Knowing, Not Knowing, Humour and Irony in the short stories by HG Wells
HG Wells was well known for writing such books as War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible man and The Island of Doctor Moreau. They were famous and unique because of his innovating idea of science fiction therefore being remembered as ‘the farther of British Science Fiction’. However, he actually wrote in a number of different genres, and often wrote to explore British society. HG Wells brought stories to life by using emotive language; an example of this is…’with my hand in my pocket that held my revolver’ we know this suggests the narrator is underlying fear.
At the time he was alive, called now the Victorian Era, British society was dreadfully divided by class. HG Wells was a Socialist and so he wanted to show that this sort of society was not even-handed. We can see this in all of his stories that we have studied, as in each one there is a person of a higher class that needs to learn a lesson. Society was more repressed than we would expect today, they believed in control of excess emotion; being too emotional was, for a man, a sign of weakness. The Victorian British were more ready to accept the supernatural, but also living at a time of engineering advances, and the tail end of the Industrial Revolution.
The three short stories we have studied are; The Stolen Bacillus, The Red Room and The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost, all relating to Wells’ past or what he believes in. HG Wells is an intelligent and educated man, for he attended a private school and at eighteen he won a scholarship to study biology at the Normal School (later the Royal College) of Science, in South Kensington, London. Hence becoming a member of the Labour Party and journalist. From then on at Wells started to write Socialist books in which he dealt with politics and society.
Since the Victorian era, modern day society has changed a great deal. This is mainly influenced by the vast increase of competition in the media; television and cinema. The visibility given by the modern media allows us to become more explicit towards horror. This availability of knowledge and understanding makes us less likely to believe such stories of the supernatural.
The three short stories by H.G Wells, all express links to what has been addressed from the above ideas. I will mention each of the short story’s knowing/not knowing, irony and humours evidence in the order in which the stories were written. The first story is The Stolen Bacillus then The Red Room and finally The Inexperienced Ghost.
There a number of techniques that Wells uses in his stories that influences the reader through the things we know or do not know, the humour and the irony that may not be intentionally expressed, but it is what makes HG Well’s stories so great. His stories reflect when the stories were written by the way Wells uses his words so skilfully.
The Stolen Bacillus:
In The Stolen Bacillus we know the story is about a man of science; an engineering advance. HG Wells used to be a Biologist and this is a story about another biologist, perhaps he written about himself in a fictional perspective. Also exploring the idea of destabilising the unfair society, by creating a fairer one, this is liked to Wells being a Socialist. This is expressed in the visitor doing so in the story.
We also know that the Bacteriologist’s wife has no idea of what’s going on with the potentially deadly virus ‘cholera’ that has been stolen by terrorist. But hers and her husbands’ social status is more important that she chases after him ‘running about London … in his socks’ carrying his shoes and hat. HG Wells’ technique has a way of giving the reader an insight of Victorian Society, of what other people thought of them often orbited around the person’s actions.
From the beginning the reader would notice that the visitor with his ‘lank black hair’, ‘deep grey eyes’ and ‘haggard expression’, isn’t just there because he is interested in ‘their dispositions’. Again Wells doesn’t tell the reader why the visitor is there until later on, but deftly being able in deceiving our opinions by giving such a detailed description; still insuring us that we carry on wanting know more until finding out the next plot as more of the story unfolds.
In the story the visitor runs off with the ‘sealed tube’ thinking that it contains the life threatening ‘cholera bacillus’ but in the matter of fact it is ‘Blue ruin’. The reader is also mislead into believing the same as the terrorist. Near the end of the Bacteriologist exclaims, ‘Blue ruin’ hoaxing the reader again into believing that is just a phrase used instead of noticing the fact that the terrorist was only carrying ‘a new species of Bacterium’ that make people turn blue but nothing deadly. Surreptitiously Wells using this play on words, it deliberately tricks the reader into thinking that we know what is happened until it is all discovered by given clues nearing the end.
The use of humour in the cab chase, Wells changes from the formal English ‘slender man, suddenly glancing around’ to a Cockney use of words like ‘he’s a driven’ (in other words, he’s harebrained) and ‘Ain’t he a-cawin’ out of the keb’. This shows considerable writing skills in having the ability to switch into different styles. Another example of humorous non-intentional behaviour is demonstrated by the character Minnie because she is obviously caught up in social and domestic concerns that she is ‘Running about London in the height of season … in his socks’ because of her husband. This shows the more importance to the husband because women in the Victorian era were seen of no real significance in society.
