Richard Matheson, “The Shrinking Man” 1956

So we reach the end of the this volume of science fiction novels from the 50s, and my hypothesis that anarchist tensions and questions can be found in American literature without too much struggle is maintained for now.  The fourth novel in this volume is Ricahrd Matheson’s The Shrinking Man.  Richard Matheson is most well-known for I am Legend (or maybe for its thee film adaptations).  He is a trained journalist and served in the Second World War. He has been very active in writing screenplays for television.

The Shrinking Man  was filmed as The Incredible Shrinking Man. j

I was surprised by the richness of this novel, especially since its plot seemed initially to be a bit silly.  A man, affected by a cloud of gas, begins shrinking.  By the end he is fighting cats and spiders and living off of scraps of food in the cellar.  Yet, it is an interesting meditation on human vulnerability, freedom, and how our outward appearance shaped our place in our communities.  These are all useful themes for left-libertarians to meditate on.

Scott Carey, the shrinking man, first approached his problem with anxiety and resorted to help from the normal institutions that helped shape his life: the army (he awaited a G.I. loan to help him with his financial problems caused by medical bills and lack of employment), his old employer who kept him on reduced salary, the medical institutions of modern America, and his family.  One by one these institutions fail Scott as he became smaller and more ridiculous to those observers.  He went from being a loving husband and bread-winner facing a strange medical problem, to a medical curiosity, to a freakish newspaper curiosity, to a house pet, and finally – as he shrunk to near invisibility – forgotten.  Without being too psychological about this, I reckon we have all felt shrunken by our bosses, indifferent institutions, and even our family.

As he shrinks, Scott’s masculinity is assaulted.  While he did not lose his sexual energy – it even peaked at various times – his ridiculous situation made the fulfillment of his desires impossible and certainly comical to his wife.  He eventually finds companionship temporarily with a small woman, but as she is not shrinking the relationship is temporary.  As his daughter sees him more and more as a household curiosity, he second claim to masculinity is lost.  Eventually, he daughter treats him like a pet or doll.  He enjoyed sexually dominating his wife, and when he lose that ability he sought a midget to dominate (if only temporarily).  At point point Scott Carey is mistaken for a child.  Later, he is beaten up by children.  There is clearly no place for him in the “one-dimensional” world of middle-class suburbia.  While his emotional vulnerabilities build up as he is more and more distanced from the secure foundation of the middle-class masculinity on which his security rested, he also became physically less secure, battling cats and a black widow spider who torments him for much of the novel.

Scott does find freedom in the end.  Shrinking did after all allow him to escape the burdens of family and we find no evidence that he found particular happiness in his job, wife, or children.  His time trapped in the cellar, shrinking day by day (but never disappearing, as Zeno’s paradox suggests) allowed him to have great adventures impossible for the middle class man, climbing mountains and fighting monsters.  If we envy Scott’s problem at all, it is because his life really did get more exciting and more free in the end.

The novel ends hopefully: “There was much to be done and more to be thought about.  His brain was teeming with questions and ideas and –yes–hope again.  There was food to be found, water, clothing, shelter.  And, most important, life.  Who knew?  It might be, it just might be there.  Scott Carey ran into his new world, searching.” (774)
“Life” here may not just mean some microscopic intelligence but a truly lived and reflective life.


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