Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 654
One of the biggest problems that George faces from the outset of Tono-Bungay is that he's born into the servant class. This keeps him from joining the class of people who he is raised to believe are his betters; however, he becomes friends with The Honorable Beatrice and plays with her for a couple years until he's sent away from her estate. H.G. Wells writes:
In that English countryside of my boyhood every human being had a "place." It belonged to you from your birth like the colour of your eyes, it was inextricably your destiny. Above you were your betters, below you were your inferiors, and there were even an unstable questionable few, cases so disputable that you might for the rough purposes of every day at least, regard them as your equals.
This puts George in a position where he has to work with his uncle. Once his mother dies, he's even more alone. He's unable to ever break the barriers that separate him from the people with real wealth and power—but continues trying. He's even willing to bend his morals to get what he believes he should have.
Tono-Bungay is a product that his Uncle Edward invents. It's a stimulant that isn't good for you—but the advertising campaign and guarantees that Edward creates make people think it is. The product is so successful that he's able to pay George enough that George can marry Marion, a shopgirl who is waiting for him to have reliable income before committing to him. The promise of commercial success is enough for him to put his morals aside. Wells writes:
You know, from first to last, I saw the business with my eyes open, I saw its ethical and moral values quite clearly. Never for a moment do I remember myself faltering from my persuasion that the sale of Tono-Bungay was a thoroughly dishonest proceeding. The stuff was, I perceived, a mischievous trash, slightly stimulating, aromatic and attractive, likely to become a bad habit and train people in the habitual use of stronger tonics and insidiously dangerous to people with defective kidneys. It would cost about sevenpence the large bottle to make, including bottling, and we were to sell it at half a crown plus the cost of the patent medicine stamp.
George doesn't lie to himself about the dangers and issues with Tono-Bungay. He is, however, willing to leverage his own success against the damage it may do to others. Even commercial success isn't enough to keep his marriage together when he cheats on his wife, however. He still isn't fulfilled even though he's achieved at least one of the things he's been dreaming of since childhood.
When he and Beatrice reconnect, he wants to marry her. His success isn't enough for her, though. The gulf between their social standings is insurmountable for her because George won't ever be enough. He's in love with her. She promises to marry him. But finally, in a heated passion, she admits that she never wanted it. She says:
"You think," she said, "I could take courage and come to you and be your everyday wife—while you work and are poor?"
"Why not?" said I.
She looked at me gravely, with extended finger. "Do you really think that—of me? Haven’t you seen me—all?"
"Never once have I really meant marrying you," she insisted. "Never once. I fell in love with you from the first . . ."
Perhaps this is one of the things that pushes his disillusionment even farther. After the collapse of his business and the end of the book, he says that though he called it Tono-Bungay, perhaps that wasn't the right name for his story. George writes,
I have called it Tono-Bungay, but I had far better have called it Waste. I have told of childless Marion, of my childless aunt, of Beatrice wasted and wasteful and futile.