyges. He discovered Plato’s Republic
in his youth, when he was struggling to free himself from the rigid Victorian
social order in which he was raised and its rigid ways of thinking. Plato had a
profound effect on him. As he describes it in his Experiment in Autobiography,
he drew from Plato "the amazing and heartening suggestion that the whole
fabric of law, custom and worship, which seemed so invincibly established, might
be cast into the melting pot and made anew" (3.6:106-07). Plato "was
like the hand of a strong brother taking hold of me and raising me up, to lead
me out of a prison of social acceptance and submission" (4.4:141). In
particular, Plato made a mark on Wells’s utopianism. Plato’s guardians, the
dedicated, highly educated elite who ran the republic, were forerunners of Wells’s
"men of the New Republic," the Open Conspiracy, the samurai—the
public-spirited, scientifically trained intelligentsia who were alone capable of
managing the affairs of the new world state. Plato’s selective breeding (at
least for guardians) had a rough counterpart in Wells’s controls on
child-bearing among the unfit.7 Wells even found in Plato (with
little encouragement from Plato) a champion of free love.8 It is not
that Wells learned such ideas from Plato; he was an elitist and a
free-love advocate by temperament, and his views on restricted breeding had a
nearer basis than Plato in contemporary thought on eugenics. But Plato struck a
sympathetic chord in Wells, and Wells responded.
One could quarrel that Wells’s reading of Plato was very lopsided, that he
missed the Greek philosopher’s essential conservatism, that he stressed the Republic’s
interest in the state, its political program, at the expense of its implications
for the individual, its psychology and ethics. True, but no matter. Few of us
see Plato whole, least of all in our mid-teens, and Wells was neither the first
nor the last person to draw on Plato for confirmation of his own prejudices. The
mature Wells would one day deal with some things in Plato which the youthful
Wells overlooked. The main point is that the Republic had a profound and
enduring effect on Wells. If the work as a whole had such an impact on him, it
is likely enough that a small but vivid part of it like the tale of Gyges would
stick in his mind.
3. If Wells did indeed get the premise for The Invisible Man out
of Plato’s Republic, then what did he do to Plato in reworking the
premise? Most simply and obviously, he developed the premise along the lines
characteristic of Wellsian fantasy, taking an incredible hypothesis and working
it out in logical detail in an everyday setting realistically portrayed. This is
the method which led Joseph Conrad to salute Wells as the "Realist of the
Fantastic."9 Griffin’s invisibility is the fantastic
starting-point, but everything else—Griffin’s problems with visible clothes,
his tyrannical schemes, people’s reactions to him—is thoroughly plausible,
once the premise is granted. Plato, as we have seen, uses the premise
differently, leaving the physical details unexamined in order to get on with the
ethical problems. He wants to examine the value of justice in itself, unaffected
by considerations of expediency such as reputation and the chance of getting
caught; the tale of Gyges is a vivid imaginative way of presenting these
problems. The ethical problems are real enough since most of us, even without
the ring of Gyges, find ourselves thinking at times that we can get away with
doing things we should not. Wells, on the other hand, stares at the premise a
good deal longer and harder, testing how it might work in reality and developing
its implications in almost painful detail. Gyges has no trouble killing the king
and seducing the queen; invisibility makes him a tyrant. Griffin, by contrast,
cannot even take eating or crossing the street for granted; at best,
invisibility makes him a poor burglar and a mediocre thug.
If Wells differed from Plato in the way he worked out the premise of the
Gyges story, he stayed fairly close to Plato in one respect: the reaction, or
complex of ambivalent reactions, which he encourages in his audience towards his
protagonist. What are we to make of Griffin? The usual answer is horror: Griffin
is a monster, a wholly amoral person who uses science only for his own selfish
ends, an illustration of the dangers of knowledge and power unchecked by ethical
sense or social responsibility. This is true as far as it goes; Wells needed to
make Griffin that way, both to present the ethical problems of power without
responsibility (how like Gyges that is!) and to throw enough of a scare into his
readers to keep them interested.
Still, there are some good reasons for seeing Griffin as something more.
