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The Time Machine

by H. G. Wells

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Bernard Bergonzi (essay date 1960)

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SOURCE: Bergonzi, Bernard. “The Time Machine: An Ironic Myth.” In H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Bernard Bergonzi, pp. 39-55. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1960, Bergonzi underscores the mythical qualities of The Time Machine and outlines the major thematic concerns of the novella.]

H. G. Wells seems so essentially a writer of the first half of the twentieth century that we tend to forget that if he had died in 1900 at the age of thirty-four he would already have had a dozen books to his credit. He first established his reputation by the scientific romances written during these early years of his literary career, and they have remained popular. Historically considered, they are of interest as the forerunners of much latter-day science fiction. Yet, in my opinion, more substantial claims can be made for them. They are often compared with the work of Jules Verne, but this is a misleading comparison even if a plausible one. Wells himself wrote in 1933, “there is no resemblance whatever between the anticipatory inventions of the great Frenchman and these fantasies.” His early romances, in fact, despite their air of scientific plausibility, are much more works of pure imagination. They are, in short, fantasies, and the emphasis should be on “romance” rather than “scientific.” And like other kinds of literary romance they are distinguished by a quality which may reasonably be called symbolic, even if not specifically allegorical. Indeed, I would claim that Wells's early fiction is closer to the symbolic romances of Hawthorne or Melville, or to a complex fantasy like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or even to the fables of Kafka, than it is to the more strictly scientific speculations of Verne. This at least, is the assumption on which I base the following examination of The Time Machine, Wells's first novel, which appeared in 1895. This approach has already been hinted at by one of the best of Wells's modern critics, V. S. Pritchett, who has written:

Without question The Time Machine is the best piece of writing. It will take its place among the great stories of our language. Like all excellent works it has meanings within its meaning …1

An earlier writer on Wells, Edward Shanks, remarked:

If I were to say that many of Mr. Wells's early books have a poetic quality I should run the risk of conveying a false impression. Luckily they have a peculiar quality which enables them to bear a special description. They are, in their degree, myths; and Mr. Wells is a mythmaker.2

Shanks expanded his remarks with particular reference to The Island of Dr. Moreau, though they apply equally to The Time Machine:

These passages suggest one interpretation of the book. But it is a myth, not an allegory; and whereas an allegory bears a single and definite interpretation, a myth does not, but can be interpreted in many ways, none of them quite consistent, all of them more alive and fruitful than the rigid allegorical correspondence.

Pritchett has referred to The Time Machine as a “poetic social allegory.” But this narrows the effective range of the work too much; though on one level the “allegory,” or in Shanks's more appropriate term, the “myth,” does operate in social terms, its further significance is biological and even cosmological. Structurally, The Time Machine belongs to the class of story which includes James's Turn of the Screw, and which Northrop Frye has called “the tale told in quotation marks, where we have an opening...

(This entire section contains 6609 words.)

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setting with a small group of congenial people, and then the real story told by one of the members.” As Frye observes:

The effect of such devices is to present the story through a relaxed and contemplative haze as something that entertains us without, so to speak, confronting us, as direct tragedy confronts us.3

The aesthetic distancing of the central narrative of The Time Machine, “the time traveller's story,” is carefully carried out. At the end of the book, the traveller says:

No, I cannot expect you to believe it. Take it as a lie—or a prophecy. Say I dreamed it in the workshop. Consider I have been speculating upon the destinies of our race, until I have hatched this fiction. Treat my assertion of its truth as a mere stroke of art to enhance its interest. And taking it as a story, what do you think of it?

The manifest disbelief of all his friends other than the storyteller—one of them “thought the tale a ‘gaudy lie’”—is balanced by the apparent evidence of his sojourn in the future, the “two strange white flowers” of an unknown species. In fact, Wells demands assent by apparently discouraging it.

The opening chapters of the novel show us the inventor entertaining his friends, a group of professional men, in the solid comfort of his home at Richmond. They recall the “club-man” atmosphere with which several of Kipling's short stories open, and their function in the narrative is to give it a basis in contemporary life at its most ordinary and pedestrian: this atmosphere makes the completest possible contrast with what is to come: an account of a wholly imaginative world of dominantly paradisal and demonic imagery, lying far outside the possible experience of the late Victorian bourgeoisie. These chapters are essential to Wells's purpose, since they prevent the central narrative from seeming a piece of pure fantasy, or a fairy story, and no more. The character of the time traveller himself—cheerful, erratic, and somewhat absurd, faintly suggestive of a hero of Jerome K. Jerome's—has a similar function. In the work of other popular writers of fantastic romance in the nineties, such as Arthur Machen and M. P. Shiel (both clearly deriving from Stevenson), a “weird” atmosphere is striven after from the very beginning and the dramatic power is correspondingly less.

Once the reader has been initiated into the group of friends, he is prepared for whatever is to come next. First the model time machine is produced—“a glittering metallic framework, scarcely larger than a small clock, and very delicately made. … There was ivory in it, and some crystalline substance”—and sent off into time, never to be seen again. Then we are shown the full scale machine, and the account of it is a brilliant example of Wells's impressionistic method:

I remember vividly the flickering light, his queer, broad head in silhouette, the dance of the shadows, how we all followed him, puzzled but incredulous, and how there in the laboratory we beheld a larger edition of the little mechanism which we had seen vanish from before our eyes. Parts were of nickel, parts of ivory, parts had certainly been filed or sawn out of rock crystal. The thing was generally complete, but the twisted crystalline bars lay unfinished upon the bench besides some sheets of drawings, and I took one up for a better look at it. Quartz it seemed to be.

The assemblage of details is strictly speaking meaningless but nevertheless conveys very effectively a sense of the machine without putting the author to the taxing necessity of giving a direct description.

The central narrative of The Time Machine is of a kind common to several of Wells's early romances: a central character is transferred to or marooned in a wholly alien environment, and the story arises from his efforts to deal with the situation. This is the case with the time traveller, with the angel in The Wonderful Visit and with Prendick in The Island of Dr. Moreau, while Griffin in The Invisible Man becomes the victim of his environment in attempting to control it. Though Wells is a writer of symbolic fiction—or a myth-maker—the symbolism is not of the specifically heraldic kind that we associate, for instance, with Hawthorne's scarlet letter, Melville's white whale, or James's golden bowl. In Wells the symbolic element is inherent in the total fictional situation, rather more in the manner of Kafka. When, for instance, we are shown in The Time Machine a paradisal world on the surface of the earth inhabited by beautiful carefree beings leading a wholly aesthetic existence, and a diabolic or demonic world beneath the surface inhabited by brutish creatures who spend most of their time in darkness in underground machine shops, and only appear on the surface at night, and when we are told that these two races are the descendents respectively of the present-day bourgeoisie and proletariat, and that the latter live by cannibalistically preying on the former—then clearly we are faced with a symbolic situation of considerable complexity, where several different “mythical” interpretations are possible.

The time traveller—unlike his predecessor, Nebogipfel (hero of “The Chronic Argonauts,” Wells's first version of The Time Machine, published in a student magazine in 1888), and his successors, Moreau and Griffin—is not a solitary eccentric on the Frankenstein model, but an amiable and gregarious bourgeois. Like Wells himself, he appears to be informed and interested in the dominant intellectual movements of his age, Marxism and Darwinism. Wells had come across Marx at South Kensington, and though in later years he was to become extremely anti-Marxist, in his immediate post-student days he was prepared to uphold Marxian socialism as “a new thing based on Darwinism.” However doubtfully historical this may be, the juxtaposition of the two names is very important for Wells's early imaginative and speculative writing. The time traveller, immediately after he has arrived in the world of 802701, is full of forebodings about the kind of humanity he may discover:

What might not have happened to men? 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? I might seem some old-world savage animal, only the more dreadful and disgusting for our common likeness—a foul creature to be incontinently slain.

At first, however, his more fearful speculations are not fulfilled. Instead of what he had feared, he discovers the Eloi, who are small, frail and beautiful. He is rather shocked and then amused by their child-like ways and manifest lack of intellectual powers—“the memory of my confident anticipations of a profoundly grave and intellectual posterity came, with irresistible merriment, to my mind.” Such a “grave and intellectual posterity” had in fact been postulated by Bulwer Lytton in The Coming Race, 1871, a work, which it has been suggested had some influence on The Time Machine, though the resemblances are very slight. But it is quite possible that Wells was here alluding to Bulwer Lytton's romance, as well as to the wider implications of optimistic evolutionary theory.

Subsequently the traveller becomes charmed with the Eloi and the relaxed communism of their way of life. They live, not in separate houses, but in large semi-ruinous buildings of considerable architectural splendour, sleeping and eating there communally. Their only food is fruit, which abounds in great richness and variety, and they are described in a way which suggests the figures of traditional pastoral poetry: “They spent all their time in playing gently, in bathing in the river, in making love in a half-playful fashion, in eating fruit and sleeping.” Later the traveller takes stock of their world:

I have already spoken of the great palaces dotted about among the variegated greenery, some in ruins and some still occupied. Here and there rose a white silvery figure in the waste garden of the earth, here and there came the sharp vertical line of some cupola or obelisk. There were no hedges, no signs of proprietary rights, no evidences of agriculture; the whole earth had become a garden.

There appear to be no animals, wild or domestic, left in the world, and such forms of life as remain have clearly been subject to a radical process of selection:

The air was free from gnats, the earth from weeds or fungi; everywhere were fruits and sweet and delightful flowers; brilliant butterflies flew hither and thither. The ideal of preventive medicine was attained. Disease had been stamped out. I saw no evidence of any contagious diseases during all my stay. And I shall have to tell you later that even the processes of putrefaction and decay had been profoundly affected by these changes.

Man has, in short, at some period long past obtained complete control of his environment, and has been able to manipulate the conditions of life to his absolute satisfaction. The “struggle for existence” has been eliminated, and as a result of this manipulation the nature of the species has undergone profound modification. Not only have the apparent physical differences between male and female disappeared, but their mental powers have declined as well as their physical. The human race, as it presents itself to the traveller, is plainly in its final decadence. The Eloi, with their childlike and sexually ambiguous appearance, and their consumptive type of beauty, are clearly reflections of fin de siècle visual taste. The Time Machine is in several respects a book of its time, for speculations about decadence and degeneration were much in the air in the eighties and early nineties, reaching their peak in Max Nordau's massive work of destructive criticism, Degeneration. Wells certainly knew the English edition of this book, which appeared in March 1895, when The Time Machine was already completed, for he makes a satirical reference to it in his second novel, The Wonderful Visit, published the following October.

In the world that the traveller surveys, aesthetic motives have evidently long been dominant as humanity has settled down to its decline. “This has ever been the fate of energy in security; it takes to art and to eroticism, and then comes languour and decay.” But in the age of the Eloi even artistic motives seem almost extinct. “To adorn themselves with flowers, to dance, to sing in the sunlight; so much was left to the artistic spirit, and no more.” The implied comment on fin de siècle aestheticism is, again, unmistakable. The first chapter of the time traveller's narrative is called “In the Golden Age,” and the following chapter, “The Sunset of Mankind”: there is an ironic effect, not only in the juxtaposition, but in the very reference to a “golden age.” Such an age, the Saturnia regna, when men were imagined as living a simple, uncomplicated and happy existence, before in some way falling from grace, was always an object of literary nostalgia, and traditionally thought of as being at the very beginning of man's history. Wells, however, places it in the remotest future, and associates it not with dawn but with sunset. The time traveller sees the Eloi as leading a paradisal existence, and his sense of this is imparted to the reader by the imagery of the first part of his narrative. They are thoroughly assimilated to their environment, where “the whole earth had become a garden,” and “everywhere were fruits and sweet and delicious flowers; brilliant butterflies flew hither and thither.” Their appearance and mode of life makes a pointed contrast to the drab and earnest figure of the traveller:

Several more brightly-clad people met me in the doorway, and so we entered, I, dressed in dingy nineteenth-century garments, looking grotesque enough, garlanded with flowers, and surrounded by an eddying mass of bright, soft-coloured robes and shining white limbs, in a melodious whirl of laughter and laughing speech.

The writing here suggests that Wells was getting a little out of his depth, but the intention is clearly to present the Eloi as in some sense heirs to Pre-Raphaelite convention. This implicit contrast between the aesthetic and the utilitarian, the beautiful and idle set against the ugly and active, shows how The Time Machine embodies another profound late-Victorian preoccupation, recalling, for instance, the aesthetic anti-industrialism of Ruskin and Morris. The world of the Eloi is presented as not only a golden age, but as something of a lotos land, and it begins to exercise its spell on the traveller. After his immediate panic on discovering the loss of his machine, he settles down to a philosophic resignation:

Suppose the worst? I said. Suppose the machine altogether lost—perhaps destroyed? It behoves me to be calm and patient, to learn the way of the people, to get a clear idea of the method of my loss, and the means of getting materials and tools; so that in the end, perhaps, I may make another. That would be my only hope, a poor hope, perhaps, but better than despair. And, after all, it was a beautiful and curious world.

The traveller's potential attachment to the Eloi and their world is strengthened when he rescues the little female, Weena, from drowning, and begins a prolonged flirtation with her. This relationship is the biggest flaw in the narrative, for it is totally unconvincing, and tends to embarrass the reader (Pritchett has referred to the “faint squirms of idyllic petting.”) But though the traveller feels the attraction of the kind of life she represents, he is still too much a man of his own age, resourceful, curious and active, to succumb to it. As he says of himself, “I am too Occidental for a long vigil. I could work at a problem for years, but to wait inactive for twenty-four hours—that is another matter.”

But it is not long before he becomes aware that the Eloi are not the only forms of animal life left in the world, and his curiosity is once more aroused. He realises that Weena and the Eloi generally have a great fear of darkness: “But she dreaded the dark, dreaded shadows, dreaded black things.” Here we have the first hint of the dominant imagery of the second half of the narrative, the darkness characteristic of the Morlocks, and the ugly, shapeless forms associated with it, contrasting with the light and the brilliant colours of the Eloi and their world. Looking into the darkness one night just before dawn the traveller imagines that he can see vague figures running across the landscape, but cannot be certain whether or not his eyes have deceived him. And a little later, when he is exploring one of the ruined palaces, he comes across a strange creature—“a queer little ape-like figure” that runs away from him and disappears down one of the well-like shafts that are scattered across the country, and whose purpose and nature had puzzled the traveller on his arrival: “My impression of it is, of course, imperfect; but I know it was a dull white, and had strange large greyish-red eyes; also that there was flaxen hair on its head and down its back.” The traveller now has to reformulate his ideas about the way the evolutionary development of man has proceeded: “Man had not remained one species, but had differentiated into two distinct animals.” He has to modify his previous “Darwinian” explanation by a “Marxist” one: “it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer was the key to the whole position.” Even in his own day, he reflects, men tend to spend more and more time underground: “There is a tendency to utilise underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilisation.” Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth?” Similarly the rich have tended to preserve themselves more and more as an exclusive and self-contained group, with fewer and fewer social contacts with the workers, until society has stratified rigidly into a two-class system. “So, in the end, above ground, you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots; the workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour.” The analysis represents, it will be seen, a romantic and pessimistic variant of orthodox Marxist thought: the implications of the class-war are accepted, but the possibility of the successful proletarian revolution establishing a classless society is rigidly excluded. Thus, the traveller concludes, the social tendencies of nineteenth century industrialism have become rigidified and then built in, as it were, to the evolutionary development of the race. Nevertheless, he is still orthodox enough in his analysis to assume that the Eloi, despite their physical and mental decline, are still the masters and the Morlocks—as he finds the underground creatures are called—are their slaves. It is not long before he discovers that this, too, is a false conclusion.

Soon enough, despite his dalliance with Weena, and her obvious reluctance to let him go, the traveller decides that he must find out more about the Morlocks, and resolves to descend into their underworld. It is at this point that, in Pritchett's phrase, “the story alters its key, and the Time Traveller reveals the foundation of slime and horror on which the pretty life of his Arcadians is precariously and fearfully resting.”4 The descent of the traveller into the underworld has, in fact, an almost undisplaced mythical significance: it suggests a parody of the Harrowing of Hell, where it is not the souls of the just that are released but the demonic Morlocks, for it is they who dominate the subsequent narrative. During his “descent into hell” the traveller is seized by the Morlocks, but he keeps them at bay by striking matches, for they recoil from light in any form, which is why they do not normally appear on the surface of the earth by day. During his brief and confused visit to their world he sees and hears great machines at work, and notices a table spread for a meal. He observes that the Morlocks are carnivorous, but does not, for a time, draw the obvious conclusion about the nature of the meat they are eating. However, it is readily apparent to the reader. The Morlocks have a complex symbolic function, for they not only represent an exaggerated fear of the nineteenth century proletariat, but also embody many of the traditional mythical images of a demonic world. This will soon be apparent if one compares Wells's account of them and their environment with the chapter on “Demonic Imagery” in Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism. As Frye writes:

Images of perverted work belong here too: engines of torture, weapons of war, armour, and images of a dead mechanism which, because it does not humanise nature, is unnatural as well as inhuman. Corresponding to the temple or One Building of the Apocalypse, we have the prison or dungeon, the sealed furnace of heat without light, like the city of Dis in Dante.5

Indeed nothing is more remarkable about The Time Machine than the way in which its central narrative is polarised between opposed groups of imagery, the paradisal (or, in Frye's phrase, the apocalyptic) and the demonic, representing extreme forms of human desire and repulsion.

A further significance of the Morlocks can be seen in the fact that they are frequently referred to in terms of unpleasant animal life: thus they are described as, or compared with, “apes,” “lemurs,” “worms,” “spiders,” and “rats.” One must compare these images with the traveller's original discovery that all forms of non-human animal life—with the apparent exception of butterflies—had been banished from the upper world, whether noxious or not. There is a powerful irony in his subsequent discovery that the one remaining form of animal life, and the most noxious of all, is a branch of humanity. Furthermore this confusion of human and animal—with its origin in some kind of imaginative perturbation over the deeper implications of Darwinism—was to provide the central theme of The Island of Dr. Moreau.

The traveller narrowly escapes with his life from the Morlocks and returns to the surface to make another reappraisal of the world of 802701. The image of the “golden age” as it has presented itself to him on his arrival has been destroyed: “there was an altogether new element in the sickening quality of the Morlocks—a something inhuman and malign.” He has to reject his subsequent hypothesis that the Eloi were the masters, and the Morlocks their slaves. A new relationship has clearly evolved between the two races; the Eloi, who are in terror of dark and moonless nights, are in some way victims of the Morlocks, though he is still not certain precisely how. His experience underground has shattered his previous euphoria (symbolically perhaps an end of the paradisal innocence in which he has been participating), and his natural inventiveness and curiosity reassert themselves. He makes his way with Weena to a large green building that he has seen in the distance many miles off, which he later calls “the Palace of Green Porcelain.” On their way they spend a night in the open: the traveller looks at the stars in their now unfamiliar arrangements and reflects on his present isolation.

Looking at these stars suddenly dwarfed my own troubles and all the gravities of terrestrial life. I thought of their unfathomable distance and the slow inevitable drift of their movements out of the unknown past into the unknown future. I thought of the great precessional cycle that the pole of the earth describes. Only forty times had that silent revolution occurred during all the years that I had traversed. And during these few revolutions all the activity, all the traditions, the complex organisations, the nations, languages, literatures, aspirations, even the mere memory of Man as I knew him, had been swept out of existence. Instead were these frail creatures who had forgotten their high ancestry, and the white Things of which I went in terror. Then I thought of the Great Fear that was between the two species, and for the first time, with a sudden shiver, came the clear knowledge of what the meat I had seen might be. Yet it was too horrible! I looked at little Weena sleeping beside me, her face white and star-like under the stars, and forthwith dismissed the thought.

The traveller's knowledge of the world of the Eloi and the Morlocks, and the relation between them, is almost complete. When they reach the Palace of Green Porcelain, he finds, as if to belie his reflections on the disappearance of all traces of the past, that it is a vast museum: “Clearly we stood among the ruins of some latter-day South Kensington!” The museum, with its semi-ruinous remains of earlier phases of human achievement, puts the traveller once more in a direct emotional relation with the past, and, by implication, with his own age. Here, the Arcadian spell is finally cast off. He remembers that he is, after all, a late-Victorian scientist with a keen interest in technology. He is intrigued by various great machines, some half destroyed, and others in quite good condition:

You know I have a certain weakness for mechanism, and I was inclined to linger among these: the more so as for the most part they had the interest of puzzles, and I could make only the vaguest guesses at what they were for. I fancied that if I could solve their puzzles I should find myself in possession of powers that might be of use against the Morlocks.

The Morlocks, after all, are a technological race, and if he is to defend himself against them—as he has decided he must—he must match himself against their mechanical prowess. The images of machinery in this part of the narrative are sufficient to suggest to the reader the presence of the Morlocks, and before long the traveller sees footprints in the dust around him, and hears noises coming from one end of a long gallery, which mean that the Morlocks are not far away. He breaks an iron lever off one of the machines to use as a mace. By now, his feelings for the Morlocks are those of passionate loathing: “I longed very much to kill a Morlock or so. Very inhuman, you may think, to want to go killing one's own descendants! But it was impossible, somehow, to feel any humanity in the things.” Since the Morlocks on one level stand for the late nineteenth century proletariat, the traveller's attitude towards them clearly symbolises a contemporary bourgeois fear of the working class, and it is not fanciful to impute something of this attitude to Wells himself. From his schooldays in Bromley he had disliked and feared the working class in a way wholly appropriate to the son of a small tradesman—as various Marxist critics have not been slow to remark. The traveller's gradual identification with the beautiful and aristocratic—if decadent—Eloi against the brutish Morlocks is indicative of Wells's own attitudes, or one aspect of them, and links up with a common theme in his realistic fiction: the hypergamous aspirations of a low-born hero towards genteel heroines: Jessica Milton in The Wheels of Chance, Helen Walsingham in Kipps, Beatrice Normandy in Tono-Bungay, and Christabel in Mr. Polly.

Wells's imagination was easily given to producing images of mutilation and violence, and the traveller's hatred of the Morlocks gives them free rein. The reader is further prepared for the scenes of violence and destruction which end the traveller's expedition to the museum by his discovery of “a long gallery of rusting stands of arms,” where he “hesitated between my crowbar and a hatchet or a sword.” But he could not carry both and kept the crowbar. He contented himself with a jar of camphor from another part of the museum, since this was inflammable and would make a useful weapon against the Morlocks. By now we have wholly moved from the dominantly paradisal imagery of the first half of the narrative to the demonic imagery of the second. Instead of a golden age, or lotos land, we are back in the familiar world of inventiveness and struggle.

When Weena and the traveller are once more outside the museum and are making their way homeward through the woods, he decides to keep the lurking Morlocks at bay during the coming night by lighting a fire. He succeeds only too well, and before long discovers that he has set the whole forest ablaze. Several Morlocks try to attack him, but he fights them off with his iron bar. He then discovers the creatures all fleeing in panic before the advancing fire: in the confusion Weena is lost. There are some powerful descriptions of the Morlocks' plight:

And now I was to see the most weird and horrible thing, I think, of all that I beheld in that future age. This whole space was as bright as day with the reflection of the fire. In the centre was a hillock or tumulus, surmounted by a scorched hawthorn. Beyond this was another arm of the burning forest, with yellow tongues already writhing from it, completely encircling the space with a fence of fire. Upon the hillside were some thirty or forty Morlocks, dazzled by the light and heat and blundering hither and thither against each other in their bewilderment. At first I did not realise their blindness, and struck furiously at them with my bar, in a frenzy of fear, as they approached me, killing one and crippling several more. But when I watched the gestures of one of them groping under the hawthorn against the red sky, and heard their moans, I was assured of their absolute helplessness and misery in the glare, and I struck no more of them.

Eventually, on the following morning, the traveller gets back to the neighbourhood of the White Sphinx, whence he had started. Everything is as it was when he left. The beautiful Eloi are still moving across the landscape in their gay robes, or bathing in the river. But now his disillusion with their Arcadian world and his realisation of the true nature of their lives is complete.

I understood now what all the beauty of the over-world people covered. Very pleasant was their day, as pleasant as the day of the cattle in the field. Like the cattle they knew of no enemies, and provided against no needs. And their end was the same.

Here we have the solution to a riddle that was implicitly posed at the beginning of the traveller's narrative. Soon after his arrival among the Eloi he had found that there were no domestic animals in their world: “horses, cattle, sheep, dogs, had followed the Ichthyosaurus into extinction.” Yet the life led by the Eloi is clearly that contained in conventional literary pastoral, and the first part of the traveller's narrative partakes of the nature of pastoral—but it is a pastoral world without sheep or cattle. And a little later, during his speculations on the possibilities of eugenic development, he had reflected:

We improve our favourite plants and animals—and how few they are—gradually by selective breeding; now a new and better peach, now a seedless grape, now a sweeter and larger flower, now a more convenient breed of cattle.

Something of the sort, he concludes, has brought about the world of 802701. But the paradox latent in the observation is only made manifest in his return from the museum, now possessing a complete knowledge of this world. There are no sheep or cattle in the pastoral world of the Eloi because they are themselves the cattle, fattened and fed by their underground masters. They are both a “sweeter and larger flower” and “a more convenient breed of cattle.” Thus the complex symbolism of the central narrative of The Time Machine is ingeniously completed on this note of diabolical irony. Such knowledge has made the Arcadian world intolerable to the traveller. He is now able to escape from it: the Morlocks have produced his machine and placed it as a trap for him, but he is able to elude them, and travels off into the still more remote future.

The final part of the time traveller's narrative, the chapter called “The Further Vision,” is an extended epilogue to the story of the Eloi and the Morlocks. The traveller moves further and further into the future, until he reaches an age when all traces of humanity have vanished and the world is given over to giant crabs. The earth has ceased to rotate, and has come to rest with one face always turned to the sun:

I stopped very gently and sat upon the Time Machine, looking round. The sky was no longer blue. North-eastward it was inky black, and out of the darkness shone brightly and steadily the pale white stars. Overhead it was a deep Indian red and starless, and south-eastward it grew brighter to a growing scarlet where, cut by the horizon, lay the huge hull of the sun, red and motionless. The rocks about me were of a harsh, reddish colour, and all the trace of life that I could see at first was the intensely green vegetation that covered every projecting point on their south-eastern face. It was the same rich green that one sees on forest moss or on lichen in caves: plants which like these grow in a perpetual twilight.

The whole of this vision of a dying world is conveyed with a poetic intensity which Wells was never to recapture. The transition from the social and biological interest of the “802701” episode to the cosmological note of these final pages is extremely well done: the previous account of the decline of humanity is echoed and amplified by the description of the gradual death of the whole physical world. The traveller moves on and on, seeking to discover the ultimate mystery of the world's fate.

At last, more than thirty million years hence, the huge red-hot dome of the sun had come to obscure nearly a tenth part of the darkling heavens. Then I stopped once more, for the crawling multitude of crabs had disappeared, and the red beach, save for its livid green liverworts and lichens, seemed lifeless. And now it was flecked with white. A bitter cold assailed me. Rare white flakes ever and again came eddying down. To the north-eastward, the glare of snow lay under the starlight of the sable sky, and I could see an undulating crest of hillocks pinkish-white. There were fringes of ice along the sea margin, with drifting masses further out; but the main expanse of that salt ocean, all bloody under the eternal sunset, was still unfrozen.

Finally, after an eclipse of the sun has reduced this desolate world to total darkness, the traveller returns to his own time, and the waiting circle of friends in his house at Richmond.

A contemporary reviewer paid special tribute to these final pages, and referred to “that last fin de siècle, when earth is moribund and man has ceased to be.”6 This reference to the fin de siècle is appropriate both in its immediate context and in a larger sense, for, as I have already suggested, The Time Machine is pre-eminently a book of its time, giving imaginative form to many of the fears and preoccupations of the final years of the nineteenth century. Max Nordau, in fact, had attacked these preoccupations and attitudes in a passage which curiously anticipates the themes and dominant images of The Time Machine:

Fin de siècle is at once a confession and a complaint. The old Northern faith contained the fearsome doctrine of the Dusk of the Gods. In our days there have arisen in more highly developed minds vague qualms of a Dusk of the Nations, in which all suns and all stars are gradually waning, and mankind with all its institutions and creations is perishing in the midst of a dying world.7

Since The Time Machine is a romance and not a piece of realistic fiction, it conveys its meaning in poetic fashion through images, rather than by the revelation of character in action. It is, in short, a myth, and in Shanks's words, “can be interpreted in many ways, none of them quite consistent, all of them more alive and fruitful than the rigid allegorical correspondence.” I have tried to indicate some of the thematic strands to be found in the work. Some of them are peculiarly of their period, others have a more general and a more fundamental human relevance. The opposition of Eloi and Morlocks can be interpreted in terms of the late nineteenth-century class struggle, but it also reflects an opposition between aestheticism and utilitarianism, pastoralism and technology, contemplation and action, and ultimately, and least specifically, between beauty and ugliness, and light and darkness. The book not only embodies the tensions and dilemmas of its time, but others peculiar to Wells himself, which a few years later were to make him cease to be an artist, and become a propagandist. Since the tensions are imaginatively and not intellectually resolved we find that a note of irony becomes increasingly more pronounced as the traveller persists in his disconcerting exploration of the world where he has found himself. The Time Machine is not only a myth, but an ironic myth, like many other considerable works of modern literature. And despite the complexity of its thematic elements, Wells's art is such that the story is a skilfully wrought imaginative whole, a single image.


  1. The Living Novel (London, 1946), pp. 119-20.

  2. First Essays on Literature (London, 1923), p. 158.

  3. Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), p. 202.

  4. [“The Scientific Romances” in The Living Novel. It is the essay preceding this in the present volume.—Ed.]

  5. Anatomy of Criticism, p. 150.

  6. Daily Chronicle, 27 July, 1895.

  7. Degeneration (London, 1895), p. 2.


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The Time Machine H. G. Wells

(Born Herbert George Wells) English autobiographer, novelist, essayist, journalist, and short story writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Wells's novella The Time Machine (1895). See also H. G. Wells Short Story Criticism.

Published in book form in 1895, The Time Machine is regarded as the best-known of Wells's “scientific romances” and one of the most influential stories about time travel ever written. Although the story was not the first to explore the concept of time travel, it is significant for its pseudoscientific explanation of how time travel could possibly occur. The novella initially appeared in serialized form as “The Chronic Argonauts” in Science School Journal in April 1888; it was then revised and published as The Time Machine in National Observer in 1894 and the New Review in January 1895. Wells revised the story again for the Atlantic Edition, which was published in 1924. Since its initial appearance in book form, The Time Machine has never gone out of print.

Plot and Major Characters

Written in a conversational tone, The Time Machine opens with an unnamed narrator professing his admiration for his mentor, the older scientist known only as the Time Traveller. The narrator reflects on the disappearance of the Time Traveller three years before and contends that he is telling the story to attest to the powers of the human imagination and as a warning of what the future can bring. He describes the Thursday night dinners the Time Traveller used to give at his home for a group of his friends. It was at one of these occasions that the Time Traveller first asserted that the Fourth Dimension not only existed, but that time travel was possible. In fact, he showed his friends a small model of his new invention, a time machine. The assembled group is shocked when he makes the machine disappear before their eyes. On the next Thursday, the Time Traveler further astounds his waiting guests when he appears suddenly in the dining room, disheveled, dirty, and limping. He explains that since their last meeting he has traveled to the year 802,701, where he expected to find amazing technological and cultural progress. Instead, he finds a race of beings he calls the Eloi, a diminutive, weak people who live together in harmony. Yet he is surprised to find the Eloi bereft of intellectual curiosity and fearful of the dark. The reason for this becomes clear to him when darkness falls and he discovers a second species, the Morlocks, described as primordial, predatory creatures who live below the surface and feed on the Eloi after dark. The Time Traveller chronicles his many adventures in the future, including rescuing Weena, an Eloi and love interest, from drowning; unearthing the truth of what happened to the human race; and escaping a group of marauding Morlocks. The Time Traveller then journeys even further into the future, where he discovers the extinction of all human life on Earth. When he travels thirty million years into the future, he finds no signs of life at all. He begs his skeptical guests to heed his warning: the human race cannot be allowed to devolve into the primitive Eloi and Morlocks. He then announces that he will return to the future in an attempt to further understand what awaits the human race. The Time Traveller never returns from his last journey.

Major Themes

Critics have found parallels between the narrator's and Time Traveller's relationship in The Time Machine and that of the dual protagonists in Joseph Conrad's tale “Heart of Darkness.” Most commentators have focused on major thematic concerns embodied by the conflict between the Eloi and Morlock races. The story is often perceived from a Darwinian perspective; it has been noted that Wells often employed the theory of evolution as a motif in his scientific romances. Some critics have focused on Wells's concept of the duality of the individual: in the story, the Time Traveller asserts that the contradictory characteristics of the Eloi and Morlock exist within the individual and are held together by love and intellectual interest. Other commentators have interpreted the novella from a Marxist perspective: in this vein, the Morlocks represent the proletariat and the Eloi are viewed as the bourgeois class. With this interpretation, The Time Machine is considered a sociopolitical commentary on turn-of-the-century England. Autobiographical aspects of the story have been investigated, as issues of class were another recurring theme in Wells's life and work. Moreover, some scholars have argued that The Time Machine can also be perceived as an exploration of the dualities between aestheticism and utilitarianism as well as pastoralism and technology. The utopian and mythological qualities of The Time Machine have been a rich area for critical discussion.

Critical Reception

Upon its publication in book form in 1895, The Time Machine was hailed as a masterpiece. Yet the novella was classified as a scientific romance, a genre considered by many—including Wells himself—as inconsequential. It wasn't until Bernard Bergonzi's study, The Early H. G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances (1960), that critics began to take Wells's work seriously and catapulted The Time Machine into the ranks of classic English literature. It was Bergonzi who first discussed the mythological aspects of the novella. Reviewers have investigated its profound influence on the genre of science fiction and later generations of authors, such as Jorge Louis Borges, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley. Some critics have proclaimed Wells as “the father of modern science fiction.” The Time Machine is still one of Wells's best-known works. The book has been translated into many languages, and has inspired cinematic adaptations and literary sequels.

Robert M. Philmus (essay date May 1969)

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SOURCE: Philmus, Robert M. “The Time Machine; Or, The Fourth Dimension as Prophecy.” PMLA 84, no. 3 (May 1969): 530-35.

[In the following essay, Philmus analyzes Wells's own observations on The Time Machine and provides a stylistic examination of the novella.]

The statements that H. G. Wells gave out in the twenties and thirties about his early “scientific romances” or “scientific fantasies,” as he alternately called them, are not sympathetic to the spirit of these works written before the turn of the century. In general, he makes them out to be slighter in substance or more tendentious in tone than the serious reader coming upon them now would find them. Nevertheless, Wells does not attempt wilfully to mislead or mystify his readers in later assessments of his early romances; and in fact his own criticism is sometimes actively helpful in understanding his fiction.

Of particular importance are his various observations about The Time Machine (1895); and his Preface to the Scientific Romances especially—an indispensable account of the theory and practice of his science fiction—draws attention to two aspects of this early fantasy essential to interpreting it. The first of these concerns the Time Traveller's vision of the future, a vision which Wells characterizes as running “counter to the placid assumption” of the nineties “that Evolution was a pro-human force making things better and better for mankind.” The second point, already implicit in this last remark from the Preface, is that The Time Machine is an “assault on human self-satisfaction.”1

These observations can in effect be taken to summarize the findings of Bernard Bergonzi's study of The Time Machine as an “ironic myth” of degeneration and Mark R. Hillegas' analysis of it as “a serious attack on human complacency.”2 Neither of these studies explains, however, the Traveller's compulsion to resume his time-travelling, to return, presumably, to the world of the Eloi and the Morlocks; and it is towards an explanation of this response to the vision or prophecy of The Time Machine that my own interpretation is directed. It seems to me that Wells has structured his romance so as to educe the ultimate consequences of both the myth he develops and the several internal points of view towards it. Since the fantasy thus approaches the very postulates of his science fiction, I propose to examine its structure in detail, considering summarily but analytically the components of that structure: the Time Traveller's vision of the future, his interpretation of it, and the reaction of his audience to the prophetic report.3


To begin then with the Time Traveller's vision, “degeneration” is not, I think, a precise enough description of the backsliding of the human species into the less and less recognizably anthropomorphic descendants that the Traveller comes upon in the world of 802,701 and beyond. It is true that Wells himself used that term as early as 1891 in an essay outlining the abstract idea behind his vision of the future;4 but in that same essay, entitled “Zoological Retrogression,” Wells also calls this process of reversion “degradation,”5 which suggests the step-by-step decline from man to beast that he was to take up in The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) as well. More accurately still, one can define the vision in The Time Machine of Homo sapiens gradually reduced to species lower and lower on the evolutionary scale as a vision of devolution.

