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The History of Mr. Polly

H. G. Wells


(A man of precisely 37.5 years of age can’t seem to find success or happiness in life… perhaps he has to do something drastic.)

John Mills as Alfred Polly in the 1949 Anthony Pelissier film.  Mills’ expression seems to capture Polly’s listless anomie.  This still was also chosen to head the description of the novel for The Guardian’s list of the 100 Greatest Novels (Robert McCrum named it #39– but meant it to represent all of H. G. Wells’ work).  This photograph is in the Ronald Grant Archive.
  “HOLE!” said Mr. Polly, and then for a change, and with greatly increased emphasis: “ ‘Ole!”  He paused, and then broke out with one of his private and peculiar idioms. “Oh! Beastly Silly Wheeze of a Hole!”

Thus begins an entertaining fictional biography of a man who really needs a whack upside the head– one of several greats in that odd subgenre– Tom Jones, Babbitt, and Updike’s Rabbit series, for examples. (H. G. Wells writing fictional biography? In a contemporary setting? This might surprise those of us, such as myself, who had equated him with science fiction and socialist nonfiction. But anyway…) Our protagonist is an endearing and vivid, if frustrating character, who hides his depression with funny one-liners and his poor education with deliberate mispronunciations. And, as with many colorful characters in real life, beneath the wit cowers a man who hasn’t a clue where he’s going. His path through life is that of a flat boat with untethered sails– he might as easily plummet to his death over a waterfall as drift into a homely port.  Or, to use Alfred Polly’s own metaphor, he’s in a hole.  And no amount of quaint phrasing and amusing epithet, no ability to make women giggle, and no success as a shopkeeper is going to hoist him out of it.

This is a book about character, but do not expect Crime and PunishmentAnna Karenina, or even the Victorian English novels.  Instead of depth and complexity, we find a simple sketch presented with frivolous humor.  The plot adheres to a five part scheme that could be the basis for a Composition course: (1) presentation of a problem, (2) elaboration of background, (3) development of character, (4) moment of truth, (5) change and resolution. The very chapter divisions fall along the lines of these plot divisions. Regarding humor, in addition to his language (see the Pollyisms I list below), the situations in which Mr. Polly lands himself are often hilarious, such as his fights with shopkeepers and with a certain “Uncle Jim”.  When his father dies, his words at the casket are… poignant?  Sympathetic?  No.  “‘Second– second departed I’ve ever seen.  Not counting mummies,’ said Mr. Polly, feeling it necessary to say something.”  Even Mr. Polly’s own botched suicide attempt is presented in the spirit of clownish antics!  His wedding provides another example– no romance here, but more parody: “”D’bloved we gath’d gether sighto’ Gard ‘n face this con’gation join gather Man Woom Ho Mat-mony whichis on’bl state stooted by Gard in times mans in’cency…”.  The whole book is like this.  One can imagine that Wells must have had to suspend writing when he wasn’t in a Pollyish mood; otherwise carrying on like this with such consistency might have been impossible.  Perhaps this is a book of character development in a time in which “it had all been done before”.  As Cervantes, Twain, and other writers in waning traditions have realized, an effective way to write in a much-written vein– provided one is cynical enough– is to write it tongue-in-cheek.

Mr. Polly is a caricature, a simplistic exaggeration. Nobody talks like this!  But it would be fun to know somebody who did.  He’d be a delight at parties.  Anyway, he is also thoroughly in our grasp as a character, in the sense that we feel justified in criticizing him– there seems not the slightest possibility that he knows more than we readers do about life.  He is a cowardly, unambitious, lazy follower.