Griffin is a little man, exploited and victimized by the forces of an uncaring
society which he cannot control. When he returns home for his father’s funeral
(20:126-27), he shows a horrifying callousness, but there is poignancy in the
way he describes his estrangement from his roots in his changed home town. His
position as "a shabby, poverty-struck, hemmed-in demonstrator, teaching
fools in a provincial college" (19:124) arouses sympathy for exploited
people at the bottom of the academic hierarchy. At the same time, and
paradoxically, Griffin is also the superior individual whose genius isolates him
from the rest of society. Finally, Griffin is the possessor of an extraordinary
power which most of us, however much we might hate and fear it in another, would
be glad to possess for ourselves. Wells makes a bow to this feeling in the
Epilogue to The Invisible Man, in which we find the tramp poring over the
dead Griffin’s notebooks in a vain effort to unlock the secret of
invisibility. He would not use such a power the way Griffin did, of course; but
still, he would like to have it. So, perhaps, would some other people. The
police and Kemp would dearly love to get their hands on those notebooks, and
their motives might not be so pure as completing the record of the case or
furthering the cause of disinterested knowledge. The Epilogue is a delicious
touch because it suggests that Invisible Man the Second might arise, and he
might not be all that different from Invisible Man the First. Any of us could be
Griffin, but for luck or lack of talent.
These are the shadings and complexities in Griffin’s character and
situation that make him something more than a simple monster. The first of them
is not really parallelled in Plato’s tale of Gyges; Gyges, like Griffin,
starts out as an insignificant character (the rags-to-riches plot requires it),
but he is not presented as a downtrodden rebel against a cruel society. On the
other two points, Wells touches on Plato more closely, and comparison is
Griffin’s position as the isolated superior man does not figure in the tale
of Gyges, but it does involve themes that are important in the Republic.
In Plato, admirers of tyrants (Thrasymachus in the Republic, Polus and
Callicles in the Gorgias) see the tyrant as a superior person whose
intelligence, energy, and ruthlessness entitle him to all the power he can grab
over the unimaginative, conventional masses. Wells’s terms are different, but
the theme of the superior individual versus the rest of society is important in The
Invisible Man, both early in the book, where Wells emphasizes the contrast
between Griffin the mysterious stranger and the common villagers of Iping, and
later, where the contrast is between the mad scientist Griffin and the ordinary
scientist Kemp. The contrast is not particularly in Griffin’s favor.10
Griffin will turn out to be a genius (an evil one), but at the start of the
novel we see him mostly as surly and temperamental. The villagers are satirized
as a petty, dull-witted, gossipy lot, but there is an affectionate strain to the
satire, and they do have a cohesive, functioning community—enough of a
community, in fact, for us to be suitably shocked when Griffin starts disrupting
it. There are good artistic reasons why they should; we need to sympathize with
the community when Griffin enters his naked-savage phase and proclaims himself a
tyrant, and the Iping scenes lay the foundation for that sympathy. As for Kemp,
he has been charged with a bourgeois outlook and expedient lying,11
but this comes well short of Griffin the tyrant’s vices.
Still, there remains the fact that most of us would rather like to be
exceptional individuals if we could get away with it, and it is on this third
point that our responses to Gyges and Griffin are likely to have most in common.
Plato recognizes Gyges’ allure. He knows that most of us would use the
ring of Gyges to be tyrants if we could, and accordingly he has Socrates take on
Glaucon’s challenge to find reasons why we should not. This is the Republic’s
burden; the length of the dialogue, the breadth of the issues it covers, and the
intricacy of its arguments all testify to the fact that Plato is aware that he
is confronting a strong, widely held temptation. Wells also recognizes the power
of the temptation to play Gyges, but he uses it differently, in a literary way.
Much of the power of The Invisible Man comes from our lurking sympathy
with Griffin. He is an anti-social monster, of course, and we are meant to see
him as one; but then, so are most of us in some part of ourselves, some of the
time. Sympathy for the threatened community may dominate our feelings, but the
thought of committing Griffin’s crimes with impunity has its appeal. The old
sailor found it easy enough to think of all sorts of things an invisible man
could get away with, and the tramp who ends up with Griffin’s notebooks would
like the power for himself. These dark thoughts from two common people should
alert us to the fascination of the average person—including ourselves—with
evil. We would not, in our better moments, really want to vandalize a village
(even if the inhabitants are blockheads) or steal lots of money or seize control
of a town and kill all who disobey us; but we can fantasize about such things
and do them vicariously in a novel, and we can do them with our consciences
clear if the wrongdoer ultimately gets what is coming to him. Griffin makes a
good literary villain because our reactions to him are apt to include a lot of
repulsion in tension with a fair measure of attraction.
