‘The Magic Shop’ by H. G. Wells: Short Story Analysis
‘The Magic Shop’ was penned in 1903 by the father of science fiction H. G. Wells, whose full name was Herbert George Wells. He was one of the greatest late Victorian and early Edwardian science fiction writers, if not ‘the greatest’. H. G. Wells wrote a lot of fantasy fiction, almost bordering on magical realism. ‘The Magic Shop’ is one such fantasy piece about Gip, a little English boy who wanted his father or ‘daddy’ to take him into a magic shop they found along their way as they were walking. They don’t realize that what they are about to witness in the magic shop will change both their lives forever. It will also indirectly affect them and their viewpoints about magic and how unreal the world seems when genuine magic is performed. Underlying themes of man’s existence in this world and the baggage or burdens he carries with him throughout his life are also present in this short story.
The story starts with Gip’s father, declaring that he had personally seen through the magic shop window several times. However, he always thought it was ‘somewhere else’ and not where he last saw it. This is a bit of a conjuring element that even before the story commences is already playing in Gip’s father’s mind. It indicates to us that magic is the central theme of this short story. We realize that it was not only Gip who was a special boy who could have been inducted into the world of genuine magic but also his father, a grown-up little boy who is humble and tender a person as Gip was. One fine day, they manage to perceive and identify the magic shop situated between the patent incubators and a picture shop. They see it because they are ready to be inducted into the world of magic. As mentioned several times in the story, this is because they were genuine good souls. They were not proud, arrogant, and spoilt like the child Edward who could see the magic shop but could not get in. Only pure souls with receptivity to magic and its wonders were allowed into the ‘Magic Shop.’ The story’s central theme is magic, especially the genuine magic enacted by a true conjurer. Indeed, the magic was too real even for the father of Gip to digest.
The man who we shall call the Magician appears magically behind the counter where no one seemed to be there a moment ago. He is in charge of this magic shop and takes center stage in this story as a performer of the most wondrous forms of white magic possible, almost equal to a wizard. He is a gentle soul and feels one with Gip. Probably he sees the future of yet another magician in Gip’s wonderstruck eyes. The Magician knew that it was essential for him to not to scare Gip with his magic but to allure him into its enchanting world so that one day he would take up the profession. We realize this because of how the whole story is crafted, especially the points where the Magician keeps on speaking silent whispering words to Gip. Notice that Gip’s father gives his son space to be with the Magician but is equally possessive of Gip when he realizes that Gip was holding onto the Magician’s finger in the same way that Gip used to hold on to his father’s finger.
So, the intention of the story is clear enough. If a person or child managed to see and enter the magic shop, then that meant he was destined to become a magician or a conjurer. The story is highly fantastical, with a hint of modernism in its form and structure. It is a feast to the imagination with:
- Glass balls appearing magically from every part of the Magician.
- Animals emerging from coat pockets, boxes, and hats like rabbits and pigeons.
- Demons clinging onto coat sleeves.
- Noses being drawn out like a telescope and being turned into this red whips.
- Eggs appearing from nowhere.
- Packages being packed with string emerging from the mouth of the Magician, et al.
The boy Gip is fascinated by all the Magician’s many marvels. However, his father is getting a bit unnerved. He finds the magic done by the Magician too real and plausible for his taste. Gip’s father is a man of the world, and yet, he is not of it. He carries the burden of family responsibility and literally and metaphorically – his own ‘demons’. That is why the Magician says in the text that the demon he picked out like vermin belonged to Gip’s father. Gip’s father did not realize that demons in this magic shop morph into their original form. When he enters the showroom, the father of Gip is struck with a sense that something odd was going on around him and that he was being watched behind his back or without his knowledge. When humans encounter something they do not understand or feel that it cannot be enacted because it isn’t capable of being done by mortals, humans get afraid. This innate tendency of getting scared by things or events we do not understand, like real conjuring, is something inherent in our psyche that we have been carrying around in our DNA since the dawning of our basic humanity. The Magician is the best and the worst thing that Gip’s father felt had ever happened to him. The Magician challenges the social norms of what is real and unreal, putting Gip and his father into a quandary.
