Review: ‘Under the Knife’ by H. G. Wells

Under the Knife’, which was first published in the New Review in January 1896, is a short story by H. G. Wells (1866-1946). In the story, the first-person narrator undergoes an operation (hence the title: he is ‘under the knife’), and is administered general anaesthetic beforehand.

Under the influence of this anaesthetic, he experiences a vivid dream in which he fears he may have died. He appears to move farther and farther away from the Earth, first of all, and then, in time, the Milky Way. At the end of these galactic wanderings, he has a vision of a ‘Hand’:

The cloud’s shape was grotesque. It seemed to be looped along its lower side into four projecting masses, and above, it ended in a straight line. What phantom was it? I felt assured I had seen that figure before; but I could not think what, nor where, nor when it was. Then the realisation rushed upon me. It was a clenched Hand. I was alone in space, alone with this huge, shadowy Hand, upon which the whole Universe of Matter lay like an unconsidered speck of dust. It seemed as though I watched it through vast periods of time.

This image of the clenched Hand obviously summons the idea of a god, or some other deity, which asserts itself (or literally, if you will, shows its ‘hand’) as the maker and controller of the universe. The narrator describes this hand in vivid detail:

On the forefinger glittered a ring; and the universe from which I had come was but a spot of light upon the ring’s curvature. And the thing that the hand gripped had the likeness of a black rod. Through a long eternity I watched this Hand, with the ring and the rod, marvelling and fearing and waiting helplessly on what might follow. It seemed as though nothing could follow: that I should watch for ever, seeing only the Hand and the thing it held, and understanding nothing of its import.

Such a vision leads the narrator to wax metaphysical about his own place in the vast universe, but it gets bigger even than that. Perhaps the entire universe is just a tiny fragment of something much vaster:

Was the whole universe but a refracting speck upon some greater Being? Were our worlds but the atoms of another universe, and those again of another, and so on through an endless progression? And what was I? Was I indeed immaterial? A vague persuasion of a body gathering about me came into my suspense. The abysmal darkness about the Hand filled with impalpable suggestions, with uncertain, fluctuating shapes.

At the end of ‘Under the Knife’, the narrator wakes from his dream to discover that the operation was a success and he is very much still alive.

‘Under the Knife’ is one of Wells’s most descriptive pieces: more of a ‘vision’ than a traditional short story with a conventional plot (and he wrote plenty of those in the mid-1890s as well). Its force is derived from its powerful and lucid description of cosmology. ‘Under the Knife’ might thus be categorised as a visionary fantasy. The supernatural is present in the form of that giant hand which appears as a kind of cloud in front of the narrator.

And yet, as so often in H. G. Wells’s fiction, there is some ambiguity surrounding the narrator’s vision. Indeed, I’m not even sure it’s fair to call it ambiguity, since I think Wells intended us to put two and two together and come up with four with this story: the general anaesthetic points us towards the vision of the ‘clenched Hand’ being nothing more than a powerful and lifelike dream the narrator has.

And it’s worth comparing (and perhaps contrasting) ‘Under the Knife’ with another Wells story which was also published in the New Review in the same year, 1896: ‘The Plattner Story’. That tale concerns a schoolteacher who accidentally projects himself into another world.

There, however, Plattner’s vision of a dim and mysterious afterlife, a realm inhabited by ‘Watchers of the Living’, is corroborated somewhat by the concrete details surrounding it. In other words, there is a suggestion that Plattner really did experience something supernatural.

In ‘Under the Knife’, however, I’m inclined to view the story as a wholly subjective fantasy on the part of the narrator. And perhaps that clenched hand, which summons a deity, was nothing more than the surgeon’s hand which managed to work its way into the narrator’s unconscious while he was not only under the knife but also under anaesthetic.

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