‘The Beautiful Suit’, a short story by H. G. Wells (1866-1946), has the air of a fairy tale about it. Indeed, when it was first published in Collier’s Weekly in April 1909, the story bore the title ‘A Moonlight Fable’.
The plot of ‘The Beautiful Suit’ can be summarised in a couple of paragraphs. A boy has a beautiful suit of green and gold made for him by his mother, and he is delighted with it, wanting to wear it at all times. She insists that it is to be his wedding suit one day, and he reluctantly agrees to wear it only on special occasions, such as to church on Sundays when the weather is fine. She even protects the buttons of the suit to keep them fresh and shining.
The boy grows up to be a man and continues to appreciate his beautiful suit. But one moonlit night, the man is so taken by the beauty of the silver moonlight that he goes and puts on his suit and heads outside, walking into the garden and then wading into a duck-pond. The next morning, he is found dead, having fallen in the night, his suit ruined, but an expression of pure happiness on his face.
‘The Beautiful Suit’ can be read as Wells’s attack on (or mockery of) aestheticism and aesthetes, who are preoccupied with beauty at the expense of practical reality. The man in the story destroys not only the thing he values and treasures most of all – his beautiful suit – but even, ultimately, his own life, in his eagerness to appreciate the beauty of a moonlit night.
The fact that Wells originally titled the story ‘A Moonlight Fable’ directs us to a moral, as with all good fables. Here, the moral appears to be: don’t privilege beauty and aesthetic pleasure at the cost of everything else.
Indeed, although I began by remarking that ‘The Beautiful Suit’ reads like a fairy tale, there is no supernatural element necessary in the story, so it is not even strictly a fantasy. It is a fable, though, with a moral. The man’s suit is not magic, simply an extreme example of something beautifully made.
‘The Beautiful Suit’ attacks the immaturity of the purely aesthetic worldview. The boy in the story is not strictly a boy, but what kind of man he is – and how old he is meant to be – is difficult to determine, too. The story begins, ‘There was once a little man …’, and it is unclear whether that adjective describes the man’s smallness of stature owing to his age (he is really a boy) or the littleness of his mental maturity (he is a boy in a man’s body).
There is also perhaps something to be said for Wells’s protagonist being a forerunner to Philip K. Dick’s little men: people who make no mark on the world, blend into the crowd, and lead quietly ordinary lives. In this connection, the beautiful suit becomes the sole defining feature of the man’s life: the only thing that marks him out as extraordinary, and that makes him feel special.
But the wording of Wells’s opening sentence also summons a specific fairy tale: ‘There was once a little man whose mother made him a beautiful suit of clothes.’ The most famous ‘suit of clothes’ in the whole literature of fairy stories is, of course, that imaginary ‘suit’ which the tailors made for the emperor in Hans Christian Andersen’s nineteenth-century tale.
In Andersen’s well-known story, of course, there is no suit: the tailors succeed in conning the emperor into believing that the suit they have woven for him out of the finest silk is so fine, and so beautiful, that only those with a refined sense of beauty can see it. Those who are vulgar cannot. So everyone in the town pretends that the emperor is wearing fine clothes, because they don’t want to be accused of being vulgar. It takes a little boy (as far from a ‘little man’ as it’s possible to get) to pierce this groupthink and point out that the emperor is naked and the clothes an illusion.
Wells’s story, then, might be regarded as a kind of inversion of this setup. In ‘The Beautiful Suit’, we have another beautiful suit of clothes, but this one actually exists. The suit is rare and fine and to be appreciated. It actually exists. But it is destroyed by the man’s reckless pursuit of beauty in other things: the moonlight, the garden, the duck-pond.