H. G. Wells: The Time Machine

(1655 words)

H. G. Wells's The Time Machine: An Invention is one of the earliest works of English Literature to be set in the distant future, and the first to use technology to transport its hero there. Wells began and then abandoned an earlier and very different version of the novel, published in the Science Schools Journal in 1888, entitled “The Chronic Argonauts”. The Time Machine was published by Heinemann in May 1895 after having being serialised in a rather different form in the National Observer from March to June 1894 (cut short by the journal's change of editor) and in the New Review from January to May 1895.

The romance (the term that Wells himself preferred for his scientific fantasy stories) begins within a frame-narrative. The Time Traveller is expounding to an audience, composed of the text's unnamed narrator and other dinner-party guests who are named in such terms as “the Medical Man” and “the Provincial Mayor”, his theory that time is the fourth dimension and might be travelled in as freely as the other three. To demonstrate his theory, he shows a small model of his time machine and makes it disappear, suggesting that the model has remained static in space but travelled in time.

A week later, the narrator returns for a second dinner party, at which the Time Traveller arrives late, hungry and with his clothes in tatters. He claims to have travelled into the future, and begins telling the narrative proper of his journey into the future:

The night came like the turning out of a lamp, and in another moment came tomorrow. The laboratory grew faint and hazy, then fainter and ever fainter. Tomorrow night came black, then day again, night again, day again, faster and faster still. An eddying murmur filled my ears, and a strange, dumb confusedness descended on my mind. [. . .] As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a black wing. The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky, leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day. [. . .] The slowest snail that ever crawled dashed by too fast for me. [. . .] I saw trees growing and changing like puffs of vapour, now brown, now green; they grew, spread, shivered, and passed away. I saw huge buildings rise up faint and fair, and pass like dreams. The whole surface of the earth seemed changed – melting and flowing under my eyes. (18-19)

Expecting to find a more civilised and technologically advanced civilisation than his own, the hero is shocked to find that in the year 802701, humanity has apparently degenerated into childlike dwarfish creatures whom he christens the Eloi. The Eloi are beautiful but have limited intelligence and only primitive language; there appears to be little physical difference between the sexes. The Traveller sees no evidence of private property, of work, of creativity nor of abstract thought: the Eloi seem capable only of nothing but indolent play. Britain's climate has improved, London is now rural, and most of the worlds' plants and animals, as well as disease, have become extinct. Freed from the struggle for existence, humanity appears to have achieved a state of evolutionary equilibrium: the Eloi live in a state of harmonious, if unsophisticated, co-operation. All written records of history have decayed into rags, and the only remnants of past civilisation are the ruined buildings in which the Eloi live, and a mysterious white statue of a sphinx.

The Time Traveller removes the levers that operate the Time Machine to stop the Eloi playing with it, but returns later to discover the Time Machine gone. He saves an Eloi named Weena from drowning, who then gratefully attaches herself to him. Under cover of darkness, he later sees a “white, ape-like creature”, and realises that humanity has descended into not one but two divergent species: the Eloi, and the simian Morlocks, who live underground, and who must make and maintain the machines which provide the Eloi with clothing. In search of the Time Machine, the Traveller journeys to the Underworld, and makes the grisly discovery that, while the Eloi eat only fruit, the Morlocks are carnivorous, feeding on Eloi abducted from the Upperworld at nightfall. Initially, he is able to ward off the Morlocks' attack by striking matches, as the Morlocks' eyes are unaccustomed to light, but he has to flee to the surface when the matches run out.

Resolving to arm himself for a further assault on the underworld, the Time Traveller journeys to the “Palace of Green Porcelain”, an abandoned museum in what was once Wimbledon. There, among fossils, stuffed animals and other reminders of the Earth's evolutionary past, he discovers another box of matches and a jar of inflammable camphor, but can find no more advanced a weapon than an iron bar. When they are attacked by Morlocks on leaving the Palace of Green Porcelain, Weena faints, and the Time Traveller lights a fire in an attempt to revive her and keep the Morlocks at bay. He successfully defends himself, but accidentally starts a forest fire, after which he can find no trace of Weena. Grieving both for the loss of Weena and for the end of “the dream of the human intellect”, the Time Traveller returns to the spot where he first arrived, and finds a door open in the pedestal of the Sphinx, revealing his Time Machine, oiled and cleaned by the Morlocks. They try to trap him as he enters, but the Time Traveller just succeeds in reattaching the levers, and escapes further into the future. He journeys on and stops at intervals of a thousand years, as he sees the sun slowly die, and Earth's living creatures becoming gradually extinct. Finally, all that remains of life is a tentacled “round thing, the size of a football”, and he is confronted by a chilling scene of a solar eclipse:

The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives – all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black. (85)

On returning to the present, and the frame narrative, the Time Traveller finds his hearers sceptical towards the truth of his story. The narrator, however, is intrigued and returns the following day, when he finds the Time Traveller preparing for a further journey. He fails to return from this journey, however, and by the time of the narrator telling the story two years later, has still not reappeared. The only evidence of his journey is the remains of two flowers given to the Time Traveller by Weena, which cannot be identified as any existing species.

Wells's narration is carefully presented to balance the reader's belief in its plausibility. The story begins from a scientific hypothesis, and the narrator is “absolutely certain there was no trickery”, but the setting for the story's telling is hedged with suggestions of hypnosis, conjuring or a séance. The Time Traveller repeatedly interrupts his own narrative to remind his listeners of how wrong his conclusions about the future serially prove to be, as each discovery disproves what he had previously believed; in the end, the hero's disappearance leaves the conclusion of the narrative open. The text both alludes to and parodies the popular late-Victorian genre of imperial romance: its hero is both an intrepid explorer and adventurer, but arrives in the future in evening dress, carrying no weapons, medicine or even a camera. The Time Machine itself is both the most technologically advanced form of transport yet produced by the Victorian age of progress, but also in appearance reminiscent of a bicycle.

Charles Lyell's researches in geology, and Darwin's in evolutionary biology earlier in the nineteenth century had revolutionised the Victorian understanding of time, contesting that the Earth was far older than in the Biblical account of creation. Wells takes Victorian science's re-imagining of geological time and projects it into the future: if humanity has evolved from less complex organisms, over a long period of time, might it not de-evolve into something more primitive over a similar period of time in the future? Wells had been a teacher before he was a writer, and his enormous subsequent output contains much political, utopian and educational writing as well as fiction. His first scientific romance is both a prophecy and a warning. The Time Machine foresees evolutionary degeneration as consequence of class inequality, if the Eloi are indeed the descendents of an idle aristocracy and the Morlocks of the technologically skilled proletariat. The text mocks the complacency of Victorian faith in a “secure future” (Darwin's phrase) for humankind since the sun's energy will expire eventually.

Wells's first scientific romance was enormously influential on the then still nascent genre of science fiction; it has been republished hundreds of times and translated into numerous languages. The Time Machine has been filmed twice: in 1960, by George Pal, and 2002, by Simon Wells's, the writer's great-grandson. Wells himself never rounded off the narrative, but various sequels have been written by other authors.

Works cited

Wells, H. G. The Time Machine. Ed. Patrick Parrinder. London: Penguin, 2005.

James, Simon John. "The Time Machine". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 22 February 2008
[http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=7937, accessed 24 August 2016.]

Related Groups

  1. Speculative and Science Fiction