One evening after dinner with friends at his home, the Time Traveler leads the discussion to the subject of the relationship between time and space. It is his theory that time is a fourth dimension, and he believes that this concept can be proved. To the astonishment of his guests, he exhibits a small model of his Time Machine and declares that it can travel backward or forward in time. One of the guests is invited to touch a lever on the model, and, to the amazement of all, the machine disappears. The Time Traveler explains that the instrument is no longer visible because it is traveling into the past at such great speed that it is below the threshold of visibility.
The following week, the Time Traveler is not at home to greet his dinner guests when they arrive, but he has left word that they are to proceed without him. Everyone is at the table when their host comes in, dirty from head to toe, limping, and with a cut on his chin. After he has changed his clothes and dined, he tells his friends this story of his day’s adventures.
In the morning, he seats himself in his Time Machine and activates the mechanism. As he reels through space in the machine, he sees days shoot past him like minutes, and the rapid alternation of light and darkness as the sun rises and sets hurts the Time Traveler’s eyes. Falling from his machine when he brakes too suddenly, he finds himself on the side of a hill. In the misty light, he can see the figure of a winged sphinx on a bronze pedestal. As the sun comes out, the Time Traveler sees enormous buildings on the slope. Some figures are coming toward him, one of them a little man about four feet tall. Regaining his confidence, the Time Traveler waits to meet this citizen of the future.
Soon a group of these creatures gather around the voyager. Without a common language, he and his new acquaintances have to communicate with signs. After they have examined the Time Machine, from which the traveler has had the presence of mind to remove the levers, one of them asks him through gestures if he has come from the sun.
The creatures lead the Time Traveler to one of the large buildings. There he is seated on a cushion and given fruit to eat. Everyone in this civilization is a vegetarian, as animals have become extinct. When the Time Traveler has eaten, he unsuccessfully tries to learn his new friends’ language. These people, who call themselves the Eloi, are not able to concentrate for long without tiring.
Free to wander about, the Time Traveler climbs a hill, and from the crest he sees the ruins of an enormous granite structure. Looking at some of the Eloi who are following him, he realizes that they all wear similar garb and have the same soft, rounded figures. Children can be distinguished from adults only by their size. The Time Traveler realizes that he is seeing the sunset of humanity. In the society of the future, there is no need for physical or mental strength. The world is secure and at peace, and the strong of body and mind would only feel frustrated.
As he looks around to find a place to sleep, he discovers that his Time Machine has disappeared. He tries to wake the people in the building in which he had dined, but he succeeds only in frightening them. At last, he goes back to the lawn where his machine had been and there, greatly worried about his plight, falls asleep.
The next morning, he manages to trace the path the Time Machine made when it was dragged away from where he had left it. The path leads to the huge pedestal base of the sphinx, but the bronze doors in the pedestal are closed. The Time Traveler tries to communicate to some of the Eloi that he wishes to open the doors, but they answer him with looks of insult and reproach. He attempts to hammer in the doors with a stone, but he soon must stop from weariness.
Weena, a young woman the Time Traveler has rescued from drowning, becomes his friend and guide. On the fourth morning, while he is exploring one of the ruins, he sees eyes staring at him from the dark. Curious, he follows a small, apelike figure to a well-like opening, down which the strange figure retreats. The Time Traveler theorizes that this creature is also a descendant of humanity, a member of a subterranean species that works belowground to support the dwellers in the upper world.
Convinced that the subterranean dwellers—which, the Time Traveler learns, are called the Morlocks—are responsible for the disappearance of his Time Machine, and hoping to learn more about them, he climbs down into one of the wells. At its bottom, he discovers a tunnel that leads into a cavern, where he sees a table set with a joint of meat. The Morlocks are carnivorous. The Time Traveler is also able to distinguish some enormous machinery in the cavern.
The next day, the Time Traveler and Weena visit a green porcelain museum containing animal skeletons, books, and machinery. Because they have walked a long distance to reach the museum, the Time Traveler plans that he and Weena will sleep in the woods that night after building fire to keep the dark-loving Morlocks away. When he sees three crouching figures in the brush, however, he changes his mind and decides that he and Weena will be safer on a hill beyond the forest. He starts a fire in the woods to keep the Morlocks at a distance.
When they reach the hill, the Time Traveler starts another fire before he and Weena fall asleep. When he awakes, the fire has gone out, his matches are missing, and Weena has vanished. The fire he had started earlier is still burning, and while he has been sleeping, it has set the forest on fire. Between thirty and forty Morlocks perish in that blaze while the Time Traveler watches.
When daylight returns, the Time Traveler retraces his steps to the sphinx. He sleeps all day, and then in the evening he prepares to pry open the doors in the pedestal with a lever he found in the porcelain museum. He finds the doors open, however, and his machine is in plain view. He climbs into it and, as a group of Morlocks spring at him, takes off again through time.
The Time Traveler’s encounter with the Morlocks and the Eloi had taken place in the year 802,701. On his next journey, he moves through millions of years toward that time when the earth will cease rotating. He lands on a deserted beach, empty except for a flying animal, which looks like a huge white butterfly, and some crablike monsters. He travels on, finally halting thirty million years after the time he left his laboratory. In that distant age, the sun is dying. It is bitter cold, and it begins to snow. All around is deathly stillness. Horrified, the Time Traveler starts back toward his present.
As he tells his story in the evening, his guests grow skeptical. In fact, the Time Traveler himself has to visit his laboratory to make sure his machine exists. The next day, however, all doubts cease, for one of his friends watches him depart in his vehicle. It is this friend who writes the story of the Time Traveler’s experiences three years later. The Time Traveler has not reappeared during that time, and his friends speculate on what kind of mishap has made him a lost wanderer in space and time.