The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
H. G. Wells’s fascination with the idea of time travel into the future was first expressed in his story “The Chronic Argonauts” (1888). He wrote at least four other versions before the first book publication of The Time Machine: An Invention in 1895.
The Time Machine is a frame narrative. The outer narrator, Hillyer, briefly sets the scene for the much longer inner narrative, the Time Traveler’s story about his experiences in the future. Hillyer concludes the narrative with a description of the subsequent disappearance of the Time Traveler and offers a brief speculative epilogue.
Hillyer is one of a group of professional men who regularly gather for dinner and conversation at the Time Traveler’s house. One evening, the host explains to his skeptical visitors that he has discovered the principles of time travel. He demonstrates a miniature time machine and shows his visitors an almost-completed full-sized version in his laboratory.
At Hillyer’s next visit, the Time Traveler enters, disheveled and limping but eager to tell his visitors about his travels in the far future. He begins by graphically describing the subjective effects of compressing years into moments of time. He then tells them how he arrived in c.e. 802,701 and encountered a race of creatures, evolved from humans, called Eloi. They are small, frail, gentle, childlike vegetarians. He theorizes that humanity has...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Time Traveller’s home
Time Traveller’s home. Although it is reasonable to infer that Wells’s unnamed traveler lives in London—and probably southwest London—nothing in the novel locates his home precisely. His home is a large upper-middle-class house typical of homes of its class in the late nineteenth century. Wells takes pains to make the home warm and welcoming, comfortable and convivial. It appears to be popular with visitors, as the two times the house is mentioned in the novel it is the setting of well-attended dinner parties that bring together intelligent and well-connected men. The guests are identified only by their professions, for example, such as the Medical Man and the Editor. There are also servants and other indications that the Time Traveller is wealthy. Thus, the home in which the Time Traveller tells his story is a place of both solid reality and aspiration, the height of ambition for Wells’s audience. This is the measure of achievement, the sign that these intelligent and comfortable Victorians really are the peak of evolution.
Eloi world. The Time Traveller’s first stop in the remote future. Although it occupies the same space as the Time Traveller’s home, the world of the Eloi is separated from it by some 800,000 years. That fact alone expresses Wells’s primary Darwinian purpose: to demonstrate that evolution will continue beyond the world he and his readers know. This...
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The Time Machine had numerous incarnations, the first of which was a story called "The Chronic Argonauts," which Wells published in Science Schools Journal in 1888. The story achieved its final form in 1894. An adherent of evolutionary theory and a staunch advocate of women's suffrage and workers' rights, Wells was deeply influenced by his times. In the 1880s and 1890s, Britain's population was booming, roughly doubling between 1851 and 1901. The rise of industrialization was emptying the farms of residents and rural laborers, as people flocked to the cities and industrial towns to work in factories. By the turn of the century, more than eighty percent of Britain's population lived in urban areas. The shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy meant that England was now dependent on imports to feed its growing population and that the landed gentry who relied on income from renting farmland now had to find another way to make money. As a city dweller and a Progressive, Wells was sensitive to the working conditions of the factory laborer. His description of the Eloi and the Morlocks dramatizes the exploitative relationship between owners and workers in Victorian England.
Wells's time machine itself was a product of an imagination nursed on the extraordinary technological advances of his day, advances that fueled industrial development and changed the complexion of the workforce. In the 1870s, for example, both the typewriter and the...
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Geographically the story is confined to a small area near the Thames River in South Kensington, a suburb of London; it is the shift in time that makes the setting unusual. The story ostensibly opens in the year of its telling, 1895, in the home of the unnamed time traveler. As the traveler takes over the role of narrator, the machine moves him into the year A.D. 802,701. Society has evolved into two races, the upper-world Eloi and the lower-world Morlocks. The narrator remains in the future for a week, during which time most of the action occurs.
As the time traveler explores the upper world, he frequently refers to the Thames, which has changed its course slightly since 1895, and to neighboring places, but he is primarily concerned with the idyllic rural surroundings and seeming innocence of the world's childlike inhabitants. He interprets the apparent ease and good health of the Eloi, the abundance of fruit and flowers, and the absence of annoying insects and weeds as a sign that humanity has mastered the problems of his own day. Only when he explores one of the many well-like openings in the area does he find the foreboding underworld, the dwellings and factories of the bestial Morlocks.
