Fascinating lists!

Friday, May 6, 2016

“The Apple” as a Mirror of the Soul

Copyright 2016 by Gary Pullman


H. G. Wells' short story, “The Apple,” starts with the declaration of “the man in the corner of the carriage” that he must “get rid of it.”

His fellow passenger in the train's third-class coach, Mr. Hinchcliff, is a recent graduate of London College, on his way to his “newly-gained pedagogic position” as the “junior assistant at the Holmwood Grammar School.” Hinchcliff does not seem to want to converse with the stranger. In an apparent effort to engage his reluctant companion, the man speaks aloud to himself, thrice repeating the question, “Why not give it away?” When, at last, he succeeds in eliciting not a reply, but a cough, from Hinchcliff, the man seems encouraged enough to repeat himself yet again: “'Yes,' he said slowly. 'Why not?,'” adding, “And end it.”

Wells' narrator suggests the reason that Hinchcliff is reluctant to enter a conversation with the stranger. The recent graduate has been “in the rapt contemplation of” his “college cap. . . —the outward and visible sign of his newly-gained pedagogic position,” which he regards as “a very enviable position.” Wells' characterization of Hinchcliff suggests that the junior assistant is a bit smug; he considers his “newly-gained pedagogic position” not as a boon for which to be grateful or as a position of responsibility to be regarded with humility, but as something which is likely to cause envy among others; it is an “enviable position.” Subsequent characterizations will underscore the protagonist's self-centeredness, or, in Biblical terms, the “pride” that “goeth before a fall.”

Hinchcliff's companion claims to have purchased an actual fruit descended from that of the Biblical Tree of Knowledge itself, acquiring the miraculous fruit—the “apple” of the story's title—for no more than “a drink of water and a crust of bread,” payment which may suggest a parsimony of the soul as much as a fiscal miserliness. Although the fruit is referred to as an “apple,” it is nothing of the sort, the stranger points out. It is, in fact, a miraculous fruit such as none but Adam and Eve and the stranger—and the man from whom the stranger bought the fruit— and, now, Hinchcliff himself, as well, of course—have ever seen. After three months, the “small, very smooth, golden-yellow fruit” remains as “bright and smooth and ripe and desirable” as ever. Indeed, the fruit seems to glow from within, “as if light itself was wrought into its substance,” and, as the stranger has learned and as Hinchcliff will discover, it can cause one to have visions.

The stranger obtained the fruit from an Armenian who, with others, fled the Kurds intent upon torturing and killing them. Seeking to escape death at the hands of their merciless foes, he and the others sought refuge in the mountains, crashing through shoulder-high grass that, cutting them, drew blood, as if the blades of grass were “knife-blades.” The Armenian separated from the others, stumbling into a garden of “dwarfed trees” guarded by a fiery figure. The numinous quality of the archangel filled the Armenian with awe, and he fled the scene. In doing so, he stumbled against a “stunted” bush, “and a ripe fruit came off it into his hand.” It was this same fruit that the stranger purchased for “a drink of water and a crust of bread,” after the terrified man had returned to his village, where the stranger and “others were attending the wounded.” According to local legend, the stranger tells Hinchcliff, “those thickets of dwarfed trees growing in the garden sprang from the [half-eaten] apple that Adam . . . . flung . . . aside.”

Hinchcliff is skeptical of the story, until, in studying the apple, he himself has a vision of the garden in which the Armenian obtained the fruit. As Hinchcliff stares at “the strange-looking fruit” of “a curious glowing colour,” he begins “to see more vividly the desolate valley among the mountains, the guarding swords of fire, the strange antiquities of the story had just heard,” and, slowly, he also becomes convinced that the apple truly is one of the offspring of Adam's half-eaten fruit, which prompts him to ask his companion why he does not eat it. He “took it intending to eat it,” the stranger admits, but reflection has given him pause. His “heart has failed him,” he tells Hinchcliff, each time he has been tempted to eat the apple, for fear of learning, if he does so, what he might learn of “fallen” man, coming to know with “terrible lucidity” the nature of human beings. He has resisted the temptation because he is afraid that “all the world” might become “pitilessly clear” and he would know what is in “the hearts and minds of every one,” seeing “into their most secret recesses,” and not only those of strangers, but also “people you loved, whose love you valued” and, worse yet, “know oneself,” stripping away “your most intimate illusions” and seeing “yourself in your place,” with “all your lusts and weaknesses prevented your doing.” Such a vision of oneself, he fears, would be “no merciful perspective.” By eating of the forbidden fruit, the stranger suggests, one would see oneself as God sees one, and such a vision would likely be a terrible sight to behold.

