The Conception of Science in Wells's the Invisible Man

By Sirabian, Robert | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The Conception of Science in Wells's the Invisible Man


Sirabian, Robert, Papers on Language & Literature


Whoever, in the pursuit of science, seeks after immediate practical utility, may generally rest assured that he will seek in vain. All that science can achieve is a perfect knowledge and a perfect understanding of the action of natural and moral forces.

Herman Ludwig Ferdinand Von Helmholt
Academic Discourse, Heidelberg (1862)

Various film adaptations of Wells's The Invisible Man--The Invisible Man (1933), Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951), Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), and Hollow Man (2000) to name a few--attest to its hold on the popular imagination. Like Frankenstein, Wells's novel is a part our culture, and film versions represent various perspectives about the possibilities of science and its place in society. The most accessible meaning of The Invisible Man is its moral warning about the individual's desire to transgress human boundaries in the name of science. While many film versions portray Griffin, the novella's protagonist, as a madman who practices science without controls, they also raise other concerns, some explicitly and others often implicitly or in passing, that Wells held important. The imaginative thinking that scientific discovery depends upon, the humorous ironies inherent in some scientific discoveries, and the nature of science itself are powerful and relevant ideas that Wells explores in his early scientific romances. Like The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and the War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man reveals provocative ideas about the relationship of science, (human) nature, and society below the surface of its imaginative plotting.

As Richard Altick points out, science as a prestige branch of learning came about at the end of the Victorian period, when The Invisible Man was written, as Britain's trade position was threatened by Germany's emphasis on science (261). Early in the period, amateur scientists paved the way for the rise of science as a legitimate field of study in schools, but even as science became a respectable discipline and developed as a field of inquiry, there was a fear that the legitimization of science could erode culture and obscure literature. Tied to the period's utilitarian bents, scientific study was often valued for its practical uses of improving society, and with the development of evolutionary geology and biology in the nineteenth century, a quantitative, inductive (i.e. Baconian) methodology became well established (Mason 146). Yet during the nineteenth century, Bacon's status and scientific method are increasingly questioned, and the debate over inductive methodology and over the nature of science itself became increasingly focused and vociferous.

The achievement of The Invisible Man is Wells's treatment of science beyond its oversimplified conceptions, either as a purely imaginative, speculative pursuit or as an analytical activity concerned only with facts. Although an integrated conception of science is taken for granted in the twentieth century, in England during the nineteenth century scientific method was a significant issue for discussion. The romantic conception of science pursued by Griffin challenges a prevailing Victorian notion of science, defined as the finding of truth for social good through the factual recording and observation of nature. But while the novel clearly shows the dangers of uncontrolled speculative science, it more subtly reveals the limits of scientific thought based solely on factual observation, reason, and utility. By the end of the nineteenth century, Baconian methodology, with its perceived emphasis on "fact collecting" rather than imagination, was viewed as a faulty approach to scientific inquiry. According to Jonathan Smith, "Far from repudiating the imagination, then, nineteenth-century scientists and philosophers saw it as an indispensable component of scientific method. Hypotheses could not be formed, analogies could not be recognized, inferences could not be made without it" (37).

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