In the virile way

The following passage appears near the end of chapter 1 in H. G. Wells’s dystopian science-fiction novel When the Sleeper Wakes:*

A number of children going along the road stopped and regarded the artist curiously. A boatman exchanged civilities with him. He felt that possibly his circumspect attitude and position seemed peculiar and unaccountable. Smoking, perhaps, might seem more natural. He drew pipe and pouch from his pocket, filled the pipe slowly.
“I wonder,” . . . he said, with a scarcely perceptible loss of complacency. “At any rate we must give him a chance.” He struck a match in the virile way, and proceeded to light his pipe.

The phrase “struck a match in the virile way” struck me in a verbal way. Virile means manly, masculine, potent; marked by strength, vitality, or sexual energy. How would someone strike a match in the virile way? By flicking it off a thumbnail, a boot, a stubbly jaw, or the neck of a nearby stranger? Suggestions are welcome.

* When the Sleeper Wakes was first published in 1899. Wells rewrote it, as The Sleeper Wakes, some years later; he explains why in the preface to the second version.

25 Responses to In the virile way

  1. Drew Smith says:

    He may have done it across his teeth.

  2. Jonathon says:

    My first thought was striking it on the zipper of his pants, but I don’t know if zippers were yet in common use in 1899.

  3. Stan says:

    Thanks. That’s two more possibilities. I’m inclined to think he ran the match along a manly chin — his own — but it’s really just a hunch.

  4. SlideSF says:

    How about pulling the match towards him, as opposed to pushing it away. He’s a man, and not afraid of fire…

  5. Faldone says:

    I had a friend in college who lit his matches on his teeth, not across them but off the edge of a top incisor. The thumbnail is a good choice because eventually you are going to get a piece of flaming sulfur caught under the nail. It only hurts the first time.

  6. Tehse are fine but it would be far more virile if he cut down the free with a huge axe, cut up the matchsticks with a huge saws you get in saw mills, mined the chemicals for the head himself, then lit the match on his scrotum….

  7. Stan says:

    SlideSF: That’s a good idea, but is it the mark of virility?

    Faldone: ‘It only hurts the first time.’ I’ll take your word for it. YouTube has many videos of people lighting matches with their teeth (as I discovered this morning while drafting the post), but I didn’t spend long studying differences in technique. Maybe I should.

    Jams: You paint a picture of formidable virility. Might I suggest that he did the above while fending off a pack of wolves with an arm he recently broke in a fight with a grizzly bear.

  8. MM says:

    Might it mean that the mere act of striking a match (as opposed to using a lighter9 was virile?

  9. Stan says:

    It might, Margaret. That’s an interesting alternative.

  10. janes'_kid says:

    No one has mentioned striking a match on the backside of ones jeans. Perhaps no jeans at the time of the characters striking a match?

    At the end of WWII the GIs coming back would use the back of the jeans or a thumbnail. A one handed strike, tucking the lighted match into the palm for wind resistance might have been considered manly.

  11. Claudia says:

    Obviously, Jams knows a lot about French Canadian lumber jacks. There were two bears, Stan. I know, j’étais là!

  12. penny says:

    He probably struck it off the side of his manly proboscis. “Ouch!”

  13. Stan says:

    janes’_kid: That’s possible, too. Jeans were around when Wells wrote the story, but I don’t think he mentioned what type of trousers the character was wearing.

    Claudia: Jams knows a lot about a lot of things. Merci pour le témoignage!

    Penny: Ouch indeed! But at least the singeing would keep his manly nose hair in check.

  14. Neal Whitman says:

    What I find interesting is that it’s “THE virile way,” not “A virile way.” There’s only one virile way?

  15. Tim says:

    I was about to post what Neal already said. It’s as if there was only one virile way and no other. Now, whether this is the virile way to strike a match or the virile way to perform an action is not clear.

    But as with people’s suggestions, one could also suggest the virile way to do mundane tasks – perhaps the most virile way of all, according to Wells. What that is is anyone’s guess. :/

    One could look at it from a procreational point of view and consider that striking a match reproduces something: namely, a flame. And if done virilely, then consider a hefty matchstick that goes whoosh when you drag it against stone and force it to burst into flame.

