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Unseeing People: Towards a Clear View of Invisible Characters in Narrative Fiction

Éviser les gens : Vers une présentation synoptique des personnages invisibles dans le récit de fiction
Gero Guttzeit


Cet article propose une cartographie critique des personnages invisibles dans le récit de fiction en accentuant la relation complexe entre l’invisibilité littéraire et sociale. Il fait valoir que le domaine émergent des invisibility studies doit se confronter aux motifs et aux formes de l’invisibilité tels qu’ils apparaissent dans l’histoire littéraire avant et après la jonction critique de Invisible Man (1952) de Ralph Ellison, en s’inspirant également de The Invisible Man (1897) de H.G. Wells et de Mrs Dalloway (1925) de Virginia Woolf comme exemples principaux. Il propose que les personnages invisibles émergent dans un champ littéraire structuré par 1) l’opposition sociopolitique entre pouvoir et impuissance ; 2) le continuum des genres réalistes et non-réalistes ; et 3) la forme de narration en tant que telle, en particulier dans ce que les narratologues définissent comme la focalisation. Une analyse de « unseeing » (« éviser ») au sens littéraire développé dans le roman de China Miéville, The City & The City (2009), nous aidera à mieux comprendre l’invisibilité sociale.

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Invisible Characters

1Invisible lives, silent voices. These two phrases take up two major metaphors for the representation of the disenfranchisement and oppression of historically excluded groups in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: invisibility and silence. In the history of critical theory, the latter is epitomized in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous question ‘can the subaltern speak?’, but the question of how the two metaphors interrelate also appears when Spivak discusses Michel Foucault’s idea that the study of history means ‘[t]he making visible of what was previously unseen’ (Foucault 1980, 50). Spivak maintains that Foucault’s arguments on the criminal Pierre Rivière show a troublesome ‘slippage from rendering visible the mechanism [of medical and juridical discourses] to rendering vocal the individual’ (Spivak 1988, 285). This little-discussed contiguity in Spivak’s essay between invisibility and silence as they apply to the mechanism of power and the structure of the subject can be a stepping-stone towards further illuminating the critical actualities and potentialities of the two metaphors.

2Transposing Spivak’s famous question (which she answers in the negative) to the metaphor of invisibility leads us to ask whether the subject can be visible. Such a formulation demonstrates a point that appears to separate the rhetorics of silence from those of invisibility. While fraught with many difficulties, speaking up, speaking out, or voicing one’s oppression remains something that can be done actively (in Spivak’s analysis, it is this act of speaking that is denied to the colonial subject). Whether the voice will then be heard is yet a different question, but speaking up is different to becoming visible. Whereas the questions ‘can the subject be seen?’ and ‘can the subject be heard?’ are quite similar in terms of the grammar of politics, so to say, ‘can the subject speak?’ is a markedly different question to ‘can the subject make themselves visible?’ This process of ‘visibilisation’ encapsulates pressing political issues with regard to cultural representation.

  • 1 On invisibility studies, see also Steiner and Veel (2015), who aim for a multidisciplinary analysis (...)

3These issues certainly need to be addressed by the emerging field of invisibility studies—as seminally suggested by Françoise Král in her 2014 monograph on Social Invisibility and Diasporas in Anglophone Literature and Culture: The Fractal Gaze.1 Král argues that what Spivak terms ‘subalterneity’ ‘is precisely what constitutes social invisibility in the sense that it condemns one to not being heard, not because the subaltern cannot speak but because people refuse to listen to him/her’ (Král 2014, 7). Overcoming social invisibilisation is achieved by speaking up despite the ‘predetermined positionality’ of subalterneity: ‘the issue is not so much linked to the mastery of codes or to one’s access to sites of visibility but to one’s capacity to make oneself heard’ (Král 2014, 7). For Král, then, finding a voice is the antidote to social invisibilisation. This furnishes a political connection between the metaphors of invisibility and silence, placing them in a kind of developmental emancipatory narrative that is akin to the structures of narrative fiction, as it moves from silence and invisibility to speech and visibility. It is the structure of this trajectory that I am interested in here, but my aim is to analyse it in light of the specific rhetoric of invisibility that is evinced by the grammatical differences between the questions of voicing and visibilising.

