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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"The Flowering of the Strange Orchid": A Cautionary Tale

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” is a cautionary tale, the moral of which may not be so much that it’s not nice to fool with (or try to tame) Mother Nature as it is that Nature, despite her beauty, can be, and often is, treacherous, dangerous, and even deadly. The storyteller alludes to a study by Charles Darwin in which the naturalist discovered that “the whole structure of an ordinary orchid-flower was contrived in order that moths might carry the pollen from plant to plant.” The moth was important, in this scheme, as it were, only with regard to its role as a courier or, more accurately, a midwife. In the case of the strange orchid of H. G. Wells’ short story, the same seems to be true of human beings: the orchid collector Batten died that the orchid could live. The plant feeds upon blood, and it was Batten’s blood that it fed upon, killing him. The natives of the Andaman Islands preserved Batten’s collection of orchids, including the hemophiliac flower, until the dead collector’s colleague, an ornithologist, returned from a trip he had undertaken into the island’s interior to retrieve the flowers and bring them back to England.

Wells’ story is a slap in the face, so to speak, to those who believe that the universe is a product of divine design. Human beings, who fancy themselves the crown of God’s creation, are no more important or purposeful than the strange orchid that would survive by bleeding them to death, as it had Batten, whose death had been blamed on “jungle-leeches.” In fact, human beings are but a food source for the orchid, just as moths are midwives, so to speak, according to Darwin, to “an ordinary orchid-flower.” In themselves, human beings are often of little, if any, true value to the cosmos they inhabit, as the narrator’s description of the protagonist, Winter-Wedderburn, indicates:
He was a shy, lonely, rather ineffectual man, provided with just enough income to keep off the spur of necessity, and not enough nervous energy to make him seek any exacting employments.
Instead, Winter-Wedderburn busies himself with a hobby, the growing of orchids in his “one ambitious little hothouse,” a pastime no more significant or beneficial to humanity than any other such amusement as collecting “stamps or coins,” translating “Horace,” binding “books,” or inventing “new species of diatoms.” Everything that human beings do to pass their time is insignificant, Wells seems to imply, because human beings themselves are insignificant, just as are the orchids that the protagonist grows or any other life that the earth has spawned. The universe is absurd; therefore, everything in it, including life in general and human life in particular, is also meaningless and without value. As Winter-Wedderburn himself says, “Nothing ever does happen to me,” and the things that do happen to others are of no real significance; during the past week, Harvey, an acquaintance of Winter-Wedderburn, to whom things do happen, “picked up sixpence. . . his chicks had staggers. . . his cousin came home from Australia. . . and he broke his ankle.”

Nevertheless, plants, like human beings, struggle to survive, the strange orchid extracting blood from its hosts as “an nary orchid-flower” attracts moths to carry its pollen among itself and its neighboring plants. The functions of organisms, whether the collection of coins or stamps, the raising of orchids, the attraction of pollinating moths, or the bleeding of human hosts, are all without any more purpose than the absurd struggle of the species for its survival.

Ironically, believing that it was “jungle-leeches” that drained Batten’s blood, the protagonist tells his housekeeper, the strange orchid may have been “the very plant that cost him his life to obtain,” and, at the end of the story, it is his own death-struggle with the orchid that, giving him something to talk about, revitalizes his pathetic existence, saving his own life, as it were. His housekeeper rescues Winter-Wedderburn from the orchid, as it feeds upon his blood, allowing him to live to tell the tale:
The next morning the strange orchid still lay there, black now and putrescent. The door banged intermittingly in the morning breeze, and all the array of Wedderburn’s orchids was shriveled and prostrate. But Wedderburn himself was bright and garrulous upstairs in the story of his strange adventure.
As is often the case with Well’s shorter fiction, the true horror is beneath the surface of the story, not so much in the incidents as in what they suggest. In this case, the story’s action implies that human existence, which occurs in an absurd universe in which the struggle for existence is meaningless, is purposeless and pathetic. What would have been lost had the strange orchid’s flowering led to the death of the tale’s protagonist? Very little. His insignificance, like that of the story’s readers, is the true horror of “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid.”

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