The final example of humour is when the suspected ‘Anarchist’ drinks in what he thinks is the cholera bacteria but in the matter of fact he drank nothing more than a ‘cultivation of a new bacterium’ that turns people blue. Before the reaction he paces off ‘carefully jostling his infected body against as many people as possible’ in thinking that it will infect other and will be remembered as a martyr. The story ends with a comic typed irony because the anarchist is no longer seem as a threat to society but as a fool instead. Over all the bacteriologist is worried about is ‘the trouble and the expense of preparing some more.’
There are fine uses of irony in The Stolen Bacillus, for example when the apparent visitor believes that becoming a martyr he would have to ‘accomplish his purpose’, but in the matter of fact he only demonstrates foolish actions when he taken the ‘blue ruin’. Strangely that the visitor was wanting to be an ‘Anarchist’ just to be remembered by saying ‘The world should hear of me at last’, but not in having an actual political agenda even when that time period where potential social and political changes was of most importance. Instead his main agenda was ‘those distinguished person…he had envied, all those people who had sneered at him.’
Hg Well’s intention were to make the reader ask questions on whether there really are people out there in society who would go to such lengths to change society, no matter their reasons. Particularly the Victorian readers may have questioned whether they were content with their society and what they could do for change. Again cleverly Wells has entertained his readers through his story as well as putting across a serious issue, making his work well known by many and a very unique technique in which is used in all of his stories, showing connection with Wells being a socialist.
The Red Room:
In The Red Room, the narrator is perceived as a Victorian upper class gentleman who represses his emotions but loses control of his emotions by the end, when he sneers at the elderly custodians. In connection with men in that era, when they had the idea that one should control their emotions, this issue became so sever that it has become an illness named ‘hysteria’; a sign of excess which challenges this cultural code.
There are many things that we don’t know while reading the short story of The Red Room, especially when the narrator cannot be identified by the reader. Another anonymous theory that occurs in the story is that whether or not the ‘haunted room’ is even haunted, in addition towards thought of whether there really was a ghost until the very end. Wells uses this way of engaging the reader by keeping then in suspense throughout the whole story.
Throughout the story the narrator does not want to know because he always blocks his emotions. This is backed up by the following quote when he waits ‘until the candle was alight’, but on front of the old people (who live in the castle) he expressed that he does not believe in ghosts. Until the very end of The Red Room the narrator couldn’t cope with his rising fear that he detonates into screaming while ‘shutting’ his eyes and ‘flung out his arms in vain effort’ around the room.
It is revealed to the reader, at the end, that The Red Room was not haunted at all, but it was inundated by the naked fear the ‘nakedness-Fear’ which mentions its power ‘that deafens and darkens and overwhelms’. Wells cleverly entertains the reader as well as passing his opinions into his short stories, such as implying that the narrator’s (and the people in the Victorian era) archaic views towards the way men act should be abolished.
The comic moments in The Red Room begins when the narrator says, ‘it will take a very tangible ghost to frighten me’ because it has been said that it is not possible to touch or feel a ghost, so taking a very solid ghost to scare him is humorous. He goes on with this comment, in that he leaves his hand in his pocket ‘that held his revolver,’ although firearms are only useful to physical threats.
At the end of the story, the narrator has submitted to heave around in the dark with his arms ‘flung out’, eyes shut and screaming, which is rather hilarious because the narrator kept on referring to how he was not afraid but his actions clearly show that he is. He mentions this numerous amount of times, ‘With my hand … that held the revolver’ but it doesn’t show strength only that he seems to be working himself into a frenzy running around the candles trying to relight them because of his fear of the alleged ghost. This is amusing because of the image of a grown man running around in the dark and knocks himself out, by this action allows the reader to imagine an even funnier image.
More use of irony continues when the narrator from the first encounter of the old people whom he was utterly rude towards to, ends up getting help from them. He does this by not calling by their actual names but instead as ‘the man with the withered arm’, ‘the old man with the cough’ and ‘the old woman.’ Then the narrator becomes more ignorant and bad-mannered as he also describes the all people as ‘inhuman…grotesque custodians’ and ‘monstrous’ with ‘decaying yellow teeth’, giving the old people a negative introduction. Wells created the narrator to behave in this manner so that the reader can create a perception of the narrator as being another character and not only being the stereotypical narrator in which they only the scene. Instead, through the narrator, Wells is again voicing his opinions upon the old people’s archaic Marxist views, in which we he believe should be changed.
