H. G. Wells

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H. G. Wells World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In all of his work, Wells prided himself on his opposition to the status quo. He became attracted to people of science because they proved to be the most capable of thinking beyond their times, of imagining other ages and forms of society. He delighted in twitting the stolid attitudes of the late Victorians and Edwardians, showing a London laid waste by a Martian invasion, a populace agog at the machinations of an invisible man, and a community outraged by the heroine’s seduction of an older man in Ann Veronica: A Modern Love Story(1909), a book that hardly concealed the fact that it was based on his scandalous liaison with Amber Reeves.

Powerfully influenced by the ideas of Darwin—as they had been interpreted and disseminated by Wells’s teacher, T. H. Huxley—Wells sought to show the direction in which history was headed. He clearly foresaw that feminism would triumph, in the sense that women would eventually enjoy an equal relationship with men. He anticipated the world of atomic weapons and the mass destruction of cities, of total war that would respect no enclaves of humanity. He was, in many respects, a pessimist, and yet he continued to hope that somehow humanity would see its folly before it was too late.

Through his imagination and reason, Wells indefatigably created fiction and philosophical treatises aimed at stimulating and teaching the world to think ahead. The planet itself, he believed, was threatened—perhaps by invasions of aliens, perhaps by its own blindness to its self-destructive potential.

The Darwinian idea of evolution, however, suggested to Wells that human beings could, in fact, trace the outline of history and encompass it so that something approaching a world government might be possible. His task was to unite the individual with the cosmic, to imbue the culture with a universal consciousness commensurate with the immensity of the world’s maturation.

Thus, the scientific romances and the realistic novels are but different sides of Wells’s comprehensive attack on provinciality and his plea for an enlarged human understanding that would overthrow the conventions of polite society. He found that England wanted to be jarred; it needed to perceive itself as under threat from above and outside itself. In the Days of the Comet (1906), for example, he described a Europe very much on the eve of the destruction that it visited upon itself in 1914, the start of World War I. In The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind (1914), he prophesied an atomic war in 1958. In The Shape of Things to Come: The Ultimate Resolution (1933), he accurately described an air attack on London in 1940.

In Tono-Bungay (1908), Wells drew upon his own childhood at Up Park to show how the class structure and capitalistic growth actually abetted each other and produced a world that demeaned individuals even while promising them great wealth and prestige. In Marriage, Geoffrey Trafford, a promising scientist, finds himself trapped in his marriage to the forceful Majorie Pope, who gradually draws him into the petty, materialistic middle-class life that derails his once bright career. In The Passionate Friends, Lady Mary, the daughter of an earl, forsakes her true love, Stephen Stratton (a commoner), for an arranged marriage that brings her into the world of politics, wealth, and power, only to realize, too late, that she has made a tragedy of their lives.

Wells did not believe, however, that either literature or science provided a panacea. Wells’s scientists are often arrogant and authoritarian, so sure of their superiority and of the rightness of their inventions and insights that they run roughshod over humanity, literally mowing down people in the street (as the invisible man does) or sadly recognizing (too late) the limitations of their innovations (as the inventor of the time machine does). By the same token, Wells had little patience with progenitors of literary modernism—novelists such as Henry James, who made of literature a precious...

(The entire section is 3,708 words.)