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The Visible Man

Invisibility and Platonic justice in the #MeToo era

“He controlled how I looked and what I wore, then it was controlling when I left the house and eventually what I thought.” That line comes from the opening of the trailer for The Invisible Man, Leigh Whannell’s newly released adaptation of H.G. Wells’s serially adapted 1897 sci-fi horror. Smartly retooled for the #MeToo era, this version stars Elisabeth Moss as a woman “haunted” by her late abusive ex-partner—a suitably super-rich tech genius—who, it turns out, didn’t actually cut his wrists but instead found a way to make them disappear. The film relocates to the twenty-first century Wells’ nineteenth-century meditation on Plato’s query: would a just man, if he were invisible, remain just? I can’t think of a more relevant metaphor right now than a woman being terrorized by an invisible force, only to douse it in a giant can of white paint, uncovering the figure of a faceless man. The white man has never been more naked.

“The idea of an invisible man playing games with someone, torturing them, wrapped perfectly around the idea of a toxic relationship,” Whannell told The Sydney Morning Herald, “somebody trying to escape from someone who was gaslighting them and emotionally abusing them.” The toxic relationship portrayed here is a romantic one, but it serves as a microcosm for the accumulating relationships, increasingly exposed, in which women have been abused and gaslit by powerful men—at home, at work, everywhere. Throughout history, the invisible man has symbolized those powerful individuals who exploit everyone else without consequence. The character originated in Plato’s The Republic as an illustration of how man would behave if he knew no one was watching. In The Invisible Man, Wells conjured this man into a fantasy world. In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison grounded him in reality, where he was the object of discrimination, struggling to reclaim his rightful standing. And in Whannell’s The Invisible Man, the abuser, suited up in invisibility, reflects the present moment in which the amoral continue trying to evade accountability while their historically overlooked victims have slowly started to expose them.

The white man has never been more naked.

The invisible man came from a real place. In the late 600s BC, King Candaules of Lydia was killed by a guy named Gyges, who then literally took his life: his wife, his throne, his kingdom. In The Republic, three hundred years later, Plato riffed on this real piece of history, folding it into an allegory for injustice. The Athenian philosopher reinvented Gyges as a lowly royal shepherd who descends into a chasm where he finds a ring, which, upon twisting, turns its wearer invisible. He uses this new power to ensconce himself in the highest position he can find, like the real Gyges before him. “Even those who practice justice do so against their will because they lack the power to do wrong,” Plato wrote, parroting the belief system that formed the corrupt society around him. As devil’s advocate, he concluded: “The reason is the desire for undue gain which every organism by nature pursues as a good, but the law forcibly sidetracks him to honor equality.”

Plato argued that a harmonious society is a rationally unified whole in which each individual operates by the rules of reason rather than base instinct. He saw his surroundings structured much as ours are—by a handful of wealthy men who command all the power—a structure which made it appear that any free man would naturally hoard in the same way. In fact, they would be careless not to; accumulation was (is) the standard of value. Plato believed this community—a disjointed and irrational structure on the road to tyranny—was the manifestation of its citizens simply acting on their appetites, gorging without thinking, failing to be mindful (to use present-day parlance). Like Marx after him, he thought justice originated from each acting according to his ability and to each according to his need, that to binge was amoral. When people rattle off the apothegm that money won’t make you happy, they are continuing Plato’s two-thousand-year-old line. To him, rational unity of the mind—to us, mindfulness—is happiness, is justice, and individuals who practice it form a society which is equitable. But that requires work, while appetite does not. And human beings have proven time and again that they inevitably go for the easy way out—injustice is just so much simpler.

Though H.G. Wells read Plato’s Republic early on in life, it is unclear whether the text directly influenced The Invisible Man. But the novel’s anti-hero, Griffin, an “experimental investigator” who turns himself invisible and unleashes a “reign of terror” on a small town, is highly reminiscent of Plato’s Gyges. “I beheld, unclouded by doubt, a magnificent vision of all that invisibility might mean to a man—the mystery, the power, the freedom,” he says. “Drawbacks I saw none.” Griffin steals, destroys, aspires to kill, and he covers up all his misdeeds by being covered up himself. Unlike Gyges, however, he does not triumph in the end. Wells was a socialist who believed the greater good trumped the individual’s desires, and in his version of the story, the terrorized town ultimately unites to stop Griffin. When a doctor maligns him, it seems to be Wells himself speaking out against the brand of megalomania that ruled nineteenth-century England and hasn’t stopped since. “He is pure selfishness,” Dr. Kemp says. “He thinks of nothing but his own advantage, his own safety.” Wells wanted a world with no class, no hierarchy, where birthright was usurped by merit. But his imagined meritocracy failed to consider racism, among other oppressive forces, which Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man would confront head on fifty-five years later.