The human ancestry of the degenerate species that the Traveller discovers in the “Golden Age” of 802,701 is scarcely discernible. The feeble and “childlike” Eloi (p. 38)6 are more human than the “ape-like” and predatory Morlocks (p. 77) that emerge nightly from dark catacombs to prey upon the creatures of the “upper-world”; but while “modification of the human type” among the Morlocks has been “far more profound than among the ‘Eloi’” (p. 84), the process of devolution has by no means reached an equilibrium. The oppressive, almost Manichean, threat to the sunlit paradise of the Eloi which the dark and demonic “underworld” of the Morlocks imposes becomes finally the impending destruction of the solar system itself,7 foreshadowed in the total blackness of the solar eclipse which concludes the chapter called “The Further Vision.”

The paradise-hell of the Eloi and the Morlocks in fact leads causally as well as temporally to what the Traveller sees as the further vision of devolution tending towards the extinction of all life. In an episode appearing in the New Review but deleted subsequently, he comes next upon a species more degraded than the Morlocks. Of this creature, which he likens to “rabbits or some breed of kangaroo,” the Traveller reports: “I was surprised to see that the thing had five feeble digits to both its fore and hind feet—the fore feet, indeed, were almost as human as the fore feet of a frog. It had, moreover, a roundish head, with a projecting forehead and forward-looking eyes.” As a result of his examination, he admits that “A disagreeable apprehension crossed my mind”; but he has no opportunity to observe “my grey animal, or grey man, whichever it was” at greater length because he perceives that he is being stalked by a monster similar to a gigantic centipede.8 It is left for the reader to infer that at this point in the future the Eloi have devolved into creatures with “five feeble digits,” in this case the victims of giant centipedes.

At the next stop in the distant future (in both the Heinemann and the New Review versions) all anthropomorphic life seems to have disappeared, and the Traveller sees instead “a thing like a huge white butterfly” and “a monstrous crab-like creature” (p. 137). He goes on until, thirty million years hence, it appears as if animal life has devolved out of existence. Plant life has degenerated to “livid green liverworts and lichens” (p. 139). Here he witnesses a solar eclipse which prefigures the end of the world.

The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it … As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant … and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.

(pp. 140-141)

In retrospect, it seems that the unbalanced struggle between the Eloi and the Morlocks prepares for this final vision, that a terrible logic compels the conclusion: “The sky was absolutely black.” “People unfamiliar with such speculations as those of the younger Darwin,” the Time Traveller had remarked earlier, “forget that the planets must ultimately fall back one by one into the parent body” (p. 76). This is a vision hardly in accord with “Excelsior” optimism; on the contrary, it is precisely calculated to “run counter to the placid assumption … that Evolution was a pro-human force making things better and better for mankind.”9

Indeed, the ideas Wells is dealing with are, as he stated in the early essay on “Zoological Retrogression,” an “evolutionary antithesis”:

… there is almost always associated with the suggestion of advance in biological phenomena an opposite idea, which is its essential complement. The technicality expressing this would, if it obtained sufficient currency in the world of culture, do much to reconcile the naturalist and his traducers. The toneless glare of optimistic evolution would then be softened by a shadow; the monotonous reiteration of ‘Excelsior’ by people who did not climb would cease; the too sweet harmony of the spheres would be enhanced by a discord, this evolutionary antithesis—degradation.

(“Retrogression,” p. 246)

Wells goes on to illustrate “the enormous importance of degeneration as a plastic process in nature” and its “parity with evolution” by giving examples of species which have retrogressed and of vestigial features now observable which perhaps presage future degeneration. His concluding remarks are especially relevant to the vision presented in The Time Machine:

There is, therefore, no guarantee in scientific knowledge of man's permanence or permanent ascendancy … The presumption is that before him lies a long future of profound modification, but whether this will be, according to his present ideals, upward or downward, no one can forecast. Still, so far as any scientist can tell us, it may be that, instead of this, Nature is, in unsuspected obscurity, equipping some now humble creature with wider possibilities of appetite, endurance, or destruction, to rise in the fulness of time and sweep homo away into the darkness from which his universe arose. The Coming Beast must certainly be reckoned in any anticipatory calculations regarding the Coming Man.

(“Retrogression,” p. 253)

Clearly this speculation goes beyond the mere softening of the “glare of optimistic evolution” with a “shadow.” The “opposite idea” dominates Wells's imagination—the vision of man's being swept away “into the darkness from which his universe arose”—of “life that … is slowly and remorselessly annihilated,” as he says in “On Extinction”10—the vision, in other words, of The Time Machine. And his prophecy of the “Coming Beast”—in stories like “The Sea Raiders” (1896), The War of the Worlds (1898), and “The Empire of the Ants” (1904), as well as in The Time Machine—though more literal than Yeats's vision of the Second Coming—is no less forceful in its dramatic impact.


The vision of the future as a devolutionary process, in reversing the expectations of “optimistic evolution,” is not isolated in The Time Machine as an imaginative possibility for its own sake. The structure of the world of 802,701, for instance, suggests a critique of the pastoral utopia of Morris' News from Nowhere (1891) and other pre-Wellsian utopian romances, since the idyllic world of the Eloi is quite literally undermined by the machine-dominated world of the Morlocks. Thus the vision of the future in The Time Machine both reflects and evaluates man's “present ideals,” a point that the Time Traveller emphasizes by insisting that the theories he has developed to explain the world of the future derive from what he sees in the present state of human affairs.

Although the Traveller revises his theories as he learns about the nature of the Morlocks, he temporarily settles on an etiological interpretation of the relationship between the effete (and virtually androgynous) Eloi and their more energetic predators. “The great triumph of Humanity I had dreamed of took a different shape in my mind. It had been no such triumph of moral education and general co-operation as I had imagined. Instead, I saw a real aristocracy, armed with perfected science and working to a logical conclusion the industrial system of today. Its triumph had not been simply a triumph over nature, but a triumph over nature and the fellow-man” (p. 84). To be sure, he himself reserves a doubt concerning this account of how the future world had come to be: “My explanation may be absolutely wrong. I still think it is the most plausible one.” His ambivalence here reminds one, not accidentally, of his subsequent remark as to how the reader may accept this vision of the future. “Take it as a lie—or a prophecy … Consider I have been speculating on the destinies of our race, until I have hatched this fiction” (p. 145). Together, these statements suggest that any explanation of the imaginary world of the Eloi and the Morlocks is important only insofar as it makes it clear that the world projected in the fiction is prophecy; that is, the “working to a logical conclusion” of what can be observed in the world of the present.

The Time Traveller himself says that he has arrived at his explanation by extrapolating (to appropriate a useful word from the jargon of science fiction) from tendencies existing in the present:

At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position. No doubt it will seem grotesque enough to you—and wildly incredible!—and yet even now there are existing circumstances to point that way.

(pp. 81-82; my emphasis)

What this passage implies is that the procedure for interpreting the vision of The Time Machine recapitulates the process by which the fiction was “hatched”; so that the science-fictional method of prophecy is itself “the key to the whole position.” Moreover, on the evidence of the Traveller's own theories, the future that Wells has projected does not, precisely speaking, embody only the consequences of “the industrial system of to-day,” but also the consequences of the ideal which directs the course and uses of technological advance.

While they summarily describe a world resulting from man's present ideals, the Time Traveller's theories are also evaluative. In saying, for example, that “the great triumph of Humanity … had not been simply a triumph over nature” (as T. H. Huxley had urged11) “but a triumph over nature and the fellow-man,” the Time Traveller makes a negative moral judgment: “moral education and general co-operation” had not been achieved. And condemnation is again entailed in his observation that the human intellect “had set itself steadfastly towards comfort and ease, a balanced society with security as its watchword”; for “Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers” (p. 130). The ideal (perfect security) therefore undermines the means of maintaining it (intelligence); and the result, the Traveller continues, is that “the upper-world man had drifted towards his feeble prettiness, and the underworld to mere mechanical industry. But that perfect state had lacked one thing even for mechanical perfection—absolute permanency” (pp. 130-131). This final interpretation, which elaborates on and at the same time supersedes his previous explanations, accounts more fully for the world of the Eloi and the Morlocks as it obviously impugns man's “present ideals.” The ideal of subjugating man and nature to realize a state of “comfort and ease” is satirically judged by projecting its consequences as a vision of the future.

Both the Traveller's principle for interpreting the vision and the process by which that vision has been arrived at assume, therefore, that man's ideals to affect the course of evolution, that the world of 802,701 and beyond is the “working to a logical conclusion” of man's striving for comfort and ease. This point is made explicitly in the version of The Time Machine published in the National Observer, a version inferior in conception and structure to that put out by Heinemann, and one containing more cross-discussion between the Traveller (referred to as the Philosopher) and his fictive audience than Wells finally (and rightly) decided was necessary. In the serialized episode called “The Refinement of Humanity: A.D. 12,203,” the Philosopher remarks to a doctor in his audience:

You believe that the average height, average weight, average longevity will all be increased, that in the future humanity will breed and sanitate itself into human Megatheria … But … what I saw is just what one might have expected. Man, like other animals, has been moulded, and will be, by the necessities of his environment. What keeps men so large and so strong as they are? The fact that if any drop below a certain level of power and capacity for competition, they die. Remove dangers, render physical exertion no longer a necessity but an excrescence upon life, abolish competition by limiting population … [and you get degeneration].

Somewhere between now and then [i.e., 12,203] your sanitary science must have won the battle it is beginning now.12

Here and elsewhere in this early draft Wells does not really achieve any degree of detachment from the Philosopher; but at least passages such as this help to clarify how a vision antithetical to “the placid assumption of that time that Evolution was a pro-human force” can also illustrate the consequences of an ideal seemingly inseparable from that assumption—namely, the ideal of evolving towards greater and greater “comfort and ease.”

As far as the Time Traveller's theories are necessary for understanding the prophecy, then, it is somewhat misleading to say that “This horrible degeneration [of the Eloi and the Morlocks] has occurred because mankind, as Huxley feared, was ultimately unable to control the cosmic or evolutionary process.”13 Rather, the Traveller implies, mankind apparently controlled the cosmic process too well, according to an ideal the consequences of which no one could foresee. One of those consequences is that by 802,701 no species has the intelligence any more to set limits on the struggle for existence, in which the defenseless Eloi fall victim to the carnivorous Morlocks. Among these descendants of homo sapiens, the struggle for survival—which, engendered by “Necessity,” makes the “absolute permanency” of “mechanical perfection” impossible—now resumes the character that struggle takes among other animals. “Man,” the Traveller reflects, “had been content to live in ease and delight upon the labours of his fellow-man, had taken Necessity as his watchword and excuse, and in the fulness of time Necessity had come home to him” (pp. 105-106). And once this “Necessity” reasserts itself, once, that is to say, man's descendants begin reverting to beasts, anthropomorphic life, according to the vision of The Time Machine, is irrevocably on the downward path of devolution.


This vision of social disintegration and devolution as a critique of the ideal of striving towards “ease and delight” can exist only in the dimension of prophecy, that dimension into which the critique can be projected and imaginatively given life—the world, in other words, of science fantasy.14 The fourth dimension as a dimension in time is thus a metaphor: it is the dimension open to the imagination. “Our mental existences, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time-Dimension” (p. 6), the Traveller had said in introducing his audience to the concept of this new dimension. As a world wherein the consequences of the accepted ideal can be envisioned, the fourth dimension provides a critical and comprehensive point of view from which to evaluate the present.

That at the beginning of The Time Machine no one except the Time Traveller has conceived of—or even can conceive of—this dimension already indicates a lack of imaginative (and critical) awareness on the part of his audience. His argument for a fourth dimension, prefaced by the caveat that “I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted” (pp. 1-2), meets with incomprehension and complacent skepticism. Quite predictably, his audience fails to take seriously—if the point is grasped at all—the relevance of the Time Traveller's vision. No one else seems to connect the vision of “The two species that had resulted from the evolution of man … sliding down towards, or … already arrived at, an altogether new relationship” (p. 97) with his preconception of an “inevitable tendency to higher and better things” (“Retrogression,” p. 247). Perhaps no one in the audience takes this vision seriously because, as Wells speculated elsewhere, “It is part of the excessive egotism of the human animal that the bare idea of its extinction seems incredible to it.”15 Certainly there is no sign that anyone among the listeners sees how, or that, this vision implicates his present ideals, which are responsible for the shape of the future. On the contrary, the reactions typifying the attitude of the audience are the skepticism of the Medical Man, who wants to analyze the flowers that the Traveller has brought back with him, and the arrant disbelief of the Editor, who considers the Traveller's account a “gaudy lie” (p. 148). Only the unidentified narrator of the entire Time Machine lies “awake most of the night thinking about it.”

In fact, the Time Traveller himself does not seem to be wholly cognizant of the implications of his theories. If his etiology is correct, the cause of the degeneration he discovers exists in the present. Therefore, the burden of what he calls “moral education” remains here and now; and his return to the world of 802,701 would appear to be either a romantic evasion and of a piece with the sentimental “squirms of idyllic petting” that V. S. Pritchett finds embarrassing,16 or a pessimistic retreat from a world “that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers” (p. 152). In any case, the Traveller's point of view, though more comprehensive than that of the other characters, is still limited; and this limitation has its structural correlative in the fact that his narrative is related secondhand, as it were, three years after his disappearance, and comprises only a part—albeit a large part—of the fiction.

That the structure of The Time Machine encompasses, and thereby defines the limits of, the Traveller's point of view indicates that the romance follows an inner logic of its own, a logic, like that governing the Time Traveller's vision, which compels ultimate consequences from a given premise. Accordingly, the logic which necessitates the Traveller's vanishing into the world of his vision depends upon how he accepts that vision. His insistence that “The story I told you was true” (p. 148) implies that he takes his prophecy literally, that he allows it the same ontological status that he himself has. Thus to dramatize the assertion that his tale is literally true, he must go back into the world of the future: since he cannot accept it as fiction, as an invented metaphor, he must disappear into the dimension where his vision “exists.” The demand that his vision be literally true, in other words, requires that the Traveller be no more real than it is; and his return to that world fulfills this demand.

In being subsumed in his vision, however, he also renders it no less real than any member of the fictive audience; so that one is forced to give the same degree of credibility to the futuristic fantasy as to the contemporary scene in which the Traveller relates his story. What the reader is left with, that is, is the prophecy, the metaphorical truth which mediates between the blind and complacent optimism evidenced by the fictive audience and the resultant devolution envisioned by the Time Traveller.

The Traveller's return to the world of 802,701, far from vitiating the impact of The Time Machine, reinforces its claim to integrity: by having the Time Traveller act out the ultimate consequence of his taking a prophetic myth literally, Wells illustrates the rigor that he has submitted himself to in satirizing certain “present ideals.” The romance, as I see it, is thus rigorously self-contained in “working to a logical conclusion” both the myth of devolution that exposes tendencies “of our own age” and the various points of view regarding the truth of that prophetic myth.

According to this interpretation, Wells's experiment in fiction is comparable in the artistry of its narrative to the contemporaneous experiments of, say Joseph Conrad, who also wrote tales “told in quotation marks”17 and who found in Wells an early admirer; and for the complexity of its structure and point of view, The Time Machine deserves the praise that Henry James in fact bestowed on it.18


  1. The Scientific Romances of H. G. Wells (London, 1933), p. ix.

  2. Bergonzi, “The Time Machine: An Ironic Myth,” Critical Quarterly, II (1960), 293-305, and The Early H. G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances (Toronto, 1961), pp. 42-61; Hillegas, “Cosmic Pessimism in H. G. Wells' Scientific Romances,” Papers of the Mich. Acad. of Sci., Arts, and Letters, XLVI (1961), 657-658, and The Future as Nightmare: H. G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians (New York, 1967), pp. 24-34.

  3. All published drafts of The Time Machine share these components, though the serialized versions appearing in the National Observer (1894) and the New Review (1895) differ from the first English edition, published by Heinemann, in many respects—not all of them minor. Sometimes these differences give insight into the meaning of Wells's fantasy, though the serialized versions of course count only as outside evidence for any interpretation. Otherwise they are of interest solely to a study of Wells's progress as a literary artist, a subject it is not my intention to discuss explicitly here.

    Some evaluation of the merits of the Heinemann version of The Time Machine relative to the various previously published drafts, including the first American edition, can be found in Bergonzi's “The Publication of The Time Machine 1894-5,” RES, N.S., IX (1960), 42-51.

  4. The fact that Wells was familiar with the notion of degeneration at this early date would seem to reduce the possible extent of any influence on him of Max Nordau's Degeneration (1894), which Bergonzi adduces as a source for the vision of the future in The Time Machine.

  5. “Zoological Retrogression,” The Gentleman's Magazine, 7 Sept. 1891, p. 246.

  6. All quotations from The Time Machine refer to the first English edition (London, 1895).

  7. As Bergonzi observes of The Time Machine, “its central narrative is polarised between opposed groups of imagery, the paradisal … and the demonic” (“An Ironic Myth,” p. 300).

  8. The Time Machine in the New Review, XII (1895), 578-579.

  9. The Time Machine is part of a reaction on the part of many writers of the late eighties and nineties to the strident optimism that permeated the official rhetoric of the Victorian age. See Bergonzi's discussion of the fin du globe in his Early H. G. Wells, pp. 3-14, et passim. Some material may also be found in Hillegas' Future as Nightmare (see n. 2 above), relevant to attitudes towards evolution during the period in which Wells was writing The Time Machine.

  10. “On Extinction,” Chamber's Journal, X (30 Sept. 1893), 623.

  11. In “Evolution and Ethics” and other essays, Huxley declares that ethical man can exist only if he modifies the “cosmic process.”

  12. “The Refinement of Humanity,” National Observer, N.S., XI (21 Apr. 1894), 581-582.

  13. Hillegas, “Cosmic Pessimism,” p. 658.

  14. As late as Men Like Gods (1923), the utopian fantasy that takes place in the “F dimension,” Wells has one of his characters say of another (neither has yet been initiated into Utopia): “He has always had too much imagination. He thinks that things that don't exist can exist. And now he imagines himself in some sort of scientific romance and out of our world altogether” (Men Like Gods, New York, 1923, pp. 21-22).

  15. “The Extinction of Man,” Certain Personal Matters (London, 1898 [1897]), p. 172. This essay first appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette for 23 Sept. 1894.

  16. The Living Novel (London, 1946), p. 119.

  17. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, N. J., 1957), pp. 202-203.

  18. On 21 Jan. 1900, James wrote to Wells: “It was very graceful of you to send me your book—I mean the particular masterpiece entitled The Time Machine, after I had so un-gracefully sought it at your hands” (Henry James and H. G. Wells, ed. Leon Edel and Gordon N. Ray, Urbana, Ill., 1958, p. 63).

Principal Works

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“The Chronic Argonauts” (short story) 1888

Select Conversations with an Uncle (Now Extinct), and Two Other Reminiscences (short stories) 1895

The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents (short stories) 1895

The Time Machine (novella) 1895

The Wonderful Visit (novel) 1895

The Island of Dr. Moreau (novel) 1896

The Wheels of Chance (novel) 1896

The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance (novel) 1897

The Plattner Story and Others (short stories) 1897

Thirty Strange Stories (short stories) 1897

Certain Personal Matters: A Collection of Material, Mainly Autobiographical (autobiography) 1898

The War of the Worlds (novel) 1898

Tales of Space and Time (short stories) 1899

When the Sleeper Wakes (novel) 1899

The First Men in the Moon (novel) 1901

Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought (nonfiction) 1902

The Sea Lady: A Tissue of Moonshine (novel) 1902

Mankind in the Making (nonfiction) 1903

Twelve Stories and a Dream (short stories) 1903

The Food of the Gods, and How It Came to Earth (novel) 1904

Kipps: A Monograph (novel) 1905

A Modern Utopia (novel) 1905

The Future in America: A Search after Realities (nonfiction) 1906

First and Last Things: A Confession of Faith and a Rule of Life (nonfiction) 1908

New Worlds for Old (nonfiction) 1908

Tono-Bungay (novel) 1908

The History of Mr. Polly (novel) 1910

The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (short stories) 1911

The Door in the Wall and Other Stories (short stories) 1911

Floor Games (juvenilia) 1911

The New Machiavelli (novel) 1911

Marriage (novel) 1912

The Passionate Friends: A Novel (novel) 1913

War and Common Sense (nonfiction) 1913

Social Forces in England and America (essays) 1914

The War That Will End War (essays) 1914

The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind (novel) 1914

The Research Magnificent (novel) 1915

The War and Socialism (nonfiction) 1915

God, the Invisible King (nonfiction) 1917

Joan and Peter (novel) 1918

The Salvaging of Civilization: The Probable Future of Mankind (nonfiction) 1921

A Short History of the World (nonfiction) 1922

Men Like Gods (novel) 1923

The Dream (novel) 1924

A Year of Prophesying (essays) 1924

The Short Stories of H. G. Wells (short stories) 1927

The Open Conspiracy: Blue Prints for a World Revolution (nonfiction) 1928

The King Who Was a King: An Unconventional Novel (novel) 1929

Selections from the Early Prose Works of H. G. Wells (nonfiction) 1931

The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (nonfiction) 1931

The Shape of Things to Come: The Ultimate Revolution (novel) 1933

Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866) (autobiography) 1934

The New America: the New World (nonfiction) 1935

Brynhild (novel) 1937

World Brain (essays and speeches) 1938

The Fate of Man (nonfiction) 1939

All Aboard for Ararat (novel) 1940

The Rights of Man; or, What Are We Fighting For? (nonfiction) 1940

Guide to the New World: A Handbook of Constructive World Revolution (nonfiction) 1941

The Pocket History of the World (nonfiction) 1941

Phoenix: A Summary of the Inescapable Conditions of World Reorganisation (nonfiction) 1942

Crux Ansata: An Indictment of the Roman Catholic Church (nonfiction) 1943

'42 to '44: A Contemporary Memoir upon Human Behavior during the Crisis of the World Revolution (nonfiction) 1944

The Happy Turning: A Dream of Life (nonfiction) 1945

Henry James and H. G. Wells: A Record of Their Friendship, Their Debate on the Art of Fiction, and Their Quarrel (letters) 1958

Selected Short Stories (short stories) 1958

Arnold Bennett and H. G. Wells: A Record of a Personal and a Literary Friendship (letters) 1960

Journalism and Prophecy, 1893-1946: An Anthology (essays and lectures) 1964

H. G. Wells's Literary Criticism (essays) 1980

The Man with the Nose and Other Uncollected Short Stories (short stories) 1984

The Complete Short Stories (short stories) 1987

Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells (letters) 1995

The Correspondence of H. G. Wells (letters) 1996

Jean-Pierre Vernier (essay date 1971)

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SOURCE: Vernier, Jean-Pierre. “The Time Machine and Its Content.” In H. G. Wells, “The Time Machine,” “The War of the Worlds”: A Critical Edition, edited by Frank D. McConnell, pp. 315-20. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

[In the following essay, originally published in French in 1971, Vernier describes the variations of The Time Machine and discusses its universal appeal at the time of its publication.]

The Time Machine has remained one of Wells's most popular books, and one of the most often reprinted. The circumstances of its publication are, in general, well enough known that here we need only recall them briefly. The Time Traveller appeared for the first time in the Science Schools Journal, in a story entitled “The Chronic Argonauts”; following are the principal transformations undergone by that original tale:1

  • A. “The Chronic Argonauts,” published in the Science Schools Journal, 1881.
  • B. Two different versions of the same story, written in 1889 and 1892. The texts were never published, and Geoffrey West is the only authority attesting to their existence.
  • C. In 1893, another version was written by Wells and published in series form in The National Observer during the spring of 1894. This is actually the earliest form of The Time Machine.
  • D. In 1894 Wells took up the story again, producing a new version serialized in The New Review beginning in January 1895. Except for a few details, this is the version Heinemann published in book form in June 1895. Preparing it for book form, Wells contented himself with rewriting the opening, making it more dramatic and less didactic, and excising a few episodes that unnecessarily slowed the plot development. But one highly interesting variation appears between the 1893 text and the 1894. In The National Observer, the last vision of a world where life has gradually disappeared due to the cooling of the sun is introduced only as a brief speculation within the final episode, while in The New Review this vision has been enlarged to the dimensions of the definitive version. We are dealing, then, with a slowly elaborated work, and one upon which Wells placed high hopes. In December 1894 he wrote to Miss Healey:

You may be interested to know that our ancient “Chronic Argonauts” of the Science Schools Journal has at last become a complete story and will appear as a serial in the New Review for January. It's my trump card and if it does not come off very much I shall know my place for the rest of my career.2

To be sure, there is some exaggeration in this. We can hardly imagine Wells abandoning his writing career because of the failure of one book. On those rare occasions when an editor did reject his work, he simply revised, often restating the same ideas in altered form. But no such problem arose with The Time Machine, which was accorded a reception that must have surpassed even Wells's own hopes. In the Review of Reviews, W. T. Stead called him “a man of genius.”3 The sentiment was echoed by a number of reviewers, and indicates quite well the quality of praise lavished on Wells at the time. Unknown till then, he rapidly became one of the foremost literary figures of his age—an age when young talent was relatively rare. We may ask what allowed him to achieve such success. Should we assume that Wells, in 1894, expressed the preoccupations of his age so clearly that his readers saw in his work an illustration of their own confusing problems? Or should we, on the other hand, assume that The Time Machine offered them an escape from those problems?

Many critics have claimed to find in the adventures of the Time Traveller a satire against the age, a warning from Wells to his contemporaries. … Indeed, it is possible—though not certain—that Wells meant to apprise his contemporaries of the dangers of science and show them the faults inherent in their social organization. But this does not appear to have been the essential motive of the work. Wells himself, of course, came to subscribe to this reading and, in hindsight, located The Time Machine in the line of his propagandistic works which provided the ideological basis of the Open Conspiracy.4 In All Aboard for Ararat (1940) Noah Lammock—one of Wells's numerous incarnations—is arguing with the Lord:

“I never wrote The Time Machine,” said Noah.

“Why pretend?” said the Lord. “The same idea is the framework of your Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind. It is World Brain. It crops up more and more frequently in your books as you get older and repeat yourself more and more—”5

But this is merely one of Wells's constant attempts to impose upon his lifework a unity which is not, in fact, there. In 1894 the realm of pure ideas scarcely attracted him. And like most of his stories from the same period, The Time Machine rests upon a fundamental ambiguity—an ambiguity, moreover, as fecund as the ambiguity of poetry, revealing meaning upon meaning at levels at once parallel to each other and superimposed upon one another. As Bernard Bergonzi brilliantly indicates, the book's central episode is a metaphor for an extremely complex reality:

The opposition of Eloi and Morlocks can be interpreted in terms of the late nineteenth-century class-struggle, but it also reflects an opposition between aestheticism and utilitarianism, pastoralism and technology, contemplation and action, and ultimately, and least specifically, between beauty and ugliness, and light and darkness. The book not only embodies the tensions and dilemmas of its time, but others peculiar to Wells himself, which a few years later were to make him cease to be an artist and become a propagandist.6

Certainly, despite Wells's own simplistic explanation of them, the Eloi and the Morlocks awaken archetypal responses in the reader. But that is not their only function.

The theme itself of time travel is called into play in a manner very characteristic of the period. Long before the book appeared, people had been discussing the plausibility of the hypothesis; and serious physicists had demonstrated that time travel is physically impossible. But that is a different problem from Wells's. Insofar as the reader is induced, by the narrative technique, to believe in the reality of the voyage, we have to admit that the writer has achieved his goal. What is significant—and what Paul Valéry saw splendidly—is that the “time” through which Wells's hero travels is wholly different from “time” as conceived by contemporary physics:

Even Wells, in his famous story The Time Machine, employs and explores time as it was, old time, the time which was believed in before him. …7

It is no surprise, then, that the reader finds in the book characters who, fantastic as they may be, nevertheless betray familiar traits.

The Eloi, with their childlike and sexually ambiguous appearance, and their consumptive type of beauty, are clear reflections of fin de siècle visual taste.8

Apparently, for the contemporary reader, the identification of these frail creatures with the aesthetes of the Decadent Movement was inevitable. And over against the Eloi, the Morlocks may illustrate the same process of identification even more clearly. They evoke the demons of popular tradition, descended from the Middle Ages through the period of the Gothic Novel. And their origin, as explained by Wells, makes them descendents of the working class of the end of the nineteenth century. And it matters little what kind of workers. Their appearance and habitat inevitably suggest the miners. And the miners, we know, represented for both the upper and the middle classes of the time a barely human species—a species requiring constant surveillance if one did not wish to fall prey to their natural savagery. We may assert that, for the middle class of the late nineteenth century, the existence of the miner represented a constant and ominous annoyance, an image of potential revolution very like the “terrorist with a knife” of the period between the two World Wars.

So that Wells presents to his predominantly middle class audience a society composed of two other classes, with neither of whom they can identify: on the one hand the descendents of the capitalists, a collection of dilettantes at the margin of society; and on the other the Morlocks descended from the proletarians, traditional enemies of the middle class. Furthermore, Wells shows no sympathy for either class: and the reader thus finds himself a pure spectator. This is so much the case, indeed, that the reader feels no indignation when the hero fights the Morlocks with fire: he can regard it only as man's affirmation of his superiority over creatures with whom he has nothing in common. The world from which these creatures come is not the reader's. And, doubtless, this is one reason why The Time Machine has no value as propaganda. The original Chapter Seven was titled, simply, Explanation. We are in the realm of fantasy, and there is no conscious urge to instruct or warn us. As Kingsley Amis correctly observes:

When the Time Traveller finds that mankind will have become separated into two races, the gentle ineffectual Eloi and the savage Morlocks, the idea that these are descended respectively from our own leisured classes and manual workers comes as a mere explanation, a solution to the puzzle; it is not transformed, as it inevitably would be in a modern writer, into a warning about some current trend in society.9

The book, rather, is a series of hypotheses based upon the theory of evolution—not as Darwin and Huxley expounded it, but as it was popularized among the reading public. The divorce between the real world and the imaginative universe is total: The Time Machine is above all a work of art, and is typical of its age only to the extent that all art is a re-creation of the world of the moment within the artist's own vision. It appears, besides, that Wells himself is more concerned to make his reader admit the plausibility of his hypothesis—more concerned, that is, with problems of literary technique—than with the actual validity of such hypotheses. As he himself later said:

It was still possible in The Time Machine to imagine humanity on the verge of extinction and differentiated into two decadent species, the Eloi and the Morlocks, without the slightest reflection upon everyday life. Quite a lot of people thought that idea was very clever in its sphere, very clever indeed, and no one minded in the least. It seemed to have no sort of relation whatever to normal existence.10

Perhaps it is just because The Time Machine seemed to be a game that readers and critics gave it such an enthusiastic welcome. They found there a new, original world, which was, nevertheless, not disturbing since it could not conceivably come into existence. But the game is far from being simply frivolous; and behind the descriptions of fantastic beings and worlds, there is manifested a peculiar disquiet. To be sure, we do not find a concerted attack on this or that aspect of the modern world: but the violence itself, which is such an essential element in all the stories of this period, clearly illustrates Wells's unrest. But The Time Machine, finally, is not one of those numerous works in which he acerbically criticized his society and eventually elaborated a complex social philosophy. It is a youthful work that owes its triumph above all to its literary genius and its exuberance. …

Doubtless, there is a typical fin de siècle attitude in Wells's obvious pleasure in imagining the end of our world, and in the evocative power of his description of the planet dying under a sun that grows more and more cold. But these achievements do not in any way surpass the limitations of an aesthetic game founded upon an intellectual hypothesis. We can scarcely argue that this hypothesis was ahead of its time. For it is only a point of departure, a pretext for a dream which, disturbing as it may be, remains nevertheless a dream.


  1. This information is provided in Geoffrey West, H. G. Wells: A Sketch for a Portrait (London, 1930), pp. 287-296. A more detailed examination of the problem is found in the article of Bernard Bergonzi, “The Publication of The Time Machine, 1894-1895,” Review of English Studies XI, 41 (February 1960): 42-51.

  2. West, p. 102. Elizabeth Healey, a friend of Wells's at the Normal School of Science, remained his correspondent for nearly fifty years.

  3. Review of Reviews XI (1895): 263. Stead, third editor of the sensationalist and widely-read Pall Mall Gazette, was one of the most important literary sponsors of his time.

  4. The phrase for Wells's theory, maintained during his later years, that the intellectuals and scientists of the world should assume a benevolent dictatorship in order to introduce some measure of sanity into the counsels of international politics.

  5. All Aboard for Ararat (London, 1940), p. 54.

  6. Bernard Bergonzi, The Early H. G. Wells (Manchester, 1961), p. 61.

  7. Paul Valéry, “Literature and Our Destiny,” in Remarks on the Modern World (Paris, 1962), p. 252.

  8. Bergonzi, pp. 48-49.

  9. Kingsley Amis, New Maps of Hell (London, 1961), p. 33.

  10. The Fate of Man (New York, 1939), p. 67.

Alex Eisenstein (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: Eisenstein, Alex. “Very Early Wells: Origins of Some Major Physical Motifs in The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds.Extrapolation 13 (1972): 119-26.

[In the following essay, Eisenstein traces Wells's formulation of the Morlocks and their underground environs in The Time Machine to his childhood home, Atlas House.]

In The Early H. G. Wells,1 Bernard Bergonzi treats the dualistic future world of The Time Machine mainly as an expression of the traditional mythic schism between Paradise and Perdition. To support his interpretation, he cites the contrasting imagery associated with the two distinct human habitats—and species—delineated in the story: descriptions of the upper realm and its people are predominately sunny and idyllic; those of the lower, somber and infernal.

Yet, beyond the demonic role he thus ascribes to the Morlocks, Professor Bergonzi further claims that these creatures “represent an exaggerated fear of the nineteenth century proletariat.”2 Of course, in terms of the tale's quasi-Darwinian rationale, they are literally the biological and social descendants of the working class, but Mr. Bergonzi attributes to them a much closer identity with the toiling masses: “Since the Morlocks on one level stand for the late nineteenth century proletariat, the Traveller's attitude towards them symbolizes a contemporary bourgeois fear of the working class, and it is not fanciful to impute something of this attitude to Wells himself. From his school days in Bromley he had disliked and feared the working class in a way wholly appropriate to the son of a small tradesman—as various Marxist critics have not been slow to remark.”3 A brief quotation from the last third of the narrative, establishing the protagonist's overwhelming desire (by then) to slaughter all Morlocks, immediately precedes the above discussion in its original context. With such a preface, Mr. Bergonzi's commentary strongly implies that a real-life corollary of this homicidal urge became a deepseated affliction of the Wellsian psyche.

This malign conjecture further suggests that the Morlocks must ultimately derive from that hypothetical antipathy for Victorian Labor. However, despite the ready assertion of “various Marxist critics,” the formulation of these bestial hominids and their plutonian abode stems from other and more primary childhood referents.

First among the latter is Atlas House, the birthplace of Wells and home of his infancy and early childhood. Its particular situation and character reflect, to a large degree, the peculiar dichotomy of the world of A.D. 802,701. His father's crockery shop opened onto High Street, and directly behind the shop lay the small parlor of the Wells home. From this parlor, “a murderously narrow staircase with a twist in it led downstairs to a completely subterranean kitchen, lit by a window which derived its light from a grating on the street level, and a bricked scullery, which, since the house was poised on a bank, opened into the yard at the ground level below.”4 These lines from Wells's autobiography firmly establish his own feeling about the cellar rooms; although the lowest floor allowed direct access to level ground and open air, he thought of these rooms as “completely subterranean.” (The dim illumination from the grate doubtless served as a constant reminder of this subsurface condition.)

