H. G. Wells: The Literary Traveller in His Fantastic Short Story Machine

by Halszka Leleń (Author)
©2016 Monographs 322 Pages
Series: Mediated Fictions, Volume 10


The book offers a thorough study of the literary tensions and two-world structure of the fantastic short stories by H. G. Wells (1866–1946). It exposes trickster games in the storytelling and pinpoints Wells’s staple methods of artistic composition – the mounting of various literary tensions built upon the body of traditional, dexterously combined genre elements and innovative topoi.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Note
  • Preface
  • Introduction: A Theoretical Perspective on the (Fantastic) Short Story and Literary Tension
  • Doubled Chronotope and Supragenological Types of Fiction
  • Literary Tension and Schools of Criticism
  • Blurred Boundaries of the Short Story and the Ambiguity of “The Time Machine”
  • The Focus of the Book
  • Chapter 1: Wells’s Tensions Contextualized
  • Tensions in Wells Criticism
  • The Legacy of Modernist Scorn of Wells
  • (Un)noticed Experiment in Wells
  • A Parvenu Raconteur in a Time of Change
  • Chapter 2: Dream Visions from the Short-Story Workshop
  • Oneiric Motivation for the Vision of the New World
  • Artistic Patterns and Guidebook Style
  • The Combined Impact of Fairy Tale, Folk Ballad and Chivalric Romance
  • The Cross-Genre Influence of Detective Fiction
  • The Principle of Parody
  • The Character Sketch in Fantastic Dreams
  • Dialogized Hybrid of Apocalyptic Convention and Theatrum Mundi
  • Chapter 3: Storytelling in the Corner of a Railway Carriage
  • The Tradition of Travel Fiction
  • Polyvalent Patterns of Fantastic Worlds
  • The Orchestration of the Semantic Plane through World Dichotomy
  • Mountains, Townscape, Garden: Spatial Patterns of Character Development and Short-Story Transformation of the Bildungsroman
  • The Quest into Foreign Space and Genre Novum
  • Chapter 4: Splinters of Scientific Discourse and Aesthetic Vistas from the Laboratory
  • The Topos of Science – Modifying Conventions of the Dream Vision and the Exotic Adventure
  • Scientific Topoi and Romance Tradition
  • Dialogized Heteroglossia and the Influence of Gothic Fiction
  • Chapter 5: The Topos of Science – The Fantastic Transposition of Social Fiction
  • The Character Sketch Re-Contextualized by Scientific Motivation
  • The Condition-of-England Narrative in New Contexts
  • The Transposition of Utopia into Dystopia
  • Spatio-Temporal Overview, Quasi-Anthropological Insight and the Novum of Prehistoric Fiction
  • Chapter 6: Trickster Strategies in the Jungle of Scientific Riddles
  • Shreds of Quasi-Scientific Illumination – Misapplied Verisimilitude and Compositional Inconsequence
  • Patterns of Contradiction and Self-Referentiality
  • The Arbitrariness of Storytelling and the Technique of Subversion
  • Narrative Instability
  • Destabilized Character Profile and Trickster Strategies
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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I thank Ludmiła Gruszewska-Blaim and Artur Blaim for inviting me to publish my book in this series.

I would like to express my utmost gratitude to David Malcolm who was encouraging, supportive and helpful at all the stages of my development as a literary scholar. I am also most indebted to Andrzej Zgorzelski who has inspired me to think about literature the way I do, and who first drew my attention to H. G. Wells’s short stories. I thank Jerzy Jarniewicz whose insight into my theoretical understanding of the notion of literary tension allowed me to correct my initial assumptions.

I also thank my husband Sławek Leleń and our children Mateusz, Franek and Marysia for their love, support of my work, and all the strength they give me. ← 13 | 14 →

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In this book, if not stated otherwise, Wells’s short texts are quoted according to The Complete Short Stories of H. G. Wells, edited by John Hammond (1999, published by Phoenix). An exception to this rule is the novella “The Time Machine.” The quotations from this text are made following The Short Stories of H. G. Wells (1948, published by Ernest Benn). Therefore, the parenthetical reference to all Wells short stories will only give page numbers.