4As research on invisibility by Král, Esther Peeren, Henriette Steiner, Kristin Veel, Asbjørn Grønstad, and Øyvind Vågnes has demonstrated, invisibilisation and visibilisation need to be viewed in light of their political, cultural, and medial contexts; however, my approach here is a specifically literary one. It departs from the notion of character and the idea of ‘unseeing’, in the sense in which it is used in China Miéville’s 2009 New Weird novel The City & The City. In the novel, people must unsee the citizens of a rival city that occupies the same geographical space. Failure to unsee members of the other political unit constitutes a breach—a crime that is severely policed. Generalizing from Miéville’s example, unseeing furnishes a literary model of the processes of social misrecognition, a misrecognition that, in the case of The City & The City, is ideologically mandatory and needs to be interiorised by all citizens. In one sense, this extends the notion of invisibilisation developed by political philosopher Axel Honneth. For Honneth, the process of invisibilisation turns persons into ‘a physical non-presence’ which becomes representative of ‘non-existence in a social sense’ (Honneth 2001, 111, original emphasis; see Zurn 2015, 8). Honneth’s analysis, in turn, is based on a reading of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952). Taken together with other relevant literary examples, Ellison’s and Miéville’s novels are evidence of the need for a literary grounding of political, social, and cultural concepts of invisibility.

  • 2 The phrase ‘narratives of invisibility’ is used by Noam Elcott in his study of artificial darkness (...)
  • 3 Moi suggests ‘clear view’ and ‘surveyable representation’ as translations for Wittgenstein’s ‘übers (...)

5As part of a larger research project on literary character and what I call narratives of invisibility,2 this article sketches a characterological map of the history of invisible characters. The basic assumption is that invisible characters stand in a complex relationship to non-fictional persons who are defined as socially, ethically, or politically invisible. A periodical focus on modernism—rather broadly conceived—is particularly useful since it allows the question of invisibility—both in its social and literary senses—to be connected to Toril Moi’s recent critique of concepts of character in literary studies. Moi criticises what she names the modernist-formalist paradigm that she views as based on establishing and perpetuating ‘the critical taboo on treating characters as if they were real’ (Moi 2019, 33). Instead, she calls for a revisionist approach to characters in literature that would offer a ‘clear view’, an übersichtliche Darstellung in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s phrase (Philosophical Investigations § 122, Wittgenstein 1997, 49e), of a ‘specific region of the vast field of literary characters’ (Moi 2019, 66).3

6The difficulty of surveying such a terrain becomes apparent in light of the little theorised, yet omnipresent question of how characterisation in fictional texts connects to intersectional critiques of traditional ideas of subjectivity. For instance, as Linda Martín Alcoff has argued, race and gender in particular are strongly associated with the visual (Alcoff 2006, 6). More generally, aspects of subjectivity need to be conceptualised in terms of their in/visibility. Ellen Samuels, in her intersectional queer studies analysis of nonvisible disabilities, has foregrounded the fact that what appears to be the same dimension of subjectivity—dis/ability in this case—needs to be distinguished into a visible and an invisible dimension, and that persons with either kind of disability can be subjected to social invisibilisation: one example for such a nonvisible disability would be a chronic illness that does not show in the person’s outer appearance (Samuels 2003, 248, 251). In such fashion, literary characters represent models of personhood and embody the political complexities of the historical conjunctures of composition and reception. What, then, would be the coordinates of such a theoretical mapping of the invisibility of literary characters? In other words, how can we get a clear view of invisible characters in narrative fiction? To begin this endeavour, the following sections of this article outline three central dimensions of invisible characters.

Three Dimensions of Invisible Characters

7In literary studies, concepts of character are usually situated on a spectrum ranging from naïve realism to sophisticated textualism: some readers emphasise the idea that literary characters are like non-fictional persons, others argue that literary characters are merely linguistic structures of fiction, and many hold a view in between. John Frow, in his monograph on Character and Person (2014), inverts common assumptions about the relation between real people and literary characters. Rather than looking at real people first and then examining literary characters, he suggests we take fictional characters as the starting point for an examination of the ‘modalities along which persons exist’ (Frow 2014, 6). From a more narrowly literary point of view, Moi, in her extensive critique of Frow’s text, rejects the idea that the emotional effect of literary characters on real readers poses a ‘logical problem’ (Moi 2019, 59, original emphasis), claiming instead that ‘[t]o respond to fictional characters with emotions (and so on) is just what we do’ (Moi 2019, 59). Both arguments demonstrate that the terrain of characters needs to be surveyed through a sufficiently complex model of the interrelation between the characters in a given fictional narrative and their real-world counterparts. James Phelan’s seminal distinction between the mimetic, thematic, and synthetic components of character is particularly suited to such an undertaking because Phelan repeatedly emphasises the rhetorical nature of narrative (Phelan 2017, 5–11), thus allowing for the continuity of literary and social forms of invisibility.

