Biographical Essay

H. G. Wells and the uses of Degeneration in Literature

Degeneracy represented a curiously pervasive tool for the literary imagination. The discourse resonates through some of the most memorable novels of the period under discussion, notably Dracula (1897), in which Bram Stoker, citing Lombroso and Nordau along the way, figures the titular villain as the definitive parasite; Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde of 1885, which, like H. G. Wells’ Island of Dr Moreau (1896), strives to blur the division between man and animal; and Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray of 1890, which thoroughly makes play of the idea that sin, vice, and degeneracy are visible stigmata. The ‘New Woman’ school of writing additionally used such themes - most notably in Sarah Grand’s portrayal of the vice-ridden, syphilitic Major Colquhoun in her Heavenly Twins (1893). Other fictional works attempted to challenge the ‘common sense’ that underlay the discourses of degeneracy. For example, in The Lost World (1912) the erudite hero, Professor Challenger, is more apelike than human. Similarly, in H. Rider Haggard’s She (1886), Horace Holly’s appearance would seem to fly in the face of the anecdotal evidence which asserted that apishness and hirsuteness were visible marks of degeneracy or arrested development.

One of the writers who exploited concepts of degeneration most effectively was H. G. Wells (1866-1946). A failed draper’s assistant, in 1884 he studied under T. H. Huxley at the Normal School of Science in South Kensington after which he began teaching. Poverty-stricken and never in good health, he quit his teaching post and tried journalism. With a clear, straightforward style, fresh concepts, and a flair for simple explanation without simplification, it was clear he had a great talent A flood of short stories and journal articles appeared in the mid-1890s, but his breakthrough came with The Time Machine (1895). More ‘scientific romances’ followed. By 1901, having achieved both fame and financial security, he turned to writing novels with sociological themes. These include Tono-Bungay (1909), The History of Mr Polly (1910), and The New Machiavelli (1911). Wells also wrote non-fiction books on subjects such as economics, politics, religion, war, the future, and history. His massively readable Outline of History (1920) and the more condensed Short History of the World (1922) still find themselves recommended today.

Literary modernism is often considered teleogically as the apotheosis of innovation, originality, and style. It has been seen, in fact, as the culmination of Western literature, testified to by a profound inability to ‘move on’ from the dictates of modernism (after modernism, literary trends have converged into the originally purely temporal label of ‘post-modernism’). Similarly, Wells’ work seems more and more to represent - and be akin to - a degenerate species struggling for survival amidst waters populated by the more advanced Joyces, Eliots, Pounds, and Lewises. Yet however much Virginia Woolf in her influential essays ‘Modern Fiction’ and ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ decried Wells’ work (along with that in the style of Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy) as the outmoded relics of a ‘middle-brow’ Edwardian culture, such novelists remained popular throughout the heyday of modernism.

Paradoxically, it is only after literary modernism’s perceived decline in the 1940s that the reputations of Wells and those like him began to suffer - perhaps because of the direct and clear antipathy and animosity that the more fashionable and respectable avant-gardists held for them. Because literary high modernism can be considered a response to the superficial realism of Wells’ and Bennett’s work of the first decade of the twentieth century, those authors’ novels seem continually undermined and undervalued.

Wells’ reputation in the second half of the 1890s was however markedly different. This was the period in which his novels, short stories, and journalism were deemed genuinely new and exciting, the ‘time when Wells spoke more clearly than any other man to the youth of the world’ (Anonymous obituary in the Times Literary Supplement, 17 August 1946). During this period he produced a canon of writing whose primary aim was to challenge the optimistic interpretations of Darwinian evolution. In an 1891 essay entitled ‘Zoological Retrogression,’ using the useful label of ‘excelsior biology,’ he criticises such belief as being ‘a popular and poetic creation’ (originally in Gentleman’s Magazine, reprinted in Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst [eds.], The Fin de Siècle [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000]: pp. 5-12: p. 7). Like his former teacher Huxley, to whom Wells sent a copy of his first novel, the writer fought hard to argue that humanity, coming into existence through a random combination of natural processes, could by no means believe itself to be a privileged species, assured of improvement and continuity.

