The Invisible Man and the Invisible Hand: H.G. Wells's Critique of Capitalism

Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture - Paul A. Cantor & Stephen Cox 2009

The Invisible Man and the Invisible Hand: H.G. Wells's Critique of Capitalism

Paul A. Cantor

One might wonder whether these intellectuals are not sometimes inspired by resentment that they, knowing better what ought to be done, are paid so much less than those whose instructions and activities in fact guide practical affairs. Such literary interpreters of scientific and technological advance, of which H.G. Wells, because of the unusually high quality of his work, would be an excellent example, have done far more to spread the socialist ideal of a centrally directed economy in which each is assigned his due share than have the real scientists from whom they have cadged many of their notions.

—Friedrich Hayek, The Fatal Conceit

Science! What we want now is socialism—not science.

—H.G. Wells, In the Days of the Comet


First published in 1897, H.G. Wells's The Invisible Man has given birth to innumerable literary imitations, film adaptations, and even a couple of television series, thus becoming a kind of modern myth. In Wells's hands, the story of Griffin, the University College student who finds a way to make himself invisible, becomes a parable of the dangerous power of modern science. Driven to his experiments by a fierce ambition in the first place, 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, the prototype of the man who isolates himself from his fellows to pursue an ambitious project and in the process loses his humanity, unleashing forces he can neither truly understand nor control. 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.1

But as often happens in Wells's work, the science fiction situation 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, although 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.2

Wells calls attention to the difficulty of tracing the movement of money. In our age of offshore banking and all sorts of 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 one of its central subjects.3

For Wells, Griffin's invisibility symbolizes the working of an impersonal, decentralized, and—in Wells's view—dangerously chaotic market economy, which 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, 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.4 In sharp contrast to Smith, Wells was a socialist. Indeed, he was a principal force in shaping the course that socialist theory and practice took in twentieth-century Britain; he is generally regarded as one of the architects of the modern welfare state. It should come as no surprise, then, that 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. In particular, we will see that Wells had special reasons as a creative writer for criticizing the impersonality of the market economy and its invisible ordering forces.


The key to understanding The Invisible Man is the dual setting of the story. The novel largely 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. The Invisible Man turns on the contrast between life in a small village and life in a big city. In fact, despite all the novelty of its science fiction premise, The Invisible Man explores territory already quite familiar in nineteenth-century British literature, from William Wordsworth to Thomas Hardy. Like a Romantic poet or a Victorian novelist, Wells juxtaposes the tradition-bound, community-oriented existence of a rural village with the anomie and rootless cosmopolitanism of a modern metropolis. In moving from London to a country village, Griffin creates the dramatic tension in the story, 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.”5 Wells portrays Iping as a tightknit community: everybody knows everybody else, and indeed everybody minds everybody else's business. The citizens of Iping are close-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 a disguise calculated to conceal his invisibility (one of the locals even speculates that Griffin may be racially distinct from the townsfolk).6

In these circumstances the only thing that gets Griffin accepted 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.7 Money in and of itself already confers a kind of invisibility on Griffin. Even in a town of busybodies, he is able to remain anonymous. As nosy as the innkeeper, Mrs. Hall, is, she does not even bother to learn Griffin's name as long as he pays his bills on time.8 Indeed, money buys a lot of maneuvering room for Griffin. His strange and reclusive habits arouse the suspicions of the narrow-minded villagers, some of whom believe that he must be a criminal hiding from the police.9 But at least in the case of Mrs. Hall, Griffin is able to calm her down whenever she complains about the damage he has done to his lodgings with a simple offer to pay for it: “Put it down in the bill.”10 As Mrs. Hall herself says: “He may be a bit overbearing, but bills settled punctual is bills settled punctual, whatever you like to say.”11