8A field of literary invisibility studies would need to encompass the discussion of invisible characters on the level of content (e.g. invisible men, invisible women, invisible children, invisible persons with disabilities, invisible migrants, and invisible homeless people; and on a different level of fictionality invisible monsters, invisible gods, and spectres). But it would also need to include invisibilisation on the level of form, one major aspect of which is focalisation, as I discuss it here. On this formal level, there are still many issues that a field of literary invisibility studies would need to address such as the connections of ideas of in/visibility to certain genres (e.g., the ‘glimpse’ that the Modernist short story offers, see McSweeney 2007), or to particular literary techniques such as filmic or ‘objective’ narration that does not offer access to any of the characters’ thoughts and feelings. In other regards, it would be possible to build on existing research, for instance, on the position and appearance of minor characters in the character system (Woloch 2003, 149–155).

9More specifically, I suggest that invisible characters emerge in a literary field structured by 1) the socio-political opposition between power and powerlessness; 2) the continuum of realist and non-realist genres across media; and 3) the form of narration as such, particularly in what narratologists define as focalisation. These are dimensions of invisible characters. While one dimension might certainly be prevalent, none of them can be completely irrelevant.

10I shall explain these dimensions in more detail through a discussion of pertinent examples below, including Ralph Ellison’s nameless African American Invisible Man, H.G. Wells’s scientist-turned-murderous-tyrant Griffin, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. These examples represent ‘intermediate cases’ (Wittgenstein 1997, 49e, emphasis in original) in the cultural history of invisibility that are crucial for attaining a clear view of invisible characters.

Power and Powerlessness

11The first of the three dimensions, the socio-political opposition between power and powerlessness, necessitates a genealogical approach: early Western narratives imagine invisibility as a source or marker of mythological or divine power. Think of the Greek myth of Perseus—hidden by the cap of Hades—killing Medusa, Plato’s legend of Gyges’ invisibility ring in the Republic (fourth century BCE), Siegfried’s use of the Tarnkappe in the thirteenth-century German epic poem Nibelungenlied, or the echoes of God’s invisibility in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1674). Such stories continue to exert cultural influence, e.g. in The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter storyworlds. However, the twentieth century witnessed a transformation in which narratives of invisibility—both fictional and non-fictional—typically came to emplot their protagonists’ emancipation from a position of invisibility and powerlessness to one of visibility and power.

12For that reason, any cultural history of invisibility needs to reckon with Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man. Ellison’s novel is the epitome of the modern shift to invisibility as a trope of powerlessness. Yet Invisible Man also offers the activities of public speaking and literary writing as counter-strategies to this impotence. Published just before the dawn of the Civil Rights era, the novel remains all too topical due to its depiction of lethal police violence against African Americans, race riots, and the denial of recognition to Black people. The protagonist’s hope of finding in the Marxist Brotherhood an ally for reaching social equality is thwarted, and his underground refuge in a cellar on the borders of Harlem precludes him from taking on what he calls ‘a socially responsible role to play’ (Ellison 2014, 581). Still, at the end of the epilogue he considers that ‘there’s a possibility’ for him to play such a role (Ellison 2014, 581). The act of writing down his experiences figures as the only possibility of communicating with an American society dominated by whiteness. Thus, he asks: ‘Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through?’ (Ellison 2014, 581).

13Ellison’s novel has been analysed as the American variety of the bildungsroman, a Great American Novel (Buell 2014, 175–216), and it employs tropes from African American folklore and Ancient Greek mythology (Rankine 2008). Ellison distances himself from the tradition of the Black protest novel and integrates magical invisibility devices, particularly in the trickster figure of Rinehart. Invisible Man can mask himself as Rinehart because Rinehart is mentioned repeatedly but never actually appears in the novel, thus remaining invisible in the sense of absent. Its fusion of traditions and genres marks what the novel calls the ‘absurd diversity’ of human life (Ellison 2014, 581), but it does so by emphasising the fact of Black powerlessness.

