Book Review – Tono-Bungay by H. G. Wells

Tono-Bungay was written by H. G. Wells and first published in 1909. The novel is about a man who gets caught up in his uncle’s scheme to sell a medicine that is purported to rejuvenate the human body, but is in fact just a baseless liquid.

The entire novel can be seen as a satire commenting on the gullibility of the masses, and how powerful marketing can be. It doesn’t matter if what you’re selling really does what you say it does, what matters is if the people believe you.

Wells keeps up this theme of falsehood and appearances consistently throughout the novel , which I thought was pretty clever and entertaining. A good chunk of the middle deals with George’s (the protagonist) failed marriage, starting with how he fell in love with Marion and then how he went about having an affair. Both relationships amount to nothing. The principal reason George falls out of love with his wife is because he realizes they do not share the same interests. This is what makes her come across as boring, disinterested, and fake. He repeatedly complains that in his view Marion was never really alive, because she showed no emotion. They kept up the appearance of a married couple, but like Tono-Bungay, it was false and meaningless.

This episode is followed by an examination on his uncle’s rise to social and financial prominence. Again images and fakery pervade the narrative. His uncle complains to his wife and nephew that because they came into good fortune (rather than being born into it), the rest of the upper class still look down on them, and for this reason he claims they need to keep up appearances and learn how to be refined and play their part. Aunt Susan is annoyed, and George recognizes falsehood once again. With his ill-earned success, Uncle Edward believes he must give up who he is, and live a charade in order to fit in with the lifestyle that came with the boom of Tono-Bungay.

This stretches into a commentary of a certain branch of the wealthy class, explicitly stated in book three, chapter two, near the end of section four: “And nobody, you knew, was anybody, however expensively they dressed and whatever rooms they took.” It has already been emphasized that Tono-Bungay sells because of the manipulative tactics of its marketing plan. Likewise, the wealthy are all looking for something to spend their money on and so they buy extravagant things for the sake of appearances. Just like how Tono-Bungay is an empty product, so are the flashy possessions that wealthy people use to show off their wealth. “Acquisition becomes the substance of their lives.”

A beautiful scene occurs when Uncle Edward purchases Lady Grove and they move in to inspect the mansion. It had belonged to some aristocratic family from the Middle Ages, but their name had died out. The descriptions of the rooms are poignant in showing just how fabulous Edward’s notions of appearances and how invested he is in “playing the part”. The house gives off an alienating atmosphere. The rooms and halls are large, and huge portraits of dead people of no relation look down on the Ponderevo’s. They proceed to meet their neighbours, faded Victorians with children who seem to be out of place and awkward, the yearning to go to London already forming inside them without them knowing. The empty atmosphere of Lady Grove and the detachment from their passively snobby neighbours suggests just how meaningless wealth and status really are.

The climax of George’s adventure shows just how much humanity he has lost in his accumulation and pursuit of material wealth. During the final chapter of book three George travels to the African continent to steal a natural resource for the sole purpose of selling it as a commodity. The journey there is a punishment for the life he had been living up to this point. Physically, he is punished by becoming extremely seasick, and intellectually he finds himself devoid of remarkable company and interesting conversation (funny how he regards the most quiet and stoic man on the boat as his best friend during the trip). But it is not until he reaches his destination that his character is tested morally, and he fails that test. While stealing the quap (a resource George believes to be of high value), he stumbles upon a native of the land he is stealing from. In his panic George shoots the boy dead in order to prevent him from alerting anyone of George’s presence. The pursuit of wealth has perverted the protagonist’s estimation of the value of life.

A fitting conclusion is given at the end of the expedition. It is the quap itself that literally sinks George and all his aspirations. The chase for meaningless wealth leads to ruin.

Edward’s death struck me as a highly effective and well-written moment. Despite Uncle Edward not being present in the narrative for the quap adventure, there was enough of him sprinkled throughout the novel to make his death genuinely moving. I especially liked how he said “It seems to me, George, always – there must be something in me – that won’t die.” Readers may choose to understand Edward as being worried about life after death, and that he is talking about his soul, but my immediate reaction told me that Edward was speaking the truth, and he was speaking about the soul of the Entrepreneur, and perhaps the Swindler and the one who invokes change as well. In any case, this scene struck me as being full of meaning, even if we only consider it as a part where a major character dies.

The final encounter with Beatrice is also very interesting. After reading it I felt as if there was something huge battle going on between the lines of this novel: practicality vs. the naive dreamer. The prize was the meaning and identity of Love itself, in this case. I won’t go into detail here of what happens, partially because I felt there was so little of Beatrice in the novel, though what she says is an extension of George’s experience with Marion. Perhaps Love is better served as an honest and fleeting moment, perhaps not.

Wells’ narrative is to be commended. This was the first book that I’ve read of his, and his descriptions strike me as being very real and frank. He speaks with an honesty that is not only satirical, but artistic, as the book is not just about business and commercialism, but about life, love, dreams, and the human spirit as well. One cannot help but feel Tono-Bungay was a very personal project for Wells, though in what capacity I cannot say for sure. At times the diction made me raise an eyebrow. There were words that seemed excessively elegant and intellectual, and unnecessarily so. They are bunched together in certain sections, which makes me think Wells was subject to rare binges of fancy words and exaggerated expression. As I said, however, the majority of the novel conveys sincere and delightful allegories and observations, in plain language that reaches the heart and spirit. You may not think it in the beginning or even by the middle, but this book is indeed poetic.

In the end, I would highly recommend this novel if you’re looking for something classical yet modern. The social commentary and the era it was written in makes it a classic; the language, the subject matter, and its attitude makes it modern. The beginning may be a bit slow. I’m not sure if I can pinpoint the moment when you are likely to become invested with the story, but by the end you will be affected emotionally and philosophically.

Thanks for reading.

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