We thus see how money transforms a traditional community. The citizens of Iping are used to dealing face-to-face 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.”12 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.13 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 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 look as if they 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, for 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 non-entity under the pressure of mass society, the way he gets lost in the shuffle of the urban crowd, turning into a sort of “nothingness.”14 In contrast to the later cinematic versions of the story, Wells from the beginning tends to emphasize the disadvantages of invisibility. 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,”15 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.”16 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 is simply an extreme case of a common urban problem. Many nineteenth-century novelists explored the anxiety of the individual threatened with the loss of his identity in a mass society. Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground is perhaps the best example. Like Griffin, Dostoevsky's protagonist suffers the indignity of having people walk right by him on a St. Petersburg street as if he were nothing.17

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; in the big city he is completely ignored. Griffin himself eloquently describes the unfeeling, uncaring character of the big city:

I had no refuge, no appliances, no human being in the world in whom I could confide.... I was half minded to accost some passer-by and throw myself upon his mercy. But I knew too clearly the terror and brutal cruelty my advances would evoke.... Even to me, an Invisible Man, the rows of London houses stood latched, barred, and bolted impregnably.18

In contrast to Iping, London is a thoroughly impersonal community, in which 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. Wells uses invisibility in this metaphorical sense in his later novel Tono-Bungay (1908) when he describes the situation of a young student who comes to London and finds himself lost in the crowd:

In the first place I became invisible. If I idled for a day, no one except my fellow students (who evidently had no awe of me) remarked it. No one saw my midnight taper; no one pointed me out as I crossed the street as an astonishing intellectual phenomenon.19

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 giving Griffin “an old Polish Jew” as a landlord in London,20 who speaks Yiddish at a key moment.21 London is not simply a paradoxical community of strangers; it is in fact 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, which provides no genuine roots or community and which hence turns a man into a purely necessitous being. Throughout the story Griffin is surprisingly obsessed with the basic human needs: food, clothing, shelter.22 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. In particular, he encounters all the problems of the emancipated individual in the modern enlightened world. 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 the fact of his “never going to church of a Sunday.”23

Wells emphasizes the fact that the Invisible Man is at war with traditional values by a peculiar and gratuitous turn in the plot: Griffin's symbolic murder of his father. In order to get the funds he needs to pursue his experiments, Griffin robs his father of money that does not belong to him; in disgrace, the old man shoots himself. The scene of the funeral of Griffin's father is one of the most powerfully realized moments in the book. Wells associates the death of Griffin's father with the modernizing forces that are despoiling the countryside and destroying the traditional English way of life:

I remember walking back to the empty home, through the place that had once been a village and was now patched and tinkered by the jerry builders into the ugly likeness of a town. Every way the roads ran out at last into the desecrated fields and ended in rubble heaps and rank wet weeds. I remember... the strange sense of detachment I felt from the squalid respectability, the sordid commercialism of the place.24

Here Wells tips his hand: “commercialism” is “sordid”; the market economy does on a large scale and systematically what Griffin did indirectly and impulsively. It kills the father, replacing the traditional order of the country village with the monstrous functionality of modern tract housing. Like a Romantic poet, Wells writes of “desecrated fields” and laments the urbanization of a once largely rural England.25

Cut off from his family and any sense of community, the Invisible Man becomes a monster of egoism, governed only by his own will and desires. As Dr. Kemp describes him: “He is pure selfishness. He thinks of nothing but his own advantage, his own safety.”26 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. This explains Wells's otherwise odd association of Griffin with Robinson Crusoe.27 Invisible in the streets of London, Griffin is as isolated from his fellow human beings as Crusoe is on his island. Both men are in a kind of Hobbesian state of nature, searching obsessively for a Man Friday, any form of human companionship that might extricate them from a war of all against all. The Invisible Man shares with Crusoe a radical sense of insecurity, living in a perpetual state of anxiety about the future. Moreover, Crusoe is one of the earliest literary representations of the purely acquisitive side of human nature, and Wells wishes to explore the same subject. With no communal sense of purpose, the Invisible Man becomes obsessed with satisfying his own appetites.

