Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
Although H. G. Wells claimed that the only standard for judging the value of a short story is whether it has readers, he also suggests, by way of his literary mentor, Edgar Allan Poe, that a few additional criteria may be used to assess the quality of such a work of fiction. He learned from Poe that a short story exists to create a “single effect.”
Whereas Poe wrote, in “The Philosophy of Composition,” that a writer, after “having deliberately conceived a certain single effect to be wrought, he then invents such incidents . . . combines such incidents, and discusses them in such a tone as may serve him best in establishing this preconceived effect,” Wells wrote, in “The Contemporary Novel,” “a short story is, or should be, a simple thing; it aims at producing one single, vivid effect; it has to seize the attention at the outset, and never relaxing, gather it together more and more until the climax is reached.”
According to J. R. Hammond, having learned this lesson from Poe, Wells “adhered to” it “throughout his long career as a practitioner of the short story” (20).
Based on Wells' own statements, then, it seems that a short story, which he suggests can be read in less than an hour, should be judged on the bases that it:
- Produces an effect that is both “single” and “vivid”;
- Seizes the reader's “attention at the outset”;
- Heightens the reader's attention as the story progresses;
- Attains a “climax”;
- Can be read in an hour or less; and
- Is a work that people want to read.
Hammond elucidates several of Wells' terms. By “effect,” Wells seems to have in mind a narrative outcome that is of a specific sort (“informative, amusing, or terrifying”), “depending on the particular story” and which is also unquestionably real. In other words, the story's effect may be cognitive, diverting, or emotional in nature, relating to epistemology, amusement, or affect (20). Wells' own short stories, Hammond says, are often of a “disturbing quality” (20).
As in Poe's fiction, Wells' short stories are concerned with generating a “single effect”; all incidents of the plot, like the story's tone, are intended to produce what Poe calls “the predetermined effect.” Therefore, of the six elements which Wells suggests are the bases for the criticism of the short story, that of the effect seems paramount.
In writing his stories, Wells developed a formula, or “characteristic devise,” Hammond observes, for depicting the climax of any of his stories: “a moment of revelation or discovery in the life of an otherwise unremarkable individual whose outlook is transformed as a result,” and “the story focuses on the moment of crisis or climax and in doing so sets in motion speculations and doubts in the mind of the reader” concerning what he or she might do in a situation or set of circumstances similar to that of the story's protagonist (20). Due to the abbreviated length of the short story, as compared to the novel, Hammond says, “in place of the leisurely working-out of the plot through character and incident there is a single moment of illumination or decision” (20).
Hammond's elucidations allow the critic, as Wells envisions him or her, to expand on his or her analysis and evaluation of the story's effect, the story's climax, and, possibly, the narrative techniques by which the author motivates people to want to read the story. Therefore, one who is interested in criticizing a short story by Wells should begin by isolating its climax, for this is the “characteristic devise” by which Wells provides the transformational “moment of revelation or discovery in the life of” his “otherwise unremarkable individual.”
Then, if desirable, the critic can contend with the other five elements of what may be called the Wellsian critical approach: the production of an effect that is both “single” and “vivid”; the seizing of the reader's “attention at the outset” of the story; the heightening of the reader's attention as the story progresses; the story's length; and the techniques by which the author motivates people to want to read his or her story. (Part of the heightening of the reader's interest must surely lie in the ironic juxtaposing of the life of the “otherwise unremarkable” protagonist's view of the world “before” the revelation or discovery that shatters his [all of Wells' protagonists are male] complacency and the protagonist's view of the world “after” his complacency has been so shattered.)
Hammond is helpful, once again, in identifying the climax of Wells' short story “A Slip Under the Microscope”: The protagonist, a biology student named Hill, is seeking to “identify a specimen placed on a glass slide under a microscope.” Students are “strictly forbidden to move the slide,” but, as Hill adjusts the instrument, he accidentally slips, moving the slide. No one has seen him do so. Now, he must decide whether to “own up to the fact” or “remain silent.” His actions, Hill says, presents a “grotesque puzzle in ethics” (106).
According to Hammond, the climax of the story should be the vehicle by which Wells presents the “moment of revelation or discovery in the life of” Hill, “an otherwise unremarkable individual whose outlook is transformed as a result.” If the slip hadn't occurred, Hill would have continued in ignorance of the significance of “how easily normal life can be deflected by chance . . . occurrences” (20)
Wells heightens the reader's interest in the outcome of the story by relating Hill's ethical dilemma to a personal situation. Hill resents another student Wedderburn, because Wedderburn, whose parents are wealthy, has both the means and the confidence that Hill himself lacks—and because they are both interested in the same coed classmate. If he does what he believes to be the right thing, he may be expelled and lose any chance to court the coed.
When Hill informs the college's authorities, he is, in fact, expelled. He suspects that Wedderburn, who may also have cheated, chose not to confess; by not telling the truth, Hill's rival remains in school, able to woo the coed student whom they both admire. As Hammond points out, Wells implicitly asks his reader whether any “circumstances” may warrant one's lying by omission. The narrative, in this way, is, in effect, “disturbing,” as most of Wells' short stories are.
Hammond, J. R. H.G. Wells and the Short Story. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1992. Print.