Why, though?  And if we do not find ourselves in his unhappy hole, why not?  The author’s answer is bad education, and a society which has no “collective will” to find Polly a place once it has created him. Society is wasteful of its resources, is indecisive, and impotent. For example, Wells says, we should really burn down London and Chicago and build better cities, but we haven’t done so because collectively our society is such a “feeble idiot”. I disagree with this buck-passing assessment of society’s role, and therefore of Polly’s reason for failure. I disagree not because I am enamored with our society; in fact it may very well be collectively a “feeble idiot”. But I disagree that a change in society would have been required for Polly to succeed– how about the old-fashioned idea of a change in Polly?! He obviously had enough education to be a productive member of society; a better education might have been beneficial to him, but it certainly would not have been a vaccination against bad character. Polly simply needed to change, however that change came about. It is much too easy to sit back and blame some nebulous conception of “society” for our and others’ failures as individual human beings. Society is a conglomerate, not an indivisible unit. A society that needs to change is really a large number of people that need to change. But even in the best society, cowardice, lack of commitment, and sloth (Polly’s faults) would be a recipe for social failure for most people. We should question the justice of a society where that were not the case. Although we hope the community will help an individual who cannot succeed, we need not believe with Wells that society has a duty, or even the ability, to force a Mr. Polly to be happy or to insulate him thoroughly from the effects of his actions. This verges on a discussion of the utility or truth of Wells’s social views, which I won’t get into here– other works of his lay things out much more explicitly! But to be fair, Wells’s own view on the matter at hand is not entirely hard and fast (or perhaps not entirely consistent); he makes concessions to individual responsibility in chapter 9.

Whatever the source of his woes, indubitably Mr. Polly is in a sad state for most of his first 40 years, and to some extent turns things around. Interestingly, if we could identify one moment, one point at which Polly’s transformation is most concentrated, it would not be one of those times we might expect to be the big events of his life– not with his father’s death, his marriage, his failed suicide attempt, his heroism after the arson, or his life as a bum for a while. Rather, the change in life-plan comes at a small moment, alone on a road near the Potwell Inn. I think there is a lesson here for us, and I am grateful to Wells for providing the illustration.

I think that Polly’s big change is incomplete, however. It is not that we are tempted to doubt or at least wonder about the long-term survival of his change of heart (as perhaps in Tom Jones); nor is it that he has given up and not really changed after all (which is how I would interpret Babbitt). Rather, it is that the change is true as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Polly doesn’t seem to learn a very big lesson, since at the end of the ordeal he still doesn’t admit his earlier failings, and insists that we can’t know good from bad. Still, he was well rewarded for a good decision (a rare thing in Polly’s life) and a show of determination (an even rarer thing). His fatalism, which brought about his sloth, is gone, and he has cultivated a devotion to something (the Potwell Inn). And we hope for Polly’s sake that his metamorphosis into a better man continues! Perhaps we can gather some optimism from Wells’ own outlook on the book. In the Preface to the “Atlantic Edition” of 1924, Wells said it was his happiest novel, and the one he cared for most.  




(by chapter)

1. “Beginnings, and the Bazaar”: Mr. Polly is 37.5 years old. He is in a mid-age crisis.  The author takes us back to his cradle to explain the situation. His frustrated childhood romanticism, bad education, and humdrum jobs have given him chronic indigestion, in mind and body. 

[He is 37.5 in the original version of the novel, but some editions claim him to be 35].

2. “The Dismissal of Parsons”: Having fun with two coworkers results in the ringleader Parsons being fired.

3. “Cribs”: Without his friend Parsons on the job, Polly finds it unbearable. He wanders around without a clue, haphazardly looking for work. But he is “lazy”, has “no zest”, “no vim”.

4. “Mr. Polly an Orphan”: Things change, but Polly continues to drift. His father dies, and the funeral is incongruous. He does meet the friendly (and unmarried) Larkins girls there, though.

5. “Romance”: He visits the Larkins often, who massage his ego with their reception of his wit. He imposes on an acquaintance Johnson while “looking for a place”. He becomes suddenly infatuated with a boarding school girl Christabel, who shakes his romanticism when she shatters his heart.

[Actually, ch.5 is “Romance” in the U.K. version, but “Mr. Polly Takes a Vacation” in some other versions, e.g. the Gutenberg online version, which is probably from a later American edition.]

6. “Miriam”: More changes without changes. He asks Miriam Larkins on the spur of the moment to marry him. A ho-hum, incongruous wedding follows.

7. “The Little Shop at Fishbourne”: Fifteen years of boring ownership of a shop are characterized by Miriam’s incompetence as a wife, by Polly’s strained relations with fellow shopkeepers, and by his slowly growing realization that he will never be successful.