A fanciful extension of the underground status to the backyard should have been fairly automatic for any normally imaginative pre-school youngster, and especially for one who played there so long and so often that he “learnt its every detail.”5 Several of these physical details enhanced the subterranean aura. Beginning at the rear wall of the house, a brickwork pavement spread across half the yard,6 thus linking it, by similarity of texture, to the indoor domain of the scullery. Large “erections in the neighbors' yards on either side” and “a boundary wall”7 at the far end hemmed in the backyard, isolating it from the outer world—and, perhaps, vaulting upward like the steep sides of a pit. One adjunct of the yard actually simulated some gloomy catacomb: “Between the scullery and the neighbour's wall was a narrow passage covered over,”8 where his father stored many piles of red earthenware for the shop. The cellar and the yard, in many of their dominant features, recall the industrial character of the Morlock caverns. Together, they functioned as the apparent site of all the necessary work accomplished in the limited universe accessible to Wells as a toddler—the place where everything was produced, cleaned, or otherwise prepared for use above or below. All the fixtures on that level bespoke some form of utilitarian labor: “In the scullery was a small fireplace, a copper boiler for washing, a provision cupboard, a bread pan, a beer cask, a pump delivering water from a well into a stone sink, and space for coal … beneath the wooden stairs.”9 In the yard stood “a brick erection, the ‘closet,’ an earth jakes over a cesspool, … and above this closet was a rainwater tank. Behind it was the brick dustbin …”10 and from the house, “an open cement gutter brought the waste waters of the sink to a soak away”11 in the center of the half-paved yard. (Note the prevalence of metal, stone, and stone-like materials, and the numerous vessels for storage or processing, along with mechanisms and conduits for the conveyance of working fluids and the disposal of wastes.)

Even the plots adjacent to the yard can be identified with basic functions performed by the Morlocks in their underworld, or with the underworld itself. “On one hand was the yard of Mr. Munday, the haberdasher, … who had put up a greenhouse and cultivated mushrooms … ; and on the other, Mr. Cooper, the tailor, had built out a workroom in which two or three tailors sat and sewed.”12 On one hand, the “greenhouse” nurtured plants that commonly grow in dark, dank caverns; on the other, one of the notable vestigial “duties” remaining to the Morlocks lay in their capacity as clothiers for the Eloi.

But most important, the major occupation of the subsurface dwellers also loomed in the background of Atlas House. Beyond the boundary wall at the end of the yard spread “the much larger yard and sheds of Mr. Covell the butcher, in which pigs, sheep and horned cattle were harboured violently, and protested plaintively through the night before they were slaughtered.”13 This presence surely made an indelible impression on Wells, for it crops up again as the metaphoric essence of a subsequent major work, The Island of Dr. Moreau.

The concept of a hidden lower world exercised an even greater fascination for Wells, one that continued throughout his life. First Men in the Moon, though possibly somewhat derivative of Kepler's Somnium, clearly contains another surface elysium shielding a vast industrial substratum. The idea emerges, for perhaps its last public appearance, in a metaphor from the Autobiography that summarizes his early psychosexuality: “So at the age of seven …, I had already between me and my bleak protestant God, a wide wide world of snowy mountains, Arctic regions, tropical forests, prairies and deserts and high seas, … about which I was prepared to talk freely, and cool and strange below it all a cavernous world of nameless goddess mistresses of which I never breathed a word to any human being.”14

A unique bibliographic discovery made by Wells in his early life probably accentuated his receptivity to the concept of a hidden world below; it also lends some credibility to the notion that the infernal aspects of the Morlock habitat indicate the real creative roots of this environmental motif. (Bergonzi does not make this claim outright, but he might easily believe as much, if one may judge from his emphasis of these aspects.) In the words of Wells:

There was a picture in an old illustrated book of devotions, Sturm's Reflections, obliterated with stamp paper, and so provoking investigation. What had mother been hiding from me? By holding up the page to the light I discovered the censored illustration represented hell-fire; devil, pitchfork and damned, all complete and drawn with great gusto. But she had anticipated the general trend of Protestant theology at the present time and hidden hell away.15

Hell, of course, embodies the idea of an underworld without recourse to stamp-covered illustrations; nevertheless, the obscured drawing in Sturm was a physical metaphor of all such underworlds, and young Wells may have perceived it as such, if only unconsciously. Yet, among Wells's earliest experiences, all reading and even religious training must rank second to his awareness of Atlas House, for it preceded them all.

The quasi-subterranean kitchen of his birthplace pervaded his psyche to such a degree that he recreated it, under fictional circumstances fraught with gross improbability, in one of the most perilous scenes in The War of the Worlds. In the second chapter of Book Two, “The Earth Under the Martians,” the narrator is trapped in an abandoned house that barely escapes total destruction when a Martian cylinder lands nearby:

The fifth cylinder must have fallen right into the midst of the house we had first visited. The building had vanished, completely smashed, pulverised, and dispersed by the blow. … The earth all round it had splashed under that tremendous impact … and lay in heaped piles that hid the masses of the adjacent houses. … Our house had collapsed backward; the front portion, even on the ground floor, had been destroyed completely; by a chance the kitchen and scullery had escaped, and stood buried now under soil and ruins, closed in by tons of earth on every side save towards the cylinder. Over that aspect we hung now on the very edge of the great circular pit …16

The house is largely decimated, while the kitchen and scullery survive, though engulfed by earth on three sides. This result occurs despite the fact that the house collapses backward. Presumably, the kitchen is to the rear; how does the rear survive when the front is utterly demolished? It does so, of course, because the author contrived it so, by fiat. The event is not impossible, perhaps, but to me it seems most unlikely—compounding the coincidence of the landing itself. The precise physical situation must have held a fair amount of intrinsic significance for Wells; surely he could have trapped the narrator beside the impact crater in a manner less idiosyncratic or incredible?

If anyone might doubt that an edifice like Atlas House could adequately serve as model for an extensive subterranean world, he should consider the psychological effect of entering such a building on the first floor and then discovering another ground level below. Even from an adult observer, the first encounter with this situation may elicit a sense of suddenly penetrating a dimension of existence normally veiled beneath the mundane, surface world.

From infancy, of course, Wells became increasingly familiar with this bi-level arrangement; it could hardly have seemed very strange to him for all his youth, much less the rest of his life. Nevertheless, this condition does not preclude the possibility that the structure of Atlas House retained a powerful grip on his imagination; it merely indicates that such an influence probably developed in a fairly gradual manner. Still, at some early point in his life, there had to be a first time for Wells to experience and perceive the “odd” nature of Atlas House. Whether the metaphoric significance occurred to him immediately, or rather seeped slowly into his mental storehouse without conscious realization, cannot be determined by the literary tools and data currently available; indeed, that question may remain forever moot. Even so, the circumstantial evidence for a connection between early environs and fictional setting cannot be summarily dismissed—especially in view of the complementary origin of the Morlock race.

What of these Morlocks, then? What are their prototypes, if not—at least, not entirely—the imps of Satan that once infested Anglican dogma? What is the principal inspiration for this savage race, if not a similarly savage revulsion for the brutish workers of the world? The actual source again involves childhood fantasizing about Atlas House, this time spurred by a natural-science book Wells read at age seven: “There was Wood's Natural History, also copiously illustrated and full of exciting and terrifying facts. I conceived a profound fear of the gorilla, of which there was a fearsome picture, which came out of the book at times after dark [the gorilla, of course; not the picture] and followed me noiselessly about the house. The half landing was a favourite lurking place for this terror. I passed it whistling, but wary and then ran for my life up the next flight.”17 The Morlocks share all the insidious, nocturnal habits of the imaginary ape: like him, they emerge at night to ambush the dawdler from shadowed hideaways; they clamber up from lower levels to chase and terrorize small and youthful innocents.

That the Morlock race is a literary amalgam of apes and several other creatures has never been a great secret; the story itself indicates as much, and Bergonzi duly notes this. Nevertheless, his own investigation of the early H. G. Wells never leads him to suspect (or betray that he does) the true bedrock origins of Wells's creations. The real psychological significance of the Morlocks lies not in any apprehensive loathing for the proletariat, but rather in a profound early fear of wild animals in general and specifically of the gorilla, conceived as a personal household nemesis. In conjunction with the metaphoric aura of the house, this fear-fantasy provided the essential basis for the vision of the future contained in The Time Machine. All else, even the ostensible, socio-scientific explanation in the story, are mere after-the-fact rationales overlaid on the germinal idea.

As mentioned above, Wells's first knowledge of wild animals soon crystallized into a fear of monumental proportions: “… I was glad to think that between the continental land masses of the world, which would have afforded an unbroken land passage for wolves from Russia and tigers from India, and this safe island … stretched the impassable moat of the English Channel.”18 Even much later, at age thirteen, he was still prone to bestial nemeses of the night, as in the following description of the terrors attending the weekend journey to his Uncle Tom's riverside inn, Surly Hall: “My imagination peopled the dark fields on either hand with crouching and pursuing foes. Chunks of badly trimmed hedge took on formidable shapes. Sometimes I took to my heels and ran. For a week or so that road was haunted by a rumour of an escaped panther … That phantom panther waited for me patiently; it followed me like a noiseless dog, biding its time. And one night on the other side of the hedge a sleeping horse sighed deeply, a gigantic sigh, and almost frightened me out of my wits.”19 The hobgoblin activities recorded here bear an acute resemblance to those executed by the malevolent ape of Atlas House; Wells evidently retained the primary image long after its inception.

A relevant sidelight on Morlock origins—the Wood volume also triggered in Wells inklings of the rigorous Darwinian principles he later acquired in formal sessions with T. H. Huxley: “Turning over the pages of the Natural History, I perceived a curious relationship between cats and tigers and lions and so forth, and to a lesser degree between them and hyenas and dogs and bears, and between them again and other quadrupeds, and curious premonitions of evolution crept into my thoughts.”20 This revelation reinforces the impression that this book was an important wellspring for the speculative constructs employed in The Time Machine.

In like manner the dominant apparition of The War of the Worlds can be traced to Wells's first direct encounter with the wider Universe. In his fourteenth year, while delving into an attic storeroom in Up Park (his second home), he uncovered the following treasure:

… There was a box, at first quite mysterious, full of brass objects that clearly might be screwed together. I screwed them together, by the method of trial and error, and presently found a Gregorian telescope on a trip in my hands. I carried off the wonder to my bedroom. … I was discovered by my mother in the small hours, my bedroom window wide open, inspecting the craters of the moon. She had heard me open the window. She said I should catch my death of cold. But at the time that seemed a minor consideration.21

Here is the inanimate progenitor of the Martian war machine—both are tripodal devices assembled from cylinders. The parts of the telescope screw together, whereas the cylinders from Mars unscrew to open. Both the telescope and the war machine involve optical systems—the first for concentrating distant radiation, the other for projecting concentrated radiation over considerable distance (the narrator repeatedly calls the heat-ray mechanism a “camera” or “projector”).

The war machines are variously described, but most often as metallic and “glittering.”22 Nothing glitters like gold, of course—except, perhaps, the highly polished tube of a brass telescope; the cowled head of one of these monster machines is termed a “brazen hood”23 soon after their initial appearance in the story.

The notion of three-legged fighting machines could have sprung from contemplation of any tripod-mounted apparatus—for instance a portrait camera, which possesses the same general attributes that qualify the telescope as a prototype. Even a ringstand or a milking stool could be prime suspects; one of the marching engines of holocaust is actually likened to a milking stool, in a passage describing its exotic mode of locomotion.24 A telescope, of course, figures prominently in the first chapter; yet, somewhat later, British defenders introduce a much more suggestive instrument—the heliograph. But Wells never built a heliograph, nor did he handle a camera in his early years; tripod ringstands remained outside his direct experience until he entered the Normal School of Science in 1884, and his childhood acquaintance with milking stools was surely no better than second hand. Furthermore, the telescope—and only the telescope—engaged his mind and spirit with the remarkable vistas and wonders of Space. No other similar artifact affected his outlook to the extent, and in the direction, that this one did. Such examples as these illustrate how Wells's imagination transformed the objects of commonplace experience into the fundamental imagery of his fictions.


  1. Bernard Bergonzi, The Early H. G. Wells (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1961).

  2. Bergonzi, p. 53.

  3. Bergonzi, p. 56.

  4. H. G. Wells, Experiment in Autobiography (New York: Macmillan, 1934), p. 22.

  5. Ibid., p. 23.

  6. Ibid., p. 23.

  7. Ibid., pp. 23 and 22, respectively.

  8. Ibid., p. 23.

  9. Ibid., p. 22. Elsewhere in the Autobiography (p. 48), Wells recaptures a vivid impression of the working ambience of “washing day, when the copper in the scullery was lit and all the nether regions were filled with white steam and the smell of soapsuds.”

  10. Wells, p. 22.

  11. Ibid., p. 23.

  12. Ibid., p. 23.

  13. Ibid., p. 22.

  14. Ibid., p. 58.

  15. Ibid., p. 29.

  16. Seven Science Fiction Novels of H. G. Wells (New York: Dover), p. 406; Seven Famous Novels by H. G. Wells (Garden City: Garden City Publishing Co., 1934), p. 347; TWOTW (New York: Popular Library, 1962), p. 128.

  17. Wells, Autobiography, p. 54. From the context, the half-landing in question is not clear (there were several, as the house possessed three stories above ground); however, inasmuch as meals were always eaten in the cellar kitchen, this anecdote probably refers to the landing between cellar and parlor, which would be passed on the way to bed after evening meal.

  18. Ibid., p. 95.

  19. Ibid., pp. 54-55.

  20. Ibid., p. 106.

  21. Wells, The War of the Worlds, Ch. 10.

  22. Ibid., Ch. 10.

  23. Ibid., Ch. 10, para. 12.

  24. Ibid., Ch. 12, para. 8; Ch. 13, para. 2; Ch. 13, para. 44; passim.

Further Reading

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Beaulieu, François O. “The Copy Texts of American Revised Editions of The Time Machine.The Wellsian 22 (1999): 54-67.

Traces the variations of the copy texts of the American revised editions of The Time Machine.

Berger, Roger A. “‘Ask What You Can Do for Your Country’: The Film Version of H. G. Wells's The Time Machine and The Cold War.” Literature Film Quarterly 17, no. 3 (1989): 177-87.

Contrasts the political themes of the book and cinematic versions of The Time Machine.

Bignell, Jonathan. “Another Time, Another Space: Modernity, Subjectivity, and The Time Machine.The Wellsian 22 (1999): 34-47.

Reviews the cinematic adaptation of The Time Machine.

Derry, Stephen. “The Time Traveller's Utopian Books and His Reading of the Future.” Foundation, no. 65 (1995): 16-24.

Considers the impact of utopian literature on The Time Machine.

Mackerness, E. D. “Zola, Wells, and ‘The Coming Beast’.” Science Fiction Studies 8, no. 2 (July 1981): 143-48.

Finds parallels between The Time Machine and the work of Emile Zola.

Person, James E., Jr. “A Timeless Science Fantasy Turns 100.” The Detroit News (4 October 1995): 19A.

Reflects on Wells's life and work on the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Time Machine.

Suvin, Darko. “The Time Machine versus Utopia as a Structural Model for Science Fiction.” Comparative Literature Studies 10 (1973): 334-52.

Contends that The Time Machine and Thomas More's Utopia are “among the basic historical models for the structuring of subsequent science fiction.”

Wasson, Richard. “Myth and the Ex-Nomination of Class in The Time Machine.The Minnesota Review 15 (1980): 112-22.

Maintains that The Time Machine “is a transitional work illustrating the displacement of the rhetoric of class in fiction.”

Additional coverage of Wells's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 18; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; British Writers, Vol. 6; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 64; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1914-1945; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 110, 121; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 34, 70, 156, 178; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vol 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Science Fiction Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 3; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 6; Something about the Author, Vol. 20; Supernatural Fiction Writers; Twayne's English Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 6, 12, 19; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; World Literature Criticism; and Writers for Children.

William G. Niederland (essay date spring-summer 1976)

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SOURCE: Niederland, William G. “The Birth of H. G. Wells's Time Machine.American Imago 35, nos. 1-2 (spring-summer 1978): 106-12.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a speech in 1976, Niederland considers the influence of Wells's childhood and personal experiences on The Time Machine.]

One of the most influential writers in English of the early twentieth century, H. G. Wells's prodigious output—more than 150 books, as well as countless articles, reviews, and short stories—has remained psychologically unexplored. Many of Wells's works repeat certain themes of his own life and development and often project his personal experiences and tribulations onto mankind and its prognosticated future. The study of these themes in one of his most famous novels has led me to certain inferential conclusions.

Born in 1866, the year following the end of the American Civil War, he grew up at the height of the Victorian era, and lived through two world wars and the beginning of the atomic age. He died in 1946, one year after the bombing of Hiroshima.

His artistic career, which started in late adolescence, began with the writing of The Time Machine, a literary masterpiece that propelled him—a one-time apprentice in a cramped drapery store, and the son of poor parents, members of the British servant class—to world fame. The Time Machine was a most unusual tale, a pioneering venture into the realm of what is now termed science fiction.

In this brief communication, I shall attempt to present an outline of the main themes, influences, and fantasies which went into the creation of The Time Machine.

The machine is an ingenious device which enables its inventor, “the Time Traveler,” to leave the present and travel in a few moments into the future. During the course of the trip, he witnesses the rise and fall of civilizations through various ages of human development. The Time Traveler and his machine finally come to rest in the year 802,701 A.D., when he encounters the humans of that period and finds them divided into two groups, the “Elois” and the “Morlocks.”

Before going into this neatly split stage of humanity in the year 802,701, I wish to acquaint you with the Time Traveler's discussion, prior to his departure, with a number of invited guests, among them a medical man and a psychologist. This discussion forms the introduction to the story: “Clearly,” the Time Traveler explains, “any real body must have extension in four directions; it must have length, breadth, thickness, and duration. But through a natural infirmity of the flesh … we are inclined to overlook this. … There are really four dimensions, three which we call planes of space, and the fourth, time” (italics added). Shortly thereafter, the Time Traveler takes off on his journey into the future.

A closer look at Wells's physical and mental condition at the time he began work on The Time Machine is required in order to understand his emphasis on “body” and “infirmity of the flesh,” and the dimension of time. The first draft of The Time Machine goes back to 1886-87. Then titled “The Chronic Argonauts,” it gives the Time Traveler's name as “Nebo-gipfel,” i. e., the man on the top of Mount Nebo. After numerous revisions prior to its publication in 1895, the final version omits the name and the Time Traveler becomes nameless. Yet his original, first-draft name is not without significance. Mount Nebo is part of the mountain range overlooking the land of Moab, northeast of the Dead Sea. It was from this summit that Moses, unable to enter the Promised Land, was allowed to see it before his death. The pertinent text in the Bible, a book which Wells's mother, a strictly religious and puritanical woman, was fond of quoting regularly, reads in part: “And Moses went up to Mount Nebo … and the Lord showed him all the land … there, in the land of Moab, Moses, the servant of the Lord, died …”, in full view of the Promised Land.

The Bible was the most important treasure in the early Wells's household. In 1939, Wells wrote a personal letter of congratulation to Freud on the appearance of Moses and Monotheism, which he described as “so fascinating that I did not get to bed until one” in the morning. In his note to Freud, he added pertinent comments on Moses which reveal his thorough knowledge of the biblical text (Jones, Life of Freud, Vol. III).

A few months before he began work on The Time Machine, Wells fell ill with pulmonary tuberculosis—frequently a fatal disease in those days—from which he suffered for approximately ten years. In his autobiography (1934), he writes about the early stages of the illness, during which he composed (or should I say, invented?) the essential parts of The Time Machine:

Apart from general fear of disease, disappointment and frustration which weighed so heavily upon my imagination during my consumptive phase, there were unpleasant minor fears and anxieties which I still recall acutely. Every time I coughed and particularly if I had a bout of coughing, there was the dread of tasting the peculiar tang of blood. And I remember as though it happened only last night, the little tickle and trickle of blood in the lungs that precede a real hemorrhage. Don't cough too soon? Don't cough too much? There was always the question how big the flow was to be, how long would it go on, and what was to be the end of it this time … dreading even to breathe. …

(Italics added)

I leave open the question whether a patient suffering from tuberculosis can actually perceive the “tickle and trickle of blood” in a pulmonary cavity, as Wells records. Perhaps we have here the familiar oversensitivity to internal stimuli which Greenacre (1957)1 mentions as an important component of a creative individual's heightened perceptivity.

Wells's medical history preceding the outbreak of tuberculosis includes a ruptured kidney, likewise accompanied by massive hemorrhage, and a fractured leg at age seven, i. e., bodily injuries which had immobilized him for varying periods of time. Throughout childhood, puberty, and postpuberty, he had suffered from serious undernourishment, frequent periods of starvation, and lack of maternal care. He remained an underfed, undersized, sickly looking individual until his thirties, later becoming a somewhat plump, short man of “commonplace appearance.” He was a “replacement child,” to use Pollock's apt wording. Two years before his birth, a sister, Fanny, had died of acute appendicitis. This sister had been mother's favorite, “a very bright, precocious, and fragile little girl … that had delighted mother's heart,” according to Wells's description.

After the death of her only daughter Fanny, the mother had been in a state of serious depression not alleviated by the birth of H. G., the youngest, now, of three brothers. She remained pious, somber, and depressed throughout the rest of her life. Hence, apparently, the inadequate mothering that Wells experienced as a child (his early years were almost completely solitary [Dickson, 1969]2); and this may have led to his later difficulties with women (broken marriages, unsatisfactory sexual experiences, etc.).

As for leg fracture at age seven, he consciously, if somewhat facetiously, later attributed his literary career to “two broken legs” which, in his words, altered the course of his life: the first, his own, introduced him to the delights of reading and studying, and the second, his father's, who became permanently lame after a leg fracture, when H. G. was eleven, caused the bankruptcy of the unsuccessful paternal crockery business. The father's partial crippling and debasement, his role as a mutilated (castrated) father figure, can be followed through many pages of Wells's autobiography and other works, including the final paragraph of The Time Machine, where the medical man is declared dead, the psychologist is paralyzed, and the remaining dramatis personae, originally present in the Time Traveler's home, “have as completely dropped out of existence as if they, too, had travelled off. …”

To return to the Time Traveler's experiences during his journey into the future, he encounters a strange type of mankind: the Elois and the Morlocks. The former are gentle, infantile, indescribably happy yet frail people who know nothing about art, literature, or work; they are four feet high, graceful and apparently sexless, that is, infants who live a playful existence during the day, though preyed upon by the beastly Morlocks as soon as daylight vanishes. The latter emerge from subterranean wells at night, chase after the sleeping Elois, and feed on them. The world is peopled by cannibalistic devourers, the Morlocks, and those who are devoured, the Elois. In other words, the Time Traveler finds in the year 802,701 A.D. a world of pregenital regression to oral and oral-sadistic levels. Apart from fossils of bygone civilizations, nothing else exists. “In thousands of generations,” Wells writes, man has undergone a process of “human decay” and has regressed to “the childish simplicity of the little people” who are “mere fatted cattle” for cannibalistic, inhuman brutes.

There is a touching interlude in the story when the Time Traveler rescues a helpless young Eloi woman from drowning, and the rescued girl, Weena, clings to him in gratitude, as if she wished to offer herself to him in womanly love and affection. But this also ends soon, when they are surrounded by murderous Morlocks in a dark forest. She succumbs helplessly to the onslaught of the brutal creatures during a night filled with tenderness on the one hand, and relentless attack by the voracious Morlocks on the other. It is a nocturnal scene of utter distress, desolation, and fear. The girl Weena and the Elois in general appear to be modeled on the description of Wells's mother forever lamenting the loss of his fragile little sister Fanny.

As I have shown in previous papers concerning the effect of physical conditions (and their mental representations) on the creative process (1965, 1967, 1973)3, the regression in the service of the ego (Kris, 1952)4 should be extended—in my opinion—to the problem of ego survival. Under the spur of dreaded dissolution, the ego's ability to achieve what had previously been impossible appears to acquire a creative momentum of great intensity in gifted individuals. After a massive pulmonary hemorrhage, Wells wrote: “I must say this for chest diseases … they clear the mind like strong tea”; and again: “I have been dying for nearly two-thirds of a year … and I have died enough. I stopped dying then and there … my real writing began” (italics mine). In a letter of a much later date, Wells spoke of his creativeness as “a race against death,” alluding to the antinomy between creativity and death, viewing the former as an effort to “stave off” the latter.

More specifically, for Wells, tuberculosis—a matter of life and death in his day—involved the issue of time, as the Time Traveler so clearly expounded at the beginning of the tale. What had seemed an imminent threat of death became for Wells the start of a new life (rebirth). Thus, with respect to the creation of The Time Machine, the following restitutional steps can be discerned:

  1. A forward leap in time, which denies the present and carries the author into a fantasied futuristic world, away from illness and the threat of death.
  2. What purports to be a flight into future is, in reality, an unconscious regression to the fantasied perfect state prior to the multiple disabilities of the past and present (tuberculosis, ruptured kidney, early leg fracture, etc.).
  3. The regression leads to narcissistic and oral levels as personified on the one hand by the narcissistically tinged lives of the Elois and the oral-sadistic, overtly cannibalistic Morlocks; it is they who raise the Elois like sheep, feed them, clothe them, and each night take some away and devour them. The dangers of the night had for the tubercular Wells a special meaning, as can be found in other writings by him, for instance: “Night, the mother of fear and mystery, was coming upon me … suddenly the night became terrible. I found myself sitting up in bed, staring at the dark. …”
  4. As a consequence, the defensive-regressive mechanisms—once set in motion by the time voyager—take their full course to reach the protective and life-giving, i. e., birth-giving, mother. Fusing and identifying with her, the author is himself able to give birth to a new creation. At the same time the infantile omnipotence, best illustrated by the Time Traveler's capacity to travel forward and backward as and when he wishes, is regained in full in an attempt to master the misery and dread of the present through the control of time and duration.

An analytic inquiry into the symbolic meaning of the Time Traveler's landing time supports the foregoing interpretations. The then desperately ill Wells chose as his landing time the year:

802701 A.D.

Thus he expanded the time and created a feeling of infinite time in the following way—unconsciously, I tentatively suggest:

The first part of the year chosen by the author symbolizes the feeding mother in actu, as it were: the double 0 in the number 8, the central 0 and the 2—all breasts, i. e., mother; and the second part of the figure is likewise characterized, in addition to the phallic numbers 7 and 1 (father), by the maternal 0 in the center. In a letter written much later to a woman then very close to him, Rebecca West, Wells said that much of his life and work was “a race against death,” a statement which in my opinion confirms the foregoing points. But the Time Traveler, in his ingenious vehicle (mother), had all the time in the world, of course, like an infant at mother's breast—in timeless fusion with the early mother.

Thus, Wells wove the story of his disease and early struggle with death into the haunting chapters of the novel which, incidentally, contains several direct references to tuberculosis and illness. The first parts of the book were composed by him at the onset, the later parts and revisions at the end of his disease. Thus the birth of H. G. Wells's first—and, many believe, his most enduring—masterpiece, The Time Machine.


  1. Greenacre, P. (1957): The Childhood of the Artist. Psa. Study of the Child, XII, 9-36.

  2. Dickson, L. (1969): H. G. Wells—His Turbulent Life and Times. New York, Atheneum, 1969.

  3. Niederland, W. G. (1965): Narcissistic Ego Impairment in Patients with Early Physical Malformations. Psa. Study of the Child, XX, 518-533.

    ———. (1967): Clinical Aspects of Creativity. American Imago, XXIV, 6-34.

    ———. (1973): Psychoanalytic Concepts of Creativity and Aging. J. Geriatric Psychiatry, VI, 160-168.

  4. Kris, E. (1952): Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art. New York, Internat. Univ. Press, 1952.

Alex Eisenstein (essay date July 1976)

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SOURCE: Eisenstein, Alex. “The Time Machine and the End of Man.” Science Fiction Studies 3, no. 2 (July 1976): 161-65.

[In the following essay, Eisenstein investigates the cycle of evolution as illustrated in The Time Machine.]

As many critics have observed, H. G. Wells was preoccupied very early with speculations on evolution, in particular the evolution of Man and the prospects of intelligent life, whatever its origins. The Time Machine (1895), The War of the Worlds (1898), and The First Men in the Moon (1901) are the best known examples of his interest in such matters, but certain of his shorter works also reflect this concern. Frequently, Wells would recapitulate and refine his major ideas, mining old essays for new story material or refashioning the elements of one tale in the context of another; various scholars have explored the interpenetration of these works in some detail.

In “The Man of the Year Million” (essay, 1893)1 and The War of the Worlds, Wells outlined one model for the ultimate evolution of humankind. In both works, the culmination of higher intelligence is a globular entity, brought about by the influence of steadily advancing technology. In each case, it mainly consists of a great, bald head, supported on large hands or equivalent appendages, with thorax vestigial or entirely absent. The Martian is a direct analogue of the Man of the Year Million, as Wells himself indicated by citing his own essay in the body of the novel (§2:2).2 The Selenite master-race of First Men is a kindred expression of this vision of enlarged intellect—especially the Grand Lunar, with its enormous cranium, diminutive face, and shriveled body. Of more special relevance to the Martians are the malignant cephalopods of “The Sea Raiders” (1896) and “The Extinction of Man” (essay, 1894), and as well the predatory specimen in “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” (1894).

At least one scholar has referred to “The Man of the Year Million” as “another version” of The Time Machine, apparently because the domeheads take refuge underground from the increasing rigors of a cooling surface.3 This connection is rather tenuous, at best; by such criteria, First Men also might be deemed a variant of The Time Machine. In fact, the Further Vision of the latter constitutes a curious inversion of the above essay, but scholars and critics have failed to perceive this relation. Their failure depends on a more primary error, which is this—the notion that Man is extinct at the climax of the novel.

That the progeny of Man is not absent from the final moments of the Further Vision should be evident from a passage that appeared (until recently) only in the serial version. This deleted episode is a philosophic bridge, a key to what happens at world's end. It introduces the successors of Eloi and Morlock: a hopping, kangaroo-like semblance of humanity and a monstrous, shambling centipede. According to Robert Philmus, “these two species must have descended in the course of time from the Eloi and the Morlocks; and again the ‘grey animal, or grey man, whichever it was' is the victim of the carnivorous giant insects.”4

Philmus accentuates the elements of degeneration and regression in Wells's Darwinian conjectures; thus he asserts that The Time Machine embodies a vision of the hominid line “irrevocably on the downward path of devolution.”5 The general validity of this viewpoint cannot be disputed; nevertheless, the extreme construction he places upon it leads him considerably astray. Though Wells used terms like “retrogression,” “degradation,” and “degeneration” in his essays, they were for him relative terms only. He would hardly have portrayed Man as reverting literally into so primitive a creature; such “devolution,” I submit, is not in the Wellsian mode.

Philmus may have been encouraged in this faulty genealogy by the Traveller's observations of the Elysian world of the Eloi, which seems devoid of animal life, excepting a few sparrows and butterflies (§4b/288; §5a/292).6 Of course, this stricture need not apply to the murky lower world, which could easily harbor all sorts of vermin. If butterflies prosper above, in a world of flowers, then centipedes should thrive below, in a realm of meaty table scraps and other waste. And at journey's end, “a thing like a huge white butterfly” makes a brief display, as a demonstration of what has survived the English sparrow (§11/328).

The Morlocks of Millennium #803, moreover, are not a race destined for perpetual dominance. This much is made clear by numerous facets of their existence—their lack of light, the disrepair of much of their machinery, their crude and inefficient method of harvesting Eloi. Although the Time Traveller refers to the Eloi as “cattle” and supposes that they may even be bred by the Morlocks (§7/311), the rest of the book does not show the latter practicing much in the way of husbandry. Indeed the absence of other land animals in the lush upper world may well be the result of earlier predations by the Morlocks. So the best assumption is that the relationship between the two races is unstable—that the Morlocks are depleting their latest dietary resource, which must eventually go the way of its predecessors.

The kangaroo-beast, therefore, can only be a tribe descended from the Morlocks, now scavenging the surface in the long twilight. The irony of the new situation is evident, and quite typical of the many ironic aspects of the novel: the hound is now the hare, the erstwhile predator has become the current prey.

The ancestry of this pathetic creature is confirmed by its morphology. Consider the appearance of the Morlock: “a queer little ape-like figure,” “dull white,” with “flaxen hair on its head and down its back” (§5b/299), and a “chinless” face, with “great, lidless, pinkish-grey eyes” (§6/306). Compare that with the Traveller's description of the later species: “It was … covered with a straight greyish hair that thickened about the head into a Skye terrier's mane. … It had, moreover, a rounded head, with a projecting forehead and forward-looking eyes, obscured by its lank hair” (325). The ape-like brow-ridge is a tell-tale vestige of the Morlocks, as well as the lank hair that now shields the creature's eyes. The shaggy visage identifies the kangaroo-man as a once-nocturnal animal only recently emerged from darkness. Another indicative trait is its rabbit-like feet, which are compatible with the “queer narrow footprints” of the Morlocks (§5a/292).

From a close inspection the Traveller surmises the nature of the beast: “A disagreeable apprehension flashed across my mind. … I knelt down and seized my capture, intending to examine its teeth and other anatomical points which might show human characteristics …” (326). He might also be looking for the signs of yesterday's carnivore.

This Morlock offspring is no longer extant in the climactic scene of the Further Vision, but it is not the Last Man observed by the Traveller. He arrives in the era of the giant land-crabs, then passes on to the time of the great eclipse, where nothing seems to stir—at first:

I looked about me to see if any traces of animal life remained. … But I saw nothing moving, in earth or sky or sea. The green slime alone testified that life was not extinct. … I fancied I saw some black object flopping about … but it became motionless as I looked at it, and I judged that my eye had been deceived, and that the black object was merely a rock.

A neaby planet encroaches on the bloated sun; the eclipse progresses, becomes total, and then the shadow of heaven recedes:

I shivered, and a deadly nausea seized me. … I felt giddy and incapable of facing the return journey. As I stood sick and confused I saw again the moving thing upon the shoal. … It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps … and tentacles trailed down from it; it seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about. Then I felt I was fainting. But a terrible dread of lying helpless in that remote and awful twilight sustained me while I clambered into the saddle.


The kangaroo-men hop about on elongated feet; the men of the year million hop about on great soft hands; the thing on the shoal hops about on a trailing mass of tentacles. This similarity in modes of locomotion is hardly a literary accident. In contrast, the Sea-Raiders never hop, but creep along at a steady pace when traversing solid ground.

In general form the Last Creature resembles a large cephalopod. Is it a primitive survivor from the ocean deeps, like Haploteuthis in “The Sea-Raiders,” or is it a being like the Martians, the hypertrophic end-product of intelligent life? Most of the evidence points to the latter—a highly specialized and atrophied edition of genus Homo. Note particularly the size of the creature; it is about “the size of a football”—which is to say, about the size of a human head.

The Time Traveller contracts a “terrible dread of lying helpless” in the dying world soon after he becomes fully aware of the thing on the shoal. There seems to be a special revulsion attached to this monster, even though it can hardly pose a real threat to the Traveller. Before it commands his attention, he feels “incapable of facing the return journey”; afterward, the “dread of lying helpless” in its presence impels him to turn back forthwith. Consciously, the Traveller does not perceive the human ancestry of this apocalyptic organism, but apparently the unconscious realization of its true nature makes him flee the final wasteland. Not the oppressive conditions, nor the extinction of Man, nor even the approaching oblivion triggers his retreat; rather, he recoils from the knowledge, however submerged, of what Man has become.

And what has Man become? Certainly not the inflated intellect of a Martian, nor that of a Sea-Raider, despite the somatic affinities. In one important respect, the Last Man differs greatly from these other fantastic creations: it is a being without a face. Even Haploteuthis has a definite, mock-human visage—“a grotesque suggestion of a face.” To be sure, the super-minds in the Wellsian canon—the million-year domeheads, the Martians, the Grand Lunar—all suffer from facial attrition, yet certain features, especially the eyes, always remain. Not so with the fitful creature on the beach; the swollen surface of its body seems utterly blank, devoid of perceptual apparatus, and its aimless, reflexive actions indicate that it is virtually mindless. In the end, then, Man has become little more than a giant polyp.

All these transmuted beings emphasize two primary functions of life: ingestion and cerebration. The intelligent Sea-Raiders, for example, come to earth in seach of a better feed. Both the Martians and the domeheads have actually surrendered their alimentary canals to cortical advances, and the Martians, like the man-eating squids, also come to Earth for new sustenance. The mindless tropism of the Strange Orchid impels it to siphon off human blood, whereas the Martians strive for the same end with a ruthless deliberation.

