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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.

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