H. G. Wells

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What are the themes of “The Red Room” by H. G. Wells?

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Fear is the overarching theme in H. G. Wells’s “The Red Room.” Fear is explored through two sets of thematic relationships: light versus dark and the human versus the inhuman.

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The most prominent theme in the “The Red Room” is fear. In fact, the narrator’s sole purpose for being at Lorraine Castle is to challenge the reputation of the room that has caused everyone to fear it.

One of the ways in which Wells introduces fear into the story is...

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with the tension between light and dark. Wells depicts the play between light and dark with flames and the shadows they cast. Flames are a particularly useful source of light for creating fear and dramatic tension because they are unstable: their flickering casts constantly moving shadows, and they are easily extinguished. Additionally, they only light a limited space. The narrator describes his candle’s relationship to the darkness:

My candle was a little tongue of light in the vastness of the chamber; its rays failed to pierce to the opposite end of the room, and left an ocean of dull red mystery and suggestion, sentinel shadows and watching darknesses beyond its island of light.

As the story develops, we see the narrator increasingly obsessed with fighting off the darkness with candles. He lights every one in the room and searches the hallway for additional candles. After he lights all seventeen of the candles he has collected, his relief is brief because they start to go out. As they continue to go out, he yells into the void as if to reason with an unseen force, “those candles are wanted.” However, his desperation to control the darkness proves to be futile. The more the narrator fights, the more he seems to create the conditions for unease.

Another thematic relationship Wells uses to introduce fear into the story is through the juxtaposition between the human and the inhuman. We see that even before he goes to the room, he is unsettled by what he identifies as the “inhuman” characteristics of the elderly custodians:

I must confess I had scarce expected these grotesque custodians. To my mind there is something inhuman in senility, something crouching and atavistic; the human qualities seem to drop from old people insensibly day by day.

Later he continues to be haunted by their presence:

The three of them made me feel uncomfortable, with their gaunt silences, their bent carriage, their evident unfriendliness to me and to one another. ...

I must confess that the oddness of these three old pensioners in whose charge her ladyship had left the castle ... had affected me curiously in spite of my effort to keep myself at a matter-of-fact phase.

By the end of the story, when the narrator shares his experience of fear with the custodians, his view of them as “inhuman” is altered. He describes the man with the withered hand as someone who spoke “as one who condoles with a friend.”

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Name and explain three themes of "The Red Room" by H. G. Wells.

At the beginning of the story the narrator describes his elderly "custodians" as "crouching and atavistic." He says also that there is, to his mind, "something inhuman in senility." The narrator compares one of those custodians, an old lady, to "a dead body, glaring into the fire with lack-lustre eyes." The elderly "custodians" are described in broadly negative terms. There is something slightly sinister or otherworldly about them. The narrator dismisses the warnings of these elderly "custodians" as the products of their senility. By the end of the story, however, we realize, as he does, that these warnings were accurate and should have been heeded. The point is that there is a wisdom in old age which the complacency of youth ridicules, and does not recognize until it is too late.

As the narrator approaches the red room, and remembers the stories he has heard about this room, he begins to feel a "twinge of apprehension." He acknowledges that the "sentinel shadows and watching darknesses" of the room "disturb" him, and he realizes, after seeing his white face in the mirror, that he is "in a state of considerable nervous tension." The narrator's fear grows and grows as the hour draws closer to midnight, when he expects the fabled ghost to make an appearance. Indeed, as he says, "the brooding expectation of the vigil weigh(s) heavily upon (him)." Thus the narrator's fear grows as much or more from the sense of dread inside his own mind as it does from any external cause. As his dread increases, so too his imagination becomes more excitable, and more prone to seeing sinister things in the shadows. The overall idea here is perhaps that fear is a product of our own minds.

Once inside the red room, the narrator's fear is so extreme, and his imagination so excited, that he begins to imagine a sinister supernatural force looming over him. This supernatural presence extinguishes all of the candles, as if with the sweep of "an invisible hand." It is then described as a "ponderous blackness," suggesting a weight that presses down upon and overpowers the narrator. The supernatural presence takes on no more concrete form than this. It is merely an impression of "blackness." This suggests that the supernatural is merely a product of the speaker's own excited, fearful imagination. It is an extension of the narrator's fear. Both his fear and the supernatural presence are thus manifestations of the inner workings of his own mind.

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