The ultimate survivor of The Time Machine is not a great brain; as with a polyp, therefore, all that is left is a great ravening stomach. (For this, too, its size is appropriate.) Here, in counterpoint to the Martian terror, is the Wellsian image of ultimate horror.

And so we confront a symbolic paradox: the same emblem represents both the zenith and the nadir of mentality; the opposition of head and stomach, of mind and body, is fused in this one corporeal form. In Wells's iconography, it stands for the ultimate degeneration, whether of body or mind. He disapproved less, we may suppose, of the absolute intellect, reserving his greatest dread for the other, the mindless all-devouring. Yet there can be little doubt that, despite sardonic ambiguities, as in “The Man of the Year Million” and The First Men in the Moon, he truly preferred neither; his best wish was that Man should master himself without ever losing the essence of humanity. To this end Wells devoted most of his long and active life, even unto Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945), where a faint hope still lingers that some ultra-human entity will arise to survive the impending decline of Homo sapiens. This was Wells's last desperate hope, and a very feeble one it was; nevertheless, near the end of his life, amid sickness and depression, that glimmer remained. As the nameless narrator of The Time Machine insists, when faced with the inevitable disintegration of Man: “If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so” (Epilogue/335).


  1. First published in The Pall Mall Gazette, Nov 9, 1893, this essay, with title changed to “Of a Book Unwritten,” appears in Certain Personal Matters (UK 1897), as does the other essay mentioned in this paragraph, “The Extinction of Man.”

  2. Another avatar appears in “The Plattner Story,” against a setting remarkably suggestive of the Further Vision. Plattner, who is blown through a fourth spatial dimension, finds himself on a barren landscape of dark red shadows, backed by a green sky-glow. He watches the rise of a giant green sun, which reveals a deep cleft nearby. A multitude of bulbous creatures float upward, like so many bubbles, from this chasm. These are the “Watchers of the Living,” literally the souls of the dead: “they were indeed limbless; and they had the appearance of human heads beneath which a tadpole-like body swung” (para. 26). Significantly, Wells had referred to his Men of the Year Million as “human tadpoles.”

    In many respects, this realm of the afterlife is a striking reversal of The Time Machine's terminal wasteland, yet quite recognizably akin to it.

  3. Gordon S. Haight, “H. G. Wells's ‘The Man of the Year Million’,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 12 (1958): 323-26.

  4. Robert M. Philmus, Into the Unknown (US 1970), pp 70-71.

  5. Ibid., p. 75.

  6. §7/311 = Chapter 7 in the standard form of the text (i.e., as published in the Atlantic Edition, the Complete Short Stories, and almost all editions since 1924), or Page 311 of Three Prophetic Novels of H. G. Wells (Dover Publications, 1960). The chapterings of the standard and Dover forms (with “a” and “b” added for convenience) collate as follows: 1a = 1; 1b = 2; 2 = 3; 3 = 4; 4a = 5; 4b = 6; 5a = 7; 5b = 8; 6 = 9; 7 = 10; 8 = 11; 9 = 12; 10 = 13; 11 = 14; 12a = 15; 12b = 16; Epilogue = Epilogue. The deleted passage, pages 325-27 of the Dover text, would appear between the first and second paragraphs of Chapter 11 in the standard text.

Patrick Parrinder (essay date November 1976)

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SOURCE: Parrinder, Patrick. “News from Nowhere, The Time Machine and the Break-Up of Classical Realism.” Science Fiction Studies 3, no. 3 (November 1976): 265-74.

[In the following essay, Parrinder views William Morris's News from Nowhere and Wells's The Time Machine as “symptoms of cultural upheaval,” particularly the end of classical realism at the end of the nineteenth century.]

Critics of SF are understandably concerned with the integrity of the genre they study. Yet it is a commonplace that major works are often the fruit of an interaction of literary genres, brought about by particular historical pressures. Novels such as Don Quixote, Madame Bovary and Ulysses may be read as symptoms of cultural upheaval, parodying and rejecting whole classes of earlier fiction. My purpose is to suggest how this principle might be applied in the field of utopia and SF. While Morris's News from Nowhere and Wells's The Time Machine have many generic antecedents, their historical specificity will be revealed as that of conflicting and yet related responses to the break-up of classical realism at the end of the nineteenth century.1

Patrick Brantlinger describes News from Nowhere in a recent essay2 as “a conscious anti-novel, hostile to virtually every aspect of the great tradition of Victorian fiction.” In a muted sense, such a comment might seem self-evident; Morris's book is an acknowledged masterpiece of the “romance” genre which came to the fore as a conscious reaction against realistic fiction after about 1880. Yet News from Nowhere is radically unlike the work of Rider Haggard, R. L. Stevenson or their fellow-romancers in being a near-didactic expression of left-wing political beliefs. William Morris was a Communist, so that it is interesting to consider what might have been his reaction to Engels' letter to Margaret Harkness (1888), with its unfavorable contrast of the “point blank socialist novel” or “Tendenzroman” to the “realism” of Balzac:

That Balzac thus was compelled to go against his own class sympathies and political prejudices, that he saw the necessity of the downfall of his favourite nobles, and described them as people deserving no better fate; and that he saw the real men of the future where, for the time being, they alone were to be found—that I consider one of the greatest triumphs of Realism, and one of the grandest features in old Balzac.3

It is not clear from the wording (the letter was written in English) whether Engels saw Balzac's far-sightedness as a logical or an accidental product of the Realist movement which in his day extended to Flaubert, Zola, Turgenev, Tolstoy and George Eliot. Engels' disparagement of Zola in this letter has led many Marxists to endorse Balzac's technical achievement as a realist at the expense of his successors. Yet the passage might also be read as a tribute to Balzac's social understanding and political integrity, without reference to any of the formal doctrines of realism. What is certain is that the “triumph” Balzac secured for the Realist school was in part a personal, moral triumph, based on his ability to discard his prejudices and see the true facts. Engels's statement seems to draw on two senses of the term “realism,” both of which originated in the nineteenth century. Nor, I think, is this coincidence of literary and political valuations accidental. The fiction of Stendhal, Balzac and Flaubert in particular is characterized by the systematic unmasking of bourgeois and romantic attitudes. In their political dimension, these novelists inherit a tradition of analysis going back to Machiavelli, and which is most evident in Stendhal, who was not a professional writer but an ex-administrator and diplomat. Harry Levin defines the realism of these novelists as a critical, negational mode in which “the truth is approximated by means of a satirical technique, by unmasking cant or debunking certain misconceptions.”4 There are two processes suggested here: the writer's own rejection of cant and ideology, and his “satirical technique.” Both are common to many SF novels, including The Time Machine, although in terms of representational idiom these are the opposite of “realistic” works. News from Nowhere, on the other hand, is the utopian masterpiece of a writer who in his life went against his class sympathies and joined the “real men of the future,” as Balzac did by implication in his books. Morris has this in common with Engels (who distrusted him personally). Hostile critics have seen his socialist works as merely a transposition of the longings for beauty, chivalry and vanquished greatness which inform his early poetry. As literary criticism this seems to me shallow. Nor do Morris's political activities provide evidence of poetic escapism or refusal to face the facts. It was not by courtesy that he was eventually mourned as one of the stalwarts of the socialist movement.5

On the surface, News from Nowhere (1890) was a response to a utopia by a fellow-socialist—Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, published two years earlier. Morris reviewed it in The Commonweal, the weekly paper of the Socialist League, on 22 June 1889. He was appalled by the servility of Bellamy's vision of the corporate state, and felt that the book was politically dangerous. He also noticed the subjectivity of the utopian form, its element of self-revelation. Whatever Bellamy's intentions, his book was the expression of a typically Philistine, middle-class outlook. News from Nowhere was intended to provide a dynamic alternative to Bellamy's model of socialist aspiration; a dream or vision which was ideologically superior as well as creative, organic and emotionally fulfilling where Bellamy's was industrialized, mechanistic and stereotyped. Morris was strikingly successful in these aims. The conviction and resonance of his “utopian romance” speak, however, of deeper causes than the stimulus provided by Bellamy.

News from Nowhere is constructed around two basic images or topoi: the miraculous translation of the narrator into a better future (contrasted with the long historical struggle to build that future, as described in the chapter “How the Change Came”), and the journey up the Thames, which becomes a richly nostalgic passage towards an uncomplicated happiness—a happiness which proves to be a mirage, and which author and reader can only aspire to in the measure in which they take up the burden of the present. Only the first of these topoi is paralleled in Bellamy. The second points in a quite different direction. News from Nowhere is a dream taking place within a frame of mundane political life—the meeting at which “there were six persons present, and consequently six sections of the party were represented, four of which had strong but divergent Anarchist opinions” (§1). The dream is only potentially a symbol of reality, since there is no pseudo-scientific “necessity” that things will evolve in this way. The frame occasions a gentle didacticism (in dreams begin responsibilities), but also a degree of self-consciousness about the narrative art. “Guest,” the narrator, is both a third person (“our friend”) and Morris himself; the change from third- to first-person narration is made at the end of the opening chapter. Morris's subtitle, furthermore, refers to the story as a “Utopian Romance.” Many objections which have been made to the book reflect the reader's discomfiture when asked to seriously imagine a world in which enjoyment and leisure are not paid for in the coin of other people's oppression and suffering. It could be argued that Morris should not have attempted it—any more than Milton in Paradise Lost should have attempted the task of justifying the ways of God to men. Morris, however, held a view of the relation of art to politics which emphatically endorsed the project of imagining Nowhere.

One of his guises is that of a self-proclaimed escapist: “Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time, / Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?” News from Nowhere stands apart from these lines from The Earthly Paradise (1868-70), as well as from the majority of Morris's prose romances. Together with A Dream of John Ball (1888) it was addressed to a socialist audience and serialized in The Commonweal. News from Nowhere retains some of the coloration of John Ball's medieval setting, but, for a Victorian, radical medievalism could serve as an “estranging,” subversive technique. Two of the major diagnoses of industrial civilization, Carlyle's Past and Present and Ruskin's essay “The Nature of Gothic,” bear witness to the power of such medievalist imagination. Morris's own influential lectures on art derive from “The Nature of Gothic,” and are strenuous attempts to “set the crooked straight” even at the cost of violent revolution and the destruction of the hierarchical and predominantly “literary” art of the bourgeoisie.6 It is easy to find gaps between his theory of culture and his practice in literature and the decorative arts.7 Nonetheless, his attack on middle-class art finds important expression in News from Nowhere, which is an attempt to reawaken those aspirations in the working class which have been deadened and stultified under capitalism. Genuine art for Morris does more than merely reflect an impoverished life back to the reader: “It is the province of art to set the true ideal of a full and reasonable life before [the worker], a life to which the perception and creation of beauty, the enjoyment of real pleasure that is, shall be felt to be as necessary to man as his daily bread.”8News from Nowhere, however deficient in political science, is a moving and convincing picture of a community of individuals living full and reasonable lives. The “enjoyment of real pleasure”9 begins when the narrator wakes on a sunny summer morning, steps out of his Thames-side house and meets the boatman who, refusing payment, takes him for a leisurely trip on the river.

Morris's attack on the shoddiness of Victorian design and the separation of high art from popular art was pressed home in his lectures. In News from Nowhere he turns his attention to another product of the same ethos—the Victorian novel. Guest's girl-friend, Ellen, tells him that there is “something loathsome” about nineteenth-century novelists.

Some of them, indeed, do here and there show some feeling for those whom the history-books call “poor,” and of the misery of whose lives we have some inkling; but presently they give it up, and towards the end of the story we must be contented to see the hero and heroine living happily in an island of bliss on other people's troubles; and that after a long series of sham troubles (or mostly sham) of their own making, illustrated by dreary introspective nonsense about their feelings and aspirations, and all the rest of it; while the world must even then have gone on its way, and dug and sewed and baked and carpentered round about these useless—animals.


Morris introduced his poem The Earthly Paradise as the tale of an “isle of bliss” amid the “beating of the steely sea”; but the “hero and heroine” evoked by Ellen are also clearly from Dickens. (The “dreary introspective nonsense” might be George Eliot's.) Guest is seen by the Nowherians as an emissary from the land of Dickens (§19). Both Morris and Bellamy shared the general belief that future generations would understand the Victorian period through Dickens's works. In Looking Backward, Dr Leete is the spokesman for a more bourgeois posterity:

Judged by our standard, he [Dickens] overtops all the writers of his age, not because his literary genius was highest, but because his great heart beat for the poor, because he made the cause of the victims of society his own, and devoted his pen to exposing its cruelties and shams. No man of his time did so much as he to turn men's minds to the wrong and wretchedness of the old order of things, and open their eyes to the necessity of the great change that was coming, although he himself did not clearly foresee it.


Not only Morris would have found this “Philistine.” But Morris's Ellen and Bellamy's Dr Leete are on opposite sides in the ideological debate about Dickens's value, which continues to this day. One of the earliest critics to register Dickens's ambiguity was Ruskin, who denounced Bleak House as an expression of the corruption of industrial society, while praising Hard Times for its harshly truthful picture of the same society.10 Morris, too, was divided in his response. When asked to list the world's hundred best books, he came up with 54 names which included Dickens as the foremost contemporary novelist. The list was dominated by the “folk-bibles”—traditional epics, folktales and fairy tales—which he drew upon in his romances.11 Dickens's humour and fantasy appealed to the hearty, extrovert side of Morris stressed by his non-socialist friends and biographers.12 Yet he also reprinted the “Podsnap” chapter of Our Mutual Friend in The Commonweal,13 and inveighed against Podsnappery and the “counting-house on the top of a cinder-heap” in his essay “How I Became a Socialist.” It is the world of the counting-house on the cinder-heap—the world of Our Mutual Friend—whose negation Morris set out to present in News from Nowhere.

Not only do the words “our friend” identify Guest on the opening page, but one of the earliest characters Morris introduces is Henry Johnson, nicknamed Boffin or the “Golden Dustman” in honour of a Dickensian forebear. Mr. Boffin in Our Mutual Friend is a legacy-holder earnestly acquiring some culture at the hands of the unscrupulous Silas Wegg; Morris's Golden Dustman really is both a cultured man and a dustman, and is leading a “full and reasonable life.” He has a Dickensian eccentricity, quite frequent among the Nowherians and a token of the individuality their society fosters. This character, I would suggest, is strategically placed to insinuate the wider relation of Morris's “Utopian Romance” to nineteenth-century fiction.

The tone of News from Nowhere is set by Guest's initial outing on the Thames. Going to bed in mid-winter, he wakes to his boat-trip on an early morning in high summer. The water is clear, not muddy, and the bridge beneath which he rows is not of iron construction but a medieval creation resembling the Ponte Vechhio or the twelfth-century London Bridge. The boatman lacks the stigmata of the “working man” and looks amazed when Guest offers him money. This boat-trip is a negative counterpart to the opening chapter of Our Mutual Friend, in which Gaffer Hexam, a predatory Thames waterman, and his daughter Lizzie are disclosed rowing on the river at dusk on an autumn evening. Southwark and London Bridges, made of iron and stone respectively, tower above them. The water is slimy and oozy, the boat is caked with mud and the two people are looking for the floating corpses of suicides which provide a regular, indeed a nightly, source of livelihood. Dickens created no more horrifying image of city life. His scavengers inaugurate a tale of murderousness, conspiracy and bitter class-jealousy. Morris's utopian waterman, by contrast, guides his Guest through a classless world in which creativity and a calm Epicureanism flourish.

Two further Dickensian parallels centre upon the setting of the river. The Houses of Parliament in News from Nowhere have been turned into the Dung Market, a storage place for manure. Dickens scrupulously avoids the explicitly excremental, but in Hard Times he calls Parliament the “national cinder-heap,” and a reference to the sinister dust-heaps of Our Mutual Friend may also be detected both here and in “How I Became a Socialist.” It seems the Nowhereians have put the home of windbags and scavengers to its proper purpose. In the second half of News from Nowhere, Guest journeys up-river with a party of friends; this again, perhaps recalls the furtive and murderous journey of Bradley Headstone along the same route. Headstone tracks down Eugene Wrayburn, his rival for the love of Lizzie Hexam. Guest's love for Ellen, by contrast, flourishes among friends who are free from sexual jealousy. Yet jealousy has not disappeared altogether, for at Mapledurham the travellers hear of a quarrel in which a jilted lover attacked his rival with an axe (§24). Shortly afterwards, we meet the Obstinate Refusers, whose abstention from the haymaking is likened to that of Dickensian characters refusing to celebrate Christmas. Even in the high summer of Nowhere, the dark shadow of Dickens is occasionally present, preparing for the black cloud at the end of the book under which Guest returns to the nineteenth century.

News from Nowhere has a series of deliberate echoes of Dickens's work, and especially of Our Mutual Friend. Such echoes sharpen the reader's sense of a miraculous translation into the future. In chapters 17 and 18 the miracle is “explained” by Hammond's narrative of the political genesis of Nowhere—a narrative which recalls the historiographical aims of novelists such as Scott, Disraeli and George Eliot. These elements of future history and Dickensian pastiche show Morris subsuming and rejecting the tradition of Victorian fiction and historiography. The same process guides his depiction of the kinds of individual and social relationships which constitute the ideal of a “full and reasonable life.” Raymond Williams has defined the achievement of classical realism in terms of the balance it maintains between social and personal existence: “It offers a valuing of a whole way of life, a society that is larger than any of the individuals composing it, and at the same time valuing creations of human beings who, while belonging to and affected by and helping to define this way of life, are also, in their own terms, absolute ends in themselves. Neither element, neither the society nor the individual, is there as a priority.”14 SF and utopian fiction are notorious for their failure to maintain such a balance. But the achievement that Williams celebrates should be regarded, in my view, not as an artistic unity so much as a coalition of divergent interests. Coalitions are produced by the pressures of history; by the same pressures they fall apart. In mid-Victorian fiction, the individual life is repeatedly defined and valued in terms of its antithesis to the crowd, or mass society. The happiness of Dickens's Little Dorrit and Clennam is finally engulfed by the noise of the streets; characters like George Eliot's Lydgate and Gwendolen Harleth are proud individuals struggling to keep apart from the mass, while their creator sets out to record the “whisper in the roar of hurrying existence.”15 The looming threat of society in these novels is weighed against the possibility of spiritual growth. George Eliot portrays the mental struggles of characters who are, in the worldly sense, failures. She cannot portray them achieving social success commensurate with their gifts, so that even at her greatest her social range remains determinedly “provincial” and she can define her characters' limitations with the finality of an obituarist. She cannot show the source of change, only its effects and the way it is resisted. Dickens's despair at the irreducible face of society led him in his later works to fantasize it, portraying it as throttled by monstrous institutions and presided over by spirits and demons. His heroes and heroines are safe from the monstrous tentacles only in their “island of bliss.” One reason why Dickens's domestic scenes are so overloaded with sentimental significance is that here his thwarted utopian instincts were forced to seek outlet. The house as a miniature paradise offsets the hell of a society.

It should not be surprising that a novelist such as Dickens possessed elements of a fantastic and utopian vision.16 They are distorted and disjointed elements, whereas Morris in News from Nowhere takes similar elements and reunites them in a pure and uncomplex whole. Several of his individual characters display a Dickensian eccentricity, and they all have the instant capacity for mutual recognition and trust which Dickens's good characters show. Yet this mutual trust is all-embracing; it no longer defines who you are, since it extends to everybody, even the most casual acquaintances (Hammond, the social philosopher of Nowhere, explains that there are no longer any criminal classes, since crimes are not the work of fugitive outcasts but the “errors of friends” [§12]). Guest's sense of estrangement in Nowhere is most vivid in the early scenes where he is shown round London. Not only has the city become a garden suburb and the crowds thinned out, but the people he meets are instinctively friendly, responding immediately to a stranger's glance. They are the antithesis of Dickens's crowds of the “noisy and the eager and the arrogant and the forward and the vain,” which “fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar.”17 The friendly crowd is such a paradox that Morris's imagination ultimately fails him slightly, so that he relapses into Wardour Street fustian:

Therewith he drew rein and jumped down, and I followed. A very handsome woman, splendidly clad in figured silk, was slowly passing by, looking into the windows as she went. To her quoth Dick: “Maiden, would you kindly hold our horse while we go in for a little?” She nodded to us with a kind smile, and fell to patting the horse with her pretty hand.

“What a beautiful creature!” said I to Dick as we entered.

“What, old Greylocks?” said he, with a sly grin.

“No, no,” said I; “Goldylocks,—the lady.”


Morris here is feeling his way toward the authentically childlike view of sexual relationships which emerges during the journey up-river. Guest begins to enjoy a gathering fulfillment, movingly portrayed but also clearly regressive. Annie at Hammersmith is a mother-figure, Ellen a mixture of sister and childhood sweetheart. Guest, though past his prime of life, feels a recovery of vigour which is, in the event, illusory; his fate is not to be rejuvenated in Nowhere but to return to the nineteenth century, strengthened only in his longing for change. Though he shares his companions' journey to the haymaking, his exclusion from the feast to celebrate their arrival is another inverted Dickensian symbol.18 The return to the present is doubly upsetting to the “happy ending” convention (seen for example in Bellamy); for it is not a nightmare but a stoical affirmation of political responsibility. Guest's last moments in Nowhere show him rediscovering the forgotten experience of alienation and anonymity.

Dickens and George Eliot were moralists in their fiction and supporters of social and educational reform outside it. Morris worked to improve Victorian taste while coming to believe that there were no “moral” or “reformist” solutions to the social crisis. It was the perspective of the labour movement and the revolutionary “river of fire”19 which enabled him to reassemble the distorted affirmation of a Dickens novel into a clear, utopian vision. His vision draws strength from its fidelity to socialist ideals and to Morris's own emotional needs. But Morris, for all his narrative self-consciousness, can only register and not transcend what is ultimately an aesthetic impasse. His book is News from Nowhere, or An Epoch of Rest; it shows not only the redemption of man's suffering past but his enjoyment of Arcadian quietism. In Nowhere pleasure may be had “without an afterthought of the injustice and miserable toil which made my leisure” (§20). Morris omits to describe how in economic terms leisure is produced, and how in political terms a society built by the mass labour movement has dispersed into peaceful anarchism. He stakes everything on the mood of “second childhood”:

“Second childhood,” said I in a low voice, and then blushed at my double rudeness, and hoped that he hadn't heard. But he had, and turned to me smiling, and said: “Yes, why not? And for my part, I hope it may last long; and that the world's next period of wise and unhappy manhood, if that should happen, will speedily lead us to a third childhood: if indeed this age be not our third. Meantime, my friend, you must know that we are too happy, both individually and collectively to trouble ourselves about what is to come hereafter.”


It is true that the passage hints at further labours of social construction lying in store for man. Morris, however, prefers not to contemplate them. One is forced to conclude that in News from Nowhere the ideal of the perfection of labour is developed as an alternative to the dynamism of Western society. We are left with the irresolvable ambiguity of the Morrisian utopia, which peoples an exemplary socialist society with characters who are, in the strict sense in which Walter Pater had used the term, decadents.20

H. G. Wells first listened to Morris at socialist meetings at Hammersmith in the 1880s. Even for a penniless South Kensington science student, attending such meetings was an act of social defiance. But, as he later recalled, he soon forgot his “idea of a council of war, and … was being vastly entertained by a comedy of picturesque personalities.”21 He saw Morris as trapped in the role of poet and aesthete, yet in A Modern Utopia (1905) he readily acknowledged the attractiveness of a Morrisian earthly paradise:

Were we free to have our untrammelled desire, I suppose we should follow Morris to his Nowhere, we should change the nature of man and the nature of things together; we should make the whole race wise, tolerant, noble, perfect—wave our hands to a splendid anarchy, every man doing as it pleases him, and none pleased to do evil, in a world as good in its essential nature, as ripe and sunny, as the world before the Fall.22

Wells, in effect, accuses Morris of lacking intellectual “realism.” His response to this appears to far less advantage in A Modern Utopia, however, than it does in his dystopian works beginning with The Time Machine (1895). A Modern Utopia is an over-ambitious piece of system-building, reflecting its author's eclectic search for a “new aristocracy” or administrative elite; The Time Machine is a mordantly critical examination of concepts of evolution and progress and the future state, with particular reference to News from Nowhere.

While Guest wakes up in Hammersmith, the Time Traveller climbs down from his machine in the year 802,701 A.D. at a spot about three miles away, in what was formerly Richmond. The gay, brightly-dressed people, the verdant park landscape and the bathing in the river are strongly reminiscent of Morris. The Eloi live in palace-like communal buildings, and are lacking in personal or sexual differentiation. On the evening of his arrival, the Time Traveller walks up to a hilltop and surveys the green landscape, murmuring “Communism” to himself (§6). The reference is to Morris rather than to Marx (whose work and ideas Wells never knew well). Wells has already begun his merciless examination of the “second childhood” which Morris blithely accepted in Nowhere.

From the moment of landing we are aware of tension in the Time Traveller's responses. He arrives in a thunderstorm near a sinister colossus, the White Sphinx, and soon he is in a frenzy of fear. The hospitality of the Eloi, who shower him with garlands and fruit, does not cure his anxiety. Unlike most previous travellers in utopia, he is possessed of a human pride, suspicion and highly-strung sensitivity which he cannot get rid of. He reacts with irritability when asked if he has come from the sun in a thunderstorm: “It let loose the judgment I had suspended upon their clothes, their frail light limbs and fragile features. A flow of disappointment rushed across my mind. For a moment I felt that I had built the Time Machine in vain” (§5). When they teach him their language, it is he who feels like a “schoolmaster amidst children,” and soon he has the Eloi permanently labelled as a class of five-year-olds.

The apparent premise of The Time Machine is one of scientific anticipation, the imaginative working-out of the laws of evolution and thermodynamics, with a dash of Marxism added. Critics sometimes stress the primacy of the didactic surface in such writing.23 But The Time Machine is not exhausted once we have paraphrased its explicit message. Like News from Nowhere, it is a notably self-conscious work. Wells's story-telling frame is more elaborate than Morris's, and Robert M. Philmus has drawn attention to the studied ambiguity Wells puts in the Time Traveller's mouth: “Take it as a lie—or a prophecy. Say I dreamed it in the workshop” (§16).24 One of his hero's ways of authenticating his story is to expose the fabrications of utopian writers. A “real traveller,” he protests, has no access to the “vast amount of detail about building, and social arrangements, and so forth” found in utopian versions (§8). He has “no convenient cicerone in the pattern of the Utopian books” (§8). He has to work everything out for himself by a process of conjecture and refutation—a crucial feature of The Time Machine which does much to convey the sense of intellectual realism and authenticity. The visit to the Palace of Green Porcelain parallels Guest's visit to the British Museum, but instead of a Hammond authoritatively placed to expound “How the Change Came,” the Time Traveller must rely on habits of observation and reasoning which his creator acquired at the Normal School of Science.

In The Time Machine Wells uses a hallowed device of realistic fiction—the demonstration of superior authenticity over some other class of fictions—in a “romance” context. His aim is, in Levin's words, to “unmask cant” and debunk misconceptions. The truths he affirms are both of a scientific (or Huxleyan) and a more traditional sort. The world of Eloi and Morlocks is revealed first as devolutionary and then as one of predator and prey, of homo homini lupus. This must have a political, not merely a biological significance. No society, Wells is saying, can escape the brutish aspects of human nature defined by classical bourgeois rationalists such as Machiavelli and Hobbes. A society that claims to have abolished these aspects may turn out to be harbouring predatoriness in a peculiarly horrible form. This must become apparent once we can see the whole society. In Morris's Nowhere, part of the economic structure is suppressed; there is no way of knowing what it would have been like. In The Time Machine it is only necessary to put the Eloi and Morlocks in the picture together—whether they are linked by a class relationship, or a species relationship, or some evolutionary combination of the two—to destroy the mirage of utopian communism. The Dickensian society of scavengers cannot be so lightly dismissed.

In contrast to Morris's mellow Arcadianism, The Time Machine is an aggressive book, moving through fear and melodrama to the heights of poetic vision. The story began as a philosophical dialogue and emerged from successive revisions as a gripping adventure-tale which is also a mine of poetic symbolism. To read through the various versions is to trace Wells's personal discovery of the “scientific romance.”25The Time Machine in its final form avoids certain limitations of both the Victorian realist novel and the political utopia. An offshoot of Wells's use of fantasy to explore man's temporal horizons is that he portrays human nature as at once more exalted and more degraded than the conventional realist estimate.

Imagining the future liberates Wells's hero from individual moral constraints; the story reveals a devolved, simian species which engages the Time Traveller in a ruthless, no-holds-barred struggle. The scenario of the future is a repository for symbolism of various kinds. The towers and shafts of the story are recognizably Freudian, while the names of the Eloi and Morlocks allude to Miltonic angels and devils. The Time Traveller himself is a variant of the nineteenth-century romantic hero. Like Frankenstein, he is a modern Prometheus. The identification is sealed in the Palace of Green Porcelain episode, where he steals a matchbox from the museum of earlier humanity, whose massive architectural remains might be those of Titans. But there is no longer a fit recipient for the gift of fire, and the Time Traveller's matches are only lit in self-defence. We see him travel to the end of the world, alone, clasped to his machine on the sea-shore. When he fails to return from his second journey we might imagine him as condemned to perpetual time-travelling, as Prometheus was condemned to perpetual torture.

There are few unqualified heroes in Victorian realistic fiction (this is a question of generic conventions, not of power of characterization). The zenith of the realist's art appears in characters such as Lydgate, Dorothea, Pip and Clennam, all of whom are shown as failures, and not often very dignified failures. They are people circumscribed and hemmed in by bourgeois existence. Intensity of consciousness alone distinguishes theirs from the average life of the ordinary member of their social class. As against this, Wells offers an epic adventurer who (like Morris's knights and saga-heroes) is close to the supermen of popular romance. His hero is guilty of sexual mawkishness and indulges in Byronic outbursts of temperament. But what distinguishes him from the run-of-the-mill fantasy hero is the epic and public nature of his mission. As Time Traveller he takes up the major cognitive challenge of the Darwinist age. He boasts of coming “out of this age of ours, this ripe prime of the human race, when Fear does not paralyse and mystery has lost its terrors” (§10). The retreat of superstition before the sceptical, scientific attitude dictated that the exploit of a modern Prometheus or Faust should be told in a scaled-down, “romance” form. Nonetheless, the Time Traveller shares the pride of the scientists, inventors and explorers of the nineteenth century, and not the weakness or archaism of its literary heroes.

There is a dark side to his pride. The scene where he surveys the burning Morlocks shows Wells failing to distance his hero sufficiently. The Time Traveller is not ashamed of his cruel detachment from the species he studies, nor does he regret having unleashed his superior “firepower.” His only remorse is for Weena, the one creature he responded to as “human,” and Wells hints that her death provides justification for the slaughter of the Morlocks. This rationalization is a clear example of imperialist psychology; but Wells was both critic and product of the imperialist ethos. Morris, who was so sharp about Bellamy, would surely have spotted his vulnerability here. It is not merely the emotions of scientific curiosity which are satisfied by the portrayal of a Hobbesian, dehumanized world.

News from Nowhere and The Time Machine are based on a fusion of propaganda and dream. Their complexity is due in part to the generic interactions which I have traced. Morris turns from the degraded world of Dickens to create its negative image in a Nowhere of mutual trust and mutual fulfilment. Wells writes a visionary satire on the utopian idea which reintroduces the romantic hero as explorer and prophet of a menacing future. Both writers were responding to the break-up of the coalition of interests in mid-Victorian fiction, and their use of fantasy conventions asserted the place of visions and expectations in the understanding of contemporary reality. Schematically, we may see Wells's SF novel as a product of the warring poles of realism and utopianism, as represented by Dickens and Morris. More generally, I would suggest that to study the aetiology of works such as News from Nowhere and The Time Machine is to ask oneself fundamental questions about the nature and functions of literary “realism.”


  1. I use “realism” in a broadly Lukacsian sense, to denote the major representational idiom of 19th-century fiction. See e.g. Georg Lukacs, Studies in European Realism (US 1964). I also argue that “realism” in literature cannot ultimately be separated from the modern non-literary senses of the term. No sooner is a convention of literary realism established than the inherently dynamic “realistic outlook” starts to turn against that convention.

  2. Patrick Brantlinger, “News from Nowhere: Morris's Socialist Anti-Novel,” Victorian Studies 19(1975):35ff. This article examines Morris's aesthetic in greater depth than was possible here, with conclusions that are close to my own.

  3. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, On Literature and Art, ed. Lee Baxandall and Stefan Morawski (US 1974), p 117.

  4. Harry Levin, The Gates of Horn (US 1966), p 55.

  5. The best political biography is E. P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (UK 1955).

  6. Morris's published lectures are reprinted in his Collected Works, ed. May Morris, vols. 22-23 (UK 1914), and some unpublished ones in The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris, ed. Eugene D. LeMire (US 1969). Three recent (but no more than introductory) selections are: William Morris: Selected Writings and Designs, ed. Asa Briggs (US-UK 1962); Political Writings of William Morris, ed. A. L. Morton (US—UK 1962); and William Morris, Selected Writings, ed. G. H. Cole (US 1961).

  7. Morris took up the practice of handicrafts in 1860 and became, in effect, an extremely successful middle-class designer. His theories of the unity of design and execution were often in advance of his workshop practice. See e.g. Peter Floud, “The Inconsistencies of William Morris,” The Listener 52(1954):615ff.

  8. Morris, “How I Became a Socialist” (1894).

  9. See note 6.

  10. Ruskin commented on Bleak House in “Fiction—Fair and Foul,” published in the Nineteenth Century (1880-1), and on Hard Times in Unto This Last (1860).

  11. Collected Works 22:xiii ff.

  12. J. W. Mackail records somewhat fatuously that “In the moods when he was not dreaming of himself as Tristram or Sigurd, he identified himself very closely with … Joe Gargery and Mr Boffin.”—The Life of William Morris (UK 1901), 1:220-21. Cf. Paul Thompson, The Work of William Morris (UK 1967), p 149.

  13. See E. P. Thompson (Note 5) pp 165-67. I have not managed to locate this in the files of The Commonweal.

  14. Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (UK 1961), p 268.

  15. George Eliot, Introduction to Felix Holt (1866).

  16. The fantastic and utopian elements in Dickens are associated with his genius for satire and melodrama: with his vision of the interlocking, institutional character of social evil, and his delight in sharp and magical polarizations between the strongholds of evil and those of beauty and innocence. The elements of traditional romance in Dickens's vision make him an exaggerated, but by no means unique case; a utopian element could, I think, be traced in every great novelist.

  17. Dickens, Little Dorrit, §34.

  18. Tom Middlebro' argues that both river and feast are “religious symbols”—“Brief Thoughts on News from Nowhere,Journal of the William Morris Society 2(1970):8. If so, this was true for Dickens as well, and I would see him as Morris's immediate source. The symbolism of the feast is present in all Dickens's works and has been discussed by Angus Wilson, “Charles Dickens: A Haunting,” Critical Quarterly 2(1960):107-08.

  19. Morris, “The Prospects of Architecture in Civilization” in Hopes and Fears for Art (1882).

  20. Pater describes the poetry of the Pleiade as “an aftermath, a wonderful later growth, the products of which have to the full the subtle and delicate sweetness which belong to a refined and comely decadence.” Preface to The Renaissance (1873). The compatibility of one aspect of Pater's and Morris's sensibility is suggested by the former's review of “Poems by William Morris,” Westminster Review 34(1868):300ff.

  21. Saturday Review 82(1896):413.

  22. Wells, A Modern Utopia §1:1.

  23. See e.g. Joanna Russ's remarks on The Time Machine, SFS 2(1975):114-15.

  24. Robert M. Philmus, Into the Unknown (US 1970), p 73.

  25. The most telling contrast is with the National Observer version (1894). For a reprint of this and an account of Wells's revisions of The Time Machine see his Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction, ed. Robert M. Philmus and David Y. Hughes (US 1975), pp 47ff.

David J. Lake (essay date March 1979)

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SOURCE: Lake, David J. “The White Sphinx and the Whitened Lemur: Images of Death in The Time Machine.Science Fiction Studies 6, no. 1 (March 1979): 77-84.

[In the following essay, Lake considers Wells's use of imagery in The Time Machine.]