14A fitting example of this can be found at the beginning of chapter 11, when Invisible Man is hospitalised after a workplace accident. The autodiegetic narration is inflected with the surrealism of the medicalised white gaze that fixes Invisible Man with mythical power. He writes: ‘I was sitting in a cold, white chair and a man was looking at me out of a bright third eye that glowed from the center of his forehead’ (Ellison 2014, 231). The sentence is straightforward in its syntax and vocabulary. Yet it manages to convey the surrealism of the cold whiteness that dominates the social atmosphere. The bright third eye of the white doctor hovers in its reference between a head mirror and a surgical light. In such fashion, the novel abounds with metaphors that interconnect power and vision. Invisible Man’s rebirth without any remembrance of his own name is the result of the accident as much as of the bizarre and brutal treatment by racist white doctors. His namelessness becomes part of his invisibility, and the episode illustrates Invisible Man’s own dictum in the epilogue that ‘all life seen from the hole of invisibility is absurd’ (Ellison 2014, 579).

15In a letter to Walter Ross on 1 March, 1948, Ellison described the interplay between genre and form of narration in his novel as ‘a realism dilated to deal with the almost surreal state of our everyday American life’ (quoted in Rampersad 2007, 218). This ‘dilated realism’ (see also Bradley 2010, 174) is attuned to the surrealism of the political subjectification of Black Americans in the mid-twentieth century. It negotiates the relationship of politics and art through the most detailed use of the trope of social invisibility in twentieth-century literature.

  • 4 For this attitude and his distancing from the tradition of the African American protest novel as ex (...)

16In Ellison’s novel, invisibility becomes a prime metaphor of powerlessness and, to a certain extent, also of the potential to overcome it. Yet the literary affirmation of invisibility also marks the potential for choosing not to overcome it, but instead to inhabit it in a kind of distanced contemplation.4 The complexity of Ellison’s novel and its reception goes far beyond these remarks, but they demonstrate the crucial nexus of power and powerlessness that he encapsulates in the novel and that extends to narratives of invisibility more generally.

Realism and Non-Realism

17In further surveying the terrain of invisible characters, I shall now elucidate the significance of the continuum of realist and non-realist genres. This continuum has strong associations with genres formerly of little critical interest, such as fantasy and science fiction, as well as children’s books and Young Adult fiction. My prime example here is H.G. Wells’s 1897 science fiction novel The Invisible Man. The continuum of realism and non-realism is crucial to the novel as a whole: after reading The Invisible Man, Joseph Conrad enthusiastically addressed Wells as the ‘Realist of the Fantastic’ (Conrad 2018, 199). The novel is the best-known and most influential among a group of late nineteenth-century rewritings of the traditional trope of invisibility. In it, Griffin, an English scientist, discovers a four-dimensional formula to lower the refraction of light so as to make his own body invisible. The dimension of power and powerlessness is repeatedly foregrounded as Griffin veers ‘between (the fantasy of) omnipotence and (the reality of) impotence’ (Guttzeit 2018, 75).

18What makes the text remarkable is its mixture of realist and non-realist aspects of characterisation. This applies first and foremost to Griffin’s quasi-scientific invisibilisation of himself, which does not extend, however, to the food he ingests: in a bizarre detail, this remains visible during digestion (Wells 2018, 152). In response to a review critical of the underlying scientific explanations, Wells himself pointed out in a letter that ‘[a]ny alteration of the refractive index of the eye lenses would make vision impossible’ (Wells 2018, 191). The debating of such aspects of the realism of the fantastic is evidence of the foregrounding of the generic aspect of invisibility in the novel, yet the dimension of power/lessness also extends to the racialisation of subjectivity.

19Reading Wells through Ellison (who distances himself implicitly from Wells’s novel on the first page of Invisible Man by having his protagonist state that his invisibility is not ‘a matter of a biochemical accident to my epidermis’ [Ellison 2014, 3]), it becomes apparent that the novel alludes to racial anxieties of its time. There is abundant black-and-white imagery throughout the novel, and the villagers think that the invisible Griffin is a black man (Wells 2018, 61). A remarkable detail that is absent from almost all retellings of Wells’s novel is Griffin’s genetic condition of albinism, which connects race to disability in the novel (see Guttzeit 2018, 78). In terms of the generic dimension of invisible characters, Griffin’s albinism is the ‘telling’ realist detail that provides the ideological foundation for the non-realist depiction of the invisible character.

