NOTE: this review has spoilers. I’m assuming, since these books are classics, a basic knowledge of the plot. But if you don’t already know the story feel free to stop reading this review. Both books should be read by anyone who enjoys classic science fiction.
I read these two books for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Challenge, and also because I’m having such a good time reading classic science fiction/horror. These two books had very similar themes so it seemed a good idea to combine them in review.
The Invisible Man, one of the earlier works of HG Wells, was published in 1897. Wells is considered one of the “fathers” of science fiction, although he wrote many works that were not science fiction. Robert Louis Stevenson, on the other hand, is known more for his adventure novels like Treasure Island and Kidnapped. Jekyll and Hyde was published in 1886, in both the United States and Britain.
Both address issues of morality as it relates to scientific discovery. The Invisible Man is about a scientist named Griffin who researches optics and discovers a way to make himself invisible. Unfortunately, becoming invisible actually destroys his life, turning him against mankind.
Jekyll and Hyde is about a doctor who discovers a way to split his personality into two distinct human beings: the rational, intellectual side and the physical, desire-driven side. Unlike Griffin, Hyde isn’t evil necessarily, although he does evil things.
In both of these novels, the authors are exploring what happens when scientific discovery gives us power. Is it inevitable that power corrupts? What happens when we are free of inhibition? Is there evil lurking within us that will only grow more powerful if we don’t control it?
Of the two, I enjoyed Jekyll and Hyde more, for the simple reason that Jekyll struggles with his transformation and the release of his “dark side”. It’s also something of a commentary on the societal expectations of the day. Griffin, on the other hand, seems to have no redeeming characteristics whatsoever, even before he becomes invisible. On his quest for invisibility he describes horribly experimenting on the neighbor’s cat. He leaves her in great pain and mostly invisible, then shooes her out the door and lies to his neighbor.
Still, The Invisible Man is a great action tale, once it gets going. I loved the way Wells describes Griffin’s flight from the townspeople and his “Reign of Terror” over Tom Marvel and Dr. Kemp. The writing is so descriptive it’s like you’re there.
As the barman entered the room he saw Marvel, curiously crumpled up and struggling against the door that led to the yard and kitchen. The door flew open while the Barman hesitated, and Marvel was dragged into the kitchen. There was a scream, and a clatter of pans. Marvel, head down, and lugging back obstinately, was forced to the kitchen door, and the bolts were drawn.
Then the policeman, who had been trying to pass the barman, rushed in, followed by one of the cabmen, gripped the wrist of the invisible hand that collared Marvel, was hit in the face and went reeling back. … The voice of the Invisible Man was heard for the first time, yelling out sharply as the policeman trod on his foot. Then he cried out passionately and his fists flew around like flails. The cabman suddenly whooped and doubled up, kicked under the diaphragm. The door into the bar-parlour from the kitchen slammed and covered Mr. Marvel’s retreat. The men in the kitchen found themselves clutching at and struggling with empty air.
Unfortunately, Griffin is not only heartless, he’s not particularly bright. And that’s the crux of the story. He’s so anxious to become invisible he never thinks about what his life will be like. He can’t eat because you can see the food being digested. He either has to be completely naked or clothed from head to toe. If he uses his power to steal, he will be caught and his secret exposed.
I particularly liked when Griffin is describing his attempt to steal clothing from a local store so he doesn’t have to go naked. He sneaks into a department store, then has to stay there overnight once the doors are locked. The problem? Once the staff come in the next morning to open up, there’s no way for him to sneak out without alerting everyone to his invisibility.
Dr. Jekyll, on the other hand, is a character the reader can sympathize with. He creates an uninhibited version of himself, and uses this side to do horrible, amoral things. The reader never knows quite what those things are (although they presumably involve sex). Like Dorian Gray, it’s not clear whether Hyde is hurting anyone or simply violating social mores (or hurting himself through drugs, drink, and STDs). Jekyll doesn’t mean for Hyde to hurt anyone, and he doesn’t mean to lose control of his creation; but he does seem to enjoy being Hyde for a while.
The fun thing about Jekyll and Hyde is that it’s written in such a way that the turn of the century reader clearly would not know that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person. Everyone knows that today, but the book is a mystery that doesn’t unfold until the very end. I wish I could read this book as they did in the 1880’s, without knowing its outcome.
On the other hand, the fun thing about reading classics is to see how they’ve shaped literature and entertainment over the years, and these two books certainly have.