There is widespread agreement that The Time Machine is H. G. Wells' finest scientific romance; many critics would go further and call it the best of all his fictions. A sample remark is that of V. S. Pritchett in The Living Novel: “Without question The Time Machine is the best piece of writing. It will take its place among the great stories of our language. Like all excellent works it has meanings within its meaning. …”1 Pritchett here indicates a main reason for The Time Machine's greatness: its richness of suggestion. Bernard Bergonzi, in one of the most detailed studies so far of the novel, has emphasized its mythic quality.2 Certainly the vision of a future decadent world polarized between the paradisal Eloi and the demonic Morlocks has the quality of great myth, and like myth is multivalent: the sociological interpretation is obvious (and indicated by Wells in the text), and beyond that there is an easy underground shaft to Freud as it were. But the notion of “myth” is not enough to explain the excellence of The Time Machine. Myths can always be handled badly or superficially; but in fact Wells has given his myth a nearly perfect embodiment. It is the details of his writing that count. In particular, I submit that a large part of the excellence of The Time Machine derives from its systematic imagery. And the images are largely organized in a system of colors.3

Bergonzi (p. 217, note 43) has drawn attention to the White Sphinx which dominates the Time Traveller's first impression of the future world—and not incidentally adorned the cover of the first British edition in 1895. But Bergonzi's interpretation of this as a typical fin-de-siecle motif is insufficient. I would like now to examine two questions: first, why a sphinx; and second, why a white one?

The answer to the first question must be fairly obvious in outline; but even here we have richness of suggestion. In Wells' earlier National Observer version of the story,4 the main features of the scene are already there: the white marble sphinx beside a silver birch tree in a hailstorm, the sphinx's sightless but watching eyes, its faint smile, its spread wings. In the final version (chap. 3:27),5 Wells has added the detail: “It was greatly weather-worn, and that imparted an unpleasant suggestion of disease”. Later (chap. 5:44) Wells combines the whiteness with the dilapidation in the adjective “leprous”.

This Sphinx really does dominate the story; and not just the Time Traveller's first impression either. It strikes the first really sinister note, suggesting the decay of the future world, and also a mysterious threat to the hero. Its wings are spread, not folded, to suggest a flying bird of prey; as we see from the development of that idea soon after the initial description: “I felt naked in a strange world. I felt as perhaps a bird may feel in the clear air, knowing the hawk wings above and will swoop” (chap. 3:28). And the swoop duly takes place, when the Morlocks drag the time machine into the pedestal of the sphinx. Thus the symbol is also an efficient cause in the story; which is an excellent way to use symbols, and not only in SF.6

We can focus the sphinx symbol a little more clearly if we recall the most famous sphinx of mythology, the one which confronted Oedipus. The answer to that sphinx's riddle was simply Man—the creature who goes on four legs in infancy, stands firm on two legs in manhood, and totters three-legged on a staff in old age. And precisely the rise and fall of Man is the subject, or a main subject, of The Time Machine. I submit therefore that this leprous, crumbling sphinx represents the “three-legged” stage, the decay of Man in the future world. Its whiteness is the whiteness not only of leprosy but also of bone, its sightless eyes are those of a human skull. It stands for immediate decay and the menace of imminent death.

It is really astonishing to notice how often the color white appears in the text. The sphinx is hardly ever mentioned without being called “white,” even though there are no other sphinxes about. And there are many other white things. Already in that first future scene we have the white sphinx, the silver birch tree, the white hailstones. The birch might suggest a rather colder climate than is presented for the year 802,701; and the hailstones are in a sense the first hostile move against the hero, and foreshadow the “white flakes” of snow in the end-of-the-world Further Vision (chap. 11:108).7 Then again there is the whiteness of the Eloi: “white limbs” (chap. 4:33), suggesting once more decadence. There are several instances of over-lush white flowers. But above all, there is the whiteness of the Morlocks.

Of course the Morlocks' pallor is explained scientifically as due to their underground habitat (chap 5:62). But as in the case of the sphinx, their color is insisted upon again and again. For instance, here is the first view of them:

The moon was setting, and the dying moonlight and the first pallor of dawn were mingled in a ghastly half-light. The bushes were inky black, the ground a sombre grey, the sky colorless and cheerless. And up the hill I thought I could see ghosts. Three several times, as I scanned the slope, I saw white figures. Twice I fancied I saw a solitary white, ape-like creature. …

(chap. 5:57)

This passage is a rich example of Wells' excellent handling of colour symbolism. White and its shades are here associated with setting, dying, ghastliness and cheerlessness. The setting moon—later in the story, the waning moon—perfectly combines the ideas of whiteness and of death, since the moon looks whitish and is a dead planet. Grey is a variant of white which is also from time to time applied to the Morlocks: it is “colourless and cheerless”, suggesting an absence of the colors of life. And here the greyish-whiteness of the Morlocks is attached to the idea of ghosts. The following paragraph expands on the “ghost” idea. So at their first appearance, the Morlocks are associated with death, and the uncanny whiteness of things which were once alive but are so no longer. Then again we have, near the beginning of the next chapter:

I felt a peculiar shrinking from these pallid bodies. They were just the half-bleached colour of the worms and things one sees preserved in spirit in a zoological museum. And they were filthily cold to the touch. Probably my shrinking was largely due to the sympathetic influence of the Eloi, whose disgust of the Morlocks I now began to appreciate.

(chap. 6:66)

Of course, the disgust felt by the Eloi turns out to be the horror of death. We notice also in this passage that the Morlocks are “filthily cold” and compared to dead biological specimens. One important meaning of the Morlocks, I submit, is simply Death itself. Their name alone suggests that: the first syllable is surely from mors, the Latin for “death”. And Wells was a fairly good Latin scholar, quoting (for instance) from Horace's Odes, Book I, repeatedly in the first two chapters of Love and Mr. Lewisham.8 It is the corpse that is filthily cold and pallid (pallida Mors in Horace's famous Ode I.4) and that, like the Morlocks, stinks. The danger of the Morlocks is that they may lock one into rigor mortis, or into the underworld-grave.

I do not mean at all to deny that the Morlocks also carry other suggestions: the working classes, dangerous animals,9 and so forth. The suggestion of ape, or degenerate ape-man, is particularly strong. But why should apes be cold to the touch? There is no scientific justification for that, so the force behind it must be symbolic; and not of apehood. (Of course it might suggest a sub-mammalian class of animals; but this suggestion, being essentially privative, does not exclude the worse negation.) And in the paragraph next after the one just quoted, there is a striking phrase which combines the “ape” and the “death” suggestions. Here the Traveller anticipates in the waning moon “the appearances of these unpleasant creatures from below, these whitened Lemurs. …” (chap. 6:66).

“Lemur” here is a beautiful pun. Biologically, it signifies a pro-simian, a lower primate which goes on all fours. But it also and originally in Latin signified a ghost. Here, then, the word suggests sub-apes and ghosts at once. And why the curious adjective whitened? Could this not be an echo of Matthew 23:27—“whited sepulchers” in the King James Version? It is probably not the only echo of that gospel in the story, for there is also “abominable desolation” in “The Further Vision” (chap. 11:107), which recalls the words “abomination of desolation” in Matthew 24:15. If I am right about the biblical associations, then both words of the phrase “whitened Lemurs” carry overtones of death and the grave. This is in addition to the “ape” motif, and blends perfectly with it. For the post-human ape and the post-human ghost are equally ex-men; the “simian” stoop of the Morlocks is also the stoop of Oedipus' “three-legged” old man dropping into the grave. The death-motif of the Morlocks also blends well with the demonic motif noted by Bergonzi (p. 53). The phrase “damned souls” (chap. 9:99) combines both suggestions.

The deathly associations of the Morlocks explain most of their horror. What is being repressed, what erupts from the well-shafts under the waning moon, is the fear of personal and racial death. The Time Traveller reacts by these things with an emotion which is quite excessive if it merely embodies the fear of dangerous animals or the descendants of the proletariat. Time and again it is made clear that his emotion is not merely fear but also horror and hatred. This rises to a climax towards the end of his stay in that world, when he feels a positive longing to kill Morlocks. He comments: “Very inhuman, you may think, to want to go killing one's own descendants! But it was impossible, somehow, to feel any humanity in the things” (chap. 8:86-87). No indeed: the Time Traveller does not regard the Morlocks as human, because he has subconsciously equated them with the great and last Enemy; they are symbolically that white cold death which will eventually overwhelm the Earth and every descendant of mankind.

This, indeed, is the most fundamental theme of the whole story: death, and the vain attempt to transcend death. The Time Traveller must remain nameless, because he is not a particular individual, he is all of us. We are all time travellers, but as things are, our voyages can seldom stretch further than seventy or eighty years. The most glorious thing, the exhilaration about a Time Machine is that it enables the Traveller (who is Man) to transcend his own lifetime. Yet in Wells' romance the whole endeavor is shown to be ultimately vain. At the end of things waits the inevitable cold death. And meanwhile, the Morlocks are the hated harbingers.

The Time Traveller's horror and hatred of them erupts most obviously during the fight and fire in the woods (chap. 9). When the Morlocks are blinded and dying in the fire, he makes the strange comment: “And now I was to see the most weird and horrible thing, I think, of all that I beheld in that future age” (chap. 9:97). This is surprising. Why is this scene more horrible than that in the Underworld, for instance? But it is so to the Traveller: later on he is persuaded that he is dreaming a nightmare, and screams and prays and even bites himself in a passionate desire to awake (chap. 9:98). Moreover, by this time it is fairly clear that Weena has died of sheer terror. It would seem, therefore, that this scene of the “thirty or forty Morlocks” blundering about the fires incarnates their essential horror until the horror is unbearable. It is, we may say, Hell and Death brought to the surface; and it is here that the Morlocks are called “damned souls”.

It is now necessary to explore the story's color symbolism a little further. Darko Suvin has persuasively outlined the essential polarity of red, black, and green.10 In this fight-and-fire scene the predominant colour is red: naturally enough, the fire produces a “red sky”, and makes the foliage a “red canopy”. It is, I believe, reasonable to regard red in The Time Machine as another color connected with death, subsidiary to white but important enough at times. We have the red of the first sunset in the future, where the association with racial death is explicit: “The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind” (chap. 4:39). Red is the color of dying heat, as incandescence drops towards invisibility. This, probably, is why the brightest star in the future sky is a red one (chap. 7:79)—all the stars are on the wane. Above all we see this in the last sunset of the Further Vision, where the earth has ceased rotating, and the sun, fixed symbolically (without astronomical necessity) in the west, is a “huge red-hot dome”, and makes the ocean “all bloody under the eternal sunset” (chap. 11:107-108). In this end-of-the-world scene the main colors are red (sun, rocks, ocean), white (snow, ice), and black (a monster, and the final eclipse). These are all colors of death. And all these colors are present in the fire scene in the wood: “But at last, above the subsiding red of the fire, above the streaming masses of black smoke and the whitening and blackening tree stumps, and the diminishing numbers of these dim creatures, came the white light of the day” (chap. 9:98).

Red is the color not only of ending (sunset), and hell (fire), but also of blood. The Traveller sees red meat in the Underworld (chap. 6:70)—a dismembered Eloi corpse. And inevitably the Morlocks have greyish-red eyes (chap. 5/60). Where white and grey are deadly by negation, red functions as a positive menace.

Green, as noted by Suvin, is usually a life color; but in the “Further Vision” I think it sometimes carries a different suggestion. Thus we have the “poisonous-looking green” of the lichens (chap. 11:107), also “livid green” (108), where the association with paleness suggests that green also is here becoming a “deadly” color—as it is almost throughout “The Plattner Story”.

Purple is also used occasionally; I think with a suggestion of over-ripe decadence. The first sunset is “purple and crimson” (chap. 4:39). Some of the Eloi wear purple (chap. 3:29) or purple and white (chap. 4:31) tunics. And the first flowers the Traveller sees in the future are rhododendrons, and “I noticed that their mauve and purple blossoms were dropping in a shower under the beating of the hailstones” (chap. 3:26). If the purple flowers can symbolize the decadent Eloi, then here we have a first hint of them “dropping” under the violent onslaught of the Morlocks. That initial downpour may be associated with the Morlocks by a simile describing its end: “The grey downpour was swept aside and vanished like the trailing garments of a ghost” (chap. 3:28). Both grey and ghost, as we have seen, have associations with the Morlocks. Thus the various colors of the first scene hint at the coming drama before the actors appear, like the overture to an opera.

But from the beginning to the end of the story, it is above all the color white which recurs, and I think always carrying suggestions of decadence or death. Immediately after the Traveller's arrival, in the area near the sphinx he sees “strange white flowers, measuring a foot perhaps across the spread of the waxen petals” (chap. 4:32). And the very last image in the Epilogue is that of Weena's white flowers (“not unlike very large white mallows”, chap. 7:76), her last gift to the Traveller. They are “shrivelled now,” but they provide a touching funeral wreath for the human race.

It is a superficial defect of The Time Machine that there is a logical hiatus between the Eloi-Morlock world and the “Further Vision” of the ultimate cold-death. The decadence of the Eloi is due to human choice in our own civilization, and perhaps it need not be so; whereas the ultimate doom is the effect of thermo-dynamics, and inevitable no matter how wisely we manage our affairs. There is also a hiatus in the story line between the two parts of the Traveller's adventure: in the first and main part he is menaced by the Morlocks, in the second by various monsters11 and the final cold. I would claim that the logical and structural gap is bridged by symbolic identification: the Morlocks are the ghostly harbingers of the End. And because the End is brought on by blind, sub-human forces, the Morlocks have to be blind (in daylight) and sub-human too—in defiance of extrapolative logic. For if the Eloi are made decadent by a too easy life, why should the subterranean workers be made decadent by a hard one? Would not their grim conditions in fact lead to selection for intelligence, for survival of the cunningest? And their blindness in daylight could only have arisen after a breakdown of their former electric lighting—but no such breakdown could have occurred if they had remained intelligent. But none of this matters much, because Wells is motivated not by scientific but poetic logic. And in the greater kinds of science fiction, poetry counts for much more than science.

As a matter of fact, apart from the lack of light in the Underworld there is very little evidence for a breakdown in Morlock society in the final text of The Time Machine. In the National Observer version of 1894 several of the underworld machines were described as “disused and broken down”;12 but in the final text the whole scene is much vaguer, more poetic, and full of the usual color imagery (chap. 6:70). It is notable that all the ghostly and deathly hints about the Morlocks in this scene and elsewhere, apart from their name, seem to have been developed by Wells after the National Observer version.13 This must be a case of inspired revision. In the final version, too, there is much less argument as to how the Morlocks might have lost their intelligence, and much more poetic suggestion. And this, I believe, is why The Time Machine is great: because it uses the techniques of poetry. In this novel, imagery is used as Shakespeare uses it. The “running images” in The Time Machine are as consistent and persistent as those in Hamlet or Macbeth.

Moreover, whiteness and silvery moonlight symbolize death not only in The Time Machine but also in a great many other of Wells' works of the 1890s and 1900s. They are prominent images in the deadly ending of the fantasy novel The Sea Lady (1902) and in the fable-story “The Beautiful Suit” (1909). They likewise figure notably in passages in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) and Tono-Bungay (1909). Moreau himself is frequently described as “white-haired”: we first meet him as an unnamed “massive white-haired man” (chap. 5) a couple of pages after Prendick has had bad dreams and seen the “ghostly faint white beam” of a waning moon in his cabin (chap. 4). Other significances may attach to Moreau: he may be looked upon, for example, as the God of Evolution; but since Death is the great instrument of Evolution, it may be that the first syllable of his name, like the first syllable of “Morlock,” derives from mors (or the French mort). And so at last we have the description of Moreau lying dead under the moon: “… his massive face, calm even after his terrible death, and with the hard eyes open, staring at the dead white moon above” (chap. 19). In the next sentence, the narrator watches “that ghastly pile of silvery light and ominous shadows.” The effects of deadly radio-active “quap” in Tono-Bungay constantly include whitening. Thus we hear of “white dead mangroves,” “bone-white dead trees,” “dirty shingle and mud, bleached and scarred.” Every man at the nearby station dies of the white disease “like a leper” (III.i.4). And the gleam of this quap is like “diluted moonshine” (III.iv.4).

There is not much moonlight in The First Men in the Moon (1901), principally because for much of the novel we are on the moon itself. The whiteness of snow, however, is associated with death in one extremely powerful scene. Cavor and Bedford arrive on the moon in what looks like a drift of snow; but they soon realize that most of this is frozen air. They witness the morning “resurrection of the frozen air” (chap. 7). Much later, when Bedford is trying to escape through the lunar evening, we have some of the best writing in the book:

And as I stood there, stupid and perplexed … something very, very soft and light and chill touched my hand for a moment and ceased to be, and then a thing, a little white speck drifted athwart a shadow. It was a tiny snowflake, the first snowflake, the herald of the night.

Over me, about me, closing in on me, embracing me ever nearer, was the Eternal, that which was before the beginning and that which triumphs over the end; that enormous void in which all light and life is but the thin and vanishing splendour of a falling star, the cold, the stillness, the silence—the infinite and final Night of space.

(chap. 18)

Before he escapes, the whiteness is upon Bedford himself. “The frost gathered on my lips, icicles hung from my moustache and beard, I was white with the freezing atmosphere” (chap. 18).

Most notably of all, both The Invisible Man (1897) and “The Cone” (1895) are thoroughly permeated with “whiteness=death” symbolism.14 The death-symbolism of the colors black, red, and white pervades Wells' short story, reaching a climax on pp. 302-03 in the Atlantic Edition text. Here the wisps of steam in the moonlight are called “an instant succession of ghosts coming up from the black and red eddies, a white uprising. …” Horrocks, a grim engineer (and, as his name suggests, a proto-Morlock) murders the poet Raut (a proto-Eloi); in his last moments Raut sees his murderer as a “gesticulating figure … bright and white in the moonlight” (I, 305). Above all, Horrocks himself says that the vapor of the furnace is “white as death”—a striking phrase which Raut repeats to himself (I, 303).

If my analysis above is a true one, then the success of The Time Machine has implications for all science fiction that aspires to greatness. Outstanding achievement would seem to depend not only of peculiar generic virtues, but also and even more on the virtues of good mythical and symbolic fiction outside the SF genre: in particular on the handling of imagery.


  1. The Living Novel (UK 1946), pp. 119-20.

  2. The Early H. G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances (UK 1961), pp. 42, 45.

  3. This has already been noted briefly by various critics, e.g. Darko Suvin, “A Grammar of Form and a Criticism of Fact: The Time Machine as a Structural Model for Science Fiction,” in D. Suvin and R. M. Philmus, eds., H. G. Wells and Modern Science Fiction (US 1977), pp. 91, 101. See also the long discussion of Wells' color symbolism in Wolfgang Schepelmann, Die englische Utopie in Uebergang: von Bulwer-Lytton bis H. G. Wells (Wien, 1975), pp. 218-73, passim, and the briefer references on red and white in the cosmological imagination (including The Time Machine) in Hélène Tuzet, Le Cosmos et l'imagination (Paris, 1965), p. 449ff. et passim.

  4. Reprinted in Robert M. Philmus and David Y. Hughes, eds., H. G. Wells: Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction (US 1975), pp. 57-90. Hereafter cited as Early Writings.

  5. The Time Machine appeared in its substantially final form in the Heinemann edition of 1895; the present standard text (with minor verbal revisions, deleted headings, and altered chaptering) is that of the Atlantic Edition, 1924. I give references to chapter and page of this edition. Thus, chap. 3:27 means Chapter 3, page 27 of the Atlantic Edition, Vol. I.

  6. For instance, the poisoned skull in The Revenger's Tragedy (1607) is both a symbol of death and a murder weapon.

  7. This was noted by Jack Williamson, H. G. Wells: Critic of Progress (US 1973), p. 50

  8. Lewisham translates Odes I.19 and I.14 in these two chapters. See also Wells' Experiment in Autobiography (1934; UK 1966), I, 139-41 for his early acquaintance with Latin. “Morlock” may, however, partly derive from English words such as “mortal”.

  9. Alex Eisenstein, in “Origins of Some Major Physical Motifs in The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds,Extrapolation 13, no. 2 (May 1972), 119-26, has argued (p. 123) that the Morlocks derive from Wells' “profound early fear of wild animals in general and specifically of the gorilla,” and that “this fear-fantasy provided the essential basis for the vision of the future contained in the The Time Machine. All else, even the ostensible, socio-scientific explanation in the story, are mere after-the-fact rationales overlaid on the germinal idea. [This fear may have contributed to Wells' creation of] the Morlocks, but “essential basis” seems much too strong. Moreover, the Morlocks never suggest large apes like gorillas, but always small primates, such as lemurs. The meaning of The Time Machine must be sought in the text itself, not in the early biography of the author.

  10. “A Grammar of Form …” loc. cit. p. 101.

  11. Eisenstein, in “The Time Machine and the End of Man,” SFS 9 (July 1976), 163, makes a good case for regarding the black monster on the shoal as the last descendant of the Morlocks. If we can accept this, then there is another symbolic linkage between the parts of the story. The Morlock line is still the enemy, but with a color change from white to the more final death color, black.

  12. Early Writings, p. 83.

  13. At least, so it seems from the texts which have survived. But there may be a minor bibliographic mystery here. In the National Observer articles, there seems to be a hiatus between the instalments of April 28 and May 19, 1894, entitled “The Sunset of Mankind” and “In the Underworld” respectively; see Early Writings, pp. 78-82. After the briefest reference to Morlocks on p. 78, “In the Underworld” begins: ‘“I have already told you,” said the Time Traveller, “that it was customary on the part of the delightful people of the upper world to ignore the existence of these pallid creatures of the caverns, and consequently when I descended among them I descended alone.”’ But in fact there is no previous reference to any attitude of the upperworlders to the Morlocks; we are not even told that the Morlocks dwelt in “caverns”, much less that the hero was about to descend among them. So it is possible that somehow Wells' first full-scale description of the Morlocks may be lost.

  14. “The Cone” was first published September 18, 1895, a few months after the final version of The Time Machine. Space will not permit the necessarily lengthy discussion of The Invisible Man's complex imagery.

Mark M. Hennelly, Jr. (essay date summer 1979)

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SOURCE: Hennelly, Mark M., Jr. “The Time Machine: A Romance of ‘The Human Heart’.” Extrapolation 20, no. 2 (summer 1979): 154-67.

[In the following essay, Hennelly relates Wells's scientific writings to his The Time Machine and explores different aspects of the novella, particularly the roles of the Narrator and Time Traveller.]

I felt I lacked a clue. I felt—how shall I put it? Suppose you found an inscription, with sentences here and there in excellent plain English, and interpolated therewith, others made up of words, of letters even, absolutely unknown to you? Well, on the third day of my visit, that was how the world of Eight Hundred and Two Thousand Seven Hundred and One presented itself to me!

(pp. 57-58)1

The reader of H. G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895) shares these insecurities with the Time Traveller since the full meaning of his “strange adventures” (p. 95), and especially the enigmatic conclusion, remain “absolutely unknown” after the book is closed, that is, not wholly intelligible as allegories of either Huxlian devolution or Marxian dialectical materialism. Although both science and sociology inform the tale, Wells's own oxymoronic label for his favorite early genre explicitly identifies The Time Machine as a “scientific romance,” not scientific naturalism or realism. Consequently, the missing “clue” to the meaning of this “unknown” Romance world is not blatantly supplied by either the “excellent plain English” of the nameless Narrator or that of the Time Traveller himself.

In the preface to the Random House edition (1931) of The Time Machine, Wells describes his style in the “Chronic Argonauts,” the first version of his Romance, as “the pseudo-Teutonic, Nathaniel Hawthorne style.”2 Later in Experiment In Autobiography (1934), he details more fully the genesis of the tale and Hawthorne's influence: “I began a romance, very much under the influence of Hawthorne, which was printed in the Science Schools Journal, the “Chronic Argonauts.” … It was the original draft of what later became The Time Machine, which won me recognition as an imaginative writer.”3 But as Hawthorne's famous distinction between the Novel and the Romance in his “Preface” to The House of the Seven Gables implies, both of Wells's narrative interlocutors, especially the first Narrator, are concerned with “a very minute fidelity” to the “probable” and not the “possible.” Both supply answers from the external, scientific, and “ordinary course of man's experience” although, admittedly, the nature of the experience they are attempting to explain is of the “Marvellous.” Both fail to understand that often in the scientific Romance, the scientific is simply an externalization of, an extrapolation of, the psychological. In fact, in an 1897 interview, Wells refuses to accept that realism and the psychological Romance could ever be totally separate since “the scientific episode which I am treating insists upon interesting me, and so I have to write about the effect of it upon the mind of some particular person.4 Both speakers neglect, then, what Hawthorne calls “the truth of the human heart,” that is, the balanced and unified psychological experience which must be interpolated from ambiguous, external clues. And as Wells himself admits in “Bye-Products in Evolution” (1895), “the logical student of evolution” is “invariably puzzle[d]” by aesthetics, but “with regard to the subtle mechanism of mind, we are even more in the dark than when we deal with chemical equilibrium.”5 Consequently, Hawthorne's later advice for understanding the dream-world of his story, “the topsy-turvey commonwealth of sleep,” suggests the value of the same kind of reading for Wells's Romance, which is repeatedly called a dreamlike adventure: “Modern psychology, it may be, will endeavor to reduce these alleged necromanies [the nightmares of the Maules and Pyncheons] within a system instead of rejecting them as altogether fabulous” (Chapt. 1). In “The Custom House” opening of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne defines the world of his Romances even more relevantly: “a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.” The Time Traveller's perplexed imaginings upon return to the actual present suggest the same neutral territory:

Did I ever make a Time Machine, or a model of a Time Machine? Or is it all only a dream? They say life is a dream, a precious poor dream at times—but I can't stand another that won't fit. It's madness. And where did the dream come from? … [sic] I must look at that machine. If there is one!

(p. 96)

The consequences of exploring this neutral territory to search for the “truth of the human heart” in The Time Machine illuminate some of those “unknown” words and letters, which puzzle both the Time Traveller and the reader, and consequently demonstrate that attention to morality is as essential as attention to biology for the understanding of the Romance. Thus, this journey forward in time is actually a journey inward and downward in psychological space; the future macrocosm is the present introcosm. Although this thesis precludes a detailed examination of Wells's early essays on science, Robert Philmus and David Hughes's collection of these writings supports this critical volte-face by indicating that 1895 is the watershed year when “The view of nature's laws disposing of what man proposes gives way to the idea of ‘artificial’ evolution, man's consciously taking charge of his future by shaping his sociocultural environment, over which he can exert control” (Early Writings, p. x). At any rate, after taking a brief survey of previous readings, we will discuss Wells's psychologizing with respect to the Narrator, the frame story of the Dinner Guests, the three worlds of the future, and finally the Time Traveller himself.

The Time Machine has not received the critical coverage it deserves; but scholarly response has clearly isolated three major lines of inquiry—scientific, autobiographical, and mythic. Robert Philmus, for example, most cogently explains the anti-Darwinian and Marxian (or anti-Marxian?) issues by discussing the themes of survival of the unfittest or least human in the Eloi and Morlocks and by implying Wells's ambivalent attitude toward the leisure and proletariat classes. For Philmus, consequently, the novel (not Romance) becomes an oracle of devolution:

This vision of social disintegration and devolution as a critique of the ideal of striving towards “ease and delight” can exist only in the dimension of prophecy, that dimension into which the critique can be projected and imaginatively given life—the world, in other words, of science fantasy.6

From a different critical vantage point, Alex Eisenstein traces the genesis of Wells's future shock to his past personal history while growing up at Atlas House where the topography approximated the split-levels of 802,701 and where his reading of Strum's Reflections and his viewing of the illustration of an ape from Wood's Natural History jointly spawned a fear of simian creatures like the Morlocks.7 Finally, although Bernard Bergonzi also discovers scientific and socialistic allegories in the tale, he alone stresses its Romance genre while locating archetypal patterns:

Since The Time Machine is a romance and not a piece of realistic fiction, it conveys its meaning in poetic fashion through images, rather than by the revelation of character in action. It is, in short, a myth. … The opposition of Eloi and Morlocks can be interpreted in terms of the late nineteenth-century class struggle, but it also reflects an opposition between aestheticism and utilitarianism, pastoralism and technology, contemplation and action, and ultimately, and least specifically, between beauty and ugliness, and light and darkness.8

Agreeing with Bergonzi's premise concerning genre, but strongly disagreeing with his dismissal of “character,” we can now abandon sociology and biology for psychology and morality.

The primary Narrator in The Time Machine plays a far more significant role than that Eugene D. LeMire credits him with—namely, taking advantage of “the supreme moment of the raconteur … the moment of the long cigar and tall tale.”9 That is, he does not simply narrate the tale; but he is also a character in it, one whose point of view naturally colors his narration, whose sensibilities consequently transcend those of the caricatured and wooden Dinner Guests, and who finally serves as a go-between, or mediator between the personalities of the Guests and the Time Traveller and between the Time Traveller and the reader. In an important sense, then, the Narrator is a surrogate for the reader in the Romance; and though less well-drawn, he functions much like Marlowe in Lord Jim, or better still, lawyer Utterson in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a tale whose use of Doppelgängers is very similar to The Time Machine's.

Thus, the Narrator's “inadequacy” parallels the Time Traveller's own avowed problems (pp. 94-95) in accurately and credibly describing “strange adventures”:

In writing it down I feel with only too much keenness the inadequacy of pen and ink—and, above all, my own inadequacy—to express its quality. You read, I will suppose, attentively enough; but you cannot see the speaker's white, sincere face in the bright circle of the little lamp, nor hear the intonation of his voice.

(pp. 36-37)

At issue here, however, is not only the partial identification between Narrator and Time Traveller, but also the thematic emphasis upon empirical verification, or direct involvement with experience (rather than scienfitic or aesthetic detachment), and upon the reader's own active role in interpretively filling in many thematic spaces which the narrative leaves blank. While the Narrator, like Coleridge's Wedding-Guest, seems “better than” the other, more sceptical, shallow Dinner Guests because he “lay awake most of the night thinking about” the tale (p. 96), he does more than provide an example for sensitive reader response. Unlike Utterson, who vanishes from the last pages of Stevenson's Romance and thereby fails to register either a normative or ironic moral reaction to Jekyll-Hyde's disintegration, he finally editorializes significantly on the Time Traveller's concluding and pivotal disappearance. His commentary, though, apparently fails to accept the moral inferences of the Traveller's quest. Thus, the reader is tempted either to believe the Narrator's own ignorant yet guarded, optimistic prognosis for the future or to accept the Traveller's ambiguous account of the “unknown.” In this latter case, suspecting the simplistic moral tag of the Narrator, as he likewise would in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the reader himself must reinterpret the narrative “clues” for a specific psychological and moral message. The Narrator, at any rate, believes that

the future is still black and blank—is a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places by the memory of his story. And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers, gifts from Weena—shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle—to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.

(p. 98)

Recalling the Time Traveller's earlier caution to the “untravelled” or inexperienced listener of a tale and his anecdote regarding the futility of an African trying to understand an industrial city (pp. 56-57), the reader is certainly invited to side with the Traveller and to dismiss the Narrator as morally naive, a Pollyanna who is neither sadder nor wiser but rather blithefully ignorant of “the heart of man.” However, the narrative problem is not so easily resolved and really cannot be simplified into the either-or logic argued above, just as the same narrative dislocation cannot be so easily solved in The Island of Dr. Moreau where, before his “cure,” the Narrator finds “Beast People” alive and unwell in England, while afterward he perceives only “the shining souls of men.” However, in The Time Machine both commentaries can be accommodated by correctly understanding the Romance-meaning of the Traveller's return journey. And after comparing present and future societies, we will attempt this understanding.

The narrative frame's dramatization of late Victorian society has escaped critical notice entirely, except for Philmus's brief allusion to Northrop Frye's discussion of “tales ‘told in quotation marks,’”10 LeMire's reference to the “peculiar abstract names of the characters” and the “ironic comment on the stupidities of class-conflict in Wells' own world,”11 and finally Philmus and Hughes's recognition of “the unimaginative complacency … exemplified by his audience” and of the fact that somehow this audience's “narrow scope of consciousness is responsible for cosmic catastrophe” (Early Writings, p. 55). However, and again as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this well-ordered wasteland of insecure, repressed, yet self-satisfied bachelors foreshadows the chaotic future with its schizophrenic upper and lower worlds. Thus, with the Narrator caught between, the microcosmic cross section of upper class gentility apparently contrasts with the hard-working discipline of the Time Traveller, much as the warm and leisurely setting of the smoking room contrasts with the cold (p. 96) and mechanical atmosphere of the scientific laboratory, and as finally the tropical, lotus world of the Eloi contrasts with the cooler, subterranean machine-shop of the Morlocks. In fact, as so often occurs in the allegorical Romance, the tale's very first paragraph provides a threshold symbol for this apparent Jekyll-Hyde polarity by pitting Eloi “laziness” against Morlock “earnestness”:

The fire burned brightly, and the soft radiance of the incandescent lights in the lilies of silver caught the bubbles that flashed and passed in our glasses. Our chairs, being his patents, embraced and caressed us rather than submitted to be sat upon, and there was that luxurious after-dinner atmosphere when thought runs gracefully free of the trammels of precision. And he put it [some recondite matter] to us in this way—marking the points with a lean forefinger—as we sat and lazily admired his earnestness over this new paradox (as we thought it) and his fecundity.

(p. 25)

As in Stevenson's Romance, however, the real point here is not (or not simply) an acknowledgement of Victorian duality, both cultural and psychological, but rather as we shall see, a condemnation of such duality and a moral plea for recognizing the essential, paradoxical unity of a well-balanced and whole personality system. Time Traveller and Guests are One; the Hebraic Morlocks must lie down with the Hellenic Eloi to achieve psychological harmony. Put in another way, the Guests need first to realize they are Eloi (who are called a “wretched aristocracy in decay,” p. 75) and then actualize the Morlock side of themselves; while the Time Traveller must realize that essentially he has been acting like a Morlock and then also accept his Eloi half. Specifically, what all the character groupings share is the common flaw of misoneism—an obsessive hatred and fear of novelty and temporal change. This taboo threat not only reappears throughout The Time Machine, but it is constantly enfleshed in the imagery and finally constitutes, of course, the tale's primary subject matter. As the Time Traveller learns, “There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change” (p. 87). Wells's scientific essays repeatedly emphasize this same point with regard to external adaptation or, to use Wells's term, “plasticity.” In “The Rate of Change in Species” (1894), for instance, he predicts that in the event of “some far-reaching change effected in the conditions of life on this planet,” large organisms like mankind “driving on the old course by virtue of the inertia of their too extensive lives, would have scarcely changed in the century, and, being no longer fitted to the conditions around them, would dwindle and—if no line of retreat offered itself—become extinct” (Early Writings, p. 130). The results of this “inertia” are personified in the hedonistic Eloi who exist in “indolent serenity” (p. 62) only for the present; they haven't learned from the mistakes of the past, nor do they, believing as they do in “absolute permanency” (p. 88), foresee a changeable future. The Morlocks, conversely, labor only for the future overthrow and domination of the Eloi. The indolent Guests serenely indulge in the immediate and present gratification of their pleasure principles—cigars and sherry forever. When the Time Traveller's narrative disturbs this reverie, they discount it, deem it a “gaudy lie” (p. 96), or compulsively check their watches (p. 95) in order to escape, ironically, from this tale of time and change back to the narcotics of their own smoking rooms or the peaceful sleep of their boudoirs.12 To complete this pattern, though we anticipate ourselves, the Time Traveller, as his name suggests, has attempted to cheat “the inevitable process of decay” (p. 76) by his ivory-tower existence in the laboratory, and more specifically by his machine which is an unnatural attempt to control time, to escape the present. Thus, none of the characters realize, at least at the beginning of the Romance, that their misoneism has reduced them to “a very splendid array of fossils” (p. 76) like those decaying in the Palace of Green Porcelain.

This museum, or giant time-capsule, brings us to the first world of the future, the divided-self of the Eloi and Morlocks. Ostensibly, these “two species” appear to be separate and distinct, polarized races with antithetical, not complementary, cultures:

The two species that had resulted from the evolution of man were sliding down towards, or had already arrived at an altogether new relationship from that of master-slave. The Eloi, like the Carlovingian kings, had decayed to a mere beautiful futility. They still possessed the earth on sufferance: since the Morlocks, subterranean for innumerable generations, had come at last to find the daylit surfaces intolerable. And the Morlocks made their garments, I inferred, and maintained them in their habitual needs, perhaps through the survival of an old habit of service (p. 70). … And so these inhuman sons of men—! I tried to look at the thing in a scientific spirit. After all, they were less human and more remote than our cannibal ancestors of three or four thousand years ago. And the intelligence that would have made this state of things a torment had gone. Why should I trouble myself? These Eloi were mere fatted cattle, which the ant-like Morlocks preserved and preyed upon—probably saw to the breeding of.