20With regard to the explicit generic connections of the novel to invisibility, it hardly needs to be mentioned that The Invisible Man was designated by Wells as one of his scientific romances and is most readily identified with what later became science fiction. Bernard Bergonzi, in his classic study of Wells’s early fiction, argued that The Invisible Man ‘can be seen as marking the end of the earliest phase of Wells’s romances, which embodies in various ways an individualistic preoccupation with the romantic scientist’ (Bergonzi 1961, 121). Viewed as an aspect of his characterisation, Griffin’s masculinity partakes in a literary tradition stemming from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). In a text whose major characters are all men, Griffin functions as a variation and development of the trope popularly called the mad scientist.

21This trope is brought out particularly clearly in the contrast with Dr Kemp, an old fellow student. Speaking to Kemp, Griffin characterises himself as, on the one hand, ‘a helpless absurdity’, ‘a wrapped-up mystery, a swathed and bandaged caricature of a man!’ (Wells 2018, 146), and, on the other, proclaims that he must ‘establish a Reign of Terror’ (Wells 2018, 149). Griffin’s wish for a homosocial relationship with Kemp remains unfulfilled, as Kemp betrays him. The contrast between visible Kemp and invisible Griffin is instructive in terms of differing models of masculinity and a general paradox of male in/visibility. As Michael S. Kimmel argues in The History of Men, ‘[w]hile white people, men, heterosexuals, and middle-class people have been hypervisible—indeed, the traditional narrative contains nothing but those groups—these superordinate groups have also been invisible as specifically constituted groups’ (Kimmel 2005, ix, original emphasis). The visible Kemp and the invisible Griffin embody this paradox and their opposition brings into play the dialectic of the in/visibility of masculinity. The novel contains this potential threat to late-Victorian masculinity through the Gothically inflected mad scientist trope, yet what is even more relevant to our question at hand is that they simultaneously embody the opposition of realism and non-realism in their respective in/visible bodies. Kemp is the visible, morally sound, supposedly more real foil to Griffin’s invisible, immoral, and fantastically exaggerated character.

22In the storyworld of Miéville’s The City & The City, the neologism ‘topolganger’ designates a ‘physically corresponding area’ in both cities, of which certain parts need to be unseen by the citizens of each city (Miéville 2011, 173). Yet the neologism’s clear allusion to the Gothic doppelganger also serves as a reminder of how the dialectic of seeing and unseeing applies to persons rather than places. In this latter sense, Griffin is a topolganger to Kemp, as they occupy the physically corresponding area of masculinity, yet Griffin’s invisibility is contrasted with the traditional positions of male power, which entail a certain hypervisibility sensu Kimmel. By using fantastic invisibility as a contrastive element of characterisation, then, Wells’s novel established a particular combination of realist and non-realist elements that would appear in later invisible characters and that is indicative of the systematic relevance of this opposition.


23The third dimension of the narrative representation of invisible characters mediates between socio-political invisibility and generic structures. It lies in what Gérard Genette termed focalisation: the question of ‘who sees?’ or who perceives rather than ‘who speaks?’ or who narrates (Genette 1983, 186, original emphasis). In her critique of Genette, Mieke Bal connected the term closely to the question of characterisation. In turn, Bal’s notion of focalisation has been supplemented by Esther Peeren, who extends its use to concepts in The Spectral Metaphor: Living Ghosts and the Agency of Invisibility. Aiming at a ‘re-focalization’ of the spectre, Peeren argues for a perspective that ‘looks with rather than at the specter and recognizes that this specter is always also a self as I am always also an other’ (Peeren 2014, 29, original emphasis). Taking up Peeren’s argument that focalisation means refraction rather than reflection (2014, 8), my claim here extends Peeren’s analysis of the spectrality of characters to their invisibility: this leads me to the question of how literary focalisation intersects with social invisibilisation, a question I shall address in an analysis of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925).

24Clarissa Dalloway is one of the textbook examples of what Bal calls a character-bound focaliser. There are, of course, multiple character-bound focalisers in the novel, including Septimus Warren Smith, Lucrezia Smith, Peter Walsh, and Sally Seton. Daniel Hartley has felicitously described Woolf’s style as the relationship between ‘a centrifugal force that fragments the diegesis into multiple focalizers and a centripetal force of lyrical unification toward which the prose gravitates’ (Hartley 2018, 177). How can we make sense of the fragmentation implied by this centrifugal force in terms of the dynamic of in/visibility?