8. “Making an End to Things”: In quick succession Polly is beset with insolvency, a failed suicide attempt, arson, and (strangely enough) attributed heroism. He rescues an old lady from a fire that he himself starts, and in the process forgets entirely about killing himself.

9. “The Potwell Inn”: The sudden shift from failed suicide to local hero inspires Polly to chart his own course in life: “If the world does not please you you can change it.” (9.i).  That’s when he realized he could “clear out”, as “Fishbourne wasn’t the world”. So he simply left, and “gathered a quantity of strange and interesting memories” (9.ii). Essentially he deserts Miriam and becomes a wandering bum. Eventually, realizing he can’t go back again despite his hunger, he stops at a pub for food, and ends up staying to work for a “plump woman”, as an “odd man about the place” (9.iii). A no-good “Uncle Jim” turns up and threatens the woman, and although Polly’s first instinct is to flee, somehow the stirrings of something generous or good rise in him. “He knew that if only he dared to look up the heavens had opened and the clear judgment on his case was written across the sky.” (9.vii) So he “turned his face towards the Potwell Inn” (9.vii).  He goes back and fights the big Uncle Jim and wins! (9.viii). The rascal runs away, albeit with Polly’s stuff. 

10. “Miriam Revisited”: Five years pass, and Polly is and looks different– more robust, confident. He worries about Miriam, though, and goes back to see if she is OK, which she is. The dastardly Jim had died long ago by drowning, and had been widely thought to be Polly because he had worn Polly’s shirt. Thus Polly can make a clean break with his previous life.  His new life is peaceful– he is content and sees beauty in the world once again.


Mr. Polly is a man of epithet, a fan of spontaneous vocal spree. By his own admission, there was an “insubordinate phrasemaker” in the back of his mind, which was “quite beyond his control” (3.i). One might praise him for ingenious neologism, if it weren’t for the fact that his inventions are usually just corruptions of quite established, though perhaps advanced, vocabulary. Still, they are worth recording… for posteriority.

I have restrained myself from the sometimes equally amusing vocabulations of other characters, such as Mr. Pentstemon and Uncle Jim. Apparently the author (not unlike the author of this post) had difficulty restraining himself. Below are all duly quotated spoken words of Mr. Alfred Polly. I have also mostly refrained from including phrasages that, although funnily arranged, are comprised entirely of ordinary words, as when he refers to the Larkin sisters as “hen-witted gigglers”, (4.v) or invents “Chequered Careerist” as a nickname for Hinks the saddler, who likes to dress like an old sporting chap just for the sake of doing so (7.v).

It’s hard to catch all of his verbal gaffs, because of our brain’s usually useful but occasionally irksome autocorrection, as well as the fact that as we become familiar with Alfred Polly we become inured to his neoloquations.

To introduce this comprehensive glossary of Pollyisms, here is Wells’ explanation for the phenomenon:

Words attracted him curiously, words rich in suggestion, and he loved a novel and striking phrase. His school training had given him little or no mastery of the mysterious pronunciation of English and no confidence in himself. His schoolmaster indeed had been both unsound and variable. New words had terror and fascination for him; he did not acquire them, he could not avoid them, and so he plunged into them. His only rule was not to be misled by the spelling. That was no guide anyhow. He avoided every recognised phrase in the language and mispronounced everything in order that he shouldn’t be suspected of ignorance, but whim. (1.v)