Overall the old people ironically still helped the petrified narrator recover by taking him outside, bandaged him up and ‘pouring out some drops of medicine’, despite the way they had been treated. Another example of the use of irony used in the Red Room is that the narrator repeats that he is ‘brave’ and that it would take ‘a very tangible ghost to frighten me’ but the irony is shown when he reaches The Red Room he uses the armchair and table to protect himself as a ‘kind of barricade,’ showing no form of bravery.
The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost:
The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost most explicitly and openly satirizes the sort of the idle rich who have leisure time and holds them up for us to laugh at. This story has a more complex double narration.
Similar to The Red Room and The Stolen Bacillus; we don’t know who the names of the narrators. We are introduced to a man named Clayton who is descried to be a stereo-typical upper class type of idle-rich man. As he considers a ‘hard day’ as playing golf in the day then socialising at an exclusive man’s club with friends and beverages in the afternoon. As Clayton goes on into telling his story on his encounter with the ghost to the other gentlemen at the man’s club, Wells perceives the reader in bafflement of whether Clayton is telling the truth. As he goes on Clayton tells us that he was ‘as solid as rocks’ although before hand he mentions that he had, ‘a bottle of champagne’ and by chance ‘two or three… even four or five whiskies.’ There for the thought of whether the story is true or not tends to play on he reader’s mind throughout the story.
But at the end, Clayton ‘fell forward’ dead and we are never explained why, so we are left with the feeling of bewilderment and that constant question to ourselves “How did Clayton die?” Wells intelligence allows him to know his audience as well as giving us another insight into some of the Victorian society and beliefs because it is in connection with the huge increase of people who believed in the supernatural. By Wells giving the story a supernatural ending would then appeal to a large audience therefore gaining even more readers.
Humour is shown through out The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost, especially when the Ghost allegedly began to tell his story on how he died when he went ‘down into a … basement with a candle to look for a leakage of gas’. This is humorous because no well minded person would go to look for a gas with a flame, especially not a headmaster. Today and even past readers would have found this humorous because an educated man such as a headmaster would have known better.
Other examples of humour are Clayton’s drinking habits and are humorous when he tells us that he had ‘a bottle of champagne…two or three… or even four or five-whiskies’ and after all that he still claims that he is ‘as solid as rocks.’ This shows humour as well as irony because it is proven that it is physically impossible for any man or woman to consume a large amount of alcohol and still be completely sober. This can also lead to the thought of whether Clayton is reliable as a narrator to tell a logical story, in which is believable or leaves the reader in bewilderment of whether Clayton is actually telling the through or not. But at the end we left with a type of cliff-hanger because the reader doesn’t know if Claytons death was related to supernatural activity or his simply his over stimulated imagination has allowed him to fall as pray to apoplexy.
As for the other two short stories there are clear uses of irony, for example when the ghost’s poor attempt to scare Clayton because Clayton mentions that he was ‘no more frightened than if I’d been assailed by a frog’. Then Clayton gets annoyed at the ghost for not every being a member of the Mermaid Club and not having the right to have a ‘run at the Mermaid Club’, but not over the fact that he is a restless ghost. This is because of the class separation was very narrow in the Victorian era where there was the idle rich and the socialist opinion but on the other side of the scale there is the very poor, especially that a huge majority of the people in England were living in poverty. Another example of irony is that Clayton dies despite his friends not believing his story; he proves to his friends that his story was true by dying mysteriously.
In conclusion modern technology has been accused for the disappearance of many great novels in time and the dramatic increasing usage of the internet, radio, television or any other forms of major media influences. Hg Wells book are still very popular with many reader for his unique style and creativity as well as his technique to inform us of socialist opinions and Victorian way of life. Giving us a great insight into what people of his time thought and believed within all of his stories; on top of that he uses humour and irony to great effects. The other effect Wells uses suspense and unresolved conclusions with twists until the very end, which keeps the reader interested throughout by involving them into the story by teasing them into thinking they know what is going to happen next. HG Wells is a multitalented writer for he has the ability to write across different genres which allows to gain more interest from a wide spread of audiences from both modern society and Victorian era.
Get help with your homework
We'll occasionally send you account related and promo emails