4. So far, I have examined The Invisible Man primarily as a piece
of literature, with Wells reworking in an imaginative, artistic way some themes
which Plato treats from a philosophic and ethical point of view. I have not
insisted that the novel serve a further philosophical purpose. Still, novels
have ideas, and Wells was most certainly a man of ideas as well as a man of
imagination. We might therefore consider how The Invisible Man fits into
Wells’s lifelong dialogue with Plato.12
I have already mentioned, for purposes of Quellenforschung, Wells’s
personal and intellectual debts to Plato. But there is a good deal more to his
dealings with Plato than borrowings and debts, and he certainly did not swallow
the Greek whole. He did not even swallow whole the side of the philosopher to
which he was closest, the utopian designer of society. If Wells could call A
Modern Utopia "the most Platonic of my books,"13 then
his Platonism was more a matter of reflecting on, changing, and quarrelling with
the master than a matter of believing and copying. Plato’s state is static,
with its institutions and social classes fixed by law and incapable of change
except for the long, slow decline described in books 8 and 9 of the Republic.
Wells’s utopia is mutable, the product of a long process of discussion,
struggle, and reform, and capable of future improvement. The republic rigorously
subordinates the happiness of the individual to the good of the whole community;
utopia legislates with a view to promoting as much individual freedom as
possible.14 Plato’s guardians are a highly select class, carefully
chosen, thoroughly educated for their work, and serving for life. Wells’s
samurai are a much more open class. Certain levels of intelligence, education,
and accomplishment are required for admission, but Wells stresses that these are
reasonably attainable; the main criterion for membership is commitment to the
public good, expressed in obedience to the rule of the order. Unlike guardians,
samurai are recruited out of the larger population, and they may resign to
return to the larger population. Even the utopian Plato, then, served Wells more
as a springboard than as a model.
Wells’s divergences from Plato on other matters were more serious and
overt. His outlook was scientific, skeptical, and agnostic. He had no reason to
share Plato’s religious sensibilities, hence, none to accept the cardinal end
of Plato’s ethics, the good of the soul. Being good for Plato is often
expressed (sometimes in mythological trappings) as being the sort of person
whose immortal soul is suited for contemplating the eternal Forms of things
after death, when the soul is set free from the body.15 Wells had
little use for such notions. His insistence on the uniqueness of every
individual entity16 made him hostile to categories and abstractions—that
is, to the basic stuff of the Platonic Theory of Forms, or Ideas, of which he
For the most part [Plato] tended to regard the idea as the
something behind reality, whereas it seems to me that the idea is the more
proximate and less perfect thing, the thing by which the mind, by ignoring
individual differences, attempts to comprehend an otherwise unmanageable
number of unique realities. ("Scepticism of the Instrument," 343)
Wells even argued with Plato about furniture.17 For Plato, the
"real" couch is the transcendent Form, which is only approximated in
physical couches made by carpenters. For Wells, the "real" chairs are
the unique physical objects which are conveniently, but misleadingly, lumped
together under a common name; it is futile to try to define "chair or
chairishness." In short, Plato at once served Wells as an important
personal inspiration, a point of departure for his own intellectual efforts, and
a formidable (if sometimes unacknowledged) adversary.