Thus, the Invisible Man becomes Wells's symbol of the pure consumer. In a telling 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.”28 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. In one sense Griffin's invisibility makes him the perfect consumer. He can acquire anything he wants; he is a regular consuming machine: “No person could hold me. I could take my money where I found it. I decided to treat myself to a sumptuous feast, and then put up at a good hotel, and accumulate a new outfit of property.”29 But in another sense Griffin is perpetually frustrated as a consumer. Wells dwells upon the difficulties Griffin encounters consuming the goods he acquires. 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.”30 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.

The Invisible Man begins with “a couple of sovereigns” being “flung upon the table,”31 and it ends with money as well. In a comic epilogue, Wells reveals what happened to all the cash Griffin stole. It winds up in the hands of his treacherous helper, Marvel. Precisely because of the untraceability of money, Marvel gets to keep all the stolen cash. “When they found they couldn't prove who's money was which,”32 society's loss becomes Marvel's gain in a final inversion of Smith's invisible hand principle. And in one last twist, in the capitalist world Wells is portraying, even the story of the Invisible Man itself gets commercialized. With his insider's knowledge, Marvel becomes a celebrity on the stage: “And then a gentleman gave me a guinea a night to tell the story at the Empire Music ’all—just tell ’em in my own words.”33

Furthermore, Marvel has been able to exploit his encounter with Griffin by opening an inn of his own, for which the Invisible Man becomes a sort of trademark, indeed his chief advertisement: “The sign of the inn is an empty board save for a hat and boots, and the name is the title of this story.”34 Wells wryly calls attention to the fact that he himself is trading off the story of the Invisible Man. It became one of his most enduringly popular books and he was hardly averse to making as much money as possible from it. He dealt cannily with Hollywood over the movie rights to the story, and was doubly rewarded by seeing sales of the book revived by the success of the 1933 Universal film. In his 1934 autobiography, Wells refers to The Invisible Man as “a tale, that thanks largely to the excellent film recently produced by James Whale, is still read as much as ever it was. To many young people nowadays I am just the author of the Invisible Man.”35 Even in a study of money in The Invisible Man, it would be unseemly to dwell on how much of it Wells made from the novel, but his successful commercialization of the story is a good reminder that, however shrewd a critic of capitalism Wells may have been, he was even shrewder at playing the capitalist game himself.


Wells thus cleverly employs the figure of the Invisible Man to develop a critique of capitalism, thereby making his novel something subtler and more interesting than the simple mad scientist story critics have typically found it to be. Nevertheless, Wells's critique of capitalism ultimately fails. For one thing it is not narrowly targeted enough. 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 zeroes, 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 Thorstein 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, his central metaphor of the invisible man fails to work in one respect that is so fundamental that it obviates the need for a detailed, point-by-point refutation of Wells's 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 human beings 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. Smith would in fact agree that to make a man invisible would be to 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 want to concentrate therefore on analyzing, not the logic of Wells's position, which is weak, but the motives behind his hostility to the market economy. The most striking fact about 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 a kind of economic and political nostalgia in The Invisible Man, looking back fondly 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.36 Wells fundamentally distrusts the central insight of Smith and later economists, that the market provides a way of rationally ordering the productive activities of human beings without the need for central direction or even the actors knowing each other personally. Wells evidently shares the suspicions and fears of capitalism that typically grip the citizens of pre-modern and economically undeveloped communities. 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 seem like sorcerers to the common man.37 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 money around 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 his A Modern Utopia, he makes the revealing statement: “trade is a by-product and not an essential factor in social life.”38 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 the goods people want to be available when and where they 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 the way writers such as Thomas Carlyle and William Morris were,39 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. This principle formed the core of Wells's utopian thinking:

