“The Man Who Could Work Miracles” by H. G. Wells was published with the subtitle “A Pantoum in Prose” in the Illustrated London News in the summer 1898 edition, before being included in Tales of Space and Time in 1899. It deals with the complexities of both space and time and the scientific consequences of the actions of George McWhirter Fotheringay, described as “not a very exceptional man” (5), who acquires the miraculous power to realize his smallest whim just by imagining it. Fotheringay is apprehensive about his gift and tentatively practices lighting candles and turning water different colors. His miracles are mundane, and it is only when Fotheringay attends church on Sunday that he discloses his secret to the minister, Mr. Maydig, who sees the larger possibilities of the gift and sets about providing increasingly benevolent miracles for Fotheringay to perform. Fotheringay becomes apprehensive, not that he is performing extraordinary miracles but that he might not be ready for work the next morning. Maydig’s suggestion that he perform a biblical miracle and stop the rotation of the Earth results in the destruction of the world, leaving Fotheringay alone. After some careful thinking, he wills his power gone and everything as it was before he acquired his power, effectively erasing the entire story from his mind and returning the story to its beginning.
Wells’s story negotiates tensions between imaginative possibilities and scientific certainties in a complex mixture of scientific and logical reasoning that preempts many modern science fiction narratives. The story has been repeatedly used, and the double themes of mind over matter and maintaining the status quo rather than dealing with a phenomenon well beyond the understanding and ability of human beings speak of both human frailty and the cognitive superiority of the individual thinker. The story suggests the potentially disastrous consequences of ignoring and misunderstanding science but also establishes science as an impassionate constant, even against the power to perform miracles. The miracles represent the limitless possibilities of human beings but are set against individuals’ limited ability to comprehend the complete consequences of their actions. In addition, the confl ict between science and religion finds an interesting and ultimately unfulfilled expression in the story. Inherent in Fotheringay’s acquisition of the power to perform miracles but inability to master them is the human inability to comprehend the power of religion. The circumstances of Fotheringay’s biblical miracle and its disastrous result suggest, rather than science triumphing over religion, a connection between the two in which humans are ineffectual agents for the implementation of divine intervention. Through careful narrative positioning, Wells achieves a complex web of ideas that Michael Draper describes as a revival of 18th-century “clarity, detachment and narrative freedom.” The reader and narrator are afforded a privileged perspective and a secure position from which they alone can view the dangerously volatile nature of existence. The story ends optimistically, as Fotheringay, introduced as an individual “greatly addicted to assertive argument,” effectively thinks himself out of a cataclysmic situation to produce an effective, if slightly convenient, resolution.
At the end of the story Fotheringay resolves an uncontrollable situation with a modest understanding of his own limitations. He becomes a hero who saves the world precisely because he is not heroic and is willing to sacrifice his power to reestablish the balance between science and miracles. In “The Man Who Could Work Miracles,” Wells successfully navigates distinctions between fantasy and reality to produce exceptional science fiction writing that is at once believable and extraordinary. Wells depicts a world where the individual is powerless to act for the good of mankind, and while the story challenges our faith in an eternal stability of existence, it optimistically prioritizes the individual’s role in maintaining the balance of existence, suggesting that nothing is impossible but everything carries significant consequences.
Draper, Michael. H. G. Wells. London: Macmillan, 1987. Wells, H. G. Thirty Strange Stories by H. G. Wells. New York: Carroll and Graf, 1998.
Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story