In the quotations used in the book, whenever three dots are used within square brackets, this stands for my ellipsis in the original text. I do this to distinguish such ellipses from the three dots frequently used in the punctuation of Wells’s short stories. Likewise, any change to the original text is indicated by the use of square brackets. When indicating the date of publication of short stories, I give their first appearance in popular periodicals and magazines. ← 15 | 16 →

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To the average, basically educated man/woman worldwide Herbert George Wells (21 September 1866–13 August 1946) is a recognizable literary figure. Despite the passage of time and changes in literary fashions, it is not only on the arena of literary criticism that he retains his status as one of the preeminent modern tellers of tales that have kindled the popular imagination. People sometimes pause to think when his name is mentioned, vaguely seeking a connection, but once the title of his first novella is mentioned, it usually inspires instant recognition. To the common reader worldwide he is, thus, still the man astride his Time Machine. From the perspective of a literary scholar, he is increasingly perceived as a versatile writer straddling his short stories. Yet despite the more or less universal recognition that his short fiction is one of the most artistically developed sections of his oeuvre, the state of Wells criticism in respect to his short stories is, indeed, incomplete and remains a fertile field for further critical exploration.

This volume is conceived as a prolegomenon to a discussion of the dominance of aesthetic patterns which are displayed by the short and long short fiction of H. G. Wells. It explores the systemic aspects of the multiple interconnected artistic tensions to be found in his fantastic short stories, which are distinguished by the twofold composition of their fictional world. The aim of this study is to identify the organizing principle of Wells’s commonly overlooked artistic techniques in his fantastic short stories, so as to clarify the misunderstandings that have arisen around his stance as a creative writer.

The Introduction makes necessary theoretical distinctions, such as expounding the ambiguity of the term short story and arguing the applicability of this category to some of Wells’s fiction not commonly viewed in the context of this form. It defines the fantastic short story as a separate subtype distinct from the mimetic and antimimetic short story, introduces the theoretical concept of literary tensions, and discusses the validity of the choice of the formalist school of criticism as adequate for the task of this book. Chapter One offers an overview of the various aspects of the conflict-driven initial stage of Wells’s career that led to his writing short ← 17 | 18 → stories. It contextualizes Wells’s dubious attitude to art, and gives a historic perspective on critical attitudes to Wells’s literature. I recount some aspects of his debate with the writers of his own and the next generation over the artistic principles of fiction to show the degree of his subversion of those principles, a subversion also noticeable on different level in his attitude to short-story techniques. This, in turn, leads to a brief discussion of the state of contemporary Wells criticism with regard to his short story output. The reason for the relative scholarly neglect of a comprehensive attitude to Wells short-story criticism is traced to the short story’s tardy ennoblement as a recognized artistic form.

In Wells’s fantastic short stories, the means of a character’s access to the fantastic world determines the type of tensional patterns inscribed in the texts. Chapters Two to Six of this book examine in detail the artistic features of the short stories that Wells derives from his choice of three main means of access that motivate mimetic-fantastic world confrontations. This is viewed in the context of the entailed dominant generic conventions. These systemically determined types of link are (1) a dream (and the convention of a dream vision), where the character dreams of the fantastic world (or tells of his dream to someone in the mimetic world) – discussed in Chapter Two; (2) travel in space (and the conventions of travel fiction, with its medieval counterpart, chivalric romance), where the character sets out on the journey of discovery or on a quest for some element missing from his life – discussed in Chapter Three; and (3) science (and the conventions of scientific romance), where the confrontation with the other world is made possible by some human or extra-terrestrial invention – discussed in Chapters Four to Six. This last type of contact with the fantastic world is the most widely recognized in Wells’s writing, as it constitutes his staple literary innovation. On closer analysis, it indeed turns out to be the most complex in terms of cross-generic influences, including the impact of types (1) and (2). Therefore, the short stories with quasi-scientific motivation of access to the fantastic world are discussed in three separate chapters of the book. Chapter Four explores the influence of narratives of exotic adventure and the legacy of romance and the Gothic tradition, as combined with motivation in terms of science. Chapter Five considers the redynamization of various types of social fiction attained by Wells through a quasi-scientific confrontation with a fantastic reality. Wells was evidently aware that he ← 18 | 19 → was creating some novum with his quasi-scientific type of motivating his two-world structure. This much emerges from the deployment of principles of parody that bring to the fore the metafictional orientation of some of Wells’s fantastic short stories, discussed in Chapter Six of this study.

Admittedly, the techniques and motifs used in Wells’s short stories of these types partly overlap. For example, a science-affected cognition and descriptive style can be discerned in the description of the cosmic journey in “Under the Knife” (1896), while that short story is also heavily influenced by a dream-vision convention. Moreover, the traits of parody appear also in the other types of short stories, not just in the quasi-scientific ones. This demonstrates the phenomenon of the reverberation of literary devices in the body of Wells’s short texts, which obviously were not written so as to be categorized. The recurrence of various generic and self-referential traits in Wells’s short fiction testifies to his experimental approach to storytelling and writing, at the time when he was testing his literary medium and the possibilities offered by the literary market itself. Therefore, it is to be hoped that despite some inevitable repetition, the above division may serve to introduce some clarity in my subsequent discussion of multiple artistic traits, which are determined by central systemic choices.