“If you don't care to eat it, and it bothers you, why don't you throw it away?” Hinchcliff asks. “There again, perhaps you will not understand me,” the stranger replies. “To me, how could one throw away a thing like that, glowing, wonderful? Once one has it, one is bound.”

Their theological and psychological reflections end when Hinchcliff catches sight of the railway station and “the end of a white board black-lettered outside the carriage-window. '—MWOOD,'” and realizes that the train has arrived at his destination. As if reality has reasserted itself, dispelling the legend of the hidden Garden of Eden and its miraculous, forbidden fruit, Hinchcliff hastily departs the carriage, “instinctively” accepting the apple the stranger hands him, having decided that it might be wise to give such a fruit to a man like Hinchcliff, “who thirsted after knowledge” and was too young and inexperienced in life, to find “terror in the thought of that clear perception” which would ensue from the eating of the fruit—the same knowledge that Adam and Eve obtained, at such great cost, the same knowledge of good and evil that is God's. (As soon as he gives it away, however, the stranger tries to recover it, although without success.)

Hinchcliff, not realizing he has taken the fruit, is concerned about his persona and his reputation, now that he has arrived in Holmwood, where he will begin his career. His thoughts are upon himself, showing, again, his self-centeredness, or pride: upon becoming “aware that two or three people on the platform were regarding him with interest,” Hinchcliff is concerned with making a good first impression as “the new Grammar School master making his debut.”

He does not want to appear to be unsophisticated, and “it occurred to him that, so far as they could tell, the fruit might very well be the naive refreshment of an orange.” Embarrassed, “he thrust the fruit into his side pocket, where it bulged undesirably,” making him “painfully aware of his contour.”

Gone are all thoughts of the supernatural. What silliness, he seems to think, “the glamour of the story” he'd been told. “Fires that went to and fro!” His “immediate concerns” drive away such fancies as if they were mere “mists,” and he becomes absorbed, once more, in himself, as “the preoccupation of his new position, and the impression he was likely to produce upon Holmwood generally, and the school people in particular, returned upon him with reinvigorating power before he left the station and cleared his mental atmosphere.” The fruit, which he has considered miraculous in the train, he now finds, in the station, to be merely “an inconvenient thing.”

He dreads being thought ridiculous, especially by the boys who are to be his new charges. How could he maintain discipline if his students saw his “face sticky” with the juice of the fruit or his cuffs discolored by it? Likewise, the sight of a group of girls alarms him, as he thinks, “at any moment they might look round and see a hot-faced young man behind them carrying a kind of phosphorescent yellow tomato! They would be sure to laugh,” and his dignity would be forever lost. Terrified at such prospects, Hinchcliff tosses the apple over “the stone wall of an orchard,” but, seeing, in his dream that night “the valley, and the flaming swords, and the contorted trees, he knew that it really was the Apple of the Tree of Knowledge that he had thrown regardlessly away,” and he awakens “unhappy,” seeking to recover the discarded fruit, only to find it gone.

The fallen nature of man, Wells' story suggests, is his pride, or narcissistic self-concern, which causes him to be concerned with what others think. A self-absorbed individual, Hinchcliff's behavior indicates, always feels himself to be judged by others and is unduly concerned with their opinion of him. His regard for what others think, stemming from his own concern with himself, with his making a good first impression, with his maintaining his dignity, with his protecting his reputation among the members of his community and his profession, are effects of this pride, as is Hinchcliff's initial willingness to discard a divine miracle simply for fear of being seen as foolish. Of course, some might contend, this theme has application, as well, to those who would conceal their faith from others to avoid the censure of their peers, rather than, as the Bible counsels, shouting it from the housetops.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

“The Triumph of a Taxidermist”: H. G. Wells' Triumphant Use of Humor and Wit

Copyright 2016 by Gary Pullman



“The Triumphs of a Taxidermist” is an example of H. G. Wells' wry sense of humor. The story starts with the promise of secrets to be divulged. The secret sharer is a person with insider knowledge: a taxidermist. Although he has drunk several glasses of whiskey and “is no longer cautious,” he is not intoxicated. Therefore, his revelations are credible.

