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JOHN ALLETT Tono-Bungay: A Study in Suicide It would be difficult to prove a direct influence of the famous French sociologist Emile Durkheim (18Yr1917) upon H.G. Wells. No substantive references to Durkheim, for example, appear in Wells's own works of sociological speculation. Nor is any such connection suggested in the major biogJ.'aphies of Wells. Nevertheless, Wells's own keen interest in the then nascent discipline of sociology is well documentedJ as is the fact of his membershjp in the Sociological Society (founded in May 1903), where Durkheim was generally an important infIuence.1 This would suggest at the least, that Wells had both the inclination and the opportunity to learn the gist of certain of Durkheim's key ideas. Moreover, given Wells's own personal interestin the subject ofsuicide, he undoubtedly would have been especially attentive to any discussion of Ourkheim's famous treatise, Suicide, first published jn 1897_.l Wells's sensitivity to the topic was likely sparked by his childhood suspicion that his father, Joseph Wells, had attempted suicide in October, 1877, when th~ family forrunes had taken a serious downturn.} Moreover, it was only within a few years that an adolescent Wells, now made despondent by his life as a drapery assistant, would find himsellsimilarly contemplatingsuicide if his father did not take action to get him released from his articles or apprenticeship. The threat seems to have been in earnest:' Nor did Wells protect his fictional characters· from such suicidal impulses. Here the motive is sometimes heroic self-sacrilice~ as when the Angel dashes into the flames at the conclusion of The Wonderful Visit (1895), or when Benham attempts to stop some soldiers from shooting at an unarmed crowd in The Research Magnificent (1915)·5 At other times, the impulse has a more resigned, passive guality, as with Nunez's retreat to the mountains in 'The Country of the Blind' (1904), On still other occasions such recourse lS sought out of plain despair - tragically, as in the case of Lady MalY in The Passionate Friends (J913); less distressingly, perhaps, as when Clissold Senior, having been convicted of fraud, takes poison tn The World of William Clissold (1926), or the murderer Pollock cuts his own throat in 'Pollock and the Porroh Man' (1895). Suicide by drowning seems to have been a demise especially favoured by Wells and features in The Islan.d of Dr Moreau (1896), Mr Blettsworthy on Ratnpole Island (1928t and The Sea Lady (1902), though only UNNE"RSITY OF TORomo QUARTERLY, VOLUME 60, NUMBER 4, SUMMER 1991 470 JOHN AlLETf in the latter is the act fataL And in one notable case, The History Df Mr Polly (1910), an attempt at suicide is even given a comic treatment. But these observations aside, and the list is not exhaustive, the fact remains that by the time Wells wrote his best work of sociologkal fiction, Tono-Bungay (1908), he had become sufficiently versed in a Durkheimiantype analysis of suicide that we rnay reasonably infer either a direct influence Of, at the very minimuml a remarkable affinity in their thinking. Indeed, Wells's understanding of the sociology of suicide is sufficiently encompaSSing to enable him to use this theme to establish and sustain both the central problematic and the contours oj this impressively ambitious novel. BOOK ONt:: THE CONDITfON OF EGOISTIC surCIDE Social man necessarily presupposes a SOciety which he expresses and serves. If this dissolves ... whatever is social in us is deprived of all objective foundation. . (Durkheim, Suicide, ;2.13) Durkheim orgaruzed his analysis of suicide around two maw propositions. Suiddal tendencies varied according to the extent that an individual was integrated into his social groupings and to the degree that his desires were regulated by social norms and values. Egoistic suicide results from a profound sense of isolation and seIi~dependeI\CY that is consequent upon weak group attachments. [t is pre-erninently (though not exclusively) a fin de sieele phenomenon and refers, structuratly, to the undermining and breakdown of h'aditional social groupings and allegiances that accompany periods of rapid change. Egoistic suicide is, in other words, a concept formulated to fit exactly the kind or social condition George Ponderevo is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 469-475
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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