The story of ‘the Ring of Gyges’ is very ancient, certainly older than its appearance in Plato’s Republic (380 BC). It goes like this: once there was a humble shepherd in the ancient kingdom of Lydia (that is, modern-day Turkey), Gyges by name, who chanced upon a cave newly revealed by an earthquake inside of which was a gorgeous tomb containing the body of a man, and on the man's finger a golden ring. This ring possessed the magical property of rendering its wearer invisible. Taking the ring as his own, Gyges used his new power to infiltrate the Court of Candaules, the Lydian king, to seduce Candaules’ queen, to kill Candaules and to seize the throne for himself. Plato quotes this story in order to make a point about ethics. We act in morally virtuous ways, Plato argues, only because we do not wish to face the disapproval and punishment of our fellow men: virtue is a purely social construction. If we were sure we would never be found out we would act in a totally disinhibited manner, morally speaking—theft, murder, betrayal, the whole gamut. Virtue, in other words, consists in being seen.
Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the Just Man put on one of them and the Unjust Man the other; no person can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever anyone thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. [Plato, Republic, 360b-c; translated by Benjamin Jowett]
We know that H G Wells read, and was inspired, by Plato: in his Experiment in Autobiography Wells describes Plato’s influence upon him as ‘like the hand of a strong brother taking hold of me and raising me up’. But we wouldn’t need to be told, since Wells’s fifth novel, The Invisible Man (1897), is so obviously a modern retelling of Plato’s ancient fable, replacing the magic of the ring with the new logic of science, and keeping the moral focus in exactly the same place. As the old sailor, reading a newspaper account of the invisible man in chapter fourteen, notes ‘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!’ Of course, Wells’s scientist, like Gyges, has larger ambitions than mere theft. He explains to Kemp in chapter 24 that he plans to use murder as a path to power: ‘Not wanton killing, but a judicious slaying … A Reign of Terror.’ The population of Port Burdock must be terrorised into obedience. Accordingly he informs the town of his plans:
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.This, however, is ‘The Plan That Failed’—the grand, Gyges-like ambition announced in Griffin’s proclamation comes to nothing. Griffin’s problem is not ambition, or ruthlessness, but a more human level of incompetence, aggravated by the practical problems of his invisibility. This is where Wells’s vision parts company with Plato’s: not the generalised moral, but the specific frustrations and friction of everyday life. Not the royal usurper, but the petty man. For Wells, even the most startling developments in science cannot change the fact that we do not float magically free of all the petty distractions and awkwardnesses of ordinary life. Men are not kings. In this sense, not even kings are kings. Invisibility gives Griffin Gyges-like advantages over ordinary, visible humanity; but these advantages are bought at a price. The man is invisible, but his clothes are not—so Griffin must go naked, whatever the weather or temperature if he wishes to remain unobserved. Neither can he eat (‘“Bear in mind,” said Kemp, “his food shows. After eating, his food shows until it is assimilated. So that he has to hide after eating”’), nor disguise his smell from bloodhounds. Wells’s satire on the grand, and wicked, far-seeing vision of the scientist in this novel turns, as it always does in Wells’s fiction, into a meditation upon the way scientific advance precisely does not vault over the practical problems of ordinary life. There is, as many critics have noted, one flaw in the Wells’s quasi-scientific extrapolation of Griffins’ invisibility. Wells’s invisible man ought to be blind, of course (an invisible retina stops no photons). Wells knew this fact but chose to ignore it, as have the many writers and filmmakers of the 20th and 21st centuries who have followed Wells’s lead in making stories about invisible men, women and hobbits. Or perhaps it would be better to say, Wells doesn’t so much ignore the question of Griffin’s blindness as transfer it from a physical to an ethical realm. As a portrait of a scientist (irascible, egotistical, at once petty-minded and grandiose) Griffin is not designed to flatter the profession, but this is a specific rather than a general point. Griffin is blind; he’s just not physically blind. Glorying in his invisibility he sees himself as tyrant of the world; he is blind to the practical obstacles that will prevent that eventuality. Since Frankenstein, SF has been fascinated by the unintended consequences of scientific or technological advance; and ‘unintended consequence’ is just another way of saying ‘the invisible future’. And insofar as ‘the future’ is the realm of science fiction, this novel is saying: SF is blind.
Anthony West (Wells’s son) wrote that though the novel starts as little more than an ingenious conceit, it grows in stature as it develops, rising in its later sections into something especially powerful. ‘My father is moving on from pretense—the simulated reporting of what has happened and cannot happen in the nature of things—to something more genuinely creative. He is no longer having his reader on, but is making him a consenting partner in his imagining’ [Anthony West, H G Wells: Aspects of a Life]. But West adds: he cannot, however, keep this up through the book, which soon falls foul of the flaw that G K Chesterton was quick to point out soon after its original publication. The title proves to be misleading: the story does not deal with an invisible man’s interaction with the world we know, but with what befalls an invisible madman, a person impenetrably concealed within his own special frame of private references, resentments, obsessions, and compulsions, and altogether set apart from the generality of mankind.
This, though, is hardly fair. More importantly it rather misses the point of the novel. For one thing, to talk an individual caught up in ‘private references, resentments, obsessions, and compulsions’ is to describes every example of homo sapiens in the world today—West says that Griffin is ‘a person impenetrably concealed’ in those things, but it is part of the existential resonance of Wells’s brilliant conceit to dramatize precisely this sense—the sense that, since we are not telepaths, we are all concealed from one another. In the things that really matter, everyone is invisible to everyone else. Only a person’s outer habiliments can be ‘read’, like the clothes the invisible man wears when he arrives at the inn at the beginning of the story.
We can go further, and note that Wells uses his imagined invisibility to upend our, as well as Griffins's, expectations. Compare the quasi-scientific literalism of Wells’s fable with the approach taken, for example, by Ralph Ellison in his powerful 1952 novel Invisible Man, or Christopher Priest in his later The Glamour (1984). Both of those novels concern invisible characters, but in both instances they are invisible only in the sense that people somehow don't notice them. Otherwise their flesh is as good as stopping photons as yours or mine. The contrast with Wells’s Griffin is instructive. Science (or pseudo-science) has made him literally invisible. But because rather than despite this fact people notice him all the time. His Gyges ambition compels him to meddle with the world, to disturb people and roil up the town, and this makes him the centre of attention. It is this beautifully expressive irony that, in the end, orients Wells’s fable. It turns out we cannot simply slip away from the world.