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 reached a state of contented inactivity in harmony with nature. Soon thereafter, the time machine vanished into the hollow pedestal of a statue, and he realized that this future world harbored disturbing secrets.
Other occurrences made him determined to explore the mysteries beneath the placid surface of the world. He discovered the Morlocks, small, apelike creatures who tended vast machines in dark caverns and visited the surface only during the night. He concluded that the Eloi and Morlocks were the descendants of the capitalist and laborer classes of his own time and that social separation had led to the evolution of two distinct human species. He also learned to his horror that the Morlocks killed and ate Eloi.
He and Weena, an Eloi female whom he had saved from drowning, then visited a ruinous museum in the hope of finding some means of freeing the time machine from the Morlocks. On their return journey, they were surrounded by Morlocks at night in a forest. Weena was lost, but the Time Traveler escaped. He returned to the statue and found the pedestal open. He mounted the time machine as the Morlocks sprang their trap but was able to escape by traveling in time.
Curious about Earth’s fate, he voyaged farther into the future and found that all traces of humanity had vanished. More than thirty million years hence, he found himself on a desolate beach facing a swollen red sun, life having devolved to the point of extinction. Horrified, he returned to his own time.
Hillyer, deeply affected by the Time Traveler’s story, returns the next day to find his host about to depart. Invited to wait, he does so, but in vain.