To escape from the Morlocks, the traveler moves thirty million years into the future, where he finds a world on the verge of decay, apparently inhabited only by amphibious creatures, a world that he has no desire to explore before returning home.
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A combination of fantasy and science fiction, The Time Machine is an example of a sub-genre known as a scientific romance. A popular genre that Wells helped to refine, science fiction's action is often set in the future and examines the relationship between the future and technology. It is also defined by the appearance of characters and setting being dramatically different from those of realistic fiction. For example, the Eloi and Morlocks could not appear in a story by Ernest Hemingway a realist. Fantasy is also a popular genre but does not necessarily rely on scientific explanations for behavior or action. Rather, fantasy fiction explores supernatural and non-rational phenomena that may or may not exist in realistic settings. J. R. R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings is a popular example of fantasy fiction. Other scientific romances of Wells's include The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898).
The narrator is a speaker through whom the author tells a story. This influences the story's point of view. Wells constructs an ingenious frame for The Time Machine, using, in essence, two narrators. The first is the "true" narrator, Hillyer,...
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Wells once said that the challenge faced by a writer of scientific romances is to "trick" the reader into accepting some plausible assumption and then to make the story as human and as real as possible, avoiding unnecessary fantastic elements. The humanness of the traveller is particularly evident in his efforts to understand the world in which he finds himself and in the scenes in which he feels his isolation from other humans. And even though the reader suspects that the idea of a "fourth dimension" stretches known scientific facts, the traveller's argument is developed so logically that time travel sounds plausible.
The trip into the future contains one of the most vivid sections of description within the story, as the traveller moves rapidly through changing seasons and civilizations. The elusive vision creates a blend of colors and shapes which not only convey a sense of speed, but also prepare the reader for the moment when the traveller is literally dumped from his machine into the future world.
Wells controls the frame technique effectively. He allows the traveller's guests to raise questions at the beginning and end of the novel, and surrounds even this frame with the narrator's combined wonder and belief. This story-within-a story takes the form of a dramatic monologue as the time traveller relates his adventures. Although there is no dialogue within this central narrative, the traveller's occasional direct address to his audience...
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Wells's theories of regressive evolution and his dissatisfaction with many of the social and economic factors of his own time contribute to the pessimistic tone of many sections of the novel. The traveller's philosophical discourses show that the unpleasant picture of the future need not be realized, however. Choices available to humans in 1895, and to humans today, can indeed change the course of the future for the better. Wells's shocking picture challenges the complacent view that "progress" left to itself always produces something better.
The traveller's first impressions of the future world are modified by his experiences there. He notices, for example, the beautiful vegetation, which seems to require so little attention from the Eloi, and concludes that control of nature no longer drains human energy. People of Wells's day hoped for farms and gardens free from insects and blights, a hope apparently fulfilled in the world of the future. But the use of pesticides and fertilizers to achieve this hope in the twentieth century has already generated unforeseen toxic side-effects. In a similar way, Wells's contemporaries hoped for a life of abundance and ease, but the traveller later realizes that the ease of the Eloi's life probably contributed to the dangerous inertia that enables the Morlocks to dominate them. The traveller also believes that he has found a world without fear but learns that in reality fear has intensified and is focused on one...
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Compare and Contrast
1890s: Numerous countries are at war over disputed territory, including China and Japan, the United States and Spain, Turkey and Greece.
Today: Numerous countries and people feud over disputed territory, including the Palestinians and Israelis and the Pakistanis, and Indians.
1890s: In 1895, T. H. Huxley, a popularizer of Darwin's theory of evolution and Wells's teacher and a primary influence on his thinking and writing, dies.
Today: In 2002, Stephen Jay Gould, perhaps the twentieth century's most prominent proponent of evolutionary theory, dies.
1890s: Wilhelm Roentgen discovers x-rays and Marconi invents radio telegraphy, both of which dramatically change the way people live in the twentieth century.
Today: The continued development of technology in general, and of computer technology specifically, change the way that millions of people live, work, and play.
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Topics for Discussion
1. At the beginning of the story, how does the time traveller explain what happens to the demonstration model of his time machine? How does this fit in with his explanation of the "fourth dimension"?
2. What is the major danger the traveller faces when he decides to stop the machine? How does this fit in with his explanation of the "fourth dimension"?
3. How does Wells convey a sense of changing time in his description of the time traveller's transition through more than 800,000 years?
