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Humor, Irony and Effects in HG Wells’ short stories

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Out of all the HG Wells short stories that I have read, I have chosen to write about “The Red Room”, “The Stolen Bacillus” and “The Inexperienced Ghost”. This is because I found them to be most entertaining of all, and also because they have many interesting dramatic effects. In ghost stories or horror thrillers, it is unusual for the writers to introduce humor to the story. Wells’ uses it in each of these three stories, achieving a variety of different effects. In “The Red Room”, Wells uses a typical young Victorian man to narrate the story to the reader.

While it was considered inappropriate for men to express their feelings, especially fear, the narrator is especially bad at this. When he is most obviously terrified, and insane with fear, he says; “By this time, I was in a state of considerable nervous tension. ” Here, Wells shares a knowing joke with the reader. The pompous style of the narrator also adds to the humor. It is based on the irony of the situation, rather then spontaneous humor, which is designed to make you laugh it out loud. Instead, it is a wry humor, designed to make you smile. There is a wider range of humor in the next story, “The Stolen Bacillus”.

When Minnie, the Bacteriologists wife, chases after her husband, she is only concerned with saving him the indignity of traveling without formal clothes. Her husbands aim, however, is nothing less then to save country, maybe the world! The contrast between the minor concerns of the wife and the husband’s highly significant actions makes a farcical type of humor for the reader. And the farce is continued when Minnie proceeds to follow in a cab, while her husband chases the terrorist who is pictured continuously gaining speed and cracking the whip on the horses.

A different type of humor is introduced when the cabbies watch the chase from the cab stop. Their shouts sound like race commentary; “What a bloomin’ lark it is! Three to one on old George” said the ostler boy. “Next! ” Some of the comments are also humor observations; “She’s afollowing him! Usually the other way about! ” This is a sort of stand up comedian comedy, more designed to create outbursts of laughter. The effect of this humor is to create a light hearted mood of a dire situation, which makes the tension even greater when Wells suddenly turns his attention to the deadly test tube.

As tension builds, the humor adds a hysterical edge to the happenings. This makes it even more effective, and an all round entertaining piece of writing, even for a modern reader. There is an even wider range of humor in “The Inexperienced Ghost”. Claytons ‘matter of fact’ style of telling his story makes contrasts humorsly to with the story. “.. he turned round, drew himself up, projected his face, raised his arms and spread his arms in approved ghost fashion.. ” The cynicism in the humor appeals to a modern audience.

Clayton then explains how much he had to drink before his encounter with the ghost. “I’d dined, I’d had a bottle of champagne, and being all alone, perhaps two or three – or even four or five- whiskies, so I was solid as rocks. ” Here, Claytons claim strikes the reader as ironically humorous when set against the volume of alcohol he has consumed. Although 13 years separates the writing of “The Red Room” and “The Inexperienced Ghost”, it is the mixture of irony and cynicism which gives the later story its more modern feel.

Irony is not so evident in “The Red Room” and it does not involve the entertaining plot that Wells offers in the last story. It arises from the narrators lack of self awareness through his descriptions of his actions, Wells allows the reader to know what the narrator is feeling. At the same time, the narrator desperately attempts to convince both himself and the reader that he is in control. At one point he tells us how he started to “string some rhymes”. This instantly tells the reader that the narrator is becoming overcome with fear.

However, the narrator still tries to convince the reader that he is completely calm: “My mind, however, was perfectly clear”. At the beginning of “The Stolen Bacillus” Wells lets the readers know that the visitor in the Bacteriologists lab is suspicious with his description. “The lank black hair and deep grey eyes, the haggard expressions and nervous manner”. His description suggests that this is an unsavory character. His excitement and interest in the Cholera virus expressed in his speech, “And yet, those little particles, those mere atomies might multiply and devastate a city!

Wonderful! ” tells the reader that the man has deadly motives. The bacteriologist remains totally oblivious to what is so strikingly obvious to the readers. However, at the end of the story the roles of the reader and the bacteriologist are reversed. The reader fully believes that the anarchist is about to commit mass destruction by infecting the population of London with the Cholera virus. The bacteriologist, however, is safe in the knowledge the whole time, that all the anarchist has done by swallowing the tube is turn himself blue.

This role leaves the reader in a state of ironic ignorance, and the climax of the story acts as a punch line for an ironic joke at the reader’s expense. In “The Story of The Inexperienced Ghost” Wells uses numerous devices to convince the reader that Claytons story is not true. The reader is told right at the start of the story that “We naturally supposed he was lying”. When Clayton explains how much he had drunk, Wells prompts the reader to conclude that Clayton was in fact drunk, and that he must have imagined the ghost all along.

When Claytons friends crack cynical jokes like “You may try, Clayton, so far as I’m concerned, until your arms drop off at the wrists” the reader agrees and joins them in their disbelief. Eventually when Clayton does go through his passes the reader expects him to point at his friends and laugh, and comment on their gullibility. However, this merely makes the shock of his death even more of a shock for the reader.

Having got the over the shock, the reader naturally reminisces to Clayton’s confidence: I shall get to the end of these passes and this hearth rug shall be vacant” It is evident that Clayton “knew” he was going to travel to the “world of shades” and in doing so prove them wrong and play a huge practical joke on his friends. The irony is that the final joke is at his own expense. He may have traveled to the “world of shades”, but he also ended his own life. “The Inexperienced Ghost” appeals to modern readers because of the modern humor it had. When Wells wrote “The Red Room” there was a huge market for ghost stories.

It was one of the very first stories he wrote commercially, and because of the huge demand he did not have to try very hard to entertain the reader. “The Red Room” is an enjoyable story on the whole, but very predictable. By 1906, when he wrote “The Inexperienced Ghost”, the appetite for ghost stories had fallen, and Wells had to work much harder to thrill the reader. The use of a double narrator and a complex structure allows him to manipulate some brilliant twists in the tale, which modern readers still find satisfying to read to this day.

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