First published in 1956
Scott Carey is dwindling to nothingness. Having been sprayed by insecticide and then irradiated, Scott loses an inch a week until his former self is all but lost. Although the movie version of The Shrinking Man and some later editions of the book add the word "Incredible" to the title, Scott finds his loss of stature to be humiliating and ultimately dehumanizing. The story might be incredible in the sense of "not credible" (how do Scott's organs, particularly his brain, continue to function normally when he is less than a half inch tall?), but Scott is no Ray Palmer. To the extent he demonstrates any heroism, it is in his dogged determination to survive.
Through much of the story, Scott finds himself trapped in the basement being chased by a spider. In Scott's mind, the spider comes to represent "every anxiety, insecurity, and fear in his life given a hideous, night-black form." Scott survives on soggy crackers and water collected in a thimble, although reaching the water becomes a challenge when he shrinks to less than half the thimble's height.
As Scott goes about the daily business of survival, he flashes back to the days that preceded his perilous life in the basement. Scott is 6 feet tall before he starts to shrink. When he sees his mother (at 5'3"), she is in denial. When he's down to 4 feet, his wife starts to treat him like a child (it doesn't occur to her that he might still want sex). At 3'6" he attracts a pedophile. At an inch under 3 feet, he feels despair because his wife pities him. At 21 inches, he fantasizes about a teenage babysitter but she, like his wife, is unattainable. Later he needs to be protected from his daughter, who comes to view him as a doll rather than a father. Pride prevents him from cashing in on his story; he refuses to be treated as a freak, even though his family desperately needs the money. He achieves a respite from the destruction of his self-image when he meets a female circus midget, but he knows the relationship will not last. Nothing can stop him from shrinking.
Richard Matheson fully imagines the physical dangers and difficulties of being less than an inch tall, but the story is more interesting for the emotional toll that Scott experiences. "Awareness of the shrinking was the curse, not the shrinking." Matheson creates a convincing psychological profile of a man who can't readily cope with the loss of everything he values: his job, his wife, and chiefly, his self-respect. Experiencing "a complete negation of spirit," he feels like "a pathetic fraction of a shadow," drained of purpose, unable to meet his basic needs, dependent upon others for survival. In the end, however, trapped in the basement and too small to be noticed by others, he can only depend on himself.
An ineffable sadness pervades the story. As Sam reclines on a dollhouse bed and says to the doll beside him "Why aren't you real?," the trauma of his vanishing life is palpable. There are many such moments in The Shrinking Man. Yet, in the end, this isn't a sad novel. The human spirit triumphs. Life endures. There is meaning to be found in even the smallest existence. This is Sam's ultimate discovery, and it is a metaphorical lesson for all who feel themselves shrinking, diminishing in importance, as their lives unfold.