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...
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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 intellect to develop. Before Marx drew closer attention to the horrific working conditions of laborers, locating their misery in the historic struggle between capital and labor in writings such as The Communist Manifesto (1848), workers were largely resigned to their fate. In The Annals of Labour: Autobiographies of British Working Class People, 1820-1920, historian John Burnett sums up their attitude as follows:
There is a sense of patient resignation to the facts of life, the feeling that human existence is a struggle and that survival is an end in itself. Especially is this so in relation to the early death of wives or children—a fatalistic attitude that 'God gives and God takes away,' and that although one may mourn, one does not inveigh against the Fates which, to us, seem to have treated some so cruelly.
The working class would receive their reward not in this life but in the next. They waited for salvation, not progress, enduring hardship and suffering in their daily lives in the hope of securing a better one after they died. History was merely how one waited for the return of Christ. Wells mocks the Christian notion that life's purpose is to wait for salvation in his image of the winged sphinx, one of the first things the Time Traveller sees after "landing." The Sphinx of Giza Egypt has the body of a lion and the head of a king or god and is a symbol of strength and wisdom. By putting wings on it, Wells creates a kind of hybrid angel. Instead of representing God's messengers, however, the statue signifies a degraded civilization on the verge of extinction.
Marx had a different idea of salvation. An atheist who argued that history was evolving towards a classless society in which wealth would be distributed equally, Marx offered hope for millions of people who toiled in factories for low wages, but he also instilled fear in capitalists who benefited from the labor of the working poor. Ironically, Wells, an occasional socialist, parodies communism in the Time Traveller's description of the Eloi, as what he initially sees as the perfect communist society turns out to be little more than an updated and more perverted story of the haves and the have-nots from his own time. Humanity's mistake, Wells implies in the novel, is in believing that through science and technology they had conquered nature. Nature, for Wells, was a stronger force than society, one that could not be subjugated. Overriding Wells's belief in the moral rightness of socialism was his belief that, ultimately, humankind could not contend with the force of nature. The Time Traveller spells this out when he muses on the Eloi:
I thought of the physical slightness of the people, their lack of intelligence ... and it strengthened my belief in the perfect conquest of Nature. For after the battle comes Quiet. Humanity has been strong, energetic, and intelligent, and has used all its abundant vitality to alter the conditions under which it lived. And now came the reaction of the altered conditions.
The "reaction," nature's revenge, came in the form of the evolution of two races of "people," neither of which had any exemplary moral traits. By locating progress as a provisional phenomenon contingent upon humanity's capacity to make moral choices, rather than as the purpose of history or evolution, Wells calls attention to the necessity for humankind to change its ways carefully, and with the future in mind. More than a science fiction story or a fantasy tale, The Time Machine is a cautionary tale of what may happen if unfettered capitalism is permitted to continue. By making a machine the thing that literally enables time travel, Wells was appealing to the increasing fascination Westerners of the late nineteenth century had for the new and the mechanical. Electricity, steamships, the radio and telephone, and numerous other technological inventions were changing the shape of what was thought possible and, Wells would say, blinding many to their very human responsibilities to use these inventions for the betterment of all rather than for the profit of a few.
Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on The Time Machine, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003. Semansky is an instructor of English literature and composition and writes on literature and culture for several publications.