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The Wheels of Chance

The Wheels of Chance

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The Wheels of Chance is an early comic novel
Comic novel
A comic novel is a work of fiction in which the writer not only seeks to amuse the reader, but also to make the reader think about controversial issues, sometimes with subtlety and as part of a carefully woven narrative; sometimes, above all other considerations...

 by H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells
Herbert George Wells was an English author, now best known for his work in the science fiction genre. He was also a prolific writer in many other genres, including contemporary novels, history, politics and social commentary, even writing text books and rules for war games...

 about a cycle holiday, somewhat in the style of Three Men in a Boat
Three Men in a Boat
Three Men in a Boat ,The Penguin edition punctuates the title differently: Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog! published in 1889, is a humorous account by Jerome K...

. In 1922 it was adapted into a silent film The Wheels of Chance
The Wheels of Chance (film)
The Wheels of Chance is a 1922 British silent comedy drama film directed by Harold M. Shaw and starring George K. Arthur, Olwen Roose and Gordon Parker. It was based on the novel The Wheels of Chance by H.G. Wells.-Cast:* George K. Arthur - Hoopdriver...

directed by Harold M. Shaw
Harold M. Shaw
-Selected filmography:* The Land Beyond the Sunset * Lawyer Quince * The Firm of Girdlestone * Me and Me Moke * The Last Challenge * Die Rose von Rhodesia * The Pursuit of Pamela...


Plot introduction

This novel was written at the height of the cycling craze (1890–1905) when practical, comfortable bicycles first became widely and cheaply available, and before the rise of the automobile (see History of the bicycle
History of the bicycle
Vehicles for human transport that have two wheels and require balancing by the rider date back to the early 19th century. The first means of transport making use of two wheels, and thus the archetype of the bicycle, was the German draisine dating back to 1817...

). The advent of the bicycle stirred sudden and profound changes in the social life of England. Even the working class could travel substantial distances, quickly and cheaply, and the very idea of travelling for pleasure became a possibility for thousands of people for the first time. This new freedom affected many. It began to weaken the rigid English class structure and it gave an especially powerful boost to the existing movement toward
female emancipation.

These are the social changes Wells explores in this story. His hero, Mr. Hoopdriver, is a draper's assistant in Putney
Putney is a district in south-west London, England, located in the London Borough of Wandsworth. It is situated south-west of Charing Cross. The area is identified in the London Plan as one of 35 major centres in Greater London....

, a badly-paid, grinding position on the bottom fringes of the middle class (and one which Wells briefly held); and yet he owns a bicycle and is just setting out on a bicycling tour for his annual ten days holiday.

Wells portrays Hoopdriver as a dreamer full of Mitty-esque fantasies, and pokes fun at his shaky riding skills. Hoopdriver's awkwardness, the fact that the bicycle is only just under control and keeps getting away from him, can be seen as a metaphor for how Wells saw his entire society: uncertain and only barely keeping its balance on this new machine. But Wells likes Hoopdriver and truly appreciates the bicycle as well. He describes the start of Hoopdriver's adventure in a lyrical passage that any cyclist would enjoy:

Only those who toil six long days out of the seven, and all the year round, save for one brief glorious fortnight or ten days in
the summer time, know the exquisite sensations of the First Holiday Morning. All the dreary, uninteresting routine drops from you suddenly, your chains fall about your feet...There were thrushes in the Richmond Road, and a lark on Putney Heath. The freshness of
dew was in the air; dew or the relics of an overnight shower glittered on the leaves and grass...He wheeled his machine up Putney Hill, and his heart sang within him.

Not far along, Hoopdriver encounters a pretty young woman cycling alone and wearing rationals (bloomers).

Hoopdriver doesn't dare speak to the Young Lady in Grey, as he calls her, but their paths keep crossing. She is a girl of seventeen who has run away from her stepmother, and is unknowingly, in great moral danger, on the verge of being "ruined" by an older and unscrupulous
companion. Eventually, and almost accidentally, Hoopdriver saves her from this fate, and the two wander in innocent companionship across the south of England until the real world, in the shape of the young woman's family, catch up with them.

Wells used real places and the entire route can be followed on a map.

Jessie's bookish and romantic education has kept her ignorant of the realities of life, and her ignorance allows Hoopdriver, half-accidentally to develop a fantasy of being not a draper, but an adventurer recently returned from Africa. Jessie longs to live a real life, meaning an independent life free of conventional limits. She has developed these ideas from reading "modern" novels about women written by her stepmother; Wells is satirical throughout about the harmful effects of the wrong kind of reading matter on impressionable young imaginations.

In the end, both Jessie and Hoopdriver go back to their former lives, Jessie with little possibility of greater freedom but Hoopdriver with some possibility of advancing out of his dead-end job. Wells explicitly denies the reader a finished, happy ending. He only claims not to know what happens to them next, and invites our sympathy for both. If the book is a metaphor for the effect of the bicycle on society, its ending is simply an admission that Wells can't tell if the revolution brought by its wheels will be good or bad.

The text of Wheels of Chance is freely available at several sites on the internet.

External links

  • The Wheels of Chance at Project Gutenberg
    Project Gutenberg
    Project Gutenberg is a volunteer effort to digitize and archive cultural works, to "encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks". Founded in 1971 by Michael S. Hart, it is the oldest digital library. Most of the items in its collection are the full texts of public domain books...