Two more reservations need to be made. Firstly, as each of the short stories discussed in this monograph is a distinct literary text with its own supercode rules, each, therefore, necessitates the adoption of an individual focus. In Wells’s own words, each short story is “a thing by itself” (qtd. in Hammond, Wells and Short Story 19). Each adopts very distinct techniques and generic conventions, and these are combined in ways which partly overlap with those of other stories, while they also are reapplied for a different effect in each text. Therefore, thinking about Wells’s texts in synthetic terms is, by force of their features, bound to be some sort of analytical betrayal. Important is also what David Malcolm defines as the short story’s promiscuity in terms of “genre markers,” which he finds typical also of the British novel of the late twentieth-century (British and Irish Short Story Handbook 41). (This, in fact, might be a feature that the novel as a literary form took over from the experimental and boundary-crossing, in generic terms, compositional practice of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century short stories of the type represented by Wells or Kipling.) Wells engages in a large degree of experimenting with tensionally applied, juxtaposed generic ← 19 | 20 → categories employed within the space of one short or long short story. The complexity of multi-layered systemic issues to be found in some individual Wells texts is the reason why in my subsequent sections one text is sometimes discussed in an extensive way under different analytic categories.

Secondly, this study attempts to consider Wells’s short stories and long short stories as individual texts, but also as groups of texts, which can be viewed as some sub-types identified via the similar techniques and literary conventions adopted for the shaping of fictional worlds. I will aim at presenting selected analytical insights, so as to aim for a generalized interpretative perspective on the whole body of his short fiction. This also entails that certain choices need to be made and that not all the texts falling into the category of fantastic fiction can be discussed in equal detail. This is dictated by the need to attain a critical overview of the artistic rules of Wells’s short texts of the fantastic type. I will, nevertheless, try to observe the recurrent literary devices and generic influences in Wells’s texts in their multiple functions.

It is my firm belief that if one views Wells from the perspective of consistent and deliberate application of the principle of literary tensions, the core of analytic and interpretative misunderstandings can be illuminated, misunderstandings that arose around Wells’s fiction in his own times, as well as in contemporary literary criticism and scholarship. I will, therefore, attempt to grasp the representative features of Wells’s texts without losing a focus on the individual qualities of the texts representative of their type, so as to identify the distinctive features of Wells’s literary craft. In this, I will try to adopt the critical approach to Wells’s short stories that is projected by Wells himself in his essay “Certain Critical Opinions”: “to appreciate essentials, to understand the bearing of structural expedients upon design, to get at an author through his workmanship” (qtd. in Hammond, Wells and Short Story 21). I shall discuss Wells’s stories through the prism of their individual features, but also aiming at a synthesis of their multiple criss-crossing generic features.

I will be particularly interested in tracing the system of literary devices, typical for Wells, which distinguishes him from other authors of the turn-of-the-century epoch, following Robert Scholes’s observation that “[e]very important writer’s work offers us a different system of notation, which has its own focal limits in abstracting from the total system of existence” ← 20 | 21 → (Structural Fabulation 6). (See also Wells’s comment on his art as compared to Henry James’s, qtd. in Haynes, Discoverer of the Future 251.) My analyses will focus on tracing the principles of Wells’s poetics that are immanent in his short fiction, following the distinction made by Roman Ingarden who defined poetics as the general theory of actual structures, properties, and relations existent in literary works of art (Studia z estetyki 1: 271).

Such an approach, adopted in this monograph, entails some problems connected with the diverse features and the multiplicity of the texts under consideration. John Stewart Williamson expresses the view shared by most Wells critics, calling his short texts “amazingly inventive,” to the point that “classification is difficult and generalization dangerous” (124). The difficulty of such an attempt at systemic discussion of Wells’s short stories consists in the fact that conventional techniques and motifs are constantly reapplied by Wells in new contexts in order to create a complex and dynamic systemic effect, which makes any attempt at clear-cut categorizing of the body of his short texts an almost hopeless task (compare Tynyanov, “Literary Fact” 29). ← 21 | 22 →

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Introduction:  A Theoretical Perspective on the (Fantastic) Short Story and Literary Tension

Doubled Chronotope and Supragenological Types of Fiction


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (January)
Trickster games two-world structure Utopia, Dystopia
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 322 pp.

Biographical notes

Halszka Leleń (Author)

Halszka Leleń, PhD, is Assistant Professor at the Department of English Studies, University of Warmia and Mazury, Poland. She has published on H. G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, the Themersons and Bertrand Russell, John Berger, and the theory of fantastic fiction. She researches self-referential aspects of storytelling.


Title: H. G. Wells: The Literary Traveller in His Fantastic Short Story Machine
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324 pages