The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

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Essays and Criticism

(Novels for Students)

Anthropomorphic facial features depicting the theory of evolution, a formative influence on Wellss The Time Machine Published by Gale Cengage

The late nineteenth century was a time when many people believed that progress, especially technological progress, could solve many of humanity's seemingly intractable problems, such as disease, hunger, violence, and exploitation. Wells, a devotee of science, seemingly endorses this view at the beginning of The Time Machine, as the Time Traveller, an inventor, creates a machine that travels in the fourth dimension. However, as the story continues, readers see that the Time Traveller discovers a future in which the only thing that has progressed is humanity's savagery and thirst for self-destruction.

The idea of progress emerged contemporaneously with the formation of the sciences and professional scientists and was significantly spurred by the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859. Although the notion of evolution was heavily debated before Darwin, Christian beliefs about the creation of the universe held sway in the popular imagination. Holding fast to the Genesis-inspired version of the origins of humanity, the church opposed many ideas of progress put forth by natural historians and scientists because they did not coincide with the church's literal interpretation of the Bible. Such opposition also rationalized the inequality of classes, as humanity was seen as the object, rather than the subject, of change, and people were encouraged to accept their lot in life. Darwin's theory of natural selection and Marx's description of history as a class struggle gave many people a new conceptual framework within which to think about change and, more specifically, to view change as progress. They saw in both Darwin and Marx's theories the idea that humankind was improving with time, that its intellect was becoming more sophisticated, and that a classless society was inevitable. Wells, however, did not equate progress with improvement, and the discoveries of the Time Traveller illustrate his belief that evolution does not necessarily mean evolution of morality or of the intellect. Wells's son and literary critic, Anthony West, sums up the writer's thinking on this subject in his essay "H.G. Wells":

Wells suggests that morals and ethics have their basis in man's behavior as a social animal.... The intellect on the other hand is amoral and ultimately recognizes the single value of efficiency, so that a continuation of the line of development that had made man a reasoning animal might ultimately make him more callous, indifferent, and cruel, not more moral.

The Time Traveller's initial response after landing in the future but prior to meeting the Eloi, underscores this thinking. He worries: "What if cruelty had grown into a common passion? What if in this interval the race had lost its manliness, and had developed into something inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful?" His fears partially come true after meeting the creatures, for they have grown weak from not having to work or endure hardship, and since they had all the comforts of the good life provided for them, they had lost the impetus to strive. But the Time Traveller sees this "ruinous splendor" as a kind of paradise, where "One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another." This paradise, however, is not a cause of celebration but a reason for mourning. After learning of the Morlocks' existence, the Time Traveller speculates on what had come to pass:

I grieved at how brief the dream of human intellect had been. It had committed suicide. It had set itself steadfastly toward comfort and ease, a balanced society with security and permanency as its watchword. It had attained its hopes—to come to this at last.... The rich had been assured of his wealth and comfort, the toiler assured of his life and work.

Wells's depiction of the relationship between the Eloi and the Morlocks can be seen as a critique of the notion that "work" was a problem to be solved, rather than a necessary condition of humanity essential for the...

(The entire section is 1,359 words.)