The taxidermist seems to represent fraudulence in general. Indeed, fraudulence, Bellows, the first-person narrator, intimates, is the basis for several professions, including not only taxidermy, but also religion, science, commerce, and the media.

Remarkable for his odd, rather flamboyant, dress—“sandals” which seem to be “the holey relics of a pair of carpet slippers,” a “most horrible yellow plaid” pair of trousers, a coat that is “chiefly grease upon a basis of velveteen—and for his appearance in general—black hair, a “rosy” face, an eye of “fiery brown,” “spectacles. . . always askew,” the lenses of which shrink the size of one “small and penetrating” eye while magnifying and obscuring the other—the eccentric taxidermist tells tales even more colorful than his pipe's “bowl of china showing the Graces.” Equally showman and raconteur, he is not dissimilar, perhaps, to the famous P. T. Barnum.

With equanimity. he boasts, “There never was a man who could stuff like me,” informing Bellows that he has “stuffed elephants . . . moths,” and even “human beings—chiefly ornithologists.” He made one man into a hat-rack, he says, “with all his fingers out,” to serve as pegs. It is clear that the taxidermist has no regard for the humanity of human beings, treating them in accordance with his view of them as mere objects.

The same disregard for humanity is seen also in the taxidermist's visions for the future increased profitability of his art, one of which is legal, if unseemly, rather than fraudulent: “Seems to me taxidermy is a promising third course to burial or cremation,” which would allow the survivors of the dearly departed to “keep all” their “loved ones” close by, like other “bric-a-brac.” Indeed, deceased relatives, properly stuffed, would be “good as most company and much less expensive.” They could be “fitted up with clockwork” and function, like automatons, as servants. In addition, one could “talk to them without interruption.” (His prediction, alas, has come true, at least in regard to some people who have had their deceased pets freeze-dried so as to extend, indefinitely, their canine or feline companionship.)

Although Bellows seldom records his own words, his speech, mostly questions, can be inferred from the taxidermist's replies; in fact, the latter's responses often begin with his quotation of Bellows' own remarks or queries: “No, there is no law against it,” he assures Bellows, regarding the stuffing of human beings; “Unpleasant?” he repeats, when Bellows suggests his human hat-rack was rather beastly. “I don't see it. . . .” “Enrich the universe; rath-er,” he agrees with Bellow's perhaps tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the taxidermist's work has improved the world. Bellows' suppression of his own comments focuses the reader's attention more or less entirely upon the taxidermist and his statements.

Perhaps as he continues to drink his whiskey, the taxidermist feels emboldened, for he next confesses to Bellows that he has committed fraud in making alleged specimens of dodos and a great auk, the latter created with the use of “grebes' feathers and the like.” Apparently, he is not the only taxidermist to have done so, for, he advises Bellows, “half the great auks in the world are about as genuine as the handkerchief of Saint Veronica” or “the Holy Coat of Treves.” His allusion to the Church's holy relics suggests that this venerated institution is not itself above the use of fraudulent artifacts to promote its purposes. Like his own art, the work of the Church is bolstered by dishonest devices. The taxidermist's chicanery doesn't end with his creation of auks: he also makes their eggs, fashioning them, he reveals, “out of fine porcelain,” a confession that effects a rare recorded response from Bellows: “Good heavens!”

When asked which of the “genuine great auks” was made by his host, the taxidermist tells Bellows, “You must study ornithology, and find out which it is yourself.” His next project, he confides, is to create a dinoris, or moa, despite the fact that, as the origin of the moa's name itself suggests, such creatures no longer exist: “”'Moa' is its common name, so-called because extinct; there is no moa now. See?” The bird's extinction aside, he intends to “forge a complete stuffed moa,” sans skeleton, since “there is no need to make any bones about it.” “A chap,” he says, has ordered the moa so that he can pretend to discover it “in a kind of antiseptic swamp,” undertaking to have the specimen “stuffed. . . . at once,” lest it “fall to pieces.”

