Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442
Tono-Bungay, by H.G Wells, is the story of George Ponderovo, which he narrates in the first person. The book uses literary devices that include comedy, science fiction, and social commentary to weave together an interesting narrative that is actually a semi-autobiographical account of Wells's life.
George's mother is the housekeeper at Bladesover House, and the time George spends there makes him aware of the clear distinctions between the various social classes in Edwardian England. George's fight with Archie Garvell (the half-brother of Beatrice Normandy), results in George being banished from Bladesover House. He is sent to Chatham where he works in a bakery owned by his maternal uncle, Nicodemus Frapp.
George finds it difficult to accept the Frapp family's faith in religion and the squalor that they live in. He runs away from Chatham, and ends up with his paternal uncle Edward Ponderovo. George begins studying for a degree in science. He falls in love with a young woman named Marion, but the couple cannot hope for settled married life until George achieves some kind of financial security.
The opportunity for financial independence presents itself when Uncle Edward sends George to manage his company that markets a patented medicine: Tono-Bungay. George realizes straightaway that the product is spurious and the company is only kept afloat through aggressive advertising. Yet he agrees to join hands with his uncle because he wishes to marry Marion.
George works hard to promote his uncle's business which soon grows to include different rejuvenative products. George marries Marion, but the two soon grow apart because George finds Marion to be unexciting and staid in her attitude to life. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable due to the fakery involved in his professional life as well as his boring romantic life, George begins to flirt with other women and develops an interest in aeronautics.
George gets reacquainted with Beatrice, and they profess their love for each other. However, Beatrice is engaged to a rich old man. George divorces his wife, but Beatrice refuses to marry him, stating that George would be unable to provide her with the lifestyle that she's grown accustomed to. Additionally, George has lost money after the sudden collapse of his uncle's business.
Uncle Edward's financial speculations leave him in debt, and George is caught up in the messy affairs by association. To escape creditors and the law, uncle and nephew escape to France in George's airship. In France, Uncle Edward falls ill and dies in Bayonne.
George returns to England. His experiences in life have left him a bitter critic of the materialistic mores that plague English society. He turns his attention to the development of destroyers.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 992
In Tono-Bungay, George Ponderovo has decided to tell his life history in the form of a novel. He has grown up in Bladesover, a great country estate, which he describes as a metaphor for the state of English society. As a boy, George sees the world of the wealthy through the eyes of the servants, a comic collection of men and women whose stultifying conversation mirrors the rigidity and unimaginativeness of their plight. Drawing on his memories of Up Park, Wells portrays these lower-class characters with affection, although he shows that the clichés they find so comforting are precisely what prevent them from appreciating life to the fullest.
George’s own feelings, as those of a servant’s boy, are kept on a tight rein, but he is liberated from the life below the stairs by Beatrice Normandy, a beautiful young lady of the house who demands that George be allowed to play with her. Exhilarated by her attention, George is gradually able to express himself and to develop a strong sense of his own worth, but then he is banished from Bladesover when he gets into a fight with her half brother.
After a series of misadventures resembling Wells’s own youth, George finds refuge with his Uncle Edward Ponderovo, an ebullient country chemist who dreams of huge commercial success. Unfortunately, Uncle Edward’s first foray in the stock market is a dismal failure, and George discovers that his mother’s small but essential fund of savings has also been depleted by his uncle’s speculations.
Nursing a grudge against his uncle, George turns to science, studying for a university degree and falling in love with a young woman, Marion, who refuses to marry him until he has a steady, adequate yearly income. Suddenly, George is summoned by his uncle, who has made a smashing success with Tono-Bungay, a patent medicine that promises rejuvenation. At first, George balks at his uncle’s plea that he needs George to run the new company, for George knows that the product is bogus, kept afloat by aggressive advertising and not by an inherent positive property. He is troubled by what he sees as modern life’s tendency to market goods of no intrinsic value, products that contribute nothing substantial to the economy or to the health of the country. He is smitten with Marion, however, and sees that, by the management of his uncle’s affairs, he will have the income that will convince her to marry him.
Accepting his uncle’s offer, George turns his mind to business, fashioning a company that becomes one of the leading enterprises of the time, expanding into lines of new products and remedies (extolling the magical properties of various brands of soaps, for example). George marries but is dissatisfied, realizing that his wife is dull and conventional and does not share his romantic, sexual drives. Disgusted with both his marriage and his business, George turn to affairs with other women and to scientific experiments, concentrating on efforts to develop an airplane.
What troubles George is the growing commercialism of society—not only his uncle’s blindness to the sham involved in marketing his products but also his wife’s mercantile mentality. She wants the comforts of life, but she has no passion. George concludes that he has bought himself a wife, one who would not consent to marriage until he raised his offer, telling her that he would be earning five hundred pounds a year, a two-hundred-pound increase over the amount she said would be necessary for their married life.
At this point, Beatrice Normandy reenters George’s life. They have not seen each other since George’s banishment from Bladesover. Both of them realize that they have always loved each other, although Beatrice is engaged to an older, wealthy upper-class man. Although they become lovers, Beatrice refuses to marry George (now divorced from his wife), and he supposes it is because of his class origins and his business. He eventually learns to accept the fact that she is (by her own account) a selfish woman whom he would not be able to please in marriage. She has grown accustomed to her imperious, privileged life, and George, who has lost most of his fortune in his uncle’s sudden crash, would never be able to satisfy her.
Tono-Bungay is one of Wells’s finest novels because it contains such rich characters and astute social analysis. George’s desire to be distinguished, his craving for money, and his yearning for a place in society epitomize the development of modern life. By writing his autobiography, he is simultaneously showing how the modern self develops, encounters the categories of class and capitalism, and thrives or fails by the canons of a society based on the exploitation of human desire. The products that his Uncle Ponderovo markets as a way to renew the self are simply the material manifestation of George’s aspirations. George knows that these aspirations are romantic, that they are not rooted in reality, and yet he can fool himself as easily as his uncle fools his customers.
At the same time, there is a reckoning for Tono-Bungay and for Edward and George Ponderovo. A society cannot stand only on self-promotion, Wells implies. Edward never faces this fact. He is always the genial uncle, the innocent who is so at one with the principle of self-aggrandizement that he never suffers George’s self-critical doubts. Consequently, he becomes a victim of his own enterprise. On the other hand, George’s yearning to fly expresses his realization that society, the status quo, cannot gratify his highest aspirations. He must find a way to transcend his time. As such, he is the archetypal Wells character, attempting to fulfill himself by going beyond himself, traveling through time and space to a greater world that will yield a greater self, an identity that has truly shed the limitations of class and culture.
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