  • “You blighted, desgenerated Paintbrush!” (1.i), degenerate, to his hair in the wind.
  • Bocashieu… Rabooloose” (1.iii), Boccaccio and Rabelais, two authors who somewhat share character with our Mr. Polly.
  • Sesquippledan verboojuice” (1.v), sesquipedalian verbiage.
  • Eloquent Rapsodooce” (1.v), of a man reading literature aloud, rhapsodizing.
  • Rockcockyo” (2.i), rococo.
  • “The High Egrugious is fairly On” (2.ii), egregious, on having to get back to work.
  • Allittritions Artful Aid” (2.ii), on the use of alliteration in the slogan to Parson’s shop, “Cosy Comfort at Cut Prices”.
  • “Is it perjoocery to make a slip? People did sometimes perjuice. Serious offense.” (2.ii), perjury/perjure
  • “Heated altaclation” (2.iii), altercation.
  • “The Grave and Reverend Signor with the palatial Boko” (2.iii), invented name for a magistrate; the first part is after Othello’s address in his defense… I confess I have no idea what “Boko” comes from.
  • “Soulful Owner of the Exorbiant Largenial Development” (3.i), exorbitant, laryngial, talking about somebody with a big Adam’s apple.
  • “Earnest Joy. Exultant, Urgent Loogoobuosity.” (3.i), lugubriousness, of energetic false mourning.
  • There were sunny young men full of an abounding and elbowing energy, before whom the soul of Polly sank in hate and dismay. “Smart Juniors,” said Polly to himself, “full of Smart Juniosity. The Shoveacious Cult.” (3.i).
  • Proletelerians” (3.i), proletarians– “hungry people of 35 or so”.
  • Dejuiced” (3.i), middle aged men “too old at 40”, who had lost the lust for life.
  • “Chubby Chops”, “Chubby Charmer”, or “Chump Chops!” (3.i), nickname for a gentleman.
  • “Polly’s conception of his own pose and expression was rendered by that uncontrollable phrasemonger at the back as ‘Obsequies Deference'” (3.i), obsequious.
  • “‘Stertoraneous Shover’ and ‘Smart Junior’ as terms of bitterest opprobrium” (3.ii), stertorous (loudly breathing or snoring).
  • “But some of the smug monuments in the aisles got a wreath of epithets: ‘Metrorious urnfuls,’ ‘funererial claims,’ ‘dejected angelosity,’ (3.ii), meritorious/funereal/things of an angelic nature, all of  stuff in a church.
  • “Portly capon” (3.ii), a “dignitary in gaiters” in a church (ha ha, canon->capon).
  • “Cultured Rapacicity” or “Rapacacity” in some editions, and “Vorocious Return to the Heritage” (3.ii), rapaciousness or voracious greed for culture, on watching Americans in Canterbury “in a kind of quiet hurry”, a “very determined and methodical people”.
  • “Broad Elemental Canterbury praposition” (3.ii), proposition; on historically important monuments in Canterbury.
  • “A tide is a tide, I have no lune-attic power” (3.iii), lunatic, i.e. crazy, or else the power of the moon to control the tides.
  • “Bit vulturial, isn’t it?” (4.i), like a vulture, on inviting lots of people to the funeral of his father.
  • Fiancianier” (4.i), financier.
  • Hysterial catechunations” (4.iv), hysterical cachinnation (laughter), referring to the response of the Larkin girls to his wit.
  • “A mort of undertakers” (4.v), his word for a group of them [like all those harebrained never-used words for a group of any animal you care to name].
  • “Let’s lodgin’s and chars” (4.v), his observation of the Larkins girls cooking the dinner.
  • Gowlish gusto,” said Mr. Polly. “Jumping it in. Funererial games.” (4.v), ghoulish/funereal, of socializing at and after the funeral.
  • Anti-separated” or, better, in some editions “ante-separated“, (5.i), anticipated, beat to the punch.
  • “Explorations menanderings” or, better, in some editions “exploratious menanderings” (5.ii), exploratory/meanderings, of his activity on a bicycle.
  • “Little accidentulous misadventures” (5.ii), of an accident, i.e., on his bicycle.
  • Prodic” (5.ii), periodic.
  • Debreece” (5.ii), debris.
  • “High old jawbacious” (5.ii), wordy,  of an argument [finally, a bona fide neologism].
  • Infuriacious” (5.ii), infuriating, of the same argument.
  • Swelpme” (5.ii), so help me.
  • “Steady, old nag,” he said; “whoa, my friskiacious palfry!” (5.ii), frisky, when sitting on an unsteady chair.
  • Oscoolatory exercises” (5.iv), osculatory, i.e. having to do with kissing.
  • Intrudaceous” (5.v), intrusive, intruding.
  • “I was just sitting there in melancholy rectrospectatiousness” (5.v), retrospectiveness, nostalgia.
  • Chivalresque adventures” (5.vi).
  • Medevial” (5.vi), medieval.
  • Gesticulatious” (5.vii), having to do with gesticulations, tending to gesticulate.
  • “I’ve always been just dilletentytating about till now.” (5.vii), being a dilettante or dabbler, but also conveying a sense of dilly-dallying.
  • Precipitous” (6.i), precipitate, hasty (Of course precipitous is a word, but not the one he intended!)
  • “Bit of a scrase with the bicycle” (6.i), scrape, or something like it…
  • Meditatious” (6.i), meditative.
  • Fervous digging” (6.i), fervent.
  • Delphinicums” (6.ii), delphiniums.
  • Floriferous corner” (6.ii), full of flowers.
  • Funererial baked meats” (6.iii), funereal meal
  • “Wedding bells, O’ Man. Benedictine collapse” (6.iii), certainly not actually Benedictine, whether monkish or drinkish. It’s after Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, who fancies himself a woman-hater but then marries at the first provocation… just like Polly does.
  • “Unfortunate amoor” (6.iii), amour.
  • Vorterex” (6.iii), vortex.
  • Debonairious” (6.iii), debonair.
  • Telessated pavements” (6.iv), tessellated, tiled.
  • Vocificeratious” (6.vi), vociferous.
  • Zealacious commerciality” (7.i), zealous, overzealous.
  • Vertebracious animals” (7.iv), vertebrate.
  • “Don’t like so much Arreary Pensy” (7.iv), arrière pensée– French for afterthought or behind-thought– literally, as he was saying he didn’t want to see the guy’s butt as he unpacked boxes.
  • Shivery shakys” (7.v), invented nickname for the patterned trousers Hinks wears.
  • Zerxiacious” (7.vi), of the manner of Xerxes, i.e., likely to invade.
  • Arsonical” (8.ii), flammable, ready for an arson.
  • “It’s Fair Itchabod, O’ Man. There’s no going back to it.” (9.ii), a “variant on a well-known Hebrew word”, namely Ichabod, meaning “The glory is gone”– you can’t bring back the past.
  • “’Provinder,’ he whispered, drawing near to the Inn. ‘Cold sirlion for choice. And nut-brown brew and wheaten bread.’” (9.iii), provender/sirloin/wheaten.
  • Sumpthing” (9.iii), something.
  • “I’m not one of your Herculaceous sort, if you mean that. Nothing very wonderful bicepitally.” (9.v), Herculean, of Hercules; and relating to the biceps– he’s not very strong.
  • Strategious” (9.viii), strategic.
  • Alcolaceous frenzy” (9.viii), alcoholic, alcohol-induced.
  • Noosance” (9.ix), nuisance.
  • Benifluous” (9.ix), benevolent.
  • Omlets” (10.i), omelets.
  • Skeptaceous” (10.iii), skeptical.
  • “I’d be a sort of diaphalous feeling— just mellowish and warmish like” (10.iii), diaphanous, the kind of ghost Polly would be.