25Focalisation, as Bal defines it, ‘is the relationship between the vision, the agent that sees, and that which is seen’ (Bal 2017, 135). It thus occupies a central position in her three-tiered system of narrative text, story, and fabula (Bal 2017, 8–10), which can be visualised in the following table:

narrative text


‘subject of narration’



‘agents of perception and interpretation’



‘subjects of action’

26I argue that the ‘agents of perception and interpretation’ (Bal 2017, 10) within the fictional text—its focalisers—constitute a model not only of how non-fictional subjects see, but also of how they unsee others and themselves-as-others (as in Peeren’s analysis of the spectral self-as-other, see Peeren 2014, 29). In other words, social in/visibilisation is refracted in focalisation. While the dependency of the invisible on the visible is apparent from its negating prefix in-, the implications of the inverse relationship—of visibility depending on invisibility—are only beginning to be explored (Grønstad and Vågnes 2019, 2): Does every zooming in on someone leave others out of the picture? Does every focalisation depend on invisibilisation?

27Woolf’s novel has been linked to impersonal aspects of invisibility in recent research, particularly with regard to the invisible threats of the aerial warfare of World War I (Saint-Amour 2015, 122–123) and the post-war influenza virus (Outka 2019, 103–141). Mrs Dalloway is crucial to the history of invisible characters not only because of Woolf’s innovations in focalisation and her deep engagement with the notion of character (as condensed in her dictum that ‘on or about December 1910 human character changed’ [see Woolf 2009, 38]). It is also relevant because of Woolf’s explicit use of the trope of invisibility to epitomise the fraught situation Clarissa finds herself in between life and death, youth and age, peace and war.

28In a crucial, early passage of the novel, Clarissa muses on her own social position and imagines herself first in the position of power her husband Richard is in, and then in the position of Lady Bexborough, ‘interested in politics like a man’ (Woolf 2000, 9). Clarissa’s thoughts interiorise the male gaze and indirectly establish the critical idea of the ageing ‘invisible woman’ (King 2013). Clarissa thinks that, in contrast to Lady Bexborough,

she had a narrow pea-stick figure; a ridiculous little face, beaked like a bird’s. That she held herself well was true; and had nice hands and feet; and dressed well, considering that she spent little. But often now this body she wore (she stopped to look at a Dutch picture), this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing—nothing at all. She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street, this being Mrs Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs Richard Dalloway. (Woolf 2000, 9)

29This dense passage combines Clarissa’s animalisation as a bird, the annihilation of her body, her deindividualisation as part of the mass of consumers, her post-menopausal desexualisation, and her patriarchal anonymisation as she even loses her name to her husband. All of these feed into the idea of invisibilisation, which occupies the central place in this excerpt. The disjuncture between herself looking at a Dutch picture and having ‘the oddest sense of being herself invisible’ encapsulates the central technique of focalisation in Woolf’s novel, as outside events become secondary or complementary to the interior workings of the narrative mind (though they are not excluded from them).

30In contrast to her daughter Elizabeth, who is about to enter the sexualised field of vision dominated by the heterosexual male gaze, Clarissa feels threatened by being unseen. Towards the end, however, the novel stages the ambivalence of such perceptions when Clarissa observes an old woman in the room across the street, first interpreting that ‘the old lady stared straight at her’, and then wondering: ‘Could she see her?’ (Woolf 2000, 158). In such manner, the novel foregrounds questions of focalisation and invisibilisation, proffering a model of focalisation as seeing and unseeing, a model that is aware of the dominance of one-sided looks but ultimately focusses on subjective intervisibility. Mrs Dalloway thus turns out to be representative of how crucial the aspect of focalisation is for any mapping of invisible characters.


31In our age of surveillance capitalism (Zuboff 2019) with its struggles for recognition (Honneth 1995) and battles for the right to look (Mirzoeff 2011), visibility has become a prime political, aesthetic, and theoretical concern. The literary history of invisible characters in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is vital to such discussions. Literal and metaphorical invisibility is a trope used in a variety of genres across media and national boundaries. Its implications for vision, recognition, and surveillance are manifold. If the emerging field of invisibility studies is to be a ‘cutting-edge domain of the human sciences in the twenty-first century’ (Král 2014, 6), it must come to terms with the motif of invisibility in literary history before and after the critical juncture of Ellison’s Invisible Man.