The taxidermist takes pride in his art, even if it does involve dupery: “The feathers” of the artificial moa “are peculiar, but I have . . . a simply lovely way of dodging up singed bits of ostrich plume. Yes, that is the new smell you noticed. They can only discover the fraud with a microscope, and they will hardly care to pull a nice specimen to bits for that.” The taxidermist's own fraud will be the basis of the alleged discoverer's perpetuation of his own fraud. Fraud builds upon fraud, whether in taxidermy or in the Church—or, for that matter, science or commerce. As the taxidermist himself admits, “In this way, you see, I give my little push in the advancement of science.”

The false auk eggs, the taxidermist says, sell for a good sum: “They fetch—one fetched £300 only the other day,” and “what is more,” he confides, “I have been approached by a syndicate of dealers to stock one of the unexplored skeries [rocks] to the north of Iceland with specimens.”

Indeed, his art does not merely imitate “Nature,” but surpasses its accomplishments. The taxidermist has created entirely “new birds” which represent “improvements” upon those which nature has created—a remark which is all the more ironic since his birds are not only fake but inanimate, rather than authentic and living, specimens.

To make his birds, he has had to gather materials from several existing birds, and, at times, his work proves clumsy and undignified. For example, his Anomalopteryx Jejunis-a-um (a parody, due to its absurdity, it seems, of taxonomy's seemingly pretensions use of binomial nomenclature) was “empty” but for its “stuffing” and “has all the clumsiness of your pelican,” coupled with “all the solemn want of dignity of your parrot, all the gaunt ungainliness of a flamingo,” and “all the extravagant chromatic conflict of a mandarin duck.” Like any other artist, the taxidermist can create nothing new or truly original. All his creations are but hybrids of other, actual creatures, a critical jibe, perhaps, by Wells, concerning the nature of both the artist's imagination and the creative process itself. “I made it out of the skeletons of a stork and a toucan and a job lot of feathers,” and represents “just pure joy . . . to a real artist in the art,” such as himself.

His inspiration for the Anomalopteryx Jejunis-a-um (which sounds suspiciously like a name the taxidermist simply made up, just as he simply makes up his specimens) was itself a bit of fraudulence, albeit unintentional. A science writer confused references in “a German pamphlet” to “a living apteryx” with “the extinct anomalopteryx,” the taxidermist explains, mistakenly translating the passage accordingly, and thus interested Javvers, a collector, in acquiring a specimen of the non-existent bird. To this end, Javvers “raided the dealers with inquiries,” and, despite the bird's non-existence, succeeded in obtaining one, the suggestion being that the dealers bought a made-to-order specimen from the taxidermist or one of his equally unscrupulous colleagues.

The taxidermist relates how he also once created “a most attractive mermaid,” which was acquired by “an itinerant preacher,” who subsequently destroyed it “at Burslem Wakes” (that is, at the religious festivals celebrating the saints to whom local churches were dedicated), not because he regretted his possibly lascivious thoughts regarding the half-woman, half-fish hybrid, but because, when it prevented him from getting “an audience,” he understood it to be a thing of “idolatry.”

The narrator suggests that the media is as fraudulent as taxidermy, religion, science, and commerce. The press, after all, authenticates and publicizes the taxidermist''s chicanery. Lest readers fear that the taxidermist's confession is dubious, Bellows assures them that “I find that he has the confirmation of distinguished ornithological writers. And the note about the New Zealand bird certainly appeared in a morning paper of unblemished reputation, for the taxidermist keeps a copy and has shown it to me.”

Wells' humor results in his intimations, throughout his tale, of the chicanery that suffuses taxidermy, religion, science, commerce, and the media, but it also derives from the candor of the fraudulent taxidermist who finds “joy” in duping the public and in profiting from the perversion of his art. In addition, the gullibility of the public, implicit in the taxidermist's fraudulence by virtue of their uncritical acceptance of the authenticity of the ludicrous specimens that he and his colleagues create, often at the demand of scientists, adventurers, and collectors, enriches the story's irony, satirizing the folly of the several groups of people who ought to know better but are more concerned with acclaim, prestige, snobbery, prurience, and profit than they are with the truth. Finally, “The Triumphs of the Taxidermist” demonstrates that H. G. Wells, who is known more for fantasy and science fiction than for humor, is a witty writer, indeed.