(pp. 74-75)

I quote this description at length not only to indicate the seeming differences between the two races, but more importantly for the sake of comparing it with passages from Robert Lewis Stevenson and Carl Jung, which will be discussed shortly. The point is twofold. First of all, apparent differences cloak an essential unity—both peoples share the same pigmy size, the same whitish color, and the same curious laugh. Secondly, but most important, both share a symbiotic cosmology whose convex towers and concave wells form one balanced and total circle. In fact, while learning to identify with both Eloi and Morlocks, the Time Traveller discovers this architectural unity: “After a time, too, I came to connect these wells with tall towers standing here and there upon the slopes” (p. 56). Again, as a scientific footnote to the Romance theme, we should recall that in a 1904 essay, “The Scepticism of the Instrument,” Wells criticizes “formal logic” for being unable to cope with what he calls the concept of “complementarity,” that is, for creating an apparent conflict where there exists essential unity (see Early Writings, pp. 6-7). And as Philmus and Hughes indicate, “As early as ‘Zoological Retrogression’ (1891), he uses the term ‘opposite idea’ not as a synonym for ‘antithesis’ or ‘negation,’ but in the sense of ‘essential complement’” (Early Writings, pp. 6-7). In addition, Wells's essays stressed more and more the importance of cooperation, rather than competition, among species. In “Ancient Experiments in cooperation” (1892), for example, he writes: “the cooperative union of individuals to form higher unities, underlies the whole living creation” (Early Writings, p. 191). In this same essay, cooperative unity seems to carry an internal as well as external significance.

It is as startling and grotesque as it is scientifically true, that man is an aggregate of amoeboid individuals in a higher unity, and that such higher unities as may be reasonably likened to man … have united again into yet higher individual unities, and that, therefore, there is no impossibility in science that in the future men should not coalesce into similar unified aggregates.

(Early Writings, p. 192)13

In “Mr. Marshall's Doppelganger” (1897) and again in the significantly titled The Secret Places Of The Heart (1922), Wells blatantly dramatizes this internal theme of the divided self. But, he also implies that the symbiotic macrocosm of the future is actually an image of the ruptured relationship between modes and levels of consciousness. The last chapter of Stevenson's Romance, “Henry Jekyll's Full Statement Of the Case,” employs much the same rhetoric but makes the psychological nature of this relationship more clearly than Wells does:

… man is not truly one, but truly two. … I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both. … It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots were thus bound together—that in the agonized womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continuously struggling. How, then, were they dissociated?14

The answer to this pivotal question, which is also central to the meaning of both the Beast People in The Island of Dr. Moreau and the Eloi-Morlock division in The Time Machine, is that society, epitomized here by high Victorian obsession with order, security, and intelligence and its repressive terror of chaos, impulse, and desire, has “dissociated” these “polar twins.” In fact, in “Morals and Civilization” (1897), Wells links such repression to static inertia, or misoneism: “It is no inevitable force which changes militant into static civilizations. As much as anything it is the demoralisation due to security,—a disorganization of the forces of moral suggestion” (Early Writings, p. 226). And Jung's commentary on “visionary” literature in “Psychology And Literature” addresses this same compulsive “security” and the consequent “primitive duality of man” (which ought ideally to be a unity), thereby helping to explain why the Traveller “had a vague sense of something familiar” (p. 71) from what he “had seen in the Underworld” (p. 71):15

But the primordial experiences rend from top to bottom the curtain upon which is painted the picture of an ordered world, and allow a glimpse into the unfathomable abyss of the unforn and of things yet to be. Is it a vision of other worlds, or of the darknesses of the spirit, or of the primal beginnings of the human psyche? … We are reminded of nothing in everyday life, but rather of dreams, night-time fears, and the dark uncanny recesses of the human mind. … However dark and unconscious this night-world may be, it is not wholly unfamiliar. Man has known it from time immemorial, and for primitives it is a self-evident part of their cosmos. It is only we who have repudiated it because of our fear of superstition and metaphysics, building up in its place an apparently safer and more manageable world of consciousness in which natural law operates like human law in a society. The poet now and then catches sight of the figures that people the night-world—spirits, demons, and gods; he feels the secret quickening of human fate by a suprahuman design, and has a presentiment of incomprehensible happenings in the pleorama. In short, he catches a glimpse of the psychic world that terrifies the primitive and is at the same time his greatest hope.16

Comparing this account with Wells's own tell-tale description of the origin of his Romances, we can certainly see its significance:

I found that, taking almost anything as a starting point and letting my thoughts play about with it, there would presently come out of the darkness, in a manner quite inexplicable, some absurd or vivid little nucleus. Little men in canoes upon sunlit oceans would come floating out of nothingness, incubating the eggs of prehistoric monsters unawares; violent conflicts would break out amidst the flower beds of suburban gardens. I would discover I was peering into remote and mysterious worlds ruled by an order, logical indeed, but other than our common sanity.17

However, by revealing the general danger of repudiating darkness for light and the greatest hope in reconciling the two in Wells's “mysterious worlds,” cited above, Jung's insights only diagnose a portion of the disease of the human heart. The Palace of Green Porcelain and the White Sphinx provide clues to the rest of the mystery. Both symbols deal with time, change, and misoneism. The Palace, “this ancient monument of an intellectual age” (p. 77), is complex. Its fossilized treasures not only warn against the vanity of human wishes and the “futility of all ambition” (p. 79), such as the Time Traveller's and the Morlocks' emphases on future glory, but it also admonishes hedonists like the Dinner Guests and Eloi who live only for the present and thus court no great expectations. Neither response can arrest “the inevitable process of decay” (p. 76); and both sins of wasting time render the sinners into “dessicated mummies in jars” (p. 77), like the “stuffed animals” who are wasted by time in the museum.

The White Sphinx, on the other hand, parallels the temporal dimensions of the Time Machine and the Palace by placing the blighted worlds of the future, and thus the world of the present, in their proper wasteland context as it overlooks “a tangled waste of beautiful bushes and flowers, a long-neglected and yet weedless garden” (p. 44). Although, in a sense, the Time Traveller finally fulfills the redemptive function of Oedipus, the riddle of this Sphinx has not yet been solved by a questing hero; and thus the sought-for answer, which admits change and time in the three ages of man, has not provided renewing, spring rains. The Sphinx's “white leprous face” (p. 51), “weather-worn” condition, and “unpleasant suggestion of disease” (p. 40), all indicate that wasteland sterility has infected even this major symbol of potential health. Finally, the Sphinx, like the “griffins' heads” (p. 47) and the “Faun” (p. 72), implies the unification of a dual nature; and consequently these three sole survivors of past art are all imaginative reminders of the Romance's psychological theme. As Wells indicates in “Human Evolution, An Artificial Process,” published the year following The Time Machine and vital to its understanding, civilized man is a compound of “an inherited factor, the natural man, … the culminating ape” and “an acquired factor, the artificial man, the highly plastic creature of tradition, suggestion, and reasoned thought” (Early Writings, p. 217). Such a compound certainly suggests the symbiotic Morlocks and Eloi, as do the following remarks whose moral psychologizing is as true of The Time Machine as of The Island of Dr. Moreau: “in this view, what we call Morality becomes the padding of suggested emotional habits necessary to keep the round Palaeolithic savage in the square hole of the civilised state. And Sin is the conflict of the two factors—as I have tried to convey in my Island of Dr. Moreau” (p. 217). Wells concludes the essay by hoping that men “have the greatness of heart” to create “a social organization … cunningly balanced” (p. 218) between savagery and civilization (p. 218).

However, the subsequent future worlds, of the giant butterflies and crabs and finally of the great “Silence,” are dramatic condemnations of the wasteland's denial of the “truth of the human heart” and thus seem to refute Wells's dream of balance. The wish-fulfillment of misoneism has already cursed the earth in the next world since stellar motion is “growing slower and slower” (p. 90) and the sun has “halted motionless upon the horizon” (p. 90). Now the changeless wasteland no longer betrays even a semblance of the Eloi's Eden. The “eternal sea” (p. 91) and “perpetual twilight” (p. 90) reflect “the sense of abominable desolation that hung over the world” (p. 91). Finally, the “huge white butterfly” and “monster crab” (p. 91) are the only survivors of psychological devolution; they are the end-products of, and commentaries upon, the anemic Eloi and blood-thirsty Morlocks. Remembering Stein's classification of humanity into butterflies and beetles in Lord Jim, we might reinterpret his metaphor to suggest that caterpillars (crabs) and butterflies are, in essence, the same creature; and it is for this reason that the Greeks were so fond of viewing the butterfly as an emblem of the total psyche. Again, dualistic appearances cloak an inner, unified reality. A “thousand years or more” later (p. 92), the “eternal sunset” (p. 92) is replaced by the Silence, or “black central shadow of the eclipse” (p. 93); and this Gotterdämmerung leaves the world in “rayless obscurity” (p. 93), totally without solar change. In a startling and haunting last image, which recalls the false dichotomy between spectators and participants in the previous worlds and starkly joins the human and subhuman, the Traveller describes the final mutant form of life as the hybrid of a soccerball (British football) and octopus: “It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it … it was hopping fitfully about” (p. 93). This, then, is the end-result of fear of change and fear of unifying the contraries of the human heart.

The previous discussions of the Narrator, the Dinner Guests, and the future worlds, however, make most sense when viewed in the light of the Time Traveller's “growing knowledge” (p. 81). This repeated gnostic theme, which is rooted in the Romance, branches out into several different but related genres—the Bildungsroman, the myth of the hero, and, as I have argued elsewhere,18 the Victorian novel which focuses upon some major crisis in epistemology. Most generally, the Time Traveller's reiterated “pale” but also “animated” (see pp. 25 and 36) personality suggests that he, and by extension his wasted culture, is caught between two worlds: one, of pleasure, is externalized in feeble aristocracy like the Eloi and is all but dead; the other, of labor and thought (see p. 88 for Morlock thought), is personified by the Morlocks and is powerless to be born without the correct kind of ideological conception. Like the mythic questers of old and like each individual personality, the Time Traveller can insure this conception by “boldly penetrating … underground mysteries” (p. 65), that is, by harrowing hell, reconciling spirit and sense, discovering the hidden truth of the human heart, and living fully in the present.

Specifically, as indicated before, the Time Traveller must admit the Morlock side of himself and integrate this with his more deeply suppressed Eloi side. However, at the tale's outset in London, he is blithefully ignorant of both halves of his heart; and so once in the future, he immediately feels “naked in a strange world” (p. 41). This stripping away of his old personality masks prepares him for his inevitable identity crisis—“my mind was already in revolution” (p. 62) he admits in 802,701. The Time Traveller verbalizes it on the scientific level as “Man had not remained one species, but had differentiated into two distinct animals” (p. 61). After feeling initial disgust for the Morlocks (machinists and meat-eaters like himself) and condescension toward the Eloi (whose enervated spontaneity still highlights his own emotional sterility), the Traveller identifies with both in order to reintegrate these now “distinct animals.” Having first struck “in a frenzy of fear” (p. 85) at the Morlocks during the forest fire, he significantly empathizes with their plight: “I was assured of their absolute helplessness and misery in the glare, and I struck no more of them” (p. 85). Previously, in the Palace of Green Porcelain, he had recognized his own “certain weakness for mechanism” (p. 77) and then therapeutically and thematically “felt that I was wasting my time in this academic examination of machinery” (p. 78, italics mine). This newly-discovered “knowledge” is put into practice when the Time Traveller, who in previous drafts is called The Philosopher, spontaneously “turned to Weena. ‘Dance,’ I cried to her in her own tongue” (p. 79). Thus Morlock and Eloi are joined; and, unlike Dr. Moreau's Beast People, their extremes are tempered. Earlier in his quest for the truth of the human heart, the Traveller feels that “my growing knowledge would lead me back” to solve “the mystery of the bronze doors under the sphinx” (p. 55), or, implicitly, the mysterious unity of the future world. And even here he anticipates the redeeming solution to the Sphinx's riddle, which would best prepare him and his culture to accept “the wear of time” (p. 79): “To sit among all those unknown things [the mysteries of the Sphinx] before a puzzle like that is hopeless. That way lies monomania. Face this world. Learn its ways, watch it, be careful of too many hasty guesses at its meaning. In the end you will find clues to it all” (p. 55). Thus like any good scientist, but also like any good Romancifier, the Traveller learns in the new world by employing the “experimental method,” constantly testing hypotheses against experience, both external and internal.

In “Human Evolution, An Artificial Process,” Wells predicts that only in “Education lies the possible salvation of mankind from misery and sin” (Early Writings, p. 219). And through his Romance, the Time Traveller certainly tries to dramatize to the Narrator, the Dinner Guests, and, by extension, the Victorian audience at large what Wells means by “Education,” that is, that desired balance between savagery and civilization, between past and present. But what of the Victorian wasteland? Does the Time Traveller educate and thereby redeem it; or does he reject it? Put another way, is his final role that of a savior, as when he saves Weena from drowning; or is his final role that of a destroyer, as when the forest fires he lights burns her to death? These questions are as complex, but as thematically significant, as the riddle of the Sphinx since the meaning of his enigmatic return journey back to the future depends upon our answers. If the future is taken realistically, as it would be in a scientific novel, then the Traveller's withdrawal from the present merely confirms his sins against time and his escapist obsession with the future. This reading, then, effectively negates the success of his first wonderful visit into the future. If, on the other hand, the future is considered as an allegory of the present, as it should be in the psychological Romance, then the Time Traveller's return journey does not indicate the hero's escape from his destiny but rather suggests a simple redirection of his quest.19 The Dinner Guests believe the Time Traveller to be either delirious or duplistic, and thus his new-found “knowledge” has not yet saved them. He consequently returns with trusty “kodak” (p. 97) in hand to gather empirical proof for these doubting Thomases. But as the Narrator reports, “he has never returned” (p. 98). Has he failed and been killed by the Morlocks, whom by now he should certainly know how to handle? Has he escaped to settle down with the pretty Eloi, perhaps even returning prior to the death of Weena to save her again, before the fact, by committing another sin against time? There is obviously no textual evidence for this reading. Is the future merely a possible future, a potential schizophrenia which will only be realized if the current wasteland mentality is not cured; and thus the Time Traveller, attempting to verify this ominous portent to the Guests, is destroyed by his own dualism? Or, following the conditions of the Romance, which the Narrator fails to understand, has he simply returned to the allegorical present to save both the Eloi and the Morlocks and thereby redeem the realistic present of Victorian England?

The Traveller's symbolic identification with Prometheus throughout the tale supports this last hypothesis and thus sustains the Narrator's belief that “gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.” As the Traveller explains during the unrelieved darkness of the Eloi's night: “In this decadence, too, the art of fire-making had been forgotten on the earth” (p. 82); and then he begins to educate Weena about the magic of matches. Thus on the realistic level, he brings the gift of fire to the future as Prometheus had brought it from the gods to the human world; on the psychological, or Romance level, he brings back “foreknowledge” (the Greek meaning of Prometheus) from the Eloi (Lord or God in the Bible) and Morlocks to the Dinner Guests in the educating form of his Romance. Whether his return journey is intended to help the future or bring help from the future, the meaning is the same; and the Narrator's optimism is implicitly upheld. For the Time Traveller at least, time is no longer out of joint; and his Romance-quest has revealed the unified and balanced truth of the human heart.

In conclusion, as R. H. Hutton's review in the Spectator (July 13, 1895) implies, it is indeed a pity that Wells's own Victorian audience, like the Dinner Guests, did not as yet understand this truth and remained wasteland unbelievers:

We have no doubt that, so far as Mr. Wells goes, his warning is wise. But we have little fear that the languid, ease-loving, and serene temperament will ever paralyse the human race after the manner he supposes, even though there may be at present some temporary signs of the growth of the appetite for mere amusement.20


  1. The Time Machine/The War of the Worlds, with an introduction by Isaac Asimov (Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1968); all quotations will be taken from this edition, which is one of the more generally available, and noted within the text.

  2. (New York: Random House, 1931), p. ix.

  3. (London: Victor Gollancz and The Cresset Press, 1934), I, 309.

  4. To-day, 2 (Sept., 1897), as quoted in Bernard Bergonzi's The Early H. G. Wells: A Study Of The Scientific Romances (Manchester: The University Press, 1961), p. 44, italics mine. The interested reader should consult this book-length study of the genre of the scientific romance, especially Chapter 2 which deals with The Time Machine.

  5. Early Writings In Science And Science Fiction By H. G. Wells, eds. Robert Philmus and David Y. Hughes (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1975), pp. 204-05. This collection will subsequently be noted within the text as Early Writings.

  6. “‘The Time Machine’; or, the Fourth Dimension as Prophecy,” PMLA, 84 (1969), 534.

  7. “Very Early Wells: Origins of Some Physical Motifs in The Time Machine and The War Of The Worlds,Extrapolation, 13 (1972), 119-126 passim.

  8. The Time Machine: An Ironic Myth,” Critical Quarterly 2 (1960), 305; this essay later makes up part of Bergonzi's chapter on The Time Machine in his study of the scientific romances. See note 4.

  9. “H. G. Wells And The World Of Science Fiction,” Univ. of Windsor Review, 2 (1967), 60.

  10. Philmus, 535; the reference is to Anatomy of Criticism, (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 202-203.

  11. LeMire, 61-62.

  12. Discussing the tale as a scientific treatise, Alfred Borrello confirms Wells's condemnation of misoneistic tendencies: “The species, he believed, is cursed with a fundamental yearning for the status quo, for a changeless existence in which life proceeds at the same pointless pace as it always proceeded—witness its desire for a never-ending Heaven,” in H. G. Wells: Author in Agony (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1972), p. 13.

  13. See Borrello's discussion of the lack of cultural “individuality” in the Morlocks and Eloi, pp. 11-12.

  14. It is interesting to note here that Wells's Victorian audience saw no relationship between his Romance and Stevenson's—even though it could not help linking the two tales. For example an unsigned review in the Daily Chronicle (July 27, 1895) reads: “No two books could well be more unlike than The Time Machine and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but since the appearance of Stevenson's creepy romance we have had nothing in the domain of pure fantasy so bizarre as this ‘invention’ by Mr. H. G. Wells.” This review is reprinted in H. G. Wells: The Critical Heritage, ed. Patrick Parrinder (London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), p. 38.

  15. Here the specific reference is to the resemblance between the meat in the Underworld and the bodies of the Eloi.

  16. Reprinted in The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, trans. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 90-91, 95-96. For the sake of unity, I have combined excerpts from a series of paragraphs dealing with “visionary” literature.

  17. Quoted in Kenneth Young's H. G. Wells (Essex: Longman Group Ltd., 1974), pp. 13-14.

  18. Dracula: The Gnostic Quest and Victorian Wasteland,” English Literature in Transition, 20 (1977), 13-26. This essay also clarifies the relationships between gnosticism, the wasteland theme, and Victorian literature.

  19. See Philmus' relevant description of the future as a fourth dimension, fantasy world, 534-535.

  20. Reprinted in H. G. Wells: The Critical Heritage, p. 36.

Frank Scafella (essay date November 1981)

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SOURCE: Scafella, Frank. “The White Sphinx and The Time Machine.Science Fiction Studies 8, no. 3 (November 1981): 255-65.

[In the following essay, Scafella detects certain parallels between The Time Machine and the fable of Oedipus and the Sphinx.]

The fable [of the Sphinx] is an elegant and a wise one, invented apparently in allusion to Science; especially in its application to practical life … Sphinx proposes to men a variety of hard questions and riddles which she received from the Muses … when they pass from the Muses to Sphinx, that is from contemplation to practice, … they begin to be painful and cruel; and unless they be solved and disposed of, they strangely torment and worry the mind, pulling it first this way and then that, and fairly tearing it to pieces.

—Francis Bacon, “Sphinx; or, Science” from The Wisdom of the Ancients

1. Soon after crash landing his Time Machine in the land of the Morlocks and the Eloi, H. G. Wells's Time Traveller stands up to look around him. What should he see immediately before him but a gigantic Sphinx, “a colossal figure, carved apparently in some white stone [while] all else of the world was invisible.”

It was very large, for a silver birch-tree touched its shoulder. It was of white marble, in shape something like a winged sphinx, but the wings, instead of being carried vertically at the sides, were spread so that it seemed to hover. The pedestal, it appeared to me, was of bronze, and was thick with verdigris. It chanced that the face was towards me; the sightless eyes seemed to watch me; there was the faint shadow of a smile on the lips. It was greatly weather-worn, and that imparted an unpleasant suggestion of disease.1

A diseased sphinx, as white as Melville's whale, blind, with wings outspread in mock flight and on its face the grin of the fabled Cheshire Cat stands in the Time Traveller's way and holds him in fascination. It is only by an act of sheer will that “at last I tore my eyes from it for a moment, and saw … that the sky was lightening with the promise of the sun” (3:18).

We do not know what prompted Wells to imagine his Time Traveller face to face with the Sphinx at the very opening of his narrative, but that he did so is significant. For one thing, it means that The Time Machine must be read as a variation of Oedipus's encounter with the Sphinx on the road to Thebes. For another, the Sphinx, according to Bacon, is a symbol of Science.2 For still another, the White Sphinx is alluded to or figures directly in the action on 15 of the 70-odd pages of the narrative. Moreover, in the presence of the White Sphinx the Time Traveller experiences a variety of psychic states which range from the awe of his initial awareness through dread and despair to a resolve to hold himself in check by the exercise of reason. This sequence of emotions charts a transformation in the mind of the Time Traveller from an essentially contemplative to an intensely practical mode of response to the world. It would be too much to suggest, by way of Bacon, that The Time Machine is thus an allegorical rendering of the fable of Oedipus and the Sphinx. Nevertheless, certain parallels between that fable and the Time Traveller's adventures are direct and highly suggestive of the emergence, establishment, and predicament of the scientist in the modern world—especially when one examines the Time Traveller's experience in the world of 802,701 in light of Bacon's interpretation of the fable as an allegory of the nature of knowledge as it is employed in contemplation and in practice. By playing Bacon off against Wells and Wells against Bacon, we can augment our appreciation of The Time Machine as a scientific romance.

2. The Time Traveller's initial awareness of the White Sphinx coincides with the shattering of his presupposition of finding “incredible advancement in knowledge” and a “profoundly grave and intellectual posterity” in the future to which his Time Machine transports him. Far from grave and intellectual, however, the first beings to greet him, the Eloi, appear effeminate and child-like. “A flow of disappointment rushed across my mind,” he says. And there, towering above him, is the “Sphinx of white marble, which had seemed to watch me all the while with a smile at my astonishment” (4:21). As in the ancient fable of Oedipus and the Sphinx, so here: the appearance of the Sphinx coincides with the posing of a hard question or riddle. And from that moment onward, there is no help for the Traveller but to answer the riddle correctly or be devoured.

“Now of the Sphinx's riddles there are in all two kinds,” says Bacon; “one concerning the nature of things, another concerning the nature of man” (p. 419). So far as the nature of things is concerned, the world of 802,701 poses no riddles for the Time Traveller. “The whole earth had become a garden” (4:25), he knows, through the organized effort of mankind to subjugate Nature, to “readjust the balance of animal and vegetable life to suit our human needs”. He is witness to the completion of this readjustment “for all Time”—no insects, no weeds, no fungi, no disease, no toil, no commerce, luscious fruits and flowers, a “social paradise” (4:26). But so far as the nature of man is concerned, there is indeed a riddle to be solved. For in this “garden” world of the future the Time Traveller has “happened upon humanity upon the wane.” How does he explain this paradox? Through what process of readjustment has man come to the state of the Eloi? Why is it that the subjugation of Nature to human needs has led to atrophy of knowledge and intellect? At first the answer to these questions seems simple enough to the Time Traveller. He is at leisure when he first answers the riddle of the nature of man, seated on top of a hill on a bench of griffins' heads (a mythical monster closely associated with the Sphinx), looking out upon “as sweet and fair a view as I have ever seen” (4:25). At this moment the riddle does not trouble the Time Traveller deeply for, as Bacon observes, “so long as the object of meditation and inquiry is merely to know, the understanding is not oppressed or straitened by it, but is free to wander and expatiate, and finds in the very uncertainty of conclusion and variety of choice a certain pleasure and delight” (p. 419). With the sweet and fair view of the world around and no restrictions on the time he might take to contemplate that world and the creatures who inhabit it, the Time Traveller moves with ease to the following conclusion about the nature of man as he has found him in the Eloi. “Humanity had been strong, energetic, and intelligent, and had used all its abundant vitality to alter the conditions under which it lived. And now came the reaction of the altered conditions.” Whereas the pain and necessity of readjustment forced man to exercise intelligence, self-restraint, patience, and decision to channel his “restless energy” of mind in constructive enterprises, under the conditions of perfect comfort and security that energy “takes to art and eroticism,” and then comes “langour and decay.” Thus “the exquisite beauty of the buildings I saw was the outcome of the last surgings of the now purposeless energy of mankind before it settled down into perfect harmony with the conditions under which it lived” (4:27).

Everything is fine with the Time Traveller, then, so long as he is free merely to contemplate the nature of the Eloi. Indeed, he takes pleasure in dallying since there is no pragmatic reason for pressing on to certainty about his hypothesis. In this mood of quiet contemplation, “musing over this too perfect triumph of man” (5:28), the sun sets and the Time Traveller's casual gaze begins to search out familiar objects as he determines to descend the hill to sleep. “I looked for the building I knew,” he says. “Then my eye travelled along to the figure of the White Sphinx upon the pedestal of bronze, growing distinct as the light of the rising moon grew brighter. I could see the silver birch against it. There was the tangle of rhododendron bushes, black in the pale light, and there was the little lawn” on which the Time Machine had landed. Then “I looked at the lawn again,” he says, and suddenly the mood of contemplation is shattered. “A queer doubt chilled my complacency,” he confesses, for “the Time Machine was gone!” (5:28). In this instant the question or riddle of the Eloi, like the hard questions posed to ancient travellers by the Sphinx, suddenly passes “from contemplation to practice, whereby there is necessity for present action, choice and decision,” and here the riddle begins to be “painful and cruel.” For unless such questions are “solved and disposed of,” says Bacon, “they strangely torment and worry the mind, pulling it first this way and then that, and fairly tearing it to pieces” (“Sphinx,” p. 419).

The discovery of his loss of the Time Machine throws the Time Traveller into emotional turmoil. “At once, like a lash across the face, came the possibility of losing my own age, of being left helpless in this strange new world” (5:28). The time of contemplation is now past; the occasion for practical action, choice, and decision is at hand, and if he does not act quickly the Traveller is lost forever. For if the wretched captives of Sphinx could not at once solve and interpret the dark and perplexed riddles that she propounded to them, says Bacon, “as they stood hesitating and confused she cruelly tore them to pieces” (p. 418). The bare thought of the loss of his Time Machine grips the Time Traveller at the throat and stops his breathing. He plunges down the hill and into the rhododendron bushes in a passion of fear, in excessive dread, cursing aloud, feeling faint and cold, and running about furiously. He is possessed of blind anger, frenzy, anguish of mind, horrible fatigue, and despair. He beats the bushes with clenched fists, sobbing and bawling like an angry child, blundering about, screaming and crying upon God, maddened. And all the while “above me towered the Sphinx, upon the bronze pedestal, white, shining, leprous, in the light of the rising moon. It seemed to smile in mockery of my dismay.” For what causes dismay is “the sense of some hitherto unsuspected power, through whose intervention my invention had vanished.” At length he falls to the ground at the pedestal of the White Sphinx and lies “weeping with absolute wretchedness … I had exhausted my emotion” (5:30). Thus the Time Traveller, taken unawares, finds himself in a paradigmatic human situation symbolized in the Oedipus myth: either exercise reason to gain control over paralyzing fear, or be devoured by the Sphinx.

3. If the Time Traveller is unaware of the paradigmatic nature of his predicament, Wells was not. As we have seen, the Time Traveller's initial encounter with the Sphinx results in his experience of a sequence of emotion and thought at once typical of the Oedipus narrative and representative of the transition that takes place in the human mind as it shifts from an artistic or purely philosophical to a scientific grasp of the world. Having been drained emotionally, and having been placed beyond confidence in his first hypothesis about the Eloi by his “sense of some hitherto unsuspected power,” the Time Traveller finds himself on just such a verge of consciousness as Wells speaks of (autobiographically) in “The Rediscovery of the Unique” (1891). His set views of the world of 802,701 have been “decimated … as a pestilence thins a city”; his theory of life among the Eloi has received “such a twist as tall towers sometimes get from lively yet conservative earthquakes”; and his new relationship to the world is perhaps best characterized by the final paragraph of the essay.

Science is a match that man has just got alight. He thought he was in a room—in moments of devotion, a temple—and that his light would be reflected from and display walls inscribed with wonderful secrets and pillars carved with philosophical systems wrought into harmony. It is a curious sensation, now that the preliminary splutter is over and the flame burns up clear, to see his hands lit and just a glimpse of himself and the patch he stands on visible, and around him, in place of all that human comfort and beauty he anticipated—darkness still.3

Not only does the Time Traveller thus come to see his immediate situation clearly but he begins to reason with himself “to be calm and patient, to learn the way of the people, to get a clear idea of the method of my loss, and the means of getting materials and tools” to make another machine if he cannot recover the original one. He begins to probe the world around for answers, as the true scientist must.

It does not take him long to determine that the method of his loss is a secret of the bronze doors in the pedestal under the White Sphinx. Nor does it take him long to see that no amount of force will cause these doors to open. The Sphinx divulges its secrets to no man by force or cunning. “Patience,” says the Time Traveller to himself.

If you want your machine again you must leave that Sphinx alone … You will get it back as soon as you can ask for it … Face this world. Learn its ways, watch it, be careful of too hasty guesses at its meaning. In the end you will find clues to it all.


Implicit in the Time Traveller's resolve to “leave that Sphinx alone” is his recognition that the Sphinx will not, in and of itself, afford him access to what is unique about the nature of man in 802,701. Access to that uniqueness will come, he concludes, only as a result of mastering the problems of the world. So “I determined to put the thought of my Time Machine and the mystery of the bronze doors under the sphinx as much as possible in a corner of memory, until my growing knowledge would lead me back to them in a natural way” (5:32). His discovery of the Morlocks, “the bleached, obscene, nocturnal Thing” that lives in the deep darkness of wells, is his first major clue to an understanding of his loss and the method of recovering his machine. For even though his discovery of the Morlocks raises as many questions as it answers (“What, I wondered, was this Lemur doing in my scheme of a perfectly balanced organization? How was it related to the indolent serenity of the beautiful Upper-worlders? And what was hidden down there, at the foot of that shaft?”), “my mind was already in revolution; my guesses and impressions were slipping and sliding to a new adjustment. I had now a clue to the import of these wells … [and] to the mystery of the ghosts; to say nothing of a hint at the meaning of the bronze gates and the fate of the Time Machine” (5:39). Unlike the scientist who might seek to keep his original suspicion of a perfectly balanced organization intact by experimental verification, the Time Traveller lets his original theory go as he begins to make his investigation into the nature of the Morlocks more searching and minute. His acquisition of knowledge about the Morlocks and the Eloi thus presents us with a paradigm of the true scientist's approach to the world.

From the point of view of the reader, at least two additional observations should be made about the Time Traveller's decision to leave the Sphinx alone in his attempt to recover his Time Machine. First, the White Sphinx is not a monster with volition of its own (as is the Sphinx that blocks Oedipus's way); it is a statue, a symbol, a work of art. Neither the Time Traveller nor the narrator follows out the implications of this fact, but the Traveller is obviously aware that the White Sphinx manifests certain sharp variations from the classical Sphinx with which he is familiar: “the wings, instead of being carried vertically at the sides, were spread so that it seemed to hover,” and so on. Moreover, the Traveller fails to make explicit a connection between the White Sphinx and the Morlocks that the sightless eyes and diseased aspect invite. Mention of the Morlock as a “bleached, obscene, nocturnal Thing” should leave little doubt in the reader's mind that the White Sphinx is an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual condition to which man as Morlock has fallen.4 Furthermore, it would seem that the reader is justified in pointing out that the White Sphinx thus brings with it into Wells's romance the most ancient of its associations, those with the conditions of disorder or chaos. In the Enuma elish, a creation myth dating from the beginning of the second millennium before our era, the Sphinx is a monster born of Tiamat, the primordial mother and embodiment of the disorder that preceded the creation of the world. For “when Marduk had been created (‘A God was engendered, most able and wisest of gods’), Tiamat, inflamed with rage, gave birth to monsters—viper, dragon, sphinx, great lion, mad dog, scorpion-man.”5 Living under the oppression of the great order that exists among the Eloi, the Morlocks give birth to the White Sphinx, symbol of the great disorder that reigns among men in the Under-world. Thus the problem that the Traveller faces in the White Sphinx is to determine just what the nature of the disorder is that the statue projects, and the Sphinx itself will not give him the solution to that problem.

Second, the Sphinx is a symbol of science.

Science, being the wonder of the ignorant and unskillful, may not be absurdly called a monster [says Bacon]. In figure and aspect it is represented as many-shaped, in allusion to the immense variety of matter with which it deals. It is said to have the face and voice of a woman, in respect to its beauty and facility of utterance. Wings are added because the sciences and the discoveries of science spread and fly abroad in an instant; the communication of knowledge being like that of one candle with another, which lights up at once. Claws, sharp and hooked, are ascribed to it with great elegance, because the axioms and arguments of science penetrate and hold fast the mind, so that it has no means of evasion or escape.

(p. 419)

If so (and I wager that Wells intended it this way), The Time Machine presents us with a paradox so far as science itself is concerned. Here we find science diseased primarily because of the uses to which Man has put it. Symbolized in the White Sphinx, science (in the long view) is to become a mockery of its true nature: in place of a sober countenance, the Traveller finds a sly and condescending grin; the swift communication of knowledge from man to man, and from generation to generation, ceases even as Sphinx spreads her wings to show all the world that she can fly; and “that ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent mildness, even more loathsome than terrific, to the dumb gloating of [its] aspect.” These words from Moby-Dick are appropriate since what the Time Traveller beholds in the White Sphinx Ishmael beholds in the white whale:

the one visible quality in the aspect of the dead which most appals the gazer, … the marble pallor lingering there; as if indeed that pallor were as much the badge of consternation in the other world, as of mortal trepidation here. … Nor even in our superstitions do we fail to throw the same snowy mantle round our phantoms; all ghosts rising in the milk-white fog—Yea, while these terrors seize us, let us add, that even the king of terrors, when personified by the evangelist, rides on his pallid horse.6

One side of the paradox, then, has science as a shroud, dormant, corpse-like, a phantom of her true self. On the other side, however, it is only by way of science, the patient acquisition of knowledge through study of the natural world, that the Time Traveller can regain his own age and circumvent the fate prophesied for him and for all mankind in this phantom of his vision. It is by the very gifts of science—the match and the Time Machine in particular—that the Traveller not only regains his own time, but lives to tell his tale so that those with eyes to see and ears to hear may avoid the fate that was almost his.

4. If the Time Traveller's response to his predicament is representative of the scientific method of achieving discernment and knowledge, we have in The Time Machine a model of Wells's own deepest hopes for and misgivings about the nature and role of science in the modern world. If so, we cannot regard Wells's attitude in 1895 as unequivocally pessimistic. It may be that the evidence before us leaves us no alternative but to conclude that Wells was less pessimistic about science itself than he was about the use to which scientists were putting it. Certainly the Time Traveller's actions manifest what Alfred North Whitehead calls the genius of science, namely “the instinctive faith that there is an Order of Nature which can be traced in every detained occurrence.”7 The true scientist, that is, approaches the world in confidence that, in the words of Robert Andrew Millikan,

the universe is rationally intelligible, no matter how far from a complete comprehension of it we may now be, or indeed may ever come to be. [Science] believes in the absolute uniformity of nature. It views the world as a mechanism, every part and every movement of which fits in some definite, invariable way into the other parts and the other movements; and it sets itself the inspiring task of studying every phenomenon in the confident hope that the connections between it and the other phenomena can ultimately be found.8

The emphasis on instinctive faith, Order, Nature, rational intelligibility, and what Whitehead calls “a vehement and passionate interest in the relation of general principles to irreducible and stubborn facts” Wells's Time Traveller manifests in his actions. His attitude (to borrow an apt figure from Steven Marcus), expresses

the faith which our culture has inherited that there is nothing that cannot be rationally understood and thus taught and learned … Our culture is probably incorrigible in this virtually dogmatic innocence, and indeed it is difficult to imagine our own existence if we try to subtract from it the conviction that it is really highly preferable to live in the light we continue to generate rather than in the darkness we have cast out and replaced.9

From the perspective of Wells's Time Traveller, the vantage point of one who holds the match of science in his hand and is permitted to see, not the ultimate order and original form of the universe itself but merely “his hands lit and just a glimpse of himself and the patch he stands on visible,” certainty about the ultimate order of things may never be his to hold. But his patient and steady investigations into the natural order of things move him inevitably in that direction. What he must avoid is the rational manipulation of nature through experimental verification to prove the theories he holds about the ultimate order of the world of 802,701; and he must also forego the temptation to employ his knowledge of that world to mold nature to fit his own human needs. Perhaps it was because he saw science moving in the direction of serving human needs primarily that Wells became pessimistic, not about science itself but about the uses to which scientists put it.

