The Time Machine begins with a dinner party, in which the inventor of a time machine explains to his disbelieving guests the principles on which his invention is based. This scene is a quintessential one in stories by Wells, in which an original mind finds itself checked by an audience that is taken aback by daring and ingenuity. The time traveler persists, however, gradually making his auditors reconsider their basic premises, even if they do not concede that it is possible to travel through time.
Although Wells rarely bothered to construct elaborate scientific justifications for his romances, the inventor’s speech can still seem convincing to the nonmathematician. Much of the book is cast in the inventor’s first-person narration, in which he recounts to his friends the results of his journey through time.
In the far distant future, the time traveler (he is never given a name) lands among a small, delicate, and timid people, the Eloi, who live on fruit. Their environment seems benign, yet they are afraid of the dark, huddling against the appearance of another people, the Morlocks, who the time traveler gradually discovers are the subterranean masters of this future world. The Morlocks are the meat eaters, feeding on the Eloi but otherwise staying below ground in deep shafts, which the time traveler must explore in pursuit of his time machine, the Morlocks having carried it away.
Much of the novel concerns the time traveler’s horrifying discovery of this divided world. It gradually becomes apparent that the novel is more than an adventure story, more than a book about the wonders of scientific speculation; it is also a parable about the oppressed, about the ultimate kind of society stratified by class, by those who have and those who do not. Quite explicitly, near the end of the novel, the time traveler speculates that this is where history is headed: toward this bifurcation of humanity, this division of the powerful and the powerless, in which humanity will literally construct a society that feeds upon itself.
After effecting a narrow escape (the time traveler locates his machine and beats off the Morlocks), he travels to a more distant future, a land where all trace of humanity has disappeared and where the earth is inhabited by large monsters and plants. As in his earlier adventure, the confident scientist is confronted with a future that belies contemporary faith in perfectibility, in the power of science to give humanity control over its environment. He returns to the present a chastened, exhausted man.
The time traveler’s tale is greeted with enormous skepticism, except for one of his friends, who conveys the time traveler’s story and who witnesses the time traveler’s departure for an unknown destination. The novel ends with no sign of the time traveler, no assurance that he will return, and with the cautionary word that human beings must act as if they can still positively affect the future. It is an extraordinarily grim forecast, a foreboding glimpse of both the power and the limitations of science and of Wells’s own doubts over whether the new discoveries of science would, in the long run, prove beneficial. Much of the novel’s drama comes from the first-person, eyewitness account and from the time traveler’s total immersion in another world, making the assumptions of his own present terrifyingly inadequate.