“I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind,” Ellison’s unnamed anti-hero says. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Removing the element of fantasy, the Oklahoma-born author repositions the invisible man in the stark reality of Jim Crow America, transforming him into a black man suffering oppression, rather than a white man causing it. Of course, it remains undetermined how much Ellison actually took from Wells. In an interview with the New York Times in 1982, he did acknowledge the overlap. “Once the book was done, it was suggested that the title would be confused with H.G. Wells’s old novel, The Invisible Man,” Ellison said, “but I fought to keep my title because that’s what the book was about.” It is also hard not to think of the 1952 book when early on, a character in Wells’s version suggests that the invisible man might be black. “I seed through the tear of his trousers and the tear of his glove. You’d have expected a sort of pinky to show, wouldn’t you?” he says. “Well—there was none. Just blackness. I tell you, he’s as black as my hat.” 

Like Wells, Ellison was anti-capitalist, but he did not believe in sacrificing the individual for the sake of the collective—the author had experienced the Communist Party abandoning men like him—but he believed in self-actualization within a collective political framework. Invisible Man employs Plato’s concept of internal justice—the real justice of reasoning—which is overlooked by a society that falls for what it has established as virtue’s external markers, wealth and power (which usually ride along with whiteness). “Let him go his incorruptible way until death with a reputation for injustice throughout his life, just though he is,” wrote Plato, to which Ellison responded with a character who spends the first part of the novel bowing to society’s expectations at his own expense.

An early instance has the high school graduate undergoing a series of degrading obstacles only to accept a college scholarship from his white tormenters. “I’ve never been more loved and appreciated than when I tried to ‘justify’ and affirm someone’s mistaken beliefs,” his invisible man says, adding, “in order to justify them, I had to take myself by the throat and choke myself until my eyes bulged and my tongue hung out and wagged like the door of an empty house in a high wind.” From Plato’s perspective, there’s an inverse of Ellison’s invisible man, the man who ingratiates himself by invisibly choking others, his visible whiteness and power and wealth proving his virtue even if his actions do not. Per Plato, “while committing the greatest crimes, he has provided himself with the greatest reputation . . . ”

Whannell’s film is a post-#MeToo horror loosely fictionalizing the very real harm that powerful men have wrought not only on women who are prevented from holding them responsible, but on the wider world.

This is where we find the invisible man in the latest adaptation of Wells’s book (to be followed by: a Hulu series based on Ellison’s novel and Universal’s Invisible Woman, directed by and starring Elizabeth Banks). Whannell’s The Invisible Man reinvents him as a wealthy, white, abusive optics entrepreneur who stages his own death in order to terrorize without a trace the woman who left him. Compounding her subjugation is the trust he has left her for $5 million, which she can inherit only on the condition that she is deemed mentally competent (which usually requires you not to freak out about people who aren’t there). While the original 1933 film adaptation of The Invisible Man—directed by James Whale, with a script approved by Wells—hewed very closely to the book, Whannell’s film is a post-#MeToo horror loosely fictionalizing the very real harm that powerful men have wrought not only on women who are prevented from holding them responsible, but on the wider world. “You literally have a man who is invisible, you can’t see him, she’s saying he’s there, that he’s attacking her, abusing her, manipulating her,” Moss told Empire, her role as an enslaved vessel for reproduction in The Handmaid’s Tale still fresh in readers’ minds. “The analogy is incredibly clear.”

In this case the analogy is two-fold, uniting the various past iterations of the invisible man. Here, the invisible man is the symbol of corruption, of power gone unwatched and unchecked. But the woman, the personification of justice, is overlooked in a way that recalls Ellison’s protagonist. “It’s that universal feeling of not being seen, of not having a voice, the fear of being invisible,” Moss told Harper’s Bazaar. If you can’t be seen, you can’t be heard.

The fate of the invisible man is always exposure. In Wells’s book, he becomes visible as he fades away from injuries sustained during a battle with Dr. Kemp after the town chases him down. In Ellison’s, the nameless protagonist, finding himself self-actualized, decides to emerge from the shadows where he has been hiding from the invisibility with which the world has painted (or not painted) him. And in Whannell’s film, the invisible man is exposed by being forced to come face to face with his own deception, when his ex stages a suicide attempt that mirrors his own.

This modern-day Invisible Man reflects a society reborn, one in which the men whose behavior was overlooked for so long is being held up for all to see in the name of Platonic justice. “They will say that the just man will be whipped, stretched on the rack, imprisoned, have his eyes burnt out, and, after suffering every kind of evil, he will be impaled and realize that one should not want to be just but to appear so,” Plato wrote. That’s the reasonable conclusion of an unreasonable society. Now we watch as the unjust man, guided by Moss’s invisible hand, cuts his own throat—justice perhaps not for him, but justice for everyone else.