In Wells's thinking about science (so far, at least, as The Time Machine and “The Rediscovery of the Unique” are concerned), emphasis falls not on mind, reason, order, principle, or rational intelligibility but on method, technique, technology. It is with micrometer, microscope, polarizer, and microchemical tests that the natural scientist perceives the uniqueness of otherwise apparently identical crystals of a precipitate. The Time Machine and matches serve something of the same function for the Time Traveller. “When I started with the Time Machine,” says the Traveller,

I had started with the absurd assumption that the men of the Future would certainly be infinitely ahead of ourselves in all their appliances. I had come without arms, without medicine, without anything to smoke … even without enough matches. If only I had a Kodak! I could have flashed that glimpse of the Under-world in a second, and examined it at leisure.


Appliances—arms, medicine, matches, Kodak, and the Time Machine itself—embody more significance in the Wellsian view of the nature and function of science than any idea, virtue, or particular quality of sense or sensibility supposed to be inherent in the human psyche or the universe at large. It is machinery, appliances, that provide the occasion for the sustenance, if not the creation, of that peculiar quality which makes the Morlock, however loathsome, a creature more creative and self-sustaining than the Eloi. For “the Under-world being in contact with machinery, which, however perfect, still needs some little thought outside habit, had probably retained perforce rather more initiative, if less of every other human character, than the Upper.” Surely it is this insight, arrived at by way of “learn[ing] this world,” that the Time Traveller has in mind when, after the night in the forest and the loss of Weena to the Morlocks and sitting once more on the bench of griffins' heads, he observes that “for once, at least, I grasped the mental operations of the Morlocks” (10:64). Their initiative with machinery is the clue that explains both the loss of the Time Machine and the method of its recovery. By way of the Machine the Morlocks seek to trap the Time Traveller for meat, and seeing this he walks willingly through the bronze doors which slide open at his approach, knowing that all he need do is to replace the levers that set it in motion and be returned to the 19th century, his own age.

5. The dominating presence of the White Sphinx, then, causes The Time Machine to bulge toward myth and allegory. What might otherwise have been a novel thus becomes SF or “scientific romance.” For The Time Machine begins and ends as a novel might; reality is rendered realistically as the Time Traveller's friends gather in his home and (when all is said and done) depart from it. Yet even the names of the Time Traveller's friends, which appear only at the beginning and the ending, suggest that this is more than a novel. The Time Traveller, the Medical Man, the Psychologist, the Editor, Blank, Dash, and Chose are all one-dimensional characters. Even the narrator remains nameless and impersonal since the focus of The Time Machine is not on character but on plot. For if in the novel “character is more important than action and plot,” the romance clearly “prefers action [and plot] to character.”10

Nevertheless Frank McConnell and Samuel Hynes regard The Time Machine as a novel and interpret the role of its narrator as if they were dealing with a narrative rendered realistically rather than with a romance. The narrator reacts “to the Traveller's theories and tales with ordinary doubt,” they write, because

he is simply the ordinary man refusing to acknowledge what his imagination cannot endure. So at the end he offers his own hearty but ill-founded hopes: ‘I, for my own part, cannot think that these latter days of weak experiment, fragmentary theory, and mutual discord are indeed man's culminating time!’ And he offers, as reasons for comfort, the flowers that the Traveller brought back from the Golden Age, ‘to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.’ But the reader who had read the story must feel the bitter irony of that foolish comfort; for mind and strength had indeed gone, but fear had not, and the preying of man upon man had not, and where is the comfort in that?11

In the first place, the narrator is not simply the ordinary man who doubts what his imagination cannot encompass; he is a man for whom the Time Traveller's story has had the salutary effect of putting a whole new aspect on the face of things. Far from being the one who doubts, he is the only one of the Traveller's immediate audience not to dismiss the tale of the Morlocks and the Eloi as either incredible or a lie. When the Traveller finishes his story, his audience sits around him “in the dark,” says the narrator,

and little spots of colour swam before them. The Medical Man seemed absorbed in the contemplation of our host. The Editor was looking hard at the end of his cigar—the sixth. The Journalist fumbled for his watch. The others, as far as I remember, were motionless.


Each has his attention focused on something other than the story that he has just heard. The Journalist is concerned about the lateness of the hour and of getting home. The Editor, on his way home, dismisses the story as a “gaudy lie.” Only the narrator continues to be held by the story of the Morlocks and the Eloi. “The story was so fantastic and incredible,” he says, “the telling so credible and sober. I lay awake most of the night thinking about it” (12:72). The narrator recognizes in the sober and credible manner of its telling, in its very atmosphere and tone, that the Traveller's story is not a fabrication but a faithful description of an actual experience in a real place. It is this that elicits the narrator's belief and elevates his thought to a new and unexpected level of reality. For the Time Traveller's story awakens in the narrator the twin desires “to survey the depths of space and time” and “to hold communion with other living things.”12 If when all is said and done the narrator takes comfort in anything, it is the manifold possibilities of Time Travel.

Second, this awakening of belief and desire within the narrator not only opens him to other worlds but to discipleship. He returns to the Time Traveller's house next day; he would hear and see more of this man who tells such credible and sober tales of his travels in the fantastic and incredible realm. In the Traveller the narrator recognizes a kindred spirit if not a mentor. As if in direct verification that he might be chosen for a disciple, chance affords the narrator the rare privilege, at the Time Traveller's house next day, of touching the Time Machine itself. “I stared for a minute at the Time Machine and put out my hand and touched the lever,” he says. And what happens in the moment of this touch marks the narrator as a Time Traveller too, if only in imagination. For at his touch “the squat substantial-looking mass swayed like a bough shaken by the wind.” The narrator's touch and the instantaneous movement of the machine attest to his having been awakened to the Time Traveller within himself. It is, therefore, no surprise to the reader when (subsequently) the Time Traveller says to the narrator, “I know why you came,” and then affords him the high and rare privilege of actually seeing the Traveller depart into the incredible realm once more. The narrator opens the laboratory door just as the Time Traveller departs on his second trip into the future, and here is what he sees.

I seemed to see a ghostly, indistinct figure sitting in a whirling mass of black and brass for a moment—a figure so transparent that the bench behind with its sheets of drawings was absolutely distinct; but this phantasm vanished as I rubbed my eyes. The Time Machine had gone. … I felt an unreasonable amazement. I knew that something strange had happened, and for the moment could not distinguish what the strange thing might be … Then I understood … I stayed on, waiting for the Time Traveller; waiting for the second, perhaps still stranger story, and the specimens and photographs he would bring with him.13

Third, and finally, it is not the narrator's experience here that is important in and of itself (as it would be in the novel), but the function that he serves in the narrative. He is the master link between the reader and the fantastic realm into which the Time Traveller ventures. In the manner of the Time Traveller himself, but as one who believes from hearing rather than from actual experience (as the reader must also), the narrator represents the fantastic and the incredible in a sober and credible way. It is the story that counts, not the teller of the tale, because

where the novelist would arouse our interest in character by exploring his origin, the romancer will probably do so by enveloping it in mystery. Character itself becomes, then, somewhat abstract and ideal, so much so in some romances that it seems to be merely a function of plot. The plot we may expect to be highly colored. Astonishing events may occur, and these are likely to have a symbolic or ideological, rather than a realistic, plausibility. … [Thus] the romance will more freely veer toward mythic, allegorical, and symbolic forms.14

It matters very little, then, whether the narrator is an ordinary man; what matters fundamentally is that he be a true believer. Then the reader will be confident that the story he is told, however fantastic and incredible, is rendered accurately and in minute detail, with that kind of faithfulness to mood and tone, atmosphere and incident that is commonly found in the recounting of experiences that have changed one's life. In such narrations it matters very little who the narrator is as a person, for it is the action and the story that he tells that are important. The Time Machine is just such a narration and there at its very beginning is the Sphinx, the most ancient of mythical creatures and as enigmatic to the narrator as it is to the Time Traveller himself. This mystery is passed on directly to the reader. And the reader is left not with the burden of having to believe or not believe, but with the very same obligation that has fallen to the Time Traveller and to the narrator in his turn: each must make some sense of the riddle thus posed. The Time Traveller makes sense of it all by way of leaving the Sphinx alone. The narrator's mode of making sense is, in the best mythological sense, wonderful participation in the Time Traveller's experience through a faithful rendering of it. But the reader must face the Sphinx directly if he is to make sense, as I have tried to do here, of its peculiar kind of sense-making.


  1. H. G. Wells, Three Novels: The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Doctor Moreau (London: Heinemann, 1963), 3:18.

  2. In Francis Bacon: Selected Writings, with an Introduction and Notes by Hugh G. Dick (NY: The Modern Library, 1955), pp. 417-20.

  3. In H. G. Wells, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds: A Critical Edition, ed. Frank D. McConnell (NY: Oxford, 1977), p. 344.

  4. See Robert M. Philmus, Into the Unknown: The Evolution of Science Fiction from Francis Godwin to H. G. Wells (Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1970), in which it is argued that what I have called “fallen” should be understood as “devolution,” as the “gradual reduction of Homo sapiens to species lower and lower on the evolutionary scale” (pp. 70ff.). Philmus points out that the Time Traveller views man's decline as “degeneration”; Wells's own term for this process was “degradation”—all of which goes to show that the White Sphinx forces author, protagonist, reader and critic to formulate his own answer to the riddle of man's future.

  5. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (NY, 1967), p. 178.

  6. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale.”

  7. Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (NY, 1958), p. 4.

  8. Robert Andrew Millikan, “The Spirit of Modern Science,” in Science and Literature, ed. Frederick H. Law (NY, 1929), p. 311.

  9. In a review of Havelock Ellis: A Biography, New York Times Book Review, June 22, 1980, p. 29.

  10. Richard Chase, The American Novel and its Tradition (NY, 1957), p. 13. Even though Chase is concerned primarily with American romance, his guiding assumption is “that the American novel is obviously a development from the English tradition” (p. 3), a tradition of which Wells is no small part.

  11. In McConnell, The Time Machine, pp. 352-53.

  12. J. R. R. Tolkien argues that these desires are basic both to the creation and the appreciation of Fantasy or Fairy-Stories. “Eloi and Morlocks live far away in an abyss of time so deep as to work an enchantment upon them. … This enchantment of distance, especially of distant time, is weakened only by the preposterous and incredible Time Machine itself. But we see in this example one of the main reasons why the borders of fairy-story are inevitably dubious. The magic of Faerie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires,” in particular the desires mentioned above. “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (NY: Ballantine, 1966), p. 13.

  13. There is a strong suggestion here that the Time Traveller thus becomes to the narrator as the Hebrew prophet, Elijah, is to his disciple, Elisha. “Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I can do for you before I am taken from you.’ Elisha said, ‘Let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’ ‘You have asked a hard thing,’ said Elijah. ‘If you see me taken from you, may your wish be granted; if you do not, it shall not be granted.’ They went on, talking as they went, and suddenly there appeared chariots of fire and horses of fire, which separated them one from the other, and Elijah was carried up in the whirlwind to heaven” (II Kings 2:9-12).

  14. Chase, loc. cit. (see note 10).

John Huntington (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: Huntington, John. Chapter on The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells. In The Logic of Fantasy: H. G. Wells and Science Fiction, pp. 41-55. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

[In the following essay, Huntington perceives Wells's view of life in the future found in The Time Machine as a simplification of issues relevant at the time of the novella's publication.]

Wells's use of balanced opposition and symbolic mediation as a way of thinking finds its most perfect form in The Time Machine. If the novella imagines a future, it does so not as a forecast but as a way of contemplating the structures of our present civilization.1 At one level The Time Machine presents a direct warning about the disastrous potential of class division. But at a deeper level it investigates large questions of difference and domination, and rather than settling the issues, it constructs unresolvable conflicts that return us to the central dilemmas that have characterized the evolutionary debate. …

The Time Traveller's insights into the benefits of civilization are paradoxical. In his first interpretation of the meaning and structure of the world of 802,701 he finds a complex pleasure in the union of idyllic ease and evolutionary decline:

To adorn themselves with flowers, to dance, to sing in the sunlight; so much was left of the artistic spirit, and no more. Even that would fade in the end into a contented inactivity. We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity, and, it seemed to me, that here was that hateful grindstone broken at last!

(p. 43)

If there is regret at lost keenness here, there is also joy at escaped hardship. By the end of the novella, when he realizes that the decline has not conferred quite the benefits he anticipated and that the structure of civilization has degenerated into a primitive horror in which the Morlocks, the slothlike descendents of the laboring class, slaughter and eat the Eloi, the species descended from the upper classes, he entertains a different set of conflicting emotions. Now he balances a sense of the ironic justice of this situation with an irrational sympathy for the humanoid Eloi:

Then I tried to preserve myself from the horror that was coming upon me, by regarding it as a rigorous punishment of human selfishness. Man had been content to live in ease and delight upon the labours of his fellow-man, had taken Necessity as his watchword and excuse, and in the fulness of time Necessity had come home to him. I even tried a Carlyle-like scorn of this wretched aristocracy-in-decay. But this attitude of mind was impossible. However great their intellectual degradation, the Eloi had kept too much of the human form not to claim my sympathy, and to make me perforce a sharer in their degradation and their Fear.

(p. 81)

If the moral view, which would find satisfaction in the Eloi enslavement, is not adequate to the situation, it nevertheless works against the sense of pity, which is also, in itself, inadequate. Such nodes of conflicting insights and feelings are the expressions of tensions developed by the brutal oppositions on which the whole novella is built.

We can isolate two large, separate realms of opposition which operate in The Time Machine. One, essentially spatial, consists of the conflict between the Eloi and the Morlocks. Though the Time Traveller first views the 802,701 world as free from opposition, the novella traces his discovery of the radical oppositions that actually define that world; what begins as a vision of benign decay and carefree pastoral ends up as a vision of entrapment wherein the economic divisions of the present have become biological and territorial. The other opposition is temporal; it entails the opposition between the civilization of 1895 and a set of increasingly less civilized, more purely natural worlds of the future. Of these, the world of the Eloi-Morlock conflict is of course the most important. Towards the end of the novella the Time Traveller moves further into the future; he sees darkness and cold advance on the earth until life is diminished to huge, sluggish crabs and then finally to a football-sized organism that hops fitfully on the tideless shore.2

Because the Time Traveller arrives in 802,701, not by a process of incremental progressions, but by a single leap, the structure of the novella poses a puzzle: what is the relation of the future to the present? The Time Traveller and the reader are engaged in the same activity: they try to understand the nature of the temporal contrast presented and then to discover connections. Like evolutionary biologists, they must first understand what distinguishes two species and then they must reconstruct the evolutionary sequence that links them; the difference between Eohippus and the modern horse is like that between the modern human and the Eloi or the Morlocks. Unlike the biologist, however, the Time Traveller and the reader are engaged in negotiating a pattern more complex than a simple genealogical sequence. We must figure out what bonds exist amidst the differences between the Time Traveller and his and our distant grandchildren. The mental act of reconstructing the evolutionary connection involves more than just taxonomic description; it is not simply a perceiving of a pure two-world system; it entails examining a whole series of ambiguous moral conflicts.

During the course of the novella, as the truth reveals itself and the meanings of the discovered oppositions change, one relation between the present and the future persists: the future is a reduction of the present.3 The future offers a simplification of issues that is much like that which occurs in conventional pastoral: economic and social complexities have disappeared, and the issues of the world are those determined by elementary human nature. But to compare The Time Machine to a pastoral is somewhat misleading; though both diminish the importance of civilized forms and conventions, in The Time Machine the main agent of change is a biological regression not found in the conventional pastoral. The inhabitants of the future have lost much of the erotic, intellectual, and moral energy that we generally associate with human beings and which it is the purpose of the usual pastoral to liberate. The society of the future is reduced to what in 1895 might be considered childish needs and pleasures, and it is under the terms of this radical diminution that the systems of spatial opposition work.

Such a reduction certainly simplifies social issues, but the first question it raises is how human or how bestial are these distant cousins of present-day humanity. The split between the Eloi and the Morlocks raises this question from opposite directions: the Eloi seem subhumans, the Morlocks superanimals. The Time Traveller certainly considers Weena the most human creature he finds in the future, but as he acknowledges, he tends to think of her as more human than she is.4 Her humanoid appearance tends to obscure how much she is a pet rather than a human companion. At the other extreme, the Morlocks, though they too are supposedly descended from present-day humanity, because they look like sloths, always seem bestial to the Time Traveller. For much of his time in 802,701 he does not realize their importance; he treats them first as “ghosts,” then as lower animals, then as servants to the Eloi. Even at the end when he comprehends their domination of the Eloi he never really conceives of them as human. Thus the novella sets up a symmetrical illusion: the Eloi, because of their appearance, seem more human than they are; the Morlocks, again because of appearance, seem less.

The Time Traveller's relation to the Eloi engages special problems because it involves, not simply identification, but affection across the abyss of species difference. Critics have found the Time Traveller's attention to his “little woman” disturbing and have treated the hints of repressed sexuality, of pedophilia, as a novelistic blunder.5 I would suggest, however, that the unease generated by this relationship is apt, for at issue is the whole puzzle of human relations to nonhumans. The Time Traveller himself is confused by Weena. He can treat her as an equal and contemplate massacring Morlocks when he loses her, but he also forgets her easily. The tension and the ambiguities of their relationship derive from the impossibility of defining either an identity or a clear difference. To render such a state Wells plays on the inherently ambiguous relationship between adults and children.

The puzzle of Weena's sexuality is reflected and reversed by the Time Traveller's relation to the Morlocks. When he first meets the Eloi he allows them to touch him: “I felt other soft little tentacles upon my back and shoulders. They wanted to make sure I was real. There was nothing in this at all alarming” (p. 30). Similar behavior by the Morlocks, however, leads the Time Traveller to an hysterical smashing of skulls. At first, the touch of the Morlocks is hardly distinguishable from that of the Eloi: it is as if “sea anemones were feeling over my face with their soft palps” (p. 57). But this same intimate approach becomes sinister as the Time Traveller becomes aware of the Morlocks' real intent, and he feels horror later, at night in the forest, when he becomes aware that “Soft little hands, too, were creeping over my coat and back, touching even my neck” (p. 93). The reasons for the different reactions to this intimate approach are obvious; what we need to observe, however, is the area of identity here. If the repressed sexuality of the relation with Weena leads to a passive and childish activity (weaving flowers, dancing to burning matches), the Morlocks' almost seductive aggression leads to an antipathy which generates violence and ingenious invention.6

The central mystery of Eloi and Morlock humanity and of the Time Traveller's relation to it is emblematized by the statue of the sphinx that the Time Traveller sees when he first arrives in 802,701. The symbol works at a number of levels. It stands for the paradox of a progress that is a regression: the future is represented by a monument that we associate with early civilization. Thus, the future is a return to the past, to the childhood, so to speak, of human society. The sphinx herself is also a poser of riddles: when Oedipus met her she asked him the riddle of man who appears in different forms. This connection is clearly in Wells's mind, for no sooner has the Time Traveller seen the statue than he begins speculating about the possibilities of the human form in this distant future. But it is in her own appearance that the sphinx raises the most perplexing puzzle, for she represents a literal combination of human and animal: woman and lion. We ask whether Weena is a woman or not, whether a Morlock is a beast or not; here in the sphinx we have a creature which is both. The sphinx marks the cut; it is a union of a crucial opposition and, like the flying man, points to the possibility of transcending the contradiction. This important mediating symbolism is repeated in a striking but diminished form by the statue of a Faun which the Time Traveller later discovers (p. 77), another literal mixture of human and animal.7

Just as the sphinx and the faun render visually the puzzle of the relation of human and beast and offer a union of the supposed dichotomy, they also denote the areas of human and animal activity that have been diminished by the decline into the future. The sphinx, the poser of riddles, is a figure of the very intellectual prowess that the childish creatures of the future lack. Similarly, the faun embodies the sexual energy that is noticeably absent. Thus, while the statues link the human and the animal, they do so ironically; they suggest a potential for accomplishment and for civilization of which the Eloi and the Morlocks are biologically incapable.

While such issues of the relation of present-day humanity to these future creatures pervade the novella, the opposition between the Eloi and the Morlocks themselves, of which the Time Traveller becomes increasingly aware as he learns more about the future's underworld, has an important social meaning. In the split between the two species we see a split intrinsic to technological civilization itself. This is no dark secret of the tale, of course:8 the Time Traveller's final interpretation of how the split developed refers directly back to the division of labor in contemporary England. But the values that initially caused the split persist in the far future, and, in ways that are not generally recognized, the two species represent and at the same time parody values that belong, not merely to British capitalist civilization, but to all technological cultures. Though the Morlocks are hairy, have an apelike posture, cannot bear light, and live in burrows of a sort, any simple equation of them with the lower animals won't do. They live amidst thudding machines, and their habitat is artificially ventilated. The passage down which the Time Traveller climbs to visit them has a ladder with iron rungs. Unlike the Eloi, the Morlocks function as a group; they are individually weak, but they cooperate. Thus, though their specific intellectual and emotional capacities remain largely unknown, symbolically they subsume one aspect of what we admire in civilization: organized technological mastery. And the Eloi with their trivial, careless aestheticism embody the alternative leisure aspect of civilization, the pure delight in beauty, gaity, play. They live for these and as much as possible avoid even thinking about necessity and pain. The Morlock-Eloi split may be the result of today's class divisions, but in its final form it expresses two high and apparently contradictory values of human civilization: mastery and aesthetic leisure.9

The landscape of the future becomes an extension of the contradictions represented in Eloi and Morlock. The surface of the countryside, while much hedged and walled, is devoid of meaningful divisions; the ruined castles of the Eloi hardly differentiate inside and outside; at one time the Time Traveller even gets lost because the field in which he has landed is indistinguishable from any other; only the presence of the statue of the sphinx defines it. But a radically different world exists beneath the Eloi pastoral, and so it is down that the Time Traveller must go to find an alternative. Up and down, therefore, become an important expression of the basic Eloi-Morlock opposition. The same opposition is expressed in the opposition between light and dark. The imbalance of the opposition is symbolized by the fact that the Morlocks can intrude on the Eloi above-ground preserve at night.

The cut between the two opposed realms is marked most concretely by the strange palace of green porcelain that the Time Traveller visits when seeking to recover his lost time machine. The building is made of material that reminds the Time Traveller of Chinese porcelain and has an oriental look to it; it seems a special version of the palaces the Eloi inhabit. But within this aestheticized exterior is a museum of technology, a “latter-day South Kensington.” It thus partakes of both the worlds of Eloi aesthetics and Morlock technology. But most importantly it blurs the line between up and down. As he walks along one of the galleries, the Time Traveller finds himself unexpectedly underground. He confesses he wasn't even aware of the slope. And then, as if to underline the importance of this transition, but also to offer a new way of treating it, the editor, a person who appears nowhere else in the novella, supplies a curious footnote: “It may be, of course, that the floor did not slope—but that the museum was built into the side of a hill” (p. 85). By translating the up-down division into a lateral one, the museum ingeniously mediates the division's absolute separation. That is not to say that it resolves the split: Weena is still afraid of the dark, and the Time Traveller retreats back to the light. But it is an important symbolic possibility in an otherwise destructive and rigid opposition.

Though a treasury of the present in the future, the museum of green porcelain also stands for the important mediating possibilities of modern technology in the face of the future's natural antithesis. The diminished intelligence of the creatures of the future prevents them from understanding or using the museum; only the Time Traveller is capable of realizing the museum's potential. The Time Traveller thus becomes the main mediator in the future system of static oppositions because by means of his human intelligence, passion, and morality he is able to bridge its dichotomies. He reconciles in himself the masterful and aesthetic aspects of culture that are at war in the future: at the end of the story he displays to his audience a flower, the token of Eloi aestheticism and affection, but he also vigorously demands a piece of meat, a token of Morlock carnivorousness. The future is a horror in part because the divisions that are for us in the present still capable of modification and correction have become a purely natural competition, a predatory antithesis that does not allow for exchange or change. The Time Traveller offers some hope because by using tools and by acting ethically he is able to break down the bounds of the otherwise rigid, hostile evolutionary categories.

It is his mastery of fire that gives the Time Traveller his most distinctive mediating power. That power is complex, however, and as in the cases of the other mediating images, involves contradiction and operates on a number of planes of meaning simultaneously. In The Time Machine fire defines civilized humanity. It is an image of both domestic security and war. It has an aesthetic function and a technological one. Finally, it is an emblem of the paradox of degenerative progress that dominates the whole novella.

The Time Traveller himself makes the link between fire and present-day humanity when he observes how rare fire is in nature:

I don't know if you have ever thought what a rare thing flame must be in the absence of man and in a temperate climate. The sun's heat is rarely strong enough to burn, even when it is focussed by dewdrops, as is sometimes the case in more tropical districts. Lightning may blast and blacken, but it rarely gives rise to wide-spread fire. Decaying vegetation may occasionally smoulder with the heat of its fermentation, but this rarely results in flame. In this decadence, too, the art of fire-making had been forgotten on the earth. The red tongues that went licking up my heap of wood were an altogether new and strange thing to Weena.

(p. 92)

Implicit in the absence of fire is the question we have looked at earlier of the actual “humanity” of either the Eloi or the Morlocks. In this formulation of the issue, fire is a symbol of human control over nature, a control that the future has lost. Such innocence has ambiguous value; earlier in the story, before the Time Traveller has realized that the Eloi are victims, he approves of such ignorance. It is night; he has lost his time machine; searching for it he blunders into the dilapidated hall of the Eloi and, after striking a match, demands his machine from them. Their confusion conveys two things to him: that “they had forgotten about matches” and that they had forgotten about fear (p. 46). The link between the two forgettings is casual but significant. To forget about matches is to lose as aspect of today's technology, to revert to a primitive state in which tools are unknown. But to forget fear, one would expect, is to live in a world of complete security, to have escaped the primitive natural situation in which fear is necessary for survival. Thus, while the forgetting of matches suggests regression, the forgetting of fear suggests progress. At this early stage in his acquaintance with the future the Time Traveller interprets both forgettings as the privileges of progress, as the evidence of a carefree pastoral idyll. Under these circumstances the paradox that progress has led to regression is not dismaying.

So long as he does not understand the real situation of the future the Time Traveller has no conception of the importance his mastery of fire has, and he uses his matches merely to entertain the Eloi, to make them dance and laugh. The irony of such trivialization is that it actually prevents knowledge, as is clear in the following passage:

I proceeded, as I have said, to question Weena about this Underworld, but here again I was disappointed. At first she would not understand my questions, and presently she refused to answer them. She shivered as though the topic was unendurable. And when I pressed her, perhaps a little harshly, she burst into tears. They were the only tears, except my own, I ever saw in that Golden Age. When I saw them I ceased abruptly to trouble about the Morlocks, and was only concerned in banishing these signs of her human inheritance from Weena's eyes. And very soon she was smiling and clapping her hands, while I solemnly burned a match.

(p. 66)

By using fire as a toy the Time Traveller diverts Weena from exhibiting “signs of her human inheritance.” His instinct to avert tears is understandable, but the completeness with which the concern for Weena's innocence overrides the concern with the facts about the Morlocks has signs of panic. The other time that the Time Traveller uses matches to entertain the Eloi is also after they have been “distressed” by his inquiries about the Morlocks (p. 61). In both cases the match is used for entertainment at the expense of further knowledge, to sustain a complacent happiness which is, in fact, an illusion.

Though he is capable of using matches to preserve an innocent decorum, the Time Traveller is not simply a Victorian gentleman intent on preventing children from learning or expressing the grim truth. The match may be a toy, but it is also an instrument for seeing. When he first looks for the time machine the Time Traveller uses a match. When he looks down one of the Morlock wells he uses a match. And when he enters the underworld he uses a match: “The view I had [of the Morlocks' cavern] was as much as one could see in the burning of a match” (p. 70). When two paragraphs later he chides himself for coming to the future ill-equipped, the Time Traveller emphasizes the importance of matches for his investigation: though he might prefer a “kodak,” the match, feeble as it is, is the single “tool” that he has brought. For the Time Traveller to be master of fire is for him to have an intellectual dominance, and the safety match becomes a symbol of that aspect of present-day technology.

Intellectual dominance leads to other kinds of dominance. The ambiguous potential of fire is most forcefully realized when the Time Traveller uses it, not for entertaining or seeing, but as a weapon. The match becomes an important defensive tool which allows the Time Traveller to move across the boundaries of this world. And after he visits the green porcelain palace and comes away with matches and camphor, the Time Traveller begins to use fire as a tool of aggression. With the intention of “amaz[ing] our friends,” he sets a pile of wood on fire. Now when Weena wants to dance and play with the light, the Time Traveller prevents her. A little later he is forced to start a second fire.

What is important for our understanding of the symbol is that the fires fail him in diametrically opposite ways. The second, beside which he goes to sleep, goes out and the Morlocks, unhindered by the fire, almost overcome him. But the first, forgotten and left behind, starts a forest fire which threatens to destroy even the Time Traveller himself. We have here an expression of the danger of dependence on the very technology that allows for mastery: it can either fail to perform even its elementary expectations, or it can go wild and overperform. In both cases the human is betrayed by his own technological sophistication. Fire, which up to this point has been a symbol of technology's ability to mediate, here develops its own destructive opposition between too much and too little. The puzzle that a dependence on technology presents is again rendered a little later in the novella when the Time Traveller, mounted on the time machine's saddle, confidently tries to light a match to drive off the assaulting Morlocks and discovers that he has safety matches that won't strike without the box.

Yet it is just at the moments when fire gets out of control that the Time Traveller performs his most radical mediations. When the fire goes out he is forced to lay about with his other tool, a makeshift club, and when he is overtaken by the forest fire he comes to feel pity for the Morlocks. In both cases, though in different ways, he bridges the distance between himself and these alien beings.

In the first instance what starts as an act of self-defence becomes more aggressive until the Time Traveller is enjoying destroying others:

It was indescribably horrible in the darkness to feel all these soft creatures heaped upon me. I felt as if I was in a monstrous spider's web. I was overpowered, and went down. I felt little teeth nipping at my neck. I rolled over, and as I did so my hand came against my iron lever. It gave me strength. I struggled up, shaking the human rats from me, and holding the bar short, I thrust where I judged their faces might be. I could feel the succulent giving of flesh and bone under my blows, and for a moment I was free.

(p. 95)

The striking word, “succulent,” in the last sentence conveys both the pleasure the Time Traveller gets from such battery and the strange similarity between such violent activity and Morlock cannibalism. The Time Traveller here reveals himself as like the Morlocks and quite unlike the passionless and passive Eloi.

A more direct acknowledgment of his union with the Morlocks occurs after the first fire overtakes them all and the Time Traveller stops clubbing the “human rats” and becomes a victim with them. “I followed in the Morlocks' path” (p. 96). In the face of the larger catastrophe of the forest fire, the discriminations and hostilities that have kept the Time Traveller and the Morlocks apart are abandoned, and the Time Traveller, “assured of their absolute helplessness and misery in the glare,” refrains from his aggressions. Even when the thought of the “awful fate” of Weena whom he has lost in the confusion moves him “to begin a massacre of the helpless abominations” about him, the Time Traveller “contains” himself.

The logical distinctions to be made at this point are complex. The Time Traveller is both identical with the Morlocks and separate from them. In the morning, exhausted, shoeless, with grass tied to his feet to protect them from the hot soil, he is only remotely the master scientist. He has been reduced to a bare forked thing and forced to acknowledge his bond in suffering with the other creatures of this world. But with the difference between himself and the Morlocks overwhelmed by their common fate as victims of the fire, the Time Traveller reasserts a distinction, not by exhibiting mastery of some sort over the others, but by restraining himself, by mastering his own brutal nature.

The Time Traveller's self-control has a complex symbolic function. It marks his difference from both Morlock and Eloi, since neither species seems capable of such conscious mastery of the self. It is his ability—a distinctly human ability—to bridge distinctions, to recognize an area of identity within a difference, that sets him apart from the other forms of life which will presumably remain locked in opposition. The Time Traveller is able to assert an ethical view in the face of the evolutionary competition that rules the future. He offers the promise of, if not resolving, at least comprehending the problems inherent in the conflict between evolution and ethics. In place of absolute antagonism between classes and between species, he acknowledges momentarily the bonds that extend across those divisions. Such an act of sympathizing with a different creature is an important gesture in Wells; we will explore it more fully in the next chapter. What interests us right now, however, is not the particular thematic issue, but its structural fitness: the act both acknowledges difference and momentarily bridges that difference. In this way it reflects the central pattern of The Time Machine itself: its art is to create emblems of difference and separation and then to meditate on the balances, the antitheses and the identities that are possible.

In saying that reconciling both sides of a conflict is the central act of The Time Machine, I do not mean to suggest that the novella is without explicit moral point. The Time Traveller's latest interpretation of the division between Eloi and Morlock foresees and fears the transformation of an economic social division into a biological one, of an ethical issue into an evolutionary one. Clearly, Wells's moral point here is to impress on an audience which tends to accept the economic divisions of civilization as “natural” the horror of what it would mean if that division were truly natural. More narrowly, one may perhaps legitimately examine the novella as a treatise on possible evolutionary directions and study it as a prediction of sorts. But in isolating such moral ideas in the novella, one needs to be aware of the danger of distorting the deepest mechanisms of Wells's imagination: he is not the sort of writer who hides an esoteric meaning which is available only to the painstaking exegete. The difficulty one has deriving a clear reading of the future from The Time Machine comes from the large, unresolved oppositions of the tale. Instead of trying to “settle” ambiguities, to find out the one true reading, we should focus on the specific and powerful contradictions the story sets up. To see contradiction clearly in all its appalling and irresolvable conflict, and then to try by whatever imaginative means possible to mediate that disjunction: that is the true and deep moral of The Time Machine.

In the last paragraphs of the novella Wells offers us an explicit instance of how to read this way, to accept both sides of a contradiction. The Time Traveller has disappeared on his second journey three years ago, and the narrator speculates about his fate.10 Wells here enforces ambiguity. And one understands why: any plot resolution would resolve the earlier tensions in such a way as to diminish the complexity of the whole vision. In this final stasis of opposition, not only does the frame distance us, as Robert Philmus has argued,11 but the narrator proposes an attitude diametrically contrary to that of the Time Traveller. “I, for my own part,” the narrator confesses,

cannot think that these latter days of weak experiment, fragmentary theory, and mutual discord are indeed man's culminating time! I say, for my own part. He, I know—for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made—thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end.

(p. 117)

Here again we see the two attitudes of promise and hubris implicit in the symbolism of the matches. And then the narrator tries to combine the two in a single stance: if the Time Traveller's vision of bleak decline is the true one, the narrator argues, “it remains for us to live as though it were not so.” He finally settles on an image that echoes the more hellish imagery of the novella itself and also alludes to the image of the feeble light shed by the match of science at the end of “The Rediscovery of the Unique”: “But to me the future is still black and blank—is a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places by the memory of his story.”12

We see Wells here balancing pessimism and optimism. But the novella achieves an even more essential balance between a vision of change and a vision of no change. If we recall the two realms of opposition with which we began this essay, we can see that they themselves create an opposition. The horror of the split between the Eloi and the Morlocks lies in the fact that the divisions of modern civilization have not changed but have, by a process of speciation, become intrinsic in nature. But the other opposition, that between the present and the future, is a vision of change, of entropic decline. The first opposition implies that the essential injustice, the conflict of classes, will not change. On the other hand, the second opposition argues that in spite of all humans might do, things will change. The processes of entropy and evolution will continue, and any vision of humanity's place in the universe must take into account these large movements that are outside our control. This conflict between a vision of change and a vision of stasis undermines any simple thematic reading at the deepest level. Viewed as a prediction, the novella contradicts itself: the economic pessimism foresees a grim permanence; the cosmic pessimism sees an equally grim movement. And if the cosmic has the last word, that does not disqualify the economic: in terms of mere hundreds of thousands of years the cosmic process, by dividing the classes into species, merely confirms the continuity of the economic. Only on the scale of millions of years does the division of classes cease to be a controlling factor. So we face a problem as we try to derive a message from The Time Machine. But the problem is not a flaw: such unresolved, antithetical conflict is central to the way Wells's imagination works and gives his fiction a profundity, based on the ambiguities of human desire and experience, that is rare in thought about the future.

