Book Review: The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells

I know I read The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells some ten or fifteen years ago–and I must have completely forgotten it.  Frankly, if I had remembered it more clearly, I don’t think I would have reread it!  But since I did (well, listened to it on audio), I’m counting it as a read for R.I.P., as classic horror and certainly full of mists and mystery.

The story begins with a reclusive, bandaged man taking lodgings at an inn, there to work on a mysterious experiment.  It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the bandaged man eventually removes his bandages–and is completely invisible.  Unfortunately, he’s also a complete psychopath.  He wreaks a fair degree of havoc until he eventually runs into an old acquaintance, and sits down for an extended narration about how he became invisible, and his future plans to (more or less) conquer the world.

For the record, I like old books.  I really do.  I can handle a fair degree of slow writing, a fair amount of focus on random side characters, and even a plot that takes a little while to get going.  I just finished Shirley, a Charlotte Bronte novel that had all of those problems, and still enjoyed it immensely.  But The Invisible Man?  Sad to say, I found it pretty irredeemable.

The concept is a cool one, but in a way that’s the problem.  This book is more a concept than it is a novel.  The extended narration part when the Invisible Man tells his history is by far the best part of the book, because at least we have one focused character (if a deeply unlikable one) and a coherent sequence of events towards some purpose.  That section takes up maybe a quarter of the book (hard to estimate on audiobook), and starts somewhere past the midpoint.  The rest of the book is pretty much the Invisible Man wreaking havoc among fairly insignificant characters, or equally insignificant characters trying to deduce what’s going on.

Our only major character is the Invisible Man himself, and he really is a psychopath.  He has an utter disregard and lack of empathy for anyone but himself, and he has no particular reason for being that way.  I can enjoy a dark hero who is complicated and has a history to explain why he’s declaring war against the world (Sweeney Todd or the Leroux Phantom come to mind).  But the Invisible Man…is really just a psychopath, not complex and not at all sympathetic.

The one element I found kind of amusing?  For 1897, it’s a little bit racy–I mean, the main character spends large portions of the book running around naked!  Just, you know, invisibly. 🙂

I think this may be one of those classic works where the author had a great idea, but not much effective execution of it (at least, not for modern tastes), and it’s more the derivations and retellings that appeal now.  (With apologies to Leroux, Phantom of the Opera is like that too–though it’s a much better book than Invisible Man.)  Running with that theory, I plan to get my hands on a copy of The Invisible Man classic movie, starring Claude Rains (not that you can recognize him…) to see if that goes a bit better!

Other reviews:
Books: A True Story
Booking In Heels
Infinity Plus
Anyone else?

Buy it here: The Invisible Man

11 thoughts on “Book Review: The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells

  1. Dennis

    Wells is remembered as a SciFi pioneer for his great concepts. Times machines, Martian invasions, invisible people, and encounters with alien civilizations may seem like standards of SciFi today, but they standards because Wells made them so. Unfortunately, he didn’t always follow up his concepts with well-structured stories. However, I agree with Jemima that Time Machine was an exception. That novel had it all: Fabulous concept, thriller of a story line, and an underlying social message.

  2. Jemima Pett

    In a way I think I found the opposite when I read The Time Machine. I didn’t think I’d read it before, but once I got through the stuffy dinnerparty/experiment stage the actual time travelling episodes were fantastic in every sense. Or maybe it is the same side as you… 🙂
    I think The Time Machine is worth reading, though it put me off trying others by him, which you’ve just confirmed.

  3. I don’t know if this helps, but the issue you’re describing is one I’ve had with all of Wells’ SF novels. If you ever get a chance (and are interested, obviously!), I’d recommend giving Wells’ social novels a try. You might get along with those much better. ^_^

    When I was at university I had two different classes assigning Wells in the same semester. One was an SFF-oriented class and the other was a general Edwardian fiction class. The difference between my reaction to the assigned reads was… impressive. And kind of scary.

    *ruffles hair* Anyway, I hear you on why you didn’t like The Invisible Man. I didn’t like it for similar reasons.

      1. He’s definitely more well-known for his scifi. He’s set, as Dennis noted elsewhere, several of the standards/staples in scifi stories and hasn’t had, as far as I know at least, anywhere near as much lasting influence with his social novels. That helps them end up forgotten.

        Wells considered Kipps to be his best book, if I recall. Of his social novels I’ve only read that one and Ann Veronica, both of which I remember very fondly. I’d recommend the latter most, though. It’s about a young woman who wants to her independence and agency, so I think that one might appeal to you more. (It’s also the earliest instance I’ve found of a female protagonist who has martial arts skills and uses them.) Both of them focus more on the psychology of the characters than his scifi books do, though, and they’re easily twice the length.

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