H. G. Wells’s novels, as well as other literary forms, are vehicles for his social analysis and criticism. Some of his early works, such as The Time Machine: An Invention (1895), The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898), reflect an extreme fin de siècle pessimism. In those works, Wells predicts nothing ahead but doom and destruction for humanity. In later writings, however, such as A Modern Utopia (1905), he presents at least the possibility of salvation through an elite leadership called the Samurai. If society can produce such an elite out of the morass of democratic mediocrity, survival of the species might become possible. This elitist ideology is present in Wells’s writing to the time of his death. In Tono-Bungay, Wells seems to take a position somewhere between the two extremes of pessimism and guarded hope, with the emphasis leaning in the direction of the pessimistic. Nevertheless, elements in the character and behavior of George Ponderevo and his aunt Susan suggest real, if qualified, signs of hope.
Tono-Bungay represents Wells at his best, using witty language and clever plotting to dramatize his dire predictions of humanity’s fate. It is also his most autobiographical and intensely personal work. Although Wells denied any resemblance, his own experiences remarkably paralleled those of his hero, George Ponderevo. Like George in Tono-Bungay, Wells was little influenced by his father, who deferred to his domineering wife, the housekeeper of a large country estate. Wells and Ponderevo both studied science at the Consolidated Technical Schools at South Kensington but dropped out after mediocre academic careers. Both married dull, insipid women and became unfaithful husbands. In fact, the many similarities between Wells’s life and Ponderevo’s strongly imply that the author wrote Tono-Bungay as a statement of his personal beliefs.
As the children of servants, Wells and Ponderevo had opportunities to view English society from the bottom up. The descriptions of life at Bladesover House, particularly the afternoon teas over which George’s mother presides, reveal its pomposity and pretension. The incident with Archie Garvell exposes the treachery and deceit of the supposed “better sort.” Ponderevo’s Bladesover experiences introduce an important theme that runs through the whole...
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