The Man Who Could Work Miracles by British author H. G. Wells ’ is a short story that engages with the themes of identity, agency, free will, power and the supernatural. Published in 1898, it is one the first works to emerge within the subgenre now known as contemporary fantasy,
The Man Who Could Work Miracles | Summary
George McWhirter Fotheringay is a thoroughly ordinary man and he does not believe in miracles. He fiercely asserts the impossibility of miracles in the bar of the Long Dragon where others are ready to debate his point. In a bid to spiritedly demonstrate the validity of his arguments, he orders a nearby lamp to burn ‘upsy-down’. To his and everyone else’s utter surprise, the lamp does burn upside down following Fotheringay’s command. The others in the pub soon recover from the shock and accuse Fotheringay of playing a ‘silly trick’, dismissing him. However, once alone in his bedroom, Fotheringay tries his hand at more miracles and they actually happen. All of this, naturally, is too overwhelming a change for Fotheringay. After performing some petty miracles out of the sheer excitement of it, he wishes that he be able to sleep comfortably that night.
The next morning, he conjures up a nice breakfast. While he is out at work, he is both cautious and excited about his new gift; he wishes to increase his property manifold but he is also wise enough not to rush things straight away. He goes to a nearby lane in order to practise some miracles. He does perform some harmless miracles here but a constable named Winch runs into him. Fotheringay unwittingly gives his secret away and when Winch makes a fuss, Fotheringay commands that Winch be gone to Hades. Fotheringay realises the immensity of his power:
“Lord … it’s a powerful gift–an extremely powerful gift. I didn’t hardly mean as much as that. Not really. . . . I wonder what Hades is like!”
Fotheringay repents his action towards Winch and decides to consult clergyman Mr Maydig. He convinces the clergyman of his spectacular power by performing several minor miracles in the room. When Mr Maydig is convinced of the miraculous gift of Fotheringay, the latter asks him:
“Is that a miracle, or is it black art, or what is it? And what do you think’s the matter with me? That’s what I want to ask.”
Mr Maydig is supportive of Fotheringay, assuring him that the ability to cause miracles, though extremely rare, is possible and it is indeed a gift, a ‘peculiar quality like genius or second sight’. Fotheringay starts to vent out his guilt regarding Winch whom, by the way, he has transferred to San Francisco from Hades. However, Mr Maydig is too excited to think about Winch at this point, and in order to test Fotheringay’s powers more, sets him up to perform several more petty domestic miracles. They both enjoy a meal conjured up by Fotheringay. Interestingly, Fotheringay even offers to reform the shortcomings of Maydig’s housekeeper. This of course is a leap from the petty miracles Fotheringay has been performing so far but even this miracle works.
Fotheringay and Mr Maydig spend the night roaming the streets, reforming the drunkards, changing all beer and alcohol to water, and greatly improving the railway, among other things. In order to carry on these nocturnal acts of virtue, Mr Maydig asks Fotheringay to order the Earth itself to stop rotating altogether, since doing that would prevent the next day from coming until they want it to.
Fotheringay, with ‘as good an assumption of confidence as lay in his power’ orders the Earth, “Just stop rotating, will you.” This command begets utter chaos, and Fotheringay is flung across a considerable distance until he wishes that he be landed safely somewhere. He sees ruins all around him. The fact of the matter is that his command stopped Earth’s rotation completely, and since Earth spins very fast, the resultant inertia has hurled everything on Earth from here to there at a tremendous speed, wiping out all existence and letting loose cataclysmic commotion in nature. Fotheringay realises how his and Mr Maydig’s actions have brought forth this. He eventually decides that the sooner he abandons his gift, the better since he is no man to wield such tremendous power. So he makes one last wish: that everything that has happened since that night at the pub be undone, and that the power of causing miracles to leave him with immediate effect. And this also happens. Fotheringay’s last miracle restores cosmic balance once again and teleports everything back to normalcy, and Fotheringay is once again found in the pub arguing how miracles are absolutely impossible. However, he can sense he is not able to remember something but he has no idea what that could be. In an earlier passage, the omniscient narrator already revealed how everyone on earth actually died one year ago but thanks to Fotheringay’s last command, nobody remembers or even knows anything about it.
The Man Who Could Work Miracles | Analysis
The sudden acquisition of a superpower and what one does with it are issues addressed in this story. The superpower acquired by Fotheringay is not of a specific nature. Rather it is a general power to cause a variety of miracles, and hence, all the more powerful. Fotheringay, however, deals with his new power in a most commendable way; he does use it to cause petty miracles out of sheer excitement but never tries to do anyone any harm with it. He is very cautious as to how his power affects himself and the others and indeed, he feels very guilty when he ends up sending Winch to Hades. In fact, this very guilt makes him decide to go visit the clergyman Mr Maydig. Moreover, Fotheringay does not start misusing his power right as he gets it. Rather, he wants to understand if the power he has newly got is evil. If concerns for Winch show that he is a good man, his calm and rational attitude towards his miraculous power shows that he is also a wise man, devoid of the lust for unlimited and unchecked power. All of these traits make Fotheringay the exact opposite of a Faustus figure: Fotheringay is ordinary, not ambitious and most importantly, not too taken up with the greed for great power and authority. Like any other human being, he is excited about the miracles he can cause but he has a sufficient sense of self-control as well since the miracles he does perform are mostly discreet and harmless.
‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’ is the story of an ordinary man under extraordinary circumstances. Fotheringay is no hero figure, the narrator tells us: ‘His name was George McWhirter Fotheringay–not the sort of name by any means to lead to any expectation of miracles–and he was a clerk at Gomshott’s’. And yet by the end of the story, he inadvertently ends up becoming the hero thanks to his very penchant for ordinariness. Fotheringay’s fateful climatic decision acts as an interesting commentary on power in general:
Fotheringay wisely sacrifices his miraculous power because he realises it is too much for him to deal with. Indeed, the narrator tells us how after he brings Earth’s rotation to a halt and unwittingly unleashes cosmic chaos, ‘he perceives [s] that his miracle ha[s] miscarried, and with that a great disgust of miracles [comes] upon him’.
Fotheringay is wise enough to know that his miraculous power is bound to interfere with the laws of nature, and this fair assessment on his part, coupled with his level-headed, introspective, and unselfish handling of his power make him the hero of the story.
‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’ is also a commentary on the supreme authority of nature. Many of H. G. Wells’s stories deal with the significant difference between good science and bad science.
Characters in his stories often try to interfere with the laws of nature only to unleash unpleasant consequences. In this story, man does not use science as a tool against nature. Rather it is the mysterious weapon of miracles that comes into conflict with nature. And Wells again asserts the supremacy of nature by showing how Fotheringay’s poorly thought-out decision brings about a chain reaction of events that he is not able to either control or understand. Nature’s sheer vastness and power is pitted against the limited understanding of man. Even Fotheringay, with all his power, is unable to fathom the complexities of nature. This is best brought out when he says, upon witnessing the consequences of stopping Earth’s spin, “There’s something seriously wrong … And what it is–goodness knows.”
Fotheringay’s nobility lies in giving back the power that he knows has no place in the order of the cosmos. Human beings are limited in a myriad ways, faced with the awesome strength of nature but the nobility of the human species also lies in its acceptance of the same and deciding to not overreach.
Religion plays a significant role in the story and ties up with the overall theme of scepticism versus faith observed from the beginning of the story itself. Fotheringay wants to know the religious connotations of his newly found power, and in fact, turns to a religious figure like Mr Maydig in order to deal with the guilt he feels pertaining to the matter of Winch. Fotheringay has never been a believer but if his power to cause miracles is possible, what is the harm in checking for oneself the power of religion? Mr Maydig walks the streets of the city at night along with Fotheringay and encourages the latter to cause several miracles, many of which could be of a religious nature. However, when the same Mr Maydig talks Fotheringay into stopping the motion of the Earth, we get a picture of what happens when religion clashes with nature.
There are indications in the story that miracles have a deep connection with free will. At the beginning of the story, Fotheringay defines miracles thus:
“Let us clearly understand what a miracle is. It’s something contrariwise to the course of nature done by power of Will, something what couldn’t happen without being specially willed.”
Later also, we see, ‘it was a case of pure willing with him [Fotheringay]’. This could be one way to suggest that perhaps everyone has the ability to create miracles in their own ways if they desperately want something. But this covert life lesson also includes the warning that one must be as cautious about one’s will as Fotheringay is about his power; free will exercised to the extreme, after all, spells doom for one and the others around. Also, it is mandatory that one’s will not come into conflict with the laws of nature, and of morality.
NARRATIVE STYLE AND TECHNIQUES
‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’ is narrated by a highly interactive omniscient narrator who often breaks the fourth wall to address the readers using the first person and comment on the happenings and characters of the story. Let us examine but one of the several instances of meta-narration in the story:
‘The reader’s attention is specially and definitely called to the date. He will object, probably has already objected, that certain points in this story are improbable, that if any things of the sort already described had indeed occurred, they would have been in all the papers a year ago. The details immediately following he will find particularly hard to accept, because among other things they involve the conclusion that he or she, the reader in question, must have been killed in a violent and unprecedented manner more than a year ago. Now a miracle is nothing if not improbable, and as a matter of fact the reader was killed in a violent and unprecedented manner a year ago. In the subsequent course of this story that will become perfectly clear and credible, as every right−minded and reasonable reader will admit. But this is not the place for the end of the story, being but little beyond the hither side of the middle. And at first the miracles worked by Mr. Fotheringay were timid little miracles … ‘
The story is highly humorous. The tone is often playful and comic. The comic effect is achieved by the enumeration of the petty miracles that Fotheringay indulges in. Also, there are several inversions seen in the text. To take one example, Fotheringay’s command of “Let there be a match in that hand” is an inversion of the Biblical command of “Let there be light” and the contrast between the overall weight of the two commands gives the first command a parodic touch.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
H. G. Wells was a British author. Wells was born in 1866 and died in 1946. He is most famous for his work in the genre of science fiction. Wells has been called the ‘father of science fiction’. Besides being a prolific writer of fiction, he was also a socialist and a social commentator.