Of all of the short stories by H. G. Wells (1866-1946), ‘The Apple’ is perhaps the most allegorical. First published in the Idler magazine in October 1896, the story concerns a schoolmaster who meets a man on a train; this man gives the teacher an apple which is from the Tree of Knowledge.
To summarise the plot of ‘The Apple’ briefly: a schoolmaster named Mr Hinchcliff is on a train in the south of England, when a stranger engages him in conversation. He tells him he has in his possession an apple from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.
Hinchcliff is sceptical, but the stranger outlines how he purchased the apple from an Armenian man who, while fleeing the Kurds, had come upon a valley where the Garden of Eden from the Bible was located. The apple is a golden-yellow colour and doesn’t much resemble an apple, in actual fact: if anything, it’s more like an orange.
This strange is reluctant to eat the apple, because he doesn’t know what kind of knowledge it might lead him to have:
‘And worse – to know yourself, bare of your most intimate illusions. To see yourself in your place. All that your lusts and weaknesses prevented your doing. No merciful perspective.’
‘That might be an excellent thing too. “Know thyself,” you know.’
‘You are young,’ said the stranger.
This exchange hits upon the core meaning (as it were) of ‘The Apple’: whether more knowledge is a good thing. Do we not go about clad in blissful ignorance and innocence: of what other people think of us, or even of what we are thinking ourselves? (As Wells was writing ‘The Apple’, over in Austria a young Sigmund Freud was already beginning to lift the lid on the human unconscious, in an attempt to understand the dark and sometimes unsettling primal drives which lurk just below our consciousness.)
At the end of ‘The Apple’, the train arrives at Holmwood, Hinchcliff’s station, and he gets off the train. But no sooner has he done so than the stranger thrusts his arm through the window and hands him the apple. He walks around town with it, unsure whether to eat it, feeling extremely self-conscious of this ‘phosphorescent yellow tomato’ in his possession.
In the end, he throws it over a wall into an orchard, but that night, he dreams of the valley where the Garden of Eden was found, and regrets throwing the fruit away. He ends up going back to the orchard, but the apple appears to have gone.
It seems obvious that ‘The Apple’ is H. G. Wells’s attempt at an allegory about knowledge. And we as readers cannot help asking ourselves what we would do if we found ourselves in Hinchcliff’s position. Would we take the apple? And if we had it, would we eat it? There is something tempting, of course, about the apple as Wells describes it: after all, that was how Adam and Eve ended up eating it, with a bit of nudging from the serpent.
It is worth noting, however, that Hinchcliff’s reason for refusing to eat the apple differs from the stranger’s. The latter was wary of attaining too much knowledge, and of seeing ‘into the hearts and minds of everyone about you, into their most secret recesses’. There are some things it’s probably best not to know. Seeing into the hearts and minds of everyone isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, as five minutes scrolling on Twitter will confirm.
But Hinchcliff declines to eat the apple, and ends up throwing it away, for a very different reason: social embarrassment. If he hadn’t been walking through town at the time, he would have tucked right in:
He would have eaten the thing, and attained omniscience there and then, but it would seem so silly to go into town sucking a juicy fruit – and it certainly felt juicy. If one of the boys should come by, it might do him a serious injury with his discipline so to be seen. And the juice might make his face sticky and get upon his cuffs – or it might be an acid juice as potent as lemon, and take all the colour out of his clothes.
A major theme of H. G. Wells’s science fiction, and the genre as a whole, is knowledge, and the dangers of possessing too much of it. Or at least, the dangers of what certain people might do with certain knowledge. ‘The Apple’ is fantasy rather than science fiction, since it includes a supernatural object (the Forbidden Fruit), but it is of a piece with many of Wells’s other works of fiction in this respect.