Now that I’ve come to the end of them, I wonder why I would spend so much time on that.  I like playing with words, like Polly does.  That could be all.  But, as I was looking at these, I was reminded of my own grandfather, Eino Lahti, who came to America from Finland.  He stubbornly and often humorously adhered not only to ordinary Finglishisms like pronouncing “energy” with a hard “g” or sticking an “i” at the end of various words like “President Clintoni”, but also to a few odd pronunciations all his own, such as “dangerious”, which come to think of it is a perfect Pollyism.  I’m thankful that tendency was the extent of my grandfather’s overlap of personality or character with Mr. Polly.


Tidbits of Significance 

(Ok, in this case don’t take the “significance” part too seriously…)


He suffered from indigestion now nearly every afternoon in his life, but as he lacked introspection he projected the associated discomfort upon the world.



…it is the habit of moralists to ignore material circumstances.



An absence of returns, a constriction of credit, a depleted till– the most valiant resolves to keep smiling could not prevail forever against these insistent phenomena.



The nice little curiosities and willingness of a child were in a jumbled and thwarted condition, hacked and cut about-the operators had left, so to speak, all their sponges and ligatures in the mangled confusion-and Mr. Polly had lost much of his natural confidence, so far as figures and sciences and languages and the possibilities of learning things were concerned. He thought of the present world no longer as a wonderland of experiences, but as geography and history, as the repeating of names that were hard to pronounce, and lists of products and populations and heights and lengths, and as lists and dates– oh! and Boredom indescribable. He thought of religion as the recital of more or less incomprehensible words that were hard to remember, and of the Divinity as of a limitless Being having the nature of a schoolmaster and making infinite rules, known and unknown, rules that were always ruthlessly enforced, and with an infinite capacity for punishment, and, most horrible of all to think, of limitless powers of espial.



