Critical Evaluation

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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 novel: the sham, artificiality, and superficiality of the world as Wells saw it.

The history of Tono-Bungay, the patent medicine that brings fame and fortune to Edward Ponderevo and his nephew George, serves as a metaphor for Wells’s view of English society. The tonic is an instant success, rising meteorically in the commercial sky. The book contains several allusions to dramatic spurts and rapid rises. Nothing, however, sustains them; Tono-Bungay is a fraud, and the financial empire that it spawns depends on manipulation, chicanery, and, in the end, even forgery. Its spectacular rise is followed by an equally spectacular demise: Like a rocket, it bursts into the sky, only to disintegrate and fall back to earth. The world in which Wells lived was also in a state of degeneration and disintegration.

Pervasive decay provides Wells with another theme, one that follows logically from the sudden success of a venture built on a sham. As Edward Ponderevo’s business conglomerate crumbles under the weight of its own inadequacies, the man responsible for it begins to rot away himself. Wells’s account of Edward’s terminal illness emphasizes its deteriorating impact. Even Beatrice Normandy is affected by the decay. Her involvement with the upper class and her role as mistress to an English nobleman have corrupted her. She finally rejects a relationship with George because she feels herself contaminated by the stench of high society. The ultimate symbol of...

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decay is the quap, the material that, still through manipulation and fraud, is expected to save Edward Ponderevo and his assorted schemes. He looks on quap as a quick and total remedy for his dying empire, but instead it destroys everything it touches. It kills all life in its vicinity in Africa; it provokes George Ponderevo into killing an innocent African; it even rots the ship carrying it back to England, causing the ship to sink to the bottom of the ocean.

Wells’s criticisms and accusations of degeneracy are not confined to the upper classes. In his view, all elements of English society are equally at fault. The Ramboat family, for example, represent the proletariat but do not come across as a socialist might have portrayed them. Instead, they are dull, vacuous, and inept, as decayed in their own way as the gentility of Beatrice Normandy and Archie Garvell. No group emerges from Wells’s attack unscathed.

Social criticism was hardly new with Wells and Tono-Bungay. The uniqueness and superior quality of this novel rest not on the novelty of its format but on the skill with which Wells presents his argument in the context of an amusing story. Despite the somber message, an exuberant humor runs through the dialogue of the characters, and even their names show Wells’s wit at work. Strong character development, however, is not an element of Tono-Bungay. The personages remain almost stereotypes of their respective classes, caricatures rather than real humans.

Only two exceptions provide relief from Wells’s pessimism and criticism. One, Edward’s wife, Susan, lives through all of her husband’s escapades without losing her sensible good nature or her affection for George. Another very positive element appears in Ponderevo’s research first with gliders and then with destroyers. “Sometimes,” he says, “I call this reality Science, sometimes I call it Truth.” Nevertheless, Wells fails to explain why or how Susan manages to resist the forces of illusion and decay that surround her, and he does not consider Ponderevo one of the “Samurai” who might save civilization through scientific research. Thus neither exception offers an answer to the question of what might be done to provide humanity salvation from degeneration and destruction. At least Wells, through his alter ego Ponderevo, engages in a search for a solution.