Contrary to the author Peter Morton’s view that Wells had one sole conception of degeneracy (The Vital Science [London: George Allen and Unwin, 1984]: p. 107), Wells had at least three clearly-defined visions of the phenomenon, none of which strayed outside the realms of pure zoology. His first idea, informed by the potentially degenerative effects of selection, was an image of the future man in which the body had become as vestigial to the brain as the present-day appendix is to the intestine. In his article ‘The Man of the Year Million,’ humans had become super-intelligent - a nod perhaps to optimistic evolution - but had lost almost entirely the use of their bodies, whose shrivelled limbs they dragged along behind their inflated craniums. In an almost identical piece published ten years earlier from which Wells may well have taken inspiration, the journalist E. Kay Robinson conceived ‘a man of the future,’ ‘a toothless, baldheaded, stiff-limbed animal, incapable of extended locomotion, nervous and timid’ (‘The Man of the Future,’ The Nineteenth Century 13 [Jan-June 1883]: pp. 759-64: p. 764). Wells would return to such an image repeatedly. In The War of the Worlds (1898), the invading Martians ‘were heads - merely heads,’ and Wells even has his narrator refer to his own ‘Man of the Year Million’ article: the ‘prophecy, I remember, appeared in November or December, 1893, in a long-defunct publication, the Pall Mall Budget […and…] forecast for man a final structure not unlike the actual Martian condition’ ([London: Dent, 2001]: p. 120).

Similarly, the Grand Lunar, ruler of the Selenites in the later First Men in the Moon (1901), is described as simply consisting of a gigantic brain trailing a dwarfed body with ineffectual limbs ([London: Dent, 2001]: pp. 176-7). Wells’ second main vision of degeneracy was a critique of the belief in human ascendancy through the challenge of another species of animal and the attempt to usurp man’s predominance. Such an idea was a lateral approach to the discourses of degeneracy. Humanity may not itself have to decline to disappear from the face of the earth. If evolution was as random and haphazard as it appeared, another set of creatures could evolve to rival and supersede the complacency of man. In ‘The Extinction of Man,’ published in 1894, Wells singled out crabs, the cephalopods, and ants as possible future rivals for man’s supremacy: ‘even now, for all we can tell, the coming terror may be crouching for its spring and the fall of humanity be at hand’ (Pall Mall Gazette 23 September: p. 3). In three later short stories he recounts these animals’ attempts to begin their uprisings. The astounding ‘In the Abyss’ (1896) Wells describes an intelligent race of crab-like bipeds encountered by an English diver in their colossal underwater city on the bed of the Atlantic off the coast of Brazil. In ‘The Sea Raiders’ (1896) Wells focuses on an attack of man-eating octopi on the shores of Devon. Similarly, ‘The Empire of the Ants’ (1905) focuses on a plague of monstrous ants, unveiling the precariousness of man’s hold in an alien environment like the South American rainforests. Wells’ third conception of degeneracy was revealed in his debut novel, The Time Machine (1895).

In prose sometimes verging on the slipshod and stolid, Wells relates the story of the Time Traveller, who ventures to the year 802, 701 to find that mankind has differentiated into two distinct species. One, the Morlocks, farms and feeds on the other, the Eloi. Both the latter, which the Time Traveller speculates ‘might once have been the favoured aristocracy’ ([London: Dent, 2001]: p. 51), and the former, ‘their mechanical servants’ (p. 51), have (like the man of the year million), degenerated physically. More alarmingly, however, was the intellectual degeneration. The Eloi are ‘indescribably frail’ (p. 20) and are characterised by ‘a graceful gentleness, a certain childlike ease’ (p. 21). Males and females are indistinguishable. Both sexes of the Eloi share the same costumes, ‘the same soft hairless visage, and the same girlish rotundity of limb’ (p. 26) - yet still excite the Traveller’s sense of kinship over the hideous Morlocks, who are invoked in that strangely typical language of the fin de siècle: they are ‘indescribably unpleasant’ (p. 49), ‘nauseatingly inhuman’ (p. 50), and possess a ‘sickening quality’ (p. 49) which forces the Traveller to instinctively loath them.

Although it is the physical horror of the Morlocks that form the Traveller’s lasting impression of 802, 701, it is the intellectual degradation of both species that is most alarming and disappointing to him. The Morlocks are blind automatons, cannibalistic ‘ape-like’ (p. 40) monsters who run the underground machinery - the heritage of their past - through nothing but accumulated habit. Conversely, the simple-minded upperworlders are marked by a lack of interest or curiosity. They have astonishingly short attention spans, and ‘the intellectual level of one of our five-year-old children’ (p. 22). The two branches of humanity the Traveller encounters are in many ways the embodiment of the worst fears of the degenerationists: the Eloi have become sexless simpletons and the Morlocks brutal throwbacks. To the nineteenth century man it was ‘humanity upon the wane [,…] the sunset of mankind’ (p. 27), an image that seemed to clearly anticipate Nordau’s predictions on the dusk of the nations.

In The Time Machine, Wells targets the facile tenets of optimistic evolution and the idea of progress. He suggests that as modernity’s technical advancement increased, indolence and frailty would also increase. A mastery over nature, he seemed to claim, would reduce humanity’s vigour and hardiness, and increased leisure time would disastrously cap morality and threaten the intellect. The vision of the future that Wells created in The Time Machine was nothing less than a literary portrait of degeneration in action, a discourse that was in constant circulation at the end of the nineteenth century.