His liver and his gastric juice, his wonder and imagination kept up a fight against the things that threatened to overwhelm soul and body together. Outside the regions devastated by the school curriculum he was still intensely curious.



…he emerged from the valley of the shadow of education.



Deep in the being of Mr. Polly, deep in that darkness, like a creature which has been beaten about the head and left for dead but still lives, crawled a persuasion that over and above the things that are jolly and “bits of all right,” there was beauty, there was delight; that somewhere– magically inaccessible perhaps, but still somewhere– were pure and easy and joyous states of body and mind.



He didn’t, of course, have very much to do with the feminine staff in his department, but he spoke to them casually as he traversed foreign parts of the Bazaar, or got out of their way politely, or helped them to lift down heavy boxes, and on such occasions he felt their scrutiny. Except in the course of business or at meal times the men and women of the establishment had very little opportunity of meeting; the men were in their rooms and the girls in theirs. Yet these feminine creatures, at once so near and so remote, affected him profoundly. He would watch them going to and fro, and marvel secretly at the beauty of their hair, or the roundness of their necks, or the warm softness of their cheeks, or the delicacy of their hands. He would fall into passions for them at dinner-time, and try to show devotions by his manner of passing the bread and margarine at tea. There was a very fair-haired, fair-skinned apprentice in the adjacent haberdashery to whom he said “good morning” every morning, and for a period it seemed to him the most significant event in his day. When she said, “I do hope it will be fine to-morrow,” he felt it marked an epoch. He had had no sisters, and was innately disposed to worship womankind.



There is no country-side like the English country-side for those who have learned to love it; its firm yet gentle line of hill and dale, its ordered confusion of features, its deer parks and downland, its castles and stately houses, its hamlets and old churches, its farms and ricks and great barns and ancient trees, its pools and ponds and shining threads of rivers, its flower-starred hedgerows, its orchards and woodland patches, its village greens and kindly inns. Other country-sides have their pleasant aspects, but none such variety, none that shine so steadfastly throughout the year.



There are events that detach themselves from the general stream of occurrences and seem to partake of the nature of revelations.



…he would have given all the story-telling very readily for a few adventures on the road.



He blamed his father a good deal– it is what fathers are for.



A weakly wilful being, struggling to get obdurate things round impossible corners– in that symbol Mr. Polly could recognise himself and all the trouble of humanity.



He seemed a fragment from the ruder agricultural past of our race, like a lump of soil among things of paper.



“Infuriacious. But that’s the sort of thing that is constantly happening, you know– on a bicycle. People run into you, hens, and cats, and dogs, and things. Everything seems to have its mark on you; everything.”

-Mr. Polly, 5.ii.


It is very pleasant to every properly constituted mind to be a centre of amiable interest for one’s fellow-creatures.



Mr. Polly had been drinking at the poisoned fountains of English literature, fountains so unsuited to the needs of a decent clerk or shopman, fountains charged with the dangerous suggestion that it becomes a man of gaiety and spirit to make love gallantly and rather carelessly.



She sat in a state of irresponsible exaltation, watching him, and at intervals prodding a vivisecting point of encouragement into him, with that strange passive cruelty which is natural and proper in her sex and age.

-of Christabel, 5.vii.


It is an illogical consequence of one human being’s ill-treatment that we should fly immediately to another, but that is the way with us.



For the life of him Mr. Polly could not tell whether he was fullest of tender anticipations or regretful panic.

-when he asks Miriam to marry him, on a whim, 6.ii.


“D’bloved we gath’d gether sighto’ Gard ‘n face this con’gation join gather Man Woom Ho Mat-mony whichis on’bl state stooted by Gard in times mans in’cency…”

-the clergyman at Polly’s marriage, 6.iv.


“Wimmin’s a toss up,” said Uncle Pentstemon. “Prize packets they are, and you can’t tell what’s in ’em till you took ’em ‘ome and undone ’em.”