4. How does the traveller try to assure himself that he will not be left stranded in the world of the future? What happens that almost cancels out this protective action?
5. What does the traveller first think the Sphinx represents? What does he later learn about the significance of the Sphinx and of the many well-like openings he sees throughout the countryside?
6. How does Wells use the traveller's visit to the Palace of Green Porcelain to broaden the view of changes in human society?
7. There are two levels of time in the traveller's trip: the time that his adventure in the future covers and the length of time that passes in the 1895 setting. How long does the traveller remain in the year 802,701? How much time elapses from the time he mounts the machine until he arrives at the dinner party?
8. Under what circumstances does the traveller obtain the flowers that are in his pocket upon his return? Why...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Consider the physical aspects of Wells's world of A.D. 802,701. Describe the land surface, waterways, climate, plants and animals, natural resources, and inhabitants as objectively as possible, as if you were writing an atlas entry about England at this time.
2. Read carefully the section describing the traveller's return. Describe the traveller's appearance and explain what caused his injuries, dirt, and disordered clothing.
3. The traveller frequently philosophizes during his narrative, sometimes correcting earlier interpretations. Explain how he first accounts for the humanity he sees in the Eloi. How does he modify this view after he has become aware of the nature of the Morlocks?
4. The Eloi are not presented as truly human, but they would not be able to evoke pity in the reader if they did not have some touches of humanity. Explain the characteristics that make them different from humans of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, comparing these alien characteristics with their more human traits.
5. One of the essential elements of science fiction is that it uses scientific or scientifically plausible principles in order to create a sense of verisimilitude. Explain how Wells uses science or pseudo-science to make the story of the time traveller seem credible.
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Topics for Further Study
In groups, draw a timeline with pictures of the evolution of human beings, beginning with prosimians and ending with the large crab-like creatures the Time Traveller encounters towards the end of his adventure. Be sure to include the Morlocks and the Eloi. Present your timeline to the class, and discuss how your timeline of human evolution differs from that of other groups.
Assume the Time Traveller returns after three years. Write the thirteenth chapter, speculating on the kind of evidence he presents to the narrator about his travels.
Wells believed that the human race was destined to destroy itself. In class, discuss the possibility of Wells's belief. How might what he said more than a hundred years ago come to pass in your own life or the near future?
In The Time Machine, humanity "evolved" into the Morlocks and the Eloi, each representing a class of people. In groups, discuss other possible ways humanity might evolve in the future, and report your speculations to the class.
Write a short essay identifying a specific time in the past to which you would like to return, and present reasons for your choice.
Mark Twain's 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court was the first novel to deal with time travel. However, the hero of that novel has no control over his journeys through time. Compare Wells's novel with Twain's, paying particular attention to the ways in which each uses...
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Among the seven full-length scientific romances written by Wells, three others were nearly as popular as The Time Machine. The Invisible Man tells the story of a young man who seeks power through the secret of invisibility, but discovers only isolation and insanity. The novel also shows the violence to which unbridled power can lead and the extent to which fear can overwhelm society.
In War of the Worlds, Wells shows ordinary people thrown into an extraordinary situation. His invading Martians come to life in passages filled with suspense and descriptive power, as they use nightmarish death-rays on the people of London. Eventually, after military defense has failed, simple earth born microbes overcome the aliens. When this story was broadcast over the radio by Orson Welles in 1938, it seemed so realistic that it generated panic among many unwary listeners. In The First Men in the Moon Wells combines realistic portraits of two moon travellers with a tough sense of humor not usually found in scientific romances.
A 1960 motion-picture version of The Time Machine released by Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer gives a good overall treatment of the plot, but makes the Eloiespecially Weenamore human than Wells's text. The film was directed by George Pal and starred Rod Taylor, Alan Young, Yvette Mimieux, Sebastian Cabot, Tom Helmore, Whit Bissell, and Doris Lloyd.
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The Time Machine has been adapted into film three times. Its first adaptation was released in 1960. Directed by George Pal and starring Rod Taylor, Alan Young, and Yvette Mimieux, this version could be considered the best of the three. The second adaptation, released in 1978, was directed by Henning Schellerup and stars John Beck, Priscilla Barnes, and Andrew Duggan. The most recent adaptation, released in 2002, stars Guy Pearce and Jeremy Irons and is directed by Simon Wells. All three films are widely available in libraries and major video stores.
