H. G. Wells

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H. G. Wells Long Fiction Analysis

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H. G. Wells’s early scientific romances begin with The Time Machine and conclude with The First Men in the Moon. His social satires and comic romances commence with Kipps and end with The History of Mr. Polly. Didactic fiction dominated his last decades, from Ann Veronica to You Can’t Be Too Careful. Throughout is a struggle between science and socialism. Visions of doom alternate with calls for reform and renewal; individuals acquire knowledge of science but lose control of their destinies.

The Time Machine

Wells’s early novels are journeys of ironic discovery. The enduring point of The Time Machine is in the Time-Traveller’s frightening discovery in the year 802701. He encounters the Eloi, who have been terrorized by the Morlocks, molelike creatures who prey on the flesh of the Upper-worlders. They are the fruits of an evolutionary process of separating capitalists from workers. Before he returns to his own time, the Time-Traveller accidentally moves even further into the future, to an Earth about to fall into a dying Sun.

The Island of Dr. Moreau

Edward Prendick, narrator of The Island of Dr. Moreau, is a castaway, grateful to reach Moreau’s island—until he realizes its horrors. He thinks that Moreau is turning people into animals, but when he finds the Beast-people, he realizes his mistake. Moreau explains that pain is animality, and he excises pain to humanize animals, but they kill him as they revert to their animal natures. Prendick barely escapes becoming an animal before he returns to civilization, where he has anxiety attacks about people’s animality.

Pessimism is never far from the surface of Wells’s writing. Losing faith in reason, he turned to prophetic satire, as in The Invisible Man. In this story, Griffin, having failed to anticipate the awful effects of losing visibility, has lapsed in ethical responsibility because he had no training or economic opportunity to make better use of his knowledge. Lacking love, he lacks constructive purpose for his power. His invisibility represents knowledge itself, as either destructive or constructive. Knowledge and power combine without sympathy in The War of the Worlds to result in catastrophe. The narrator is a frightened man struggling to compete for survival of the fittest. He believes that the Martians are little more than brains, dispassionate reason threatening annihilation. All brain with no sympathy threatens civilization, but so does instinct with no brain. The Martians are near success when suddenly they begin to die, ironically having succumbed to some of Earth’s tiniest life-forms, bacteria.

The First Men in the Moon

Wells reverses the cosmic journey in The First Men in the Moon, as Bedford accompanies eccentric scientist Cavor to mine the Moon, adding private enterprise to science. The heroes find an intoxicating mushroom, which prompts Bedford to speculate that his private motive for profit will produce public benefits—even for the Moon itself. This madly grandiose notion is subverted when Bedford and Cavor are captured by the antlike Selenites, who live under the surface of the Moon. When Bedford escapes alone to Earth, Cavor sends messages that he is to be executed to prevent Earth inhabitants from returning with their violent ways, to do to the Moon what Wells had envisioned in The War of the Worlds, where Earth was invaded by Martians.

The Food of the Gods, and How It Came to Earth

The Food of the Gods, and How It Came to Earth edges beyond science and humor into socialism and satire. Experiments with Boomfood on a chicken farm cause mass destruction through the creation of giant chickens, rats, and wasps; human babies...

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become giants, and ordinary mortals grow terrified. Wells is on the giants’ side, because they can make a new world by destroying the faults of the old. People accommodate to preserve old ways, but they shut their eyes to truth, eventually causing a crisis of choice between old and new. The story ends as the giants prepare for a war with the little people.

In the Days of the Comet

With In the Days of the Comet Wells presents a more optimistic view of changes that can be made in the world. Willie Leadford describes life before the great “change,” when a comet turned Earth into paradise. The power of the novel, however, is in the rhythm of rage and hate that accelerates as Willie pursues the woman he loved, to kill her and her new lover. This momentum is accented by other accelerating events, including economic crisis and war with Germany. The comet changes all, including Willie and his beloved, Nettie, who offers to live with both lovers. In a new world, people learn to accept polygamy as natural and right.

Kipps

Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul is a story like Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-1861, serial; 1861, book). The aunt and uncle who reared Kipps expected him to become a store clerk; Kipps has not been very skilled at anything he has undertaken, and he proves no better at handling an unexpected inheritance. Kipps has a dreary existence: He gains no real pleasure from life, not even from reading. Life in lower-middle-class commercial and shopkeeping society is without substance, imagination, or purpose. Kipps’s first thought is to buy a banjo, though he cannot play it. Thinking more seriously of his prospects, he asks his art teacher to marry him, and she proceeds to teach him to speak and dress properly. Kipps tries and hopes, until he encounters an old love, Ann Pornick, working as a maid. He snubs her and in his guilt asks her forgiveness; she not only forgives him but also marries him. Thus, Kipps has stumbled through mistake after mistake, from education to apprenticeship to courtship and marriage. Finally, when he loses most of his fortune, he and his wife resign themselves to a restricted life and open a bookshop.

Wells’s satire is directed at Kipps for trying to be more than he can be, for misplacing values in a system of manners; indeed, Wells intensely scorns the social superficialities. The protagonist of Tono-Bungay, George Ponderevo, has much in common with Kipps, but George is less simple and more reflective. His early life is like Kipps’s (and Wells’s) in that he resists training for trade, shows a talent for science, marries above his class, divorces, and rediscovers a childhood romance, through scenes of satiric analysis of the social snobs, religious bigots, and capitalist cutthroats of England. More sympathetic is ambitious Uncle Teddy, who makes a fortune with Tono-Bungay, a bogus medicine, and launches a disastrous career in the “romance of modern commerce.” George Ponderevo is more a master of his destiny than is Kipps. After the collapse of his uncle’s financial empire, George turns to engineering as a means of commitment to scientific objectivity. He is beyond society and governments, as he is alone in the world of love.

