Vanity and Unethical Action of a Human Being Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Tono-Bungay diverges from the author's more popular science fiction (Costa 89). Tono-Bungay is ripe with social commentary, and many literary critics have gone so far as to describe the novel as a "galvanic fictional chronicle of the intellectual and moral history of England at the close of the 19th century," (Costa 89). Indeed, Wells does capture prevailing trends in political, economic, and social thought, as well as currents in English history. A preoccupation with issues related to social class status and capitalism permeate the Edwardian novel. Although Wells deftly refrains from overtly didactic or pedantic moralizing, Tono-Bungay cannot be understood without reference to the author's message related to ethical egoism, vanity, and human behavior within a capitalist system.

One of the overarching themes of Tono-Bungay is upward social mobility, and the ethical tradeoffs taken to achieve a boost in social status. George's upward social mobility takes place on a weak foundation, but ironically, George describes his rise in power, wealth, and status slowly and over the course of almost half the novel. Tono-Bungay is divided into four books. The first book establishes the setting and theme of upward social mobility by describing George and the rest of the Penderovo family as being poor, even within a working class context. Uncle Penderovo is the only member of the family with a drive, determination, and ambition to break free of the shackles of his caste, and Wells suggests that the only way he can do so is through fraud. After all, George patiently attempts to improve himself in legitimate ways, such as by attending college in London. His failed attempt at legitimate upward social mobility leads him to collude with his uncle in Book Two. Yet it is not until Book Three of Tono-Bungay, entitled "The Great Days of Tono-Bungay," that the climax of the novel is reached and its main themes elucidated clearly. The emphasis on social class status is evident from the very first chapter in Book Three: "How We Became Big People."

George exhibits his moral character in Book Three, through a series of transformative decisions that erode his integrity. Until Book Two, George is presented as a young man whose moral character had not yet been tested. He resists his Uncle's business, and only partners with him reluctantly in order to win the heart of a shallow woman. Wells nevertheless shows that even George cannot resist the temptation for "bigness." At first, George perceives his uncle as being dishonest. He refers to "his industrial and financial exploits," (Book Three, Chapter Two, Section One). The term exploits clearly invokes the quality of exploitation. Therefore, George judges his uncle's actions as being exploitative. His moral character emerges, but unfortunately George neglects to remain committed to ethical integrity. By Chapter Four of Book Three, George admits to stealing and killing. He becomes a changed man, which Newell claims is the essence of the novel.

Uncle Penderovo epitomizes vanity and self-aggrandizement in Tono-Bungay. His upward social mobility is built on a weak foundation, as George comes to recognize: "I believe that a haunting sense of the intensifying unsoundness of his position accounts largely for his increasing irritability and his increasing secretiveness," George notes in Chapter Four Book Three, Section Ten. George astutely observes the rise and fall of his uncle, failing perhaps to recognize his own ascent and descent in spite of his pursuing a career in aeronautics. Uncle Penderovo's business schemes "grew more and more expansive and hazardous, and his spending wilder and laxer," George points out (Chapter Four Book Three, Section Ten). Uncle Penderovo's vanity is epitomized by his unruly spending habits on frivolous materialistic items. For example, he chooses a home based on its status alone, on Crest Hill. The uncle also exhibits vanity in his choosing to collect cars just because he can.

Uncle Penderovo represents the culture of the nouveau riche, those like the Penderovos who achieve upward social mobility rapidly and by whatever means possible. One dramatic image George presents of his uncle is of his stature, "ridiculously disproportionate" to his surrounds (Chapter Four Book Three, Section Ten). George observes, that "there are crowds of people who, like we were, are in the economically ascendant phase, but whole masses of the prosperous section of the population must be altering its habits," (Book Three, Chapter Two, Section 4). The subject of ascendency is closely and delicately linked to the motif of vanity in Uncle Penderovo, who George describes as "the symbol of this age for me, the man of luck and advertisement, the current master of the world," (Chapter Two Book Three, Section Ten). Also notably vain is Uncle Penderovo's insistence that England has mastered the art of upward social mobility and new money magnetism better than the Americans have. Upward social mobility is not only about money, the uncle insists, but also about status-driven intellectual pursuits. Like the frivolous cars he collects, the uncle also dabbles in prevailing intellectual debates. George slyly mocks his uncle in Section Nine of Chapter Two, Book Three: "My uncle was not altogether swallowed up in business and ambition. He kept in touch with modern thought. For example, he was, I know, greatly swayed by what he called 'This Overman idea, Nietzsche -- all that stuff."