Do any of these non-Platonic or anti-Platonic currents in Wells’s thinking
surface in his treatment of a premise from the Republic in The
Invisible Man? True, there is a broad agreement between the two works. In
both, crime does not pay, and the unjust man ends up mad, miserable, and a slave
to his appetites. Still, much of Wells’s play with the Gyges tale comes at
Plato’s expense, mostly at the expense of the side of Plato which was least
congenial to him—Plato the moralist, the traditionalist, the abstract
philosopher. The Invisible Man sweeps aside many of the weightiest
concerns of the Republic—definitions of justice, arguments that it is
good in itself and not simply in its effects, philosopher-kings, the
consideration of the good of the soul—to focus on the nagging practical
problems that do in Griffin. Wells’s novel, then, may be read as the reply of
the practical man, the scientist, the positivist, to the problem posed by the
transcendental, idealist philosopher. Why worry about how we would use the ring
of Gyges, he asks, when we could not get away with it anyway? This much might be
taken as flippant and dismissive, but there is more to The Invisible Man
than that. Wells took Glaucon’s challenge seriously, and if he was to answer
it at all, he needed (being Wells) an answer anchored in the real world. He
produced an answer based on two recurring motifs in his thinking, the inherent
natural limitations on human power (Griffin’s) and the strength of the human
community organized for good under scientific leading (Kemp’s). The terms of
the answer are, in the end, characteristically Wellsian.18
1. The Invisible Man tends to be scanted with
perfunctory treatment by critics; welcome exceptions include Bergonzi, 112-22;
Draper, 47-50; Kagarlitski, 57-63; Lake; McConnell, 111-24; Philmus, 100-07; and
2. The historic Gyges, in fact, is the first person whose
power is called "tyranny" by a Greek author (Archilochus, fr. 19 in
West, 8). A tyrannos, in Greek terms, is someone who seizes power by
force rather than gaining it constitutionally. The term is not necessarily
pejorative (some tyrants made good rulers), but it had acquired a bad odor in
Athens by Plato’s day. Tyranny is an important theme in the Republic.
It is the height of injustice, and Thrasymachus argues that the tyrant who can
get away with anything is the happiest of men (344a-c). Tyranny figures
prominently in the decay of the ideal state as it passes through several types
of constitution late in the dialogue. Tyranny is the last and worst of the
constitutions (562a-569c), and the man with the soul of a tyrant is prey to
appetite, apt to squander his resources and turn to crime (571a-576c)—is
ultimately, on Socrates’ showing, the unhappiest of men (576c-580c and
587a-588a, where we return to the tyrant as the supreme example of the unjust
man). Tyrants and their miseries are highlighted in the myth of Er at the end of
the dialogue (615c-616a and 619b-c).
3. And inconsistently at that. As Kagarlitski (59) and
Williamson (85-86) point out, Griffin could have made invisible clothes for
himself, and indeed in one preliminary experiment he does make a piece of wool
invisible (§20:128). But Wells needs to keep Griffin naked, both as a hardship
on Griffin and as an expression of Griffin’s role as an anti-social savage.
4. Bergonzi, 113-14; Chernysheva, 39; Gill, 56-57; Philmus,
100-01; Raknem, 398-99. Only Philmus mentions Plato among Wells’s predecessors
in treating the premise of invisibility, and then only as one among many. On
Wells’s recasting of folklore into SF generally, see Chernysheva and Zamyatin.
5. Wells knew, as he wrote Arnold Bennett in 1897 (Wilson,
34-35), that an invisible man would have to be blind since he would have to
remove all pigment from his retina and eliminate the ability of the lens of his
eye to refract light.
6. Gilbert, 260-65 (not in the original edition of the Bab
Ballads); on Gilbert as a source for Wells, see Haining, 59-62, and Raknem,
7. Plato, Rep., 458e-461b; Wells, Anticipations,
§9:257-58 and A Modern Utopia, §5.1:122-27 and §6.2:161-67. But note
that in Plato the authorities make suitable matches for childbearing; in
Wells they merely discourage or prevent unsuitable matches.
8. Wells, Experiment in Autobiography, §4.4:146-47 and
§7.4:399. The only basis I can find for free love in the Republic is an obiter
dictum that parents past their prime as breeders may "form such
relations with whomsoever they please" (461b-c); the adolescent Wells found
this prospect very exciting.
9. On Wells’s method see his preface to The Scientific
Romances (London, 1933; NY, 1934, as Seven Famous Novels). The Conrad
quotation (from a fan letter to Wells on The Invisible Man dated December
4, 1898) is worth giving in full. "I am always powerfully impressed by your
work. Impressed is the word O! Realist of the Fantastic, whether you like
it or not. And if you want to know what impresses me it is to see how you
contrive to give over humanity into the clutches of the Impossible and yet
manage to keep it down (or up) to its humanity, to its flesh, blood, sorrow,
folly. That is the achievement! In this little book you do it with an
appalling completeness" (Karl and Davies, 126).
