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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1394

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First published: 1910

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Comic romance

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Locale: England

Principal Characters:

Mr. Polly, a shopkeeper

Miriam, his wife

The Plump Woman

Uncle Jim, her nephew

The Story:

Mr. Polly sat on a stile and cursed. He cursed the world, his wife, and himself, for Mr. Polly was thirty-five years old and buried alive. He hated his slovenly wife, his fellow shopkeepers, and every other person in the world. He felt that his life had been nothing but one frustration after another, from babyhood into his middle thirties.

Mr. Polly had been the usual adored baby, kissed and petted by his parents. His mother had died when he was seven years old. After the routine sketchy schooling of his class, he was apprenticed by his father to the owner of a draper’s shop.

Although Mr. Polly was ill-suited to work in that shop or in any other, he served out his apprenticeship and then began a progression from one shop to another, being unable to hold one position for very long. He hated the bleak life in dreary dormitories. He also hated being told to hustle when he wanted to dream beautiful dreams about adventure and romance. He spent most of his money and all of his spare time on books that took him away from the humdrum of socks and neckties. He did not know what it was that he really wanted, but to anyone who might have studied him, the answer would have been simple. He wanted companions.

When his father died, Mr. Polly found himself in possession of several useless bits of bric-a-brac and three hundred and ninety-five pounds. It seemed at first that a whole new world was open to him with this new wealth. Various relatives had sensible suggestions for him, most of them centering on his opening a little shop. He put them off, for he wanted to spend his time in taking a holiday.

At his father’s funeral, which was a proper one, Mr. Polly had met aunts and cousins he did not know existed. Three of his cousins, all female, began to show attention to their rich relative, and before he was sure of what had happened, Mr. Polly found himself in possession of a wife, his cousin Miriam, and a draper’s shop. For the next fifteen years, Mr. Polly was a respectable though unhappy shopkeeper. He could get on with none of his neighbors, and he soon hated his slatternly wife as much as he hated the other shopkeepers.

For these reasons, Mr. Polly sat on the stile and cursed his luck. In addition to his other troubles, he found himself unable to meet the forthcoming rent for the first time in fifteen years. As well as he could figure, he was in debt sixty or seventy pounds. He knew how Miriam would greet this news; it was just too much for him.

At this point, a plan that had been forming in the back of his mind began to take shape. He would kill himself. Then the struggle would be over for him, and Miriam would be provided for by his insurance. He would set fire to the shop to obtain the fire insurance, and before he burned up, he would cut his throat. Craftily, he waited until a Sunday evening, when almost everyone was at church, and then carried out his plan. It worked so well that half the business area of the village was burned; but when Mr. Polly saw flames licking the leg of his trousers, he forgot all about cutting his throat and ran screaming down the street.

It was a beautiful fire; because of it, Mr. Polly was a hero for the first time in his life. He rescued a deaf old lady who lived on a top floor and for whose safety he felt responsible because he had started the fire. When the excitement was all over, it dawned on him that he had forgotten to cut his throat. He felt a little guilty. Nevertheless, that one night of fighting back against the world changed Mr. Polly forever. Taking only twenty-one pounds for himself and leaving the rest for Miriam, he simply disappeared. Wandering through the country, he enjoyed life for the first time. He discovered the world, the beauties of nature, and the casual friendship of passing acquaintances. It was wonderful.

After a month, Mr. Polly arrived at a little wayside inn run by a cheerful plump woman. They felt an instant closeness, and she offered him a job as handyman. His duties were endless and varied, but there was an unhurried peace about the plump woman and the inn that brought joy to Mr. Polly’s soul. There was, however, a black spot on the peace. The plump woman had a nephew, Uncle Jim, who was a brute and a villain. He had run off all other males who had ever stopped there, and he beat his aunt and stole her money. She knew that he would return again when he was out of funds. Mr. Polly knew this was not his fight, but he had started fighting on the night of the fire and he would not stop now. Sometimes running when he should have been chasing, hiding when he should have been seeking his adversary, Mr. Polly nevertheless bested the scoundrel in two encounters. Then Uncle Jim disappeared again, taking Mr. Polly’s clothing and leaving in his place an unnecessary peace.

Uncle Jim did not appear again. After five years at the inn, Mr. Polly began to think of Miriam and her sadness at losing him. Conscience-stricken, he returned to the village and there found that Miriam and her sisters had opened a tearoom, untidy but successful enough to provide their living. They thought him dead, a body wearing his clothing having been fished out of the river. Miriam, recognizing him in terror, began at once to fret about having to pay back his insurance money. She could have spared herself the worry: Mr. Polly had no desire to reappear. He told her to keep her mouth shut, and no one would be the wiser.

Mr. Polly made his way back to the inn and the plump woman. With Uncle Jim gone for good, he knew at last a quiet, wonderful peace.

Critical Evaluation:

Alfred Polly, the English Walter Mitty, closely resembles some of the other protagonists of H. G. Wells. Polly is a more middle-class version of Artie Kipps and a less aggressive counterpart of the heroes of TONO-BUNGAY and LOVE AND MR. LEWISHAM. In MR. POLLY, the objects of Wells’s attack are the same as in those earlier works: England’s stultifying class system; the mind-numbing quality of lower-class education; the boredom of “a nation of shopkeepers”; the repression of sexual joy. The novel’s humor and pathos derive from Polly’s wonderfully confused ways of letting his romantic spirit find expression in such an unfavorable environment.

Like a Don Quixote on a bicycle, Polly seldom discovers a correspondence between his real and imaginary worlds. “The Three P’s”—Polly and two fellow apprentices—do enjoy a robust picaresque fellowship. Polly summons up all of his malapropistic poetry in wooing his mysterious “lady” in the woods (while her hidden school chums stifle hysterical giggles). The world of commerce and convention, however, always interrupts such halcyon episodes, and bewildered Mr. Polly is dragged into matrimony by the heavy tides of custom. His courtship is hilariously painful. Terrified by the proposal he almost offered Minnie, he impulsively proposes to Miriam, only to discover that he would rather have had Minnie. During the wedding, Polly imagines far off “a sweet face in sunshine”; he then awakens to the drab little person next to him: “It was astounding. She was his wife!”

Never quite able to identify the source of his dissatisfaction, Polly still knows that a change must come. His suicide attempt is successful: killing the resigned, conformist, “practical” Polly. Connecting the liberated romantic of the end to the earlier spineless protagonist is the world of Potwell Inn, almost purely feudal. Mr. Polly, transformed into a latter-day Robin Hood, defends his damsel from Uncle Jim. The novel remains wonderfully comic as Wells toys with the reader’s sense of psychological reality.