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.