If we are to have any Utopia at all, we must have a clear common purpose, and a great and steadfast movement of will to override all these incurably egotistical dissentients.... It is manifest this Utopia could not come about by chance and anarchy, but by co-ordinated effort and a community of design.... Such a world as this Utopia is not made by the chance occasional co-operations of self-indulgent men.... And an unrestricted competition for gain, an enlightened selfishness, that too fails us.... Behind all this material order, these perfected communications, perfected public services and economic organisations, there must be men and women willing these things.... No single person, no transitory group of people, could order and sustain this vast complexity. They must have a collective... aim.40

Throughout The Invisible Man, it is clear that Wells does not like the idea of a character operating outside the ken of any central authority and hence beyond any centralized control.41 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 government bureaucrat's worst nightmare: for example, how can you tax 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.42 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. Accordingly, The Invisible Man builds up to what amounts to 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:

The countryside began organizing itself with inconceivable rapidity. By two o'clock even he might still have removed himself out of the district by getting aboard a train, but after two that became impossible. 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.43

Wells inadvertently shows his true colors here.44 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: to turn society into an armed camp, what Wells himself describes as a “state of siege.”45 Nothing in the country is to move without the government knowing about it, and any right to privacy has 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.46 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.”47

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.48 Up to this point, Wells has generally stayed in command of his characters, able to recount their movements 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 two.49

This is an odd moment in Wells's science fiction. He rarely concerned himself with epistemological problems in fiction, and was usually content to tell his stories in a straightforward manner, without worrying about how his narrators know what they know. But here Wells calls attention to the fictionality of his story and indeed throughout the rest of this chapter he presents himself as a limited narrator, who is forced to resort to rank speculation: “We can know nothing of the details of the encounter”50 or “But this is pure hypothesis.”51 Wells is not in total control of his story; he cannot supply the full explanation of the action he normally gives his readers. Thanks to the elusiveness of the Invisible Man, Wells's own story threatens to become opaque to him.52

In this rare moment in his science fiction, we get a glimpse of what unites H.G. Wells the novelist and H.G. Wells the socialist—both believe in central planning. Wells was used to plotting his novels carefully so that he maintained strict control over their structure. 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 any freedom to his characters. They exist only to carry out his plot and to express his ideas.53 One reason Wells has not been a favorite among literary critics is that his novels strike them as thematically didactic and technically unsophisticated, which is another way of saying that Wells 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 people, invading Martians, giant insects run amok—but the novel itself remains 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 well ordered 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.54 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 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.55 As a novelist, he had one model of order constantly in front of him: if a novel has a shape, this seems to result from a single consciousness planning 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 by the conclusion.56 In speaking of his own utopian impulse, Wells describes how “the mere pleasure of completeness, of holding and controlling all the threads, possesses” him.57 This ideal of control may provide an excellent blueprint for fiction (a tautly plotted story), but it offers a poor one for society (totalitarianism and the complete subordination of the individual to the community).58


To understand more fully Wells's hostility as a creative writer to the Invisible Man and the capitalist order he represents, we must return to his characterization of Griffin. In the tradition of Victor Frankenstein, Griffin is a portrait of the scientist as a young artist. Wells deliberately eliminates all the collaborative aspects of scientific research, and presents Griffin as a solitary creative genius, operating like a Romantic artist alone and on the fringes of society. By virtue of his invisibility, he becomes a kind of marked man, a Cain figure, obviously different from his fellow human beings and unable to participate in the normal pleasures of social life. His isolation both fuels and is fueled by his creativity, and Griffin becomes an example of the familiar Romantic principle that to be a creator, one must be prepared to suffer for one's creativity. 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 could not help to some extent sympathizing with his protagonist.59 Indeed, it would be odd if Wells, the visionary science fiction writer, did not in some way identify with Griffin, the visionary scientist.