It may help us see exactly what Wells has achieved in The Time Machine if we briefly observe how George Pal in his film of The Time Machine (1960) avoids facing the very conflicts that define Wells's work. First of all, Pal erases the issue of evolution and ethics by making the Morlocks monsters and the Eloi simply badly educated humans. Though for a while the film allows us to think there may be a genetic problem, by the end the Eloi, who have spoken English from the beginning, show that they are human in every way: they become social; Weena, a starlet, falls in love; a male Eloi learns to fight; they use records (the talking rings); and in the end the Time Traveller (here H. George Wells) returns with books to repair the educational gap that has prevented the Eloi from succeeding. These people are not involved in any evolutionary or cosmic process; they are simply humans living in a “dark age.” And while the Eloi are beautiful humans who can be reindoctrinated, the Morlocks represent nothing but horror. More than simply a softening of Wells's pessimism has taken place here: the intellectual tensions of the conflicts, both between the present and the future and between the values represented by the Eloi and the Morlocks, have disappeared.

If Pal ignores the biological issue so central to Wells, he evades the economic issue as well. In place of Wells's vision of class difference developing into species difference, Pal gives us a vague history of the first part of our century as it is defined by its wars. We know that the wars went on and that the bombs got more destructive until finally the human race “split.” The conflict is not in capitalism itself, but in the opposition of capitalism and communism. The clear hint is that the Morlocks are, loosely, the Russians; the story of the Time Traveller's final return to revive Eloi culture is, thus, an allegory of the liberation of peoples oppressed by totalitarian communism. The sense of catastrophe, individual, social, racial, cosmic, that so darkens Wells's end, is entirely missing from Pal's. Like Nunez in Wells's “The Country of the Blind,” the film George seeks a society he can dominate, and this time there seems no chance of the kind of ironic development that keeps Nunez from ruling the country of the blind.

It is important that we understand how Pal has changed the very nature of the story's thought. Wells's myth develops systematically a set of logical oppositions as a way of making us confront contradictions latent in our society and begin to think anew about our civilization, but Pal's myth lacks a logical base; our values and our civilization, except that they have wars, are not questioned. The future need only be returned to the present for all to be well; it can be “cured” by discipline and books. Wells has created a static nightmare which has the virtue of forcing us to reconsider our own world; Pal, by envisioning a change, a restoration, has freed himself from that stasis but has also avoided thought about the need for change in the present or the future. He has robbed Wells's story of the essence of its conflict and replaced intellectual tension with melodramatic conventions that inspire unreflective affirmation.


  1. The novella has often been casually lumped with other of Wells's more obviously prophetic novels. The Dover text is entitled, Three Prophetic Novels of H. G. Wells and includes along with The Time Machine, “A Story of the Days to Come” and When the Sleeper Wakes. The urge to see the novella as a serious exercise in extrapolation of the potentials of the human future persists. On the other hand, Robert Philmus, “The Logic of ‘Prophecy’ in The Time Machine,” in Bernard Bergonzi, ed., H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976), pp. 56-68, despite his title, is not concerned with prediction. What he calls the “dimension of ‘prophecy’” (p. 65) is a narrative device common to much fiction.

  2. The structure of this decline has been analysed by Darko Suvin in “The Time Machine versus Utopia as Structural Models for SF,” in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, pp. 223-33.

  3. The argument of this paragraph owes much to Fredric Jameson's seminal essay, “World Reduction in Le Guin: The Emergence of Utopian Narrative,” Science-Fiction Studies (1975), 2:221-30.

  4. “She always seemed to me, I fancy, more human than she was, perhaps because her affection was so human.” The Time Machine, p. 82.

  5. V. S. Pritchett's distaste for the “Faint squirms of idyllic petting” has found numerous sympathetic readers. See Pritchett's “The Scientific Romances,” The Living Novel, p. 125.

  6. Even when he meets the Eloi, the Time Traveller's first thoughts are violent: “They looked so frail that I could fancy flinging the whole dozen of them about like nine-pins” (p. 30). The obvious but important difference between this “fancy” and his treatment of the Morlocks is that here he is able to resist acting on such fantasies.

  7. Mark M. Hennelly, Jr., “The Time Machine: A Romance of ‘the Human Heart,’” Extrapolation (1979), 20:154-67, has observed the Sphinx and the faun as “unification of dual nature” (p. 163).

    The Sphinx may have been suggested to Wells by a passage in Huxley: “However shocking to the moral sense this eternal competition of man against man and of nation against nation may be; however revolting may be the accumulation of misery at the negative pole of society, in contrast with that of monstrous wealth at the positive pole; this state of things must abide, and grow continually worse, so long as Istar holds her way unchecked. It is the true riddle of the Sphinx; and every nation which does not solve it will sooner or later be devoured by the monster itself has generated.” “The Struggle for Existence in Human Society” (1888), in Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays, p. 212.

  8. Bergonzi has sketched some basic oppositions: “The opposition of Eloi and Morlocks can be interpreted in terms of the late nineteenth-century class struggle, but it also reflects an opposition between aestheticism and utilitarianism, pastoralism and technology, contemplation and action, and ultimately, and least specifically, between beauty and ugliness, and light and darkness.” The Early H. G. Wells, p. 61. Contemplation hardly seems appropriate to describe the Eloi.

  9. This is a recurrent opposition and puzzle in science fiction of this century. See my “From Man to Overmind: Arthur C. Clarke's Myth of Progress,” in Joseph D. Olander and Martin Greenberg, eds., Arthur C. Clarke (New York: Taplinger, 1977), pp. 211-22.

  10. No hint is given by the Time Traveller of the destination of his second voyage into time. Philmus, perhaps influenced by George Pal's film of 1960 (discussed below), twice suggests he returns to 802,701 (“The Logic of ‘Prophecy’ in The Time Machine,” pp. 57, 67), but that seems doubtful. Such a return is certainly not one of the possibilities the narrator imagines in the “Epilogue.”

  11. “The Logic of ‘Prophecy’ in The Time Machine,” p. 67.

  12. See the last paragraph of “The Rediscovery of the Unique,” Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction, pp. 30-31, discussed in chapter 1 above.

Robert J. Begiebing (essay date fall 1984)

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SOURCE: Begiebing, Robert J. “The Mythic Hero in H. G. Wells's The Time Machine.Essays in Literature 11, no. 2 (fall 1984): 201-10.

[In the following essay, Begiebing discusses the Time Traveller as the archetype of the mythic hero.]

In 1915 Van Wyck Brooks hinted at an important quality of H. G. Wells's vision when he said that the author's intelligence is “exuberant” with a “very genuine religious instinct” that Wells “lavished” upon “the social process itself.” And in 1922 and 1946 two foreign writers, Evgeny Zamyatin and Jorge Luis Borges, commented on Wells's timeless symbolic processes and mythmaking. But it was in the 1960's that critics began to focus on the archetypal dimensions of Wells's “scientific romances.” Bernard Bergonzi argued in 1960 and 1961 that Wells's early fantasies were closer to the fables of Hawthorne, Melville, and Kafka than to science. In support of his argument, Bergonzi quoted both V. S. Pritchett, who saw The Time Machine as a “great story … that has meanings within meanings,” and Edward Shanks, who saw Wells as a “mythmaker.” Bergonzi's mythic analysis focused on the “paradisal and demonic” imagery in Wells's first novel and the ironic use of the pastoral myth of the Golden Age. Bergonzi also reminded us that Wells contrasted himself to Jules Verne (whom Wells saw as dealing with “possible things” based on present science) by placing his own work in the class of the Golden Ass of Apuleius, True Histories of Lucian, and Frankenstein. Since Bergonzi, critics such as Patrick Parrinder and Robert Philmus have written of Wells's “barrier-breaking heroes,” “ideological fables,” “primordialism,” and “mythic mode.” And in the later 70's Jean-Pierre Vernier, agreeing with Bergonzi's view of the ironic pastoral myth, argued that The Time Machine awakens “archetypal responses in the reader.”1

Wells's biographers Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie also have argued that Wells is distinguished by the “symbolic power” of his stories. The MacKenzies remind us that Wells compared his early creative process to a dreaming in which, the MacKenzies say, “powerful and primitive emotions were translated” into visual images and “patterns of archetypal thought,” a pattern of thought Wells himself intimated in his Preface to The Country of the Blind and Other Stories in 1911:

I found that, taking almost anything as a starting point and letting my thoughts play about it, there would presently come out of the darkness, in a manner quite inexplicable, some absurd or vivid little nucleus. Little men in canoes upon sunlit oceans …, violent conflicts would break out amidst the flowerbeds of suburban gardens; I would discover I was peering into remote and mysterious worlds ruled by an order logical indeed but other than our common sanity.2

I am suggesting that if there can be little doubt now about the archetypal dimension of Wells's scientific romances, then clarifying one so far unexamined but central mythic pattern in The Time Machine may increase our understanding of that novel's unity and power, and, subordinately, may make one connection, perhaps not adequately recognized, between Wells's first novel and much of his later work. The mythic pattern I refer to is that which Joseph Campbell calls the great “monomyth” of the hero. Wells's otherwise nameless Time Traveller is, to use Wells's own phrase, one of “the active, strong, and subtle.” By his violent journey into a mysterious and misunderstood dimension, the hero gains a wisdom that could, but probably will not, be the salvation of his species. And it was just this salvation of his species to which H. G. Wells later devoted his lifework, a devotion for which he was, finally, censured and ridiculed.

Although he wears the face and dress of a late nineteenth-century scientist, the Time Traveller exhibits at least three characteristics of the primordial heroic figure. These characteristics, as they appear in the art and religion of diverse cultures, have been delineated by such students of the mythic hero as Carl Jung, Erich Neumann, Mircea, Eliade, and Joseph Campbell. If the faces, forms, and quests of the hero are as vast and changeable as the hundreds of cultures that have recreated him, the three characteristics I find in Wells's novel are central to the heroic figure generally, as Campbell's work especially makes clear. Indeed, it is Campbell who best summarizes for us the social, psychological, and spiritual qualities of the hero and his quest.

Beyond the threshold … the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him (tests), some of which give magical aid (helpers). When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward … represented as … sacred marriage … father atonement … apotheosis, or again—if the powers have remained unfriendly to him—his theft of the boon he came to gain … ; intrinsically it is an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom). The final work is that of the return. … At the return threshold the transcendental powers must remain behind; the hero reemerges from the kingdom of dread (return, resurrection). The boon that he brings restores the world (elixir).3

“The changes,” Campbell continues, “rung on the simple scale of the monomyth defy description.”

The first characteristic of the mythic hero is that he is an extraordinary individual among his fellows—in his powers of perception, his courage and ability to take risks and endure suffering, and his capacity to assert himself and his vision effectively, he is set apart from the mass of humanity. Wells's Time Traveller is certainly an extraordinary man, and the device of the frame story emphasizes this point. By his curiosity, perceptiveness, intelligence, and courage, the first in Wells's series of millenarian heroes stands in sharp contrast to the mundane abilities of his guests—a group of professional and scientific men who serve as foils to the hero. In their dialogue with the Time Traveller, they express only common sense, complacency, positivism, and understood consciousness. If the Traveller's theories are admittedly based on the most advanced thought of “scientific people,” he is the kind of scientist who sees the possibilities within the theories as even the scientific people do not. To the physician, the experiment with the model machine has to be “some sleight-of-hand trick or other” that the “common sense of the morning” will settle. To the psychologist it is “an ingenious paradox and trick.” And even the “joyous” and “irreverent” editor and journalist, who represent a fin de siècle flaccid anarchism, raise objections, resort to caricature, and heap ridicule on the whole “gaudy lie.” By their lack of comprehension they reveal the uncommon imagination and power of the hero. He is an eccentric to them, a man whose “earnestness” and “fecundity” they admire if not understand. He is a source of amusement, is “one of those fellows who are too clever to be believed; you never felt that you saw all around him,” and is so whimsical that they “distrusted him.” Wells's hero is, then, also described as a kind of Trickster figure, a seeming “quack” and magician whose playfulness runs even to Christmas apparitions. “Things that would have made the fame of a less clever man seemed tricks in his hands. It is a mistake to do things too easily.”4

Not only does the hero see and understand things the guests do not, he has the unusual courage to follow his vision, to chase a theory down dark, rustling corridors at the risk of sanity and life. Indeed, the “full temerity” of his voyage comes to the hero as he slows down his machine and contemplates the most horrible possibilities of the future. But the risk, he assures himself, is unavoidable, “one of the risks a man has got to take.” And upon his return, at the threshold of his laboratory, the danger, the suffering, the harrowing test of the voyage is clear:

He was in an amazing plight. His coat was dusty and dirty, and smeared with green down the sleeves; his hair disordered, and it seemed to me greyer—either with dust or dirt or because its colour had actually faded. His face was ghastly pale; his chin had a brown cut on it—a cut half healed; his expression was haggard and drawn, as by intense suffering. For a moment he hesitated in the doorway, as if he had been dazzled by the light.5

The second mythic characteristic of Wells's hero lies in the nature of his quest. The heroic journey—however actual it may in one sense seem or be—is a voyage into self as much as, or more than, a physical journey. Here, deep in the self, he meets the helpful and threatening forces with which he must deal, and through or against whom he must earn his own transformation: the wisdom of expanded consciousness and the means of salvation he imparts to others upon his return.

Wells certainly suggests that the voyage may be read as a journey into deepest self. The Traveller's time theory is above all a theory of a fourth dimension that is attached, in his words, “to our mental existences.” The only factor that distinguishes time from the three spatial dimensions is that our bodies move in space, but “our consciousness moves along” time. At many points the voyage is dreamlike: “For the most part of that night,” he says of the Dark Nights in the woods battling Morlocks, “I was persuaded it was a nightmare.” And of Weena's death, he says: “Now, in this old familiar room, it is more like the sorrow of a dream than an actual loss.” And he will invite skeptical listeners to interpret his tale as the dream of a man sleeping in his laboratory and, therefore, either a “lie—or a prophecy” (pp. 88-89, 99). The passage to that laboratory is like the passage to the realm of dreams too. It is a “long, draughty corridor” of “flickering light,” along which one sees “the dance of shadows” and the “queer, broad head in silhouette” of the Traveller. The imagery of the voyage itself has the hallucinatory quality of a dream. Night follows day “like the flapping of a black wing.” The whole “surface of the earth” is “melting and flowing under my eyes” (pp. 22, 30-31).

One's immersion in this realm is a dreadful adventure, a kind of death from one world to be born into another: “I suppose a suicide who holds a pistol to his skull feels much the same wonder at what will come next as I felt then,” the Traveller says of the beginning of his voyage. His sensations vary from excessive unpleasantness to “hysterical exhilaration” and a “certain curiosity and therewith a certain dread.” And upon his arrival, the conflicting images of the demonic and the paradisal act as threshold symbols of the strangely primordial realm he has entered. Hail stones assault flower blossoms. Colossal stone figures and buildings loom beyond the rhododendrons; a white sphinx suggests mystery and disease. Soon he is “groping among moon-lit ruins and touching strange creatures in the black shadows” (pp. 29-33).

Like Odysseus and a host of heroes before him, the Traveller's survival during the quest and his return depend on, as the Traveller puts it, “force and cunning.” Like his predecessors, too, the Traveller meets helpers and threats among the unfamiliar but strangely intimate forces he encounters. Weena, of course, despite her slight consciousness and her diminutive stature, is friend, guide, and object of “a miniature flirtation.” She provides “signs of the human inheritance,” such as fear, that warn him; she offers flowers that, in the end, become symbols of “gratitude and mutual tenderness,” of that human sympathy which, with “mind and strength,” threatens to die out in the world. “Nor until it was too late did I clearly understand what she was to me. For by … showing in her weak, futile way that she cared for me, the little doll of a creature presently gave my return to the neighbourhood … almost a feeling of coming home” (pp. 55, 63, 104). She is the “child,” as even the Traveller repeatedly calls her, the princess, one face of the Nourishing Mother, who deep in the heroic journey, reveals the lost potential, the unconscious source of life in the hero and humanity. Dreading darkness, playfully clapping and dancing before the fire lost to the Upper-worlders, Weena is indeed a child of light, the one whom the hero had hoped to bring back to his own time, yet can do so only metaphorically through his tale.6

And like his mythic progenitors, the Traveller is the fire-starter, he who battles the dark, destructive side of world and mind with the creative power in himself. The task of the hero, as Campbell and Jung have argued, is to carry life energy—symbolized by fire—across the “difficult thresholds of transformation” and change the “patterns of consciousness and unconscious life.”7 When he descends to the “Under-world” (to use Wells's own term), the hero battles the destructive human potential, or the bestial insanity, faced at this deepest point of the journey, symbolized by the devouring Terrible Mother in myth and, in Wells's novel, by that “subterranean species of humanity” the cannibal Morlocks—those “bleached, obscene, nocturnal things”—and by the “leprous,” mocking, white sphinx, one gateway to this Under-world.8 Here, in the blackness beneath, the only security against the Morlock is fire: “they did not seem to have any fear of me apart from the light” (p. 66). And when these “damned souls” bring the Under-world to the Upper-world during the “Dark Nights,” it is with fire again that the hero—feeling a “strange exultation”—defeats them. Here, in what Campbell calls the nadir of the heroic journey, the Time Traveller knows primitive dread: “I had slept, and my fire had gone out, and the bitterness of death came over my soul. … I felt as if I was in a monstrous spider's web” (p. 86).

More important than the particular qualities and unities of the timeless heroic quest itself, however, are the wisdom gained and the message or boon with which the hero returns. Wells's hero returns with a prophecy that he conveys as compulsively as Coleridge's sea voyager. “I want to tell it” he says. “Badly. … I've lived eight days as no human being ever lived before!” (p. 28). The message is that which, in a variety of ways and degrees of effectiveness, Wells would speak throughout his life: though humanity as a species has been granted the rare opportunity to do otherwise, it stands to lose all that which its positive potential suggests it can develop—courage, humane assertiveness, perceptiveness, intellect, consciousness, endurance, and wholeness of vision.

I grieved to think how brief the dream of human intellect had been. It had committed suicide. It had set itself steadfastly towards comfort and ease, a balanced society with security and permanency as its watchword, it had attained its hopes—to come to this at last. … No doubt in that perfect world there had been no unemployed problem, no social question left unsolved. And a great quiet had followed. …

Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.

(p. 90)

Stasis and temporary social or technological success lead to psychic, and even physical, decadence, to Eloi and Morlock, to exquisite and fragile children or to soulless beast-men whose only organizing principles are obeisance to machinery and a devouring of humankind.

Wells arrived early at a conception of the degeneration of self and civilization, and he connected the root of all the possibilities and symptoms of degeneracy to that “human selfishness” whose “rigorous punishment” reaches far into the future of the race (p. 75). Such degeneracy is what Erich Neumann called “sclerosis of consciousness” in his own study of the mythic hero's task:

Typical … is the state of affairs in America, though the same holds true for practically the whole Western hemisphere. Every conceivable sort of dominant rules the personality. … The grotesque fact that murders, brigands, gangsters, thieves, forgers, tyrants and swindlers, in a guise that deceives nobody, have seized control of collective life is characteristic of our time. … Worship of the “beast” is by no means confined to Germany; it prevails wherever … the aggravating complexities of civilized behavior are swept away in favor of bestial rapacity. … [The] integration of the personality, its wholeness, becomes the supreme ethical goal upon which the fate of humanity depends.9

The mindless sensuality of Eloi is no less destructive of self and civilization than the bestial rapacity of the Morlock—both adequately symbolized by Wells's headless faun in the garden. “All traditions, the complex organizations, the nations, languages, aspirations … had been swept out of existence,” the Time Traveller tells us, and “from the bottom of my heart I pitied this last rill from the great flood of humanity” (pp. 73-74). Neither the “too perfect triumph” of technology, nor the rapacity of vain and selfish power strugglings or wars between classes and nations, nor the comfort and ease that tempt at every turn can be the salvation of the species. Survival must be based not on these attributes of modern civilization but on some other integrating wholeness of vision—which vision Wells would spend the rest of his life struggling to articulate. If at times Wells slipped and turned toward that “too perfect triumph of man” that led toward Eloi and Morlock, as his son Anthony West has suggested, he was nevertheless fighting the old prophetic battle to change patterns of consciousness.10

Wells's first fictional hero, then, endures a quest, as we have seen, that traces the traditional patterns of the hero myth central to diverse cultures. Even the return of the hero to the fourth dimension at the end of the novel is not anomalous to the heroic pattern. Frequently, as Campbell points out, the hero may “refuse the responsibility” to return “into the kingdom of humanity” where the boon “redounds to the renewing of humanity,” or having returned to mankind, may pass again back into the realm discovered in the quest. Indeed, it is by the freedom to pass back and forth between the world of time and the timeless world of the quest—“permitting the mind to know the one by virtue of the other,” that one recognizes the hero as “Master of Two Worlds.” For it is in combining the eternal symbols and experience with the historical moment that the myth conveys its truth, not in the lasting physical presence of the hero in his time.11

Yet even if we limit our consideration of the heroic journey to Wells's hero specifically, that hero's ultimate return to the dimension of the vision can be seen as an affirmation rather than a denial of his prophetic value for Wells's theme. As Robert Philmus has argued, for example, the Traveller by vanishing into the other world accepts his vision literally and demands that it be not only metaphorically true:

The Traveller's return … far from vitiating the impact of The Time Machine, reinforces its claim to integrity: by having the Time Traveller act out the ultimate consequence of his taking the myth literally, Wells illustrates the rigor that he has submitted himself to in satirizing certain “present ideals.” The romance, as I see it, is thus rigorously self-contained in “working to a logical conclusion” both the myth of devolution that exposes tendencies “of our own age” and the various points of view regarding the truth of that prophetic myth.12

The prophecy, the wisdom gained, is, for the traditional hero as for Wells's first hero, a new pattern of consciousness, a revolutionary vision against entropy and degeneration that may destroy the old canon and build a new.13 If the wisdom learned from the heroic journey in The Time Machine is the awareness of the avenues to human degeneracy, a degeneracy connected in Chapter 11 to the cosmos, it remains for each generation to avoid the fate of “energy in security,” to renew for itself—so long as it is a cosmic possibility—its physical power and its positive psychic evolution. If the Traveller “saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end,” as the narrator tells us, it also “remains for us to live as though it were not so” (p. 104).

As late as 1942 in his D.Sc. thesis at London University, Wells argued that our collective survival lay “in some sort of super-individual, a brave new persona” that would integrate the whole human social organism, “the ecology of Homo sapiens.” Human ecology Wells defined as the science of working out “biological, intellectual, and economic consequences” to enable us to see the possibilities of the future.14 What the hero brings to his culture is what Campbell calls the “primitive health” or new consciousness of interrelationships—the ecology if you will—of humanity, nature, and social order.

There is a continuity in much of Wells's work, I am suggesting, that builds upon his first novel's hero and upon that hero's earned wisdom. And perhaps our understanding of Wells will benefit from other critics' still closer examination of that continuity. Let me suggest a few sources of this continuity in closing.

The Invisible Man (1897) presents another visionary scientist among “floundering yokels.” Yet he is motivated, even to the point of murder, by pride, vanity, and paranoiac dreams of power. This time it is through a flawed or false hero and his “evil experiment” that Wells defines human degeneracy-through-selfishness by depicting again the death of human sympathy and by warning of the dangers of uncontrolled rational intellect. And this novel and its theme were directly preceded and initially developed by The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) in which an earlier Rappaccini-like scientist dreams of Godlike power and argues for the uselessness of concepts such as pleasure and pain while extolling the delights of “intellectual desires.” The theme of responsibility for one's actions and for others (even other creatures) is suggested through the vivisectionist, who is unaware of his victims' agonies and of his responsibilities for his grotesque creations. Yet when the narrator Pendrick returns to London, he sees the beast in all humanity and wonders if God, too, had blundered, if progress or evolution is even possible.

The War of the Worlds (1898) then carries forward Wells's program for the total reform of humanity and social order by warning, as his first hero did, of the dangers of becoming over-specialized prisoners of technology, like the Martians, or of becoming prisoners of the decadence born of the naive yet supreme confidence in the future as progress. And from this point onward to the end of his life, in fiction and nonfiction, Wells will frequently focus on the possible avenues of salvation for the species. Anticipations (1901), which Wells accurately called the “keystone to the main arch of my work,” more emphatically focuses his concern for secular salvation through revolutionary change: “I'm going to write, talk, preach revolution for the next five years,” he promised. It is at this point that Wells approaches a “new synthesis” through his search for a group of heroic individuals, a search that moves from the “New Republicans” to the “Open Conspiracy,” to the “Samuari” of A Modern Utopia (1905), and beyond, Wells searches for offshoots, if at times terminal branches, of the heroic personality of the Time Traveller.

In 1933-34 Wells looked back on Utopia in his autobiography and continued to argue that through the creation of a heroic class we may attain the knowledge to outrun catastrophe. And widest knowledge he continues to attach, as in Utopia, to the best in humanity: to individual uniqueness and liberty, to dynamic society and state, to pluralism of morality, to originality of mind, to courage, self-sufficiency, renunciation, and to endurance. Even economics, Wells argues, like all social theories or institutions, must be attached to human psychology or forever flounder dangerously.

To the end of his life, Wells maintained the thread of continuity that reached back to the Time Traveller's prophecy. In Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945), it is ordinary man who is at the end, and only an extraordinary minority of the highly adaptable (or “Over-Man”) may survive. We have come so far, Wells said, outside the order of Nature, have become so much the evolutionary objects of some new, implacable, universal hostility, that we perch on the brink of extinction, perch quite beyond “quantitative adjustments,” so that we will have to move so steeply up or steeply down the evolutionary chain that few indeed, if any, may now adapt. Wells concludes his final prophetic warning with two points that return us to the message of his earliest hero. First, the only fight worth the effort is the heroic battle for human advancement, however great the odds now, as if even Hiroshima “were not so.” Better, Wells reminds us, to end as a species in “dignity, kindliness and generosity, and not like drunken cowards in a daze or poisoned rats in a sack.” And second, the chief form of human adaptability for survival will be a revolutionary change of consciousness, that “mental adaptability” which the mythic hero has always earned and prophesied to humankind.15

As Wells's first hero said, and as so many of Wells's later works echoed, “What, unless biological science is a mass of errors, is the cause of human intelligence and vigour? Hardship and freedom: conditions under which the active, strong, and subtle survive and the weaker go to the wall; conditions that put a premium upon the loyal alliance of capable men, upon self-restraint, patience, and decision” (p. 44). If the first part of these words sounds like mere Social Darwinism, and in one sense it does, the second part has new significance for the post-Hiroshima generation.


  1. Van Wyck Brooks, The World of H. G. Wells (New York: Kennerley, 1915), pp. 168-71; Evgeny Zamyatin, “Herbert Wells,” A Soviet Heretic: Essays of Yevgeny Zamyatin, trans. Mirra Ginsburg (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970), pp. 259-90; Jorge Luis Borges, “The First Wells,” Other Inquisitions: 1937-1952, trans. Ruth L. C. Simms (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1964), pp. 81-88. Bernard Bergonzi, “The Time Machine: An Ironic Myth,” in H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Bernard Bergonzi (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976), pp. 39-53, hereafter cited as Critical Essays, and Bernard Bergonzi, The Early H. G. Wells (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1961), pp. 16-20, 42-43, 49-61. See also Patrick Parrinder, H. G. Wells (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1970), and Robert M. Philmus, Into the Unknown: The Evolution of Science Fiction from Francis Godwin to H. G. Wells (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1970). Jean-Pierre Vernier, “The Time Machine and Its Context,” in The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds: A Critical Edition, trans. and ed. Frank D. McConnell (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 314-320, hereafter cited as Critical Edition.

  2. Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie, H. G. Wells (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), pp. 118-19.

  3. The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New Jersey: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 245-46. Hereafter cited as Hero.

  4. The Trickster is one face of the mythic hero, see esp. Critical Edition, pp. 18-20, 22-24. And cf. Hero, pp. 44-45, 90, 184.

    On the subject of the guests' response to Wells's hero's tale, Campbell again is helpful. Upon returning from his journey the hero always meets the “return blow of reasonable queries, hard resentment, and good people at a loss to comprehend.” How to “communicate to people who insist on the exclusive evidence of their senses the message of the all-generating void”—that is the problem the hero faces “throughout the millenniums of mankind's prudent folly,” Hero, pp. 216, 218. Erich Neumann, in The Origins and History of Consciousness (New Jersey: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), adds that the hero is ever the “outsider” who brings into conflict his “new images” and values (from an inner compelling voice) with the collective, the old order, thereby sacrificing friendship and normal living. See esp. pp. 375, 378.

  5. Critical Edition, p. 25. Future references are cited in parentheses.

  6. Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation, trans. R. F. C. Hull. Vol. 5 (New Jersey: Princeton Univ. Press, 1956), pp. 242, 272, 292-93, 300-01. Hereafter cited as Symbols. Cf. Neumann's discussion of the “mythological goal of the dragon fight” for the captive woman in Consciousness, pp. 105, 201; and the Critical Edition, pp. 54-56, 63, 71.

  7. Symbols, pp. 121, 149, 170, 212, and Hero, pp. 8, 10. When Wells and Jung met in 1923, Wells found Jung's collective unconscious similar to his own concept of the “Mind of the Race”; see MacKenzie, pp. 338, 346.

  8. To the Traveller the Sphinx represents disease and the mysteries “which I could not face” of the Under-world (p. 64). She seems to hover, to watch him, to smile in mockery, and the Traveller finally realizes that he cannot defeat her or open her mysteries by force so much as, like Oedipus, by craft and cunning (pp. 36, 50). And somehow this “crouching white shape” seems to him connected to the riddles of how mankind has evolved (pp. 33, 36, 50). The Sphinx is the traditional symbol of the dragon devourer, the Terrible Mother, the guardian of the mysteries of destruction and regeneration or creative evolution. It is her defeat that allows for the enthronement or prophecy of the Good Mother. See Consciousness, pp. 161-62, 324.

  9. Neumann, Consciousness, pp. 391-92.

  10. Anthony West, “H. G. Wells,” in Critical Essays, pp. 10, 12-13, 20. West suggests that Wells strayed from his “deeper intuitions” during his “middle period” of scientific utopianism beginning around 1901 with Anticipations. But, West argues, Wells returned in later years to his belief that virtue does not reside in intellect alone. The idea of revolutionary change, West reminds us, was the sine qua non of Wells's utopias. West is on this point in considerable contrast to Frederick Karl in “Conrad, Wells and the Two Voices,” PMLA, 88 (1973), 1049-65. Karl argues that after the scientific romances especially, Wells, unlike Conrad, was an “ahistorical” ameliorist in the liberal, utilitarian, scientific tradition.

  11. See Hero, esp. pp. 193, 229, 356, 358. Campbell's examples range from Buddha, the Hindu Muchukunda, saints dying in supernal ecstasy, and to numerous heroes “fabled to have taken up residence forever” in the realm discovered in the journey. “The last act in the biography of the hero is that of the death or departure”; yet he remains a “synthesizing image” of the historical and the timeless worlds.

  12. Robert Philmus, “The Time Machine; or, the Fourth Dimension as Prophecy,” PMLA, 84 (1969), 530-35.

  13. Campbell argues that the mythic hero is always connected to larger cosmic forces and that he is therefore an “evolutionary” hero leading humanity to further stages of development in social, artistic, and spiritual realms. He is the “creative power” of things becoming; see Hero, esp. 315, 336-37. Compare Neumann, Consciousness, p. 131. Both Neumann and Mircea Eliade have argued equally emphatically for the hero as “revolutionary” figure who “brings to birth those forms the age is most lacking,” who restores a balance to his age, and who “regenerates time” as a representative of eternal powers and truths. See Consciousness, pp. 376-77, 381, and Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return (New York: Pantheon Books, 1954), esp. pp. 35-47, 55-57, 69, 87-88.

  14. See MacKenzie, pp. 163, 437.

  15. See Wells, Mind at the End of Its Tether (London: William Heinemann, 1945), esp. pp. 4, 18, 30, 34. Campbell's and Neumann's argument for the significance of the timeless heroic quest in the mid- and late-twentieth century world is remarkably similar to Wells's, but especially as the argument culminates in Tether. Campbell, to take one instance, also emphasizes the delicate ecology of planetary community now as a new, dangerous stage in human evolution as much in need as preceding stages of some new heroic consciousness. The whole thing is being worked out, Campbell argues, on a level deeper than the boundaries of nationalism or ego-consciousness; it is being worked out, toward success or failure, in the collective unconscious and on the “titanic battlefields” of the planet, and it is bound to be a “long and very frightening process.” It is man who has become the “alien presence” and “mystery” whose “image of society is to be reformed” toward non-nationalistic and non-egocentric systems. The “whole destiny” of a species is to be, or not, atoned. See Hero, esp. pp. 388-90. Neumann similarly argues, in his appendices most clearly, that the global revolution of modern times is an evolutionary storm-center. The regeneration of the species toward some new stage of advancement must go beyond mere re-collectivization as well as beyond mere nationalism and egocentricity or selfishness. See Consciousness, pp. 422, 436, 441.

Veronica Hollinger (essay date July 1987)

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SOURCE: Hollinger, Veronica. “Deconstructing The Time Machine.1Science Fiction Studies 14, no. 42 (July 1987): 201-21.

[In the following essay, Hollinger explores aspects of time travel in literature, contending that The Time Machine achieves an ironic deconstruction of Victorian scientific positivism.]

Time is, of all modes of existence, most obsequious to the imagination. …

—Samuel Johnson

The idea of time travel has for many years exercised the ingenuity not only of SF writers, but of scientists and philosophers as well; neither the equations of quantum physics nor the rules of logic have managed definitively to prove or to disprove the possibility that this most paradoxical of SF concepts may some day be realized.2 The purpose of this present essay is to examine some aspects of time travel within the framework of Derridean deconstruction, since, as I hope to demonstrate, the time-travel story always achieves a deconstruction of certain received ideas about the nature and structure of time. It may be that deconstructive activity of some kind is characteristic of all SF, in which case this present application of post-structuralist critical theory may serve to suggest new approaches to other SF motifs. The final two sections of this essay focus in detail upon H. G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895), the novella which first applied technology to time travel and which remains the most influential time-travel story ever written. Anticipating post-structuralist strategies by a good many years, The Time Machine accomplishes its own ironic deconstruction of Victorian scientific positivism, couched in the very language of the system which it sets out to undermine. And this, as I will discuss below, is the very essence of the deconstructive enterprise.

1. Time travel is a sign without a referent, a linguistic construction originating in the metaphorical spatialization of temporality. As Mark Rose observes, “the visualization of time as a line generated the idea of time travel” (p. 108). To write about time travel, therefore, is necessarily to have performed a kind of reading, to have interpreted time in order to structure it as the “space” through which a traveller can undertake a journey. As linguistic construction, time travel is never “true,” but its very status as pure sign gives rise to one of its most valuable functions within the SF genre: the time-travel story provides literary metaphors of our ideas about the nature of time; it is a means of working out the logical (and the not-so-logical) implications of our interpretations of this most nebulous aspect of human experience.

As in all SF, the relationship in time-travel stories between narrative event and empirical reality can be characterized as either analogical or extrapolative. The analogical tendency is exhibited, for example, in James Tiptree, Jr's “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (1976), in which time travel is used both to literalize Tiptree's critique of contemporary sexual chauvinism and to demystify the signifying coerciveness of concepts such as “feminine” and “masculine.” Her fictional future is relatively discontinuous with contemporary reality. At the other end of the spectrum, a novel like Gregory Benford's Timescