Have you ever had that moment? You might be sitting at your desk, cooking tea for your kids, driving to work – and suddenly you think ‘Is this it? Is this all there is?’ It is at this precise moment that we crash land into the life of one Mr. Alfred Polly: draper, dreamer and general discontent.
H.G. Wells’ ‘The History of Mr Polly’ traces the back-story of Mr Polly and just how he got into the ‘Beastly Silly Wheeze’ of his current predicament. At the age of 37 (the Edwardian version of middle age) Polly is tired of his dead-end job as a draper and his nagging wife, Miriam. He sits on the edge of bankruptcy and decides the only solution is to burn down his shop and kill himself. However, things don’t exactly go to plan and Polly is given a new chance at life. But can he really change?
Wells’ novel falls squarely into two sections; Polly’s past and just how he became an unhappy and unfulfilled married draper, and the path he takes after burning down his shop. Widely regarded as Wells’ funniest novel, it is also his most affectionate. In addition, the book bears a strong resemblance to Wells’ own background as a bored lower class draper yet, unlike Polly, Wells was fortunate enough to be extracted from this bleak existence by the 1870 Universal Education Act. This government programme offered Wells a narrow opening into higher education and the professions, saving him from a life of drudgery.
The lack of opportunities for the lower classes of Edwardian England plays a significant role throughout the novel. Polly is creative and intelligent, devouring books with an insatiable hunger. This spills over into his language as he attempts to express his thoughts through the linguistics restrictions of the English language:
Mr Polly spent a critical but pleasant Sunday afternoon in a back seat inventing such phrases as:
‘Soulful Owner of the Exorbiant Largenial Development.’
An Adam’s Apple being in question.
His language offers little proofs of the bubbling rebellion inside him. In addition, his insides rebel against him in the form of constant indigestion – a comic metaphor by Wells to reflect Polly’s inner disgust with his external life. Yet, despite all Polly’s energy he is constantly confined and belittled by class expectations. His career as a shop-owner is expected though his shop lacks customers. His marriage seems inevitable, yet his choice of Miriam from her two other sisters seems more a case of chance than true love. It is not until he burns down his shop that the real message of the book comes to the fore: ‘If the world does not please you, you can change it.’
The narrative is an interesting change from Wells’ usual stream of science fiction and Darwinism. Polly is a loveable though sometimes exasperating anti-hero, who we follow with a yearning that he will finally free himself and find happiness. This is a comic story of the classic ‘little man’ of literature and how we are all looking for a place where we truly belong.
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