George Penderovo's character changes mirror the changes taking place in modern English society. In Chapter Four of Book Three, George initially ventures to West Africa in order to help his uncle. When he arrives, egoism sets in and transforms George's moral character. "I realised that I was a modern and a civilised man," he states with obvious vanity (Book Three, Chapter Four, Section One). Beatrice mirrors George's own vanity when she initially believes he is venturing to West Africa only because of her. George's response that there is a "business crisis" indicates that he has come to take his uncle's business far too seriously, aggrandizing himself with false self-importance (Book Three, Chapter Four, Section One). George's growing sense of self-importance comes to a head on the boat when he becomes consumed by the desire to acquire quap. Without even knowing exactly what quap is, besides being a substance with "commercial value," George becomes willing to break moral and ethical codes. He becomes willing to kill. "I meant to get that quap aboard if I had to kill some one to do it. Never in my life had I been so thwarted!" (Book Three, Chapter Four, Section Four). His sense of being "thwarted" by the captain also illustrates the confluence of vanity and unethical behavior. Quap becomes the ideal metaphor for the disintegration of George's moral character. It is "cancerous," as George describes it: "the whole of quap, something that creeps and lives as a disease lives by destroying; an elemental stirring and disarrangement, incalculably maleficent and strange," (Book Three, Chapter Four, Section Five).

The quap may have caused George to experience temporary insanity, but George describes committing murder as a conscious choice. He notes, "It was the most unmeaning and purposeless murder imaginable," (Book Three, Chapter Four, Section Six). He shoots the man in the back, when the victim is totally defenseless. Throughout this chapter, Wells hints at English colonialist mentality, but in the murder of the defenseless black man, George's own sense of cultural and moral superiority -- his sinful vanity -- come to the fore. In retrospect, George recognizes the deed as "horrible," but at the time, he had become utterly consumed by the drive to succeed that he set aside all morality. George perceives his stint in West Africa as being dreamlike, with his life back in England as paradoxically "real." Unfortunately, George has become too self-absorbed to have a sane sense of reality. His vanity warps his ethical sensibility.

In what Sommers calls an "experimental novel," Wells develops a character whose moral footing becomes dreadfully unstable due to the relentless pursuit not only of money but also of power, status, and vain success (69). Tono Bungay as a product is the quintessential snake oil. It is a product that depends on a lie for its success. On the one hand, the consumer is responsible for making educated choices, but on the other hand, the vendor has an ethical duty to tell the truth. The Penderovos blatantly ignore morality in favor of even the briefest of stints at possessing a higher social class status than they had when they were poor.

Wells makes overt social commentary on the shallowness of new money pursuits, embodied in the character of the Uncle. The Uncle achieves success for a brief time. Like an airplane, though, he must come down from his high perch. Humans were not meant to remain soaring in the air. The extended metaphor of flying, a major motif in Tono Bungay, perfectly symbolizes the rise and fall of the Penderovos. It is possible also that Wells makes a broader commentary on the potential rise and fall of capitalism, thus framing Tono Bungay in a Marxist context. George's character evolution represents…

Sources Used in Document:

Works Cited

Costa, Richard Hauer. "H.G. Wells's Tono-Bungay: Review of New Studies." English Literature in Transition. Vol. 10, No. 2, 1967, pp. 89-96.

Dirda. Michael. "Revisiting H.G. Wells' Literary Masterpiece." Salon. 15 June, 2011. Retrieved online:

Liu, Sai-xiong. "On the Symbol Consumption of H.G. Wells' Tono-Bungay." Retrieved online:

Newell, Kenneth B. "The Structure of Wells's Tono-Bungay." English Literature in Transition. Vol. 4, No. 2, 1961, pp. 1-8.

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