The Stolen Bacillus by H. G. Wells, 1895

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by H. G. Wells, 1895

H. G. Wells wrote "The Stolen Bacillus" during the same period he wrote The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds. This curious tale, therefore, is placed among some of Wells's most celebrated scientific romances. Indeed, "The Stolen Bacillus" is itself a tale about a scientist that begins in somber tones and has a quickly developed plot suggesting the possibility of a terrifying threat to humankind. The bizarre twist with which the tale ends, however, makes it less interesting as a work of thriller fiction than as an almost perfect example of the use of bathos in literature.

"The Stolen Bacillus" concerns a bacteriologist who entertains a mysterious stranger who is referred to at first as "the pale man." As the bacteriologist exhibits various deadly cultures in his laboratory, the visitor demonstrates a morbid fascination with them. Looking at a test tube containing what the bacteriologist describes as "the celebrated Bacillus of cholera," the pale man remarks, "It's a deadly thing to have in your possession."

It soon becomes clear that there is something hazardous about the pale man. His eyes shining, he observes, "These Anarchist-rascals … are fools, blind fools—to use bombs when this kind of thing is attainable." After his visitor has left, the bacteriologist discovers that the vial of what he had flippantly referred to as "bottled cholera" is missing from the laboratory. It is obvious that the pale man himself is an anarchist and has stolen a deadly virus with which he intends to bring some terrible fate on society.

The anarchist escapes in a hansom cab, intending to release the bacillus into the drinking water of London. The bacteriologist gives pursuit, and he is followed in turn by his wife, who is alarmed at seeing her husband fleeing through the streets without his hat and coat. There follows a hair-raising chase during which the anarchist inadvertently breaks the test tube. He swallows what is left of the virus and, when the bacteriologist finally catches up with him, laughs defiantly and cries out, " Vive l'Anarchie! You are too late, my friend. I have drunk it! The cholera is abroad!"

Only as the anarchist strides off toward Waterloo Bridge, "jostling his infected body against as many people as possible," does Wells deliver the bathetic denouement to the story. The bacteriologist explains to his wife that, in the hope of astonishing his visitor, whom he had not known to be an anarchist, he had shown him "a cultivation of that new species of Bacterium … that infest, and I think cause the blue patches upon various monkeys; and like a fool, I said it was Asiatic cholera."

The sense of anticlimax is tremendous, but Wells quickly dispels the reader's sense of disappointment or, possibly, annoyance. "Of course I cannot say what will happen," the bacteriolo-gist confides to his wife, "but you know it turned that kitten blue, and the three puppies—in patches, and the sparrow—bright blue. But the bother is, I shall have all the trouble of preparing some more."

This amusing conclusion, coupled with the remembrance of earlier narrative details that suddenly make sense—including the bacteriologist's exclamation of "Blue ruin!" as he rushes out of the house after the anarchist—might lead the reader to dismiss the story as a piece of spoof sensationalism, an entertaining joke on those mad scientists and crazy revolutionaries so popular in late Victorian fiction. (They are found in the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle as well as in the novels of G. K. Chesterton.) Yet the seriousness with which the bacteriologist speaks of the dangers inherent in the viruses he handles—"mysterious, untraceable death, death swift and terrible, death full of pain and indignity"—and the zeal with which the anarchist shapes his schemes demand that the reader seek a deeper purpose to the story.

In his 1951 biography Vincent Brome said of Wells's scientific romances that "it was ideas that mattered more than characters." This is certainly true of "The Stolen Bacillus," in which the characters are nothing more than caricatured archetypes.

Although Wells gives several physical descriptions of the anarchist—his "limp white hand … lank black hair and deep grey eyes, the haggard expression and nervous manner"—this is done merely to unsettle the reader and signal the character as sinister and potentially dangerous. There is no description whatsoever of the bacteriologist. In addition, while Wells gives names to the bacteriologist's wife and even to the drivers of the hansom cabs, his central protagonists are named only by their profession or calling—bacteriologist and anarchist. In doing this Wells clearly makes them representational characters and draws a distinction between the common man and woman, who have names like us, and the nameless forces that shape and influence the world, in this case a man of science and a political activist.

Further, both men are primarily motivated by a desire for self-glorification. The bacteriologist regards his work as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end—the eradication of disease—and the anarchist plots revolution not because he has ideals of social equality but because he wants to be avenged on individuals who, he believes, despise him. Both act willfully and irresponsibly and are utterly complacent about the effects of their actions on others. Wells seems to be saying that there is little to choose from between an extremist determining to overthrow a society and a respected member of society who, nonetheless, risks placing it in peril.

—Brian Sibley