Science triumphs over socialism and capitalism in Tono-Bungay, while individual vitality triumphs over all ideas in The History of Mr. Polly, another of Wells’s best comic novels from his middle period. This story begins with a discontented middle-aged shopkeeper, Mr. Polly, contemplating his boredom, indigestion, and proud misuse of English. He decides to burn his shop and cut his throat. Having succeeded in his arson but having forgotten to cut his throat, he deserts his wife for happy obscurity as a fat woman’s handyman, forgetting the life he detested. Although Mr. Polly is an absurd creature, surrounded by stupid, unambitious people, he is sympathetic because he rebels against that absurdity and stupidity. Wells rewards Mr. Polly well for his rebellion.

Ann Veronica

Wells also rewards the heroine of his infamous novel Ann Veronica, which takes up more fully the themes of free love and women’s rights. Ann Veronica Stanley rebels against her father’s authority and flees to London, where she attends university lectures in biology. Having thrown herself into the cause of women’s suffrage, she is arrested and imprisoned. Then she elopes with her biology instructor, a married man, to Switzerland. This unconventional woman, however, receives a very conventional reward: She marries her lover, has children, and becomes reconciled with her father.

Having put new ideas into old literary forms with Ann Veronica, Wells set the direction of his writing for the rest of his life. In his later novels, ideas, argument, debate, and intellectual analysis become prominent, often at the expense of literary form. Feminist causes give way to issues of world peace in books dealing with the world wars, the one that was and the one to come. Mr. Britling Sees It Through is one of the best, though it is a troubling confusion of political despair and comic resignation. Touches of good humor keep the book going with scenes of absurdity, as when Mr. Britling tries to drive his car or Mr. Direck tries to understand British manners. This good humor erodes, however, under the pressure of the events of World War I. Mr. Britling’s son is killed, his children’s German tutor also is killed, and his private secretary is terribly wounded. The war nearly destroys Mr. Britling, but he sees it through, clinging to a religious hope of divine struggle through human suffering. He commits himself to the cause of world peace, but in the course of writing a letter to the German parents of his children’s tutor, he gradually gives way to outrage against Germany and finally collapses in grief. The novel ends when Mr. Britling gets up from his writing to look out his window at the sunrise.

Such an ending hints of an uncertainty in Wells’s own commitment to hope. His novels analyze the dead end of civilization and call for redirection through peaceful applications of scientific discoveries. Wells’s bitterness at the barbarism of World War I emerges again in Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island, whose hero, driven by an unhappy love affair and a failing business, travels to forget. This is one of Wells’s most interesting later works, combining anthropology and psychology with experimentation in form. Mr. Blettsworthy’s experience with cannibals on Rampole Island may be a fantasy of his madness or an insight into reality, but his experience on the battlefield of World War I is a plunge into an all-too-real madness. Blettsworthy’s romantic life of optimism finally yields to a cynical discontent with reality. His perspective is not, however, Wells’s final word, since Blettsworthy’s business partner, Lyulph Graves, speaks at the end for a philosophy of “creative stoicism,” like the attitude that is assumed by Mr. Britling and, perhaps, by Wells himself. Certainly there were differing points of view in Wells’s imagination. These differences may express intellectual confusion, but they gave substance to his fiction and saved it from succumbing utterly to his tendency to preach.

The Autocracy of Mr. Parham

The opposition of Blettsworthy and Graves is repeated in the relationship of Mr. Parham with Sir Bussy Woodcock in The Autocracy of Mr. Parham, which envisions a time when humankind might destroy itself through another barbarous world war. Mr. Parham voices the Fascist call (by Benito Mussolini) to traditional discipline and order as a way to prevent self-destruction; Sir Bussy expresses suspicion of dictatorship, social discipline, and intellectual utopias. Wells employs an entertaining device for exposing the differences between his protagonists: He brings them into a fantasy of the future as the result of a séance.

Possessed by a Nietzschean force calling itself the “Master Spirit,” Mr. Parham’s ego is loosed upon the world as the British dictator Lord Paramount. He goes to war with the United States and Germany, aiming for Russia, but he cannot command the obedience of Sir Bussy, who refuses to use a powerful new gas to destroy the opposition. After the séance, Mr. Parham discovers that Sir Bussy has had a dream very much like his own fantasy. Wells’s use of comic irony is very strong in the conclusion, as Mr. Parham is deflated by Sir Bussy’s plans to preach peace through the very means by which Mr. Parham had hoped to reach the world himself: journalism. Mr. Parham is a smug intellectual who knows where the world ought to go, if it would only follow his instructions; Sir Bussy is a muddled businessman, limited by the contingencies of immediate events and satisfied with the disorganized vitality that distresses Mr. Parham. This difference between creative capitalism and intellectual autocracy is imaged as a difference in personalities caught in a play of life’s ironies.

Wells’s scientific romances display an optimistic hope for a future made better by scientific discoveries, countered by the pessimistic doubt that humankind could make the necessary choices for social and political progress. Wells shows sympathy and scorn for the stunted characters of his middle novels, for Kipps, George Ponderevo, and Mr. Polly; he exposes their inadequacies, largely as products of a narrow, stultifying environment, but he also rescues them in life-affirming conclusions. Finally, between the great wars, H. G. Wells, like his Mr. Britling, “saw it through,” exercised the “creative stoicism” of Lyulph Graves, and occasionally managed to rise above his pamphleteering style to produce entertaining novels of lives muddled by uncertainty, conflict, and contradiction.

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