10. Readings of this aspect of the novel vary widely; my own,
close to Bergonzi’s (114-17), is relatively sympathetic to the rest of society—more
so than those of Batchelor (22: the reader’s sympathies are with Griffin
against "the oafish inhabitants of Iping" until Wells unwisely turns
things around in the second half of the novel) and Borrello (60-61: Griffin is a
visionary and progressive, Kemp is conventional and unimaginative).
11. Kagarlitski, 62, and Philmus, 103-04.
12. Wells’s complex relationship with Plato needs fuller
study; Draper, 11-23, provides the best discussion I have seen.
13. Experiment in Autobiography, §4.4:147; Wells
sometimes uses "Platonic" to mean "radically utopian."
14. Rep., 419a-421c (where the good of the whole is
paramount partly because the ideal state is a model of the individual soul); A
Modern Utopia, §2.
15. The myth of Er in book 10 of the Republic is an
obvious example. Similar ideas recur in the myth of the afterlife at the end of
the Gorgias and throughout the Phaedo.
16. See especially his 1891 essay "The Rediscovery of the
Unique" and his 1903 lecture "Scepticism of the Instrument,"
printed as an appendix to A Modern Utopia. It is an interesting sign of
Wells’s ambivalence about Plato that the "most Platonic" of his
books carried the most anti-Platonic of his appendices.
17. Compare "Scepticism," 341 with Rep.,
18. Earlier versions of this paper were read at an English
Department colloquium at the University of Wyoming on February 2, 1989, and at
the annual meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South in
Lexington, KY, on March 31, 1989. My thanks to my colleagues James Forrester
(Philosophy) and Keith Hull (English) for useful discussions and comments on
drafts, and to SFS’s anonymous referee for helpful comments.
Batchelor, John. H.G. Wells. Cambridge, UK, 1985.
Bergonzi, Bernard. The Early H.G. Wells: A Study of the
Scientific Romances. Manchester, UK, 1961.
Borrello, Alfred. H.G. Wells: Author in Agony.
Carbondale, IL, 1972.
Chernysheva, Tatyana. "The Folktale, Wells, and
Modern Science Fiction." H.G. Wells and Modern Science Fiction.
Ed. Darko Suvin and Robert M. Philmus. Lewisburg, PA, 1977. 35-37.
Draper, Michael. H.G. Wells. NY, 1988.
Gilbert, W.S. Fifty ‘Bab’ Ballads. London:
Gill, Stephen. Scientific Romances of H.G. Wells. Cornwall,
Haining, Peter, ed. The H.G. Wells Scrapbook. London,
Kagarlitsky, J. The Life and Thought of H.G. Wells.
Trans. Moura Budberg. NY, 1966.
Karl, Frederick R., and Laurence Davies, eds. The
Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. Vol. 2. Cambridge, UK, 1986.
Lake, David J. "The Whiteness of Griffin and H.G.
Wells’s Images of Death, 1897-1914." SFS 8:12-18, #23, March 1981.
McConnell, Frank. The Science Fiction of H.G. Wells.
Philmus, Robert M. Into the Unknown: The Evolution of
Science Fiction from Francis Godwin to H.G. Wells. Berkeley, CA, 1970,
Plato. The Republic. Trans. Paul Shorey. Cambridge,
MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1930. Passages cited by page and section
(327a-621d) in Stephanus’ edition of Plato (Paris 1578), which are given in most editions and translations.
Raknem, Ingvald. H.G. Wells and His Critics. Oslo,
Wells, H.G. Anticipations. 1901. Works 4:1-282.
—————. Experiment in Autobiography. NY, 1934.
—————. The Invisible Man. 1897. Works
—————. A Modern Utopia. 1905. Works
—————. "The Rediscovery of the Unique"
(1891). H.G. Wells: Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction.
Ed. Robert M. Philmus and David Y. Hughes. Berkeley, CA, 1975. 22-31.
—————. "Scepticism of the Instrument"
(1903). Works 9:333-54.
—————. The Works of H.G. Wells: Atlantic
Edition. 28 vols. NY & London, 1924-27. West, M.L., ed. Iambi et
elegi graeci. Vol. 1. Oxford, 1971.
Williamson, Jack. H.G. Wells: Critic of Progress.
Wilson, Harris, ed. Arnold Bennett and H.G. Wells.
Urbana, IL, 1960.
Zamyatin, Yevgeny. "H.G. Wells." Trans. Mirra
Ginsburg. Midway 10:97-126, Summer 1969.
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