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.