Gip’s father is even more afraid when he sees the showroom, its peculiar assistants roaming about, and one particular assistant who turned his nose into a telescope. That spooked out Gip’s father thoroughly. So, when the drum was being put over his son Gip by the Magician, Gip’s father thinks he was in a trap by some demons and thought he would lose his son forever. The son is magically found, and they emerge together on the famous Regent Street of London. Gip is pleased with his day as if he had merely been taken to watch geese in the park. It’s his father who is unnerved, horrified, and unsettled. He calls for a hansom cab to go home, and even six months afterward, he wonders about the truth and falsehood of what he saw in the magic shop. The father remains unsettled and can do nothing else but tell his story to us, his readers. In the retelling of the Magic Shop’s tale, he seems to be asking us to clarify for him whether what he had seen, including the complete disappearance of the shop for good, was part of reality or something that no man of science would want to talk about. H. G. Wells was a man of science, but he also had a sort of ‘love-hate’ relationship with religion, spirituality, and magic throughout his life. This is a story which science cannot solve, and neither does Wells, the father of science fiction, want to solve.
Gip is a somber boy with a beautiful heart—a heart of gold. He finds nothing strange or frightening about whatever the Magician was doing. He reveled in all that he saw that day. However, to his father, he does seem different after that day. He was a silent, contemplative, and highly secretive boy after his encounter with the Magician at the Magic Shop. His father wonders whether the boy, through some magic power, makes the soldiers in the box come alive. He is as thrifty as a regular middle-class Britisher, yet returns several times to where the Magic Shop was situated to pay for the four parcels given to his son, which was handed over with no charge. He tries to make us, as readers, come back to the reality of our world after we have traversed a feast to our senses with the Magician’s actions and acts.
I want to draw your attention to one error in the story. The boy Gip is left with four parcels at the end of the story, but he is given six parcels while in the Magic Shop and then in the showroom:
- Buy one and astonish your friend’s box.
- The Disappearing Egg.
- The Crying Baby Very Human Box.
- Several glass balls.
- A box of come alive soldiers.
- A live white Kitten in a box.
There is a bit of a racist angle when Wells describes the Magician as a tanned or sallow person by race. Is Wells indicating that the Magician was a gypsy or a non-European White? There is a bit of sexism, too, though it is a bit tame. We see in the story the father of Gip continually referring to his wife as the ‘weaker of the parents’ and more ‘emotional’ of the two of them. It’s harmless for a nineteenth-century reader but not so for a twenty-first-century reader.
In the story titled ‘The Magic Shop’, we notice that while the Magician was taking out streams of colored paper from the father’s hat, he gave a bit of a philosophical talk to whoever cared to listen. He indicated the burdens and baggage of unresolved issues that people carry about with them. He wonders about what man perceives himself to be while he blows the paper and makes it bloat in size. With our baggage and tendency to carry the negative side of our past with us, are we fit for anything but the grave? He wonders whether people are nothing at the end of the day but walking tombstones. This is highly indicative of the fact that people were not living life; they were existing. Whereas people like the Magician himself and the child Gip saw wonder in everything they did and so lived life to the fullest, and created magic wherever they went.
I enjoyed analyzing this short story by one of my favorite classic writers H. G. Wells. I have always loved his books, which I keep on recommending to my students like ‘Time Machine’, ‘The Invisible Man’ and ‘War of the Worlds’. If you want to read up about how you can get your child or students to read the classics, you can check out my book CLASSICS: Why and how we can encourage children to read them on Amazon or my products page. You won’t regret it. I hope to read more short stories by H. G. Wells soon and review them for you on my blog.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check my blog insaneowl.com. If you want to buy my books, you can check out the products page on my blog. Happy reading to you always!
Copyright © 2020 Fiza Pathan
I recall first hearing this story when I was at school aged 11. Our form master Mr Warman (father of Bob Warman the TV presenter) was also our English teacher and used to read to us regularly from classic English literature. He had the most magnificent and listenable voice. He really made The Magic Shop come alive, taking on characterizations, knowing when to quicken up, slow down and pause. We had no problem visualising the narrative. The assistant with the elastic nose, the unpleasant miniature, snarling demon and the final disappearance of the shop itself. He made it all so real. Now that WAS magic.