32Literary invisibility studies will then also be relevant from a methodological viewpoint. While rooted in her own and Stanley Cavell’s projects of making Wittgensteinian philosophy the foundation of literary study, Moi’s intervention into the debate on character is also part of the ongoing development of postcritical approaches to literature and culture. Such approaches generally emphasise ‘the visible rather than the concealed’ (Anker and Felski 2017, 16). In light of this methodological opposition, the study of invisible characters forms a self-reflexive testing ground for ideas about the valorisation of either visibility or invisibility, since invisible characters inevitably figure the relationality of in/visibility in both its political and literary senses.

33The distinctions I suggested here need to be complemented with further intra- and interdisciplinary work. One step in this direction is the idea of ‘unseeing people’, understood as a subjective and an objective genitive: as the former, it means people who do not see, and as the latter, it means the process of invisibilisation. In moving towards a clear view of invisible characters in narrative fiction, it is vital to attempt to watch and analyse this process of unseeing from both perspectives. This will bring a genuinely literary understanding to the political discourses of invisibility, demonstrating how social invisibilisation means that real persons are treated like fictional entities.

34On that note, it is striking how Ellison’s novel brings together precisely the two major tropes of invisible lives and silent voices. Invisible Man is an orator par excellence, and he is about to leave his underground hiding place at the end of the epilogue, when the end of the narration, the end of the writing process, and his attainment of knowledge of the conditions of invisibility congeal. Once he knows invisibility (though he cannot escape it), he famously asks: ‘Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?’ (Ellison 2014, 581). The voice of this invisible life does not remain silent and travels across space and time. How other invisible characters responded, giving new answers to the question of whether and how subjects can make themselves visible, is a field yet to be explored.

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1 On invisibility studies, see also Steiner and Veel (2015), who aim for a multidisciplinary analysis of the ‘ongoing negotiation of (in)visibility in contemporary culture,’ particularly in architecture and surveillance (Steiner and Veel 2015, xviii).

2 The phrase ‘narratives of invisibility’ is used by Noam Elcott in his study of artificial darkness in modern art and media (Elcott 2016, 123) and by Elizabeth Throesch in her study of the fourth dimension in British fin-de-siècle literature and culture (Throesch 2017, 11). The term is crucial for designating the diverse transmedial and transhistorical corpus of narratives that feature invisibility as an element of salience in the semiotic sense.

3 Moi suggests ‘clear view’ and ‘surveyable representation’ as translations for Wittgenstein’s ‘übersichtliche Darstellung’, but it should be noted that G.E.M. Anscombe translates the term as ‘perspicuous representation,’ and uses ‘clear view’ to translate the verb ‘übersehen’, which is very close to ‘survey’ (Wittgenstein 1997, 49 and 49e). Its significance lies in that ‘[a] perspicuous representation produces just that understanding which consists in “seeing connexions”’, changing ‘the way we look at things’ (Wittgenstein 1997, 49e).

4 For this attitude and his distancing from the tradition of the African American protest novel as exemplified by Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Ellison was criticized by other Black writers, particularly in the wake of the Black Power movement. For instance, see Rampersad (2007, 379-380) on Ellison and Amiri Baraka.

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Gero Guttzeit, « Unseeing People: Towards a Clear View of Invisible Characters in Narrative Fiction »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 61 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2021, consulté le 02 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Gero Guttzeit

Dr. Gero Guttzeit teaches English Literature at LMU Munich. He specializes in transatlantic literatures of the long nineteenth century, popular fiction, rhetorical cultures, and authorship. His first book The Figures of Edgar Allan Poe: Authorship, Antebellum Literature, and Transatlantic Rhetoric appeared in DeGruyter’s Anglia Book Series in 2017. His current research project deals with literary character and narratives of invisibility. In this context, an article on ‘Invisibility, Monstrosity, and Whiteness in H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man’ has appeared in the Journal for the Study of British Cultures. Further articles on invisibility in Adam Smith and Eliza Haywood as well as in Mat Johnson’s Pym are forthcoming in Internationale Zeitschrift für Kulturkomparatistik and REAL: Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature, respectively. His work has also been published in such journals as Forum for Modern Language Studies, Anglistik, and Scholarly Editing.

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