In 1997, Simon & Schuster Audioworks released an audiocassette of Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy reading The Time Traveller as part of its Alien Voices Presents Series.
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What Do I Read Next?
Charles Darwin's 1859 ground-breaking study of humanity's beginnings, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, had a profound impact on Wells's intellectual development.
Like Wells, William Gibson is a science fiction writer. Gibson, however, is interested in the interface between human beings and machines, rather than human beings and animals. His blockbuster novel Neuromancer (1984) helped to establish the genre of Cyberpunk literature.
T. H. Huxley was perhaps the largest single influence on Wells's career as a writer and thinker. Adrian Desmond's biography Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest (1997) examines Huxley's role in popularizing Darwin's theory of evolution and in legitimizing science in nineteenth-century Britain.
Mark Twain's novel A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court (1889) is the first novel to explicitly use time travel in its plot.
Wells's novel The Island of Doctor Moreau: A Possibility (1896), about an island stocked with hybrids of animals and human beings from scientific experiments gone bad, remains one of Wells's more popular works and is particularly relevant today.
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For Further Reference
Bergonzi, Bernard. The Early H. G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967. Bergonzi analyzes the concepts with which Wells was particularly concerned at the time when he was creating The Time Machine.
Hammond, J. R. An H. G. Wells Companion. New York: Harper and Row, 1979. Gives an overview of Wells's background and literary reputation, and provides brief analyses of each of his scientific romances and novels, alphabetized guides to characters and locations, and an appendix on principal film versions of Wells's works.
Hillegas, Mark R. The Future as Nightmare: H. G. Wells and the Anti- Utopians. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Hillegas analyzes Wellsian anti-utopianism and traces Wells's influence on later futurists.
Philmus, Robert M. "The Time Machine." In Survey of Science Fiction Literature, edited by Frank N. Magill, vol. 5. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1979. Philmus provides a brief summary of the novel and the concept of Wells's "prophetic" vision.
Smith, David D. H. G. Wells: Desperately Mortal: A Biography. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986. In this comprehensive biography Smith traces many of the influences in Wells's life— persons, events, and ideas. Although Smith makes no attempt to include detailed analyses of literary works, he does discuss the varied types of reception accorded these...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Asimov, Isaac, Introduction, in Three Novels of the Future, Nelson Doubleday Inc., 1979, pp. vii-xii.
Bergonzi, Bernard, "The Time Machine: An Ironic Myth," in H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Bernard Bergonzi, Prentice-Hall Inc., 1976, pp. 39—56.
Burnett, John, The Annals of Labour: Autobiographies of British Working Class People, 1820—1920, Indiana University Press, 1974, p. 14.
Costa, Richard Hauer, H. G. Wells, Twayne Publishers, 1967, pp. 31-35.
Philmus, Robert M., "The Logic of 'Prophecy' in Time Machine," in H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Bernard Bergonzi, Prentice Hall Inc., 1976, pp. 56-69.
Pritchett, V. S., "The Scientific Romances," in H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Bernard Bergonzi, Prentice Hall Inc., 1976, pp. 32-39.
Wells, H. G., The Time Machine and Other Stories, Scholastic Book Services, 1963, pp. 1-124.
West, Anthony, "H. G. Wells," in H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Bernard Bergonzi, Prentice Hall Inc. 1976, pp. 8-25.
Bergonzi, Bernard, The Early H. G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances, Manchester University Press, 1961.
Bergonzi played a large part in establishing Wells's reputation...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bergonzi, Bernard, ed. H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976. Two critical essays on The Time Machine. One addresses the novel as myth, the other as prophecy. Readable and informative.
Costa, Richard Hauer. H. G. Wells. New York: Twayne, 1967. Multiple references to The Time Machine, with critical references. A good starting place.
Hammond, J. R. H. G. Wells and Rebecca West. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Associates the novel with the writer’s scientific understanding of the human species and with his interest in a fourth dimension. Illustrated. Bibliography.
Hammond, J. R. H. G. Wells and the Modern Novel. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Finds Wells a deserving and overlooked, innovative writer. One analytical chapter calls The Time Machine a “watershed in the coming of modernism.” Appendix, notes, bibliography, and index. Evocative, scholarly, readable.
Wells, H. G., Julian S. Huxley, and G. P. Wells. The Science of Life. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1934. Describes Wells’s study of science and his consequent understanding of human life.
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