    Smoking is bad. :p

  16. Tim says:

    Sorry to double comment – and even to write this as a comment – but I’d appreciate it if one of Stan’s wonderful readers could take the time to look through a short story I wrote for a writing contest. I know that some of you have experience copy editing and/or proof reading.

    The story is just under 7,000 words (it’s a 7,500 word limit), and is quite specific to a theme. The content may not make sense to an outsider, but what I really need is a fresh look at it from another person who has at least a little understanding of how to critique writing.

    You can contact me through my own blog (just click my name). The submission is due by the 23rd. ;)

  17. Sean Jeating says:

    As right now I just can’t think of anything more virile than decribed by the esteemed Jams O’Donnell Esq., for something completely different:

    Had Wells precisely described the ‘act of striking’ he would not have left much room for reader’s imagination, hm?
    Still, why would an omniscient narrator – although it is scarcely perceptible! – ‘notice’ someone’s loss of complacency, and then instead of describing the way something is (over)done does choose a word the meaning of which will vary, as each reader has his own idea of what’s a virile manner (Just look above)?

    Anyway, while writing Wells (obviously/probably) did not think of those reading the story in hundred years time, but of his contemporaries and thus assumed they’d be (immediately) able to associate what’s ‘hidden’ within and behind this very word.

    And here, I think it’s better to stop, before I get started.

  18. Stan says:

    Neal: That struck me too. “A virile way” could mean one of many match-lighting methods, leaving the matter open but unremarkable; “the virile way” suggests only one possibility. But which? I see many good suggestions, but no definitive answer so far, or even a clear leader.

    Tim: In the absence of a strong philological argument for a particular method, it inevitably becomes a guessing game. Even if among all the ways to light a match there was acknowledged to be a most virile way, it seems strange that Wells wouldn’t anticipate the likelihood of future confusion.

    Sean: ‘Had Wells precisely described the ‘act of striking’ he would not have left much room for reader’s imagination, hm?’ That’s a fair point, but then why write “the virile way” instead of “a virile way”? Neal’s question above shows the problem here. As for Wells’s assumption that the phrase would be clear to his contemporaries: I imagine he hoped the novel would be read decades, even centuries, into the future. Maybe it’s an example of the ‘slovenliness’ he mentions in the preface, but it does make for a nice little 21C puzzle.

  19. The Ridger says:

    I come down with MM: striking a match is virile *in and of itself*. Women used lighters. Or asked men.

  20. wisewebwoman says:

    I am thinking Stan that much of ‘the virile way’ has the distinct chance of leaving one with less virility than one had before if striking carelessly around the nether regions of one’s manly person.

  21. Michael says:

    It has nothing to do with what he struck the match on. It has everything to do with the way he did it and the look on his face. He wasn’t smiling, his mouth wasn’t open. It was done in a way that a woman would have noticed him. Think of Rhett Butler lighting a cigarette in Gone With the Wind.

  22. mise says:

    Google leads me to ‘Seaside Serenade’ from ‘The Bad Parents’ Garden of Verse’ and

    “young men uncover their torso
    In the virile way the maidens adore so”.

  23. Tim says:

    “I come down with MM: striking a match is virile *in and of itself*. Women used lighters. Or asked men.”

    Then wouldn’t it have been better to write is as “that virile way”?

    Perhaps mise’s find clues us in a bit more. Maybe Wells left some of it unsaid: “he struck a match in the virile way that only a man striking a match can, and proceeded to light his pipe.”

    It becomes too cumbersome a sentence when filled in like that, but to me that seems to be the most plausible thing: assumed context or expanding out left remiss.

  24. Stan says:

    The Ridger: Two votes for the same idea is virtually a consensus here.

    WWW: It hardly bears thinking about. You could start with the zipper and end up with zip.

    Michael: That’s a memorable technique all right, but it brings us back to why Wells wrote ‘the’ and not ‘a’ virile way.

    Mise: Before completing the post, I searched for other instances of “in the virile way” and found the same poem, but I ignored it because I don’t know where the lines you quoted come from. They don’t appear in the poem as reproduced in my book of Nash’s verse. (Other lines in the online version have ignored Nash’s punctuation and left out entire words. Harrumph!)

    Tim: It does seem as though some contextual understanding has been presumed or inadvertently omitted. Still, I like these minor mysteries.

  25. […] 14. why were lumberjacks virile men? [Ask H. G. Wells.] […]

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