Fifteen years ago, and it might have seemed to you that the queer little flower of Mr. Polly’s imagination might be altogether withered and dead, and with no living seed left in any part of him. But, indeed, it still lived as an insatiable hunger for bright and delightful experiences, for the gracious aspect of things, for beauty. He still read books when he had a chance– books that told of glorious places abroad and glorious times, that wrung a rich humour from life, and contained the delight of words freshly and expressively grouped. But, alas! there are not many such books, and for the newspapers and the cheap fiction that abounded more and more in the world, Mr. Polly had little taste. There was no epithet in them. And there was no one to talk to, as he loved to talk. And he had to mind his shop.



You see, when you have once sunken your capital in a shop you do not very easily get it out again. If customers will not come to you cheerfully and freely, the law sets limits on the compulsion you may exercise.



Queer, incommunicable joy it is, the joy of the vivid phrase that turns the statement of the horridest fact to beauty.



Great land of sublimated things, thou World of Books, happy asylum, refreshment, and refuge from the world of every day!



Mr. Polly felt himself the faintest under-developed simulacrum of man that had ever hovered on the verge of non-existence.



But Boomer, the wine merchant, and Tashingford, the chemist, be it noted, were fraught with pride, and held themselves to be a cut above Mr. Polly. They never quarrelled with him, preferring to bear themselves from the outset as though they had already done so.



…he thought books were written to enshrine Great Thoughts, and that art was pedagogy in fancy dress; he had no sense of phrase or epithet or richness of texture.

-of neighbor Mr. Rusper, 7.vi.


But when a man has once broken through the paper walls of everyday circumstance, those unsubstantial walls that hold so many of us securely prisoned from the cradle to the grave, he has made a discovery. If the world does not please you, you can change it.



There is only one sort of man who is absolutely to blame for his own misery, and that is the man who finds life dull and dreary.



After a lapse of fifteen years he rediscovered his interesting world, about which so many people go incredibly blind and bored.



Whatever the truth may be about love, there is certainly such a thing as friendship at first sight.



“It isn’t what a man’s happened to do makes ‘im bad. We all happen to do things at times. It’s bringing it home to him and spoiling his self-respect does the mischief.”

-the plump proprietor of the Potwell Inn, 9.iii.


Life had never been so clear to him before. It had always been a confused, entertaining spectacle. He had responded to this impulse and that, seeking agreeable and entertaining things, evading difficult and painful things. Such is the way of those who grow up to a life that has neither danger nor honour in its texture.



Man comes into life to seek and find his sufficient beauty, to serve it, to win and increase it, to fight for it, to face anything and dare anything for it, counting death as nothing so long as the dying eyes still turn to it. And fear and dullness and indolence and appetite, which, indeed, are no more than fear’s three crippled brothers, who make ambushes and creep by night, are against him, to delay him, to hold him off, to hamper and beguile and kill him in that quest.



…he took a mouthful that amounted to conversational suicide.



Some crimes are crimes in themselves, would be crimes without any law, the cruelties, mockeries, the breaches of faith that astonish and wound…



“I’ve always been the skeptaceous sort, and it’s always seemed rot to me to pretend men know good from evil. It’s just what I’ve never done. No Adam’s apple stuck in my throat, M’am. I don’t own to it.”

-Mr. Polly, X.3 [by saying no Adam’s apple is stuck in his throat he is denying the Judeo-Christian idea of a sinful nature.]



…you are bored with life, depressed, and sick of trying, and would like a companion in your misery who manages eventually to get out of his rut;


…you want a fun read of H.G.Wells in a genre other than science fiction!



(for the observer of the funny and frail human being:)

  • Oliver Goldsmith, The Good-Natured Man (1766).
  • Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (1749).
  • Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (1922).
  • John Updike, Rabbit, Run (1960). 

(for the follower of Wellsian ideas:)

  • H. G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895).
  • H. G. Wells, Anticipations (1901).
  • H. G. Wells, Mr. Britling Sees it Through (1916).
  • H. G. Wells, Outline of History (1920).

Find It!

Hardcover: There are no hardcover versions in print from well-known publishers.  I haven’t tried this independent press— either go here or go used!

Paperback: The stalwart Penguin Classics has kept it in print.

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