Thus, in addition to being 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—the novelist may have revealed more than he wanted to about his own psychology and in particular his hostility to the market economy. 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.”60 Specifically, Griffin thinks of himself as a kind of Nietzschean superman, raised above the conventional moral restraints ordinary men feel compelled to observe.61 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.”62 By his own account, he is jealous of other researchers and paranoid that they will steal and take credit for his discoveries.63 Griffin reveals himself to be obsessed with petty frustrations, chiefly the drudgery of his career as a teacher, surrounded by “gaping, silly students”64 and under constant pressure to publish or perish.65 When he finally states his motives for becoming invisible, Griffin reveals his psychology clearly: “And I beheld, unclouded by doubt, a magnificent vision of all that invisibility might mean to a man.... And I, a shabby, poverty-struck, hemmed-in demonstrator, teaching fools in a provincial college, might suddenly become—this.”66

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 Griffin. His invisibility scheme is an attempt to use his intelligence finally to obtain the rewards and privileges 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.’”67 Griffin has a profound contempt for ordinary people, whom he regards as well beneath him in the one quality he esteems: intelligence.68 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.”69 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 so richly deserves. The principal use Griffin makes of his invisibility is to redistribute wealth, to take it away from the established owners of property and send it flowing 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 may appear to be contradicting myself, by presenting Wells's Invisible Man as at one moment a symbol of capitalism and at another of socialism. 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 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.”70 This is hardly the language of the free market. As Griffin's proclamation of a new era indicates, this 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 to all of humanity. He is smarter than all other men; hence he ought to be able to rule them and give order to their lives. In his own way, the Invisible Man becomes a profoundly atavistic force,71 wanting to return England to its illiberal past, substituting one-man rule from above for any spontaneous ordering of market forces from below.72

As a brilliant case study of ressentiment, Griffin allows us to observe the psychology of the modern, alienated intellectual and his typically anti-capitalist mentality.73 In his feeling that the market economy treats him unjustly by not sufficiently 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 be the ones in charge of the centrally planned economy and thus able to redirect the flow of rewards as they see fit.74 Wells himself provides a perfect example of this mentality, which 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.75 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.76

These attitudes surface and are in fact quite prominent 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 simplemindedness. The villagers as Wells portrays them could never protect themselves on their own against a genius like Griffin. They would be doomed without the intervention of Dr. Kemp, the medical associate Griffin tries to enlist on his side 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 (chapter 25). Kemp is a kind of double for Griffin. They were students in college together and in his own way Kemp shares Griffin's scientific ambitions: “the work he was upon would earn him, he hoped, the fellowship of the Royal Society, so highly did he think of it.”77 But Kemp is also a double for Wells himself, as one seemingly extraneous passage suggests: “After five minutes, during which his mind had travelled into a remote speculation of social conditions of the future, and lost itself at last over the time dimension, Doctor Kemp roused himself with a sigh, pulled down the window again, and returned to his writing-desk.”78 Kemp seems to be getting ready to write Wells's own novel, The Time Machine.79 This passage strongly suggests that Kemp is Wells's surrogate in the novel and that when he presents Kemp as the savior of England, he is imagining no less a role for himself.80

In Kemp's role in The Invisible Man, we see how in late nineteenth-century England, socialism took a peculiarly aristocratic form. Socialist doctrine seemed 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.81 Wells hoped to replace the old aristocracy of birth with a new aristocracy of talent,82 particularly intellectual and artistic talent, but his basic attitude remained aristocratic and anti-democratic nonetheless. One can detect a strong element of the socialist equivalent of noblesse oblige in Wells; 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.83 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.84 In his later novel, The Food of the Gods, it takes a group of Nietzschean supermen in the form of literal giants to bring a rational and socially just order to England.85

If, then, I seem to 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, and yet at the same time he saw a form of heroic individualism as the only way to bring about socialism. Wells's vacillation between socialism and heroic individualism helps explain his conflicted portrayal of the Invisible Man, indeed 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 give 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 his conviction that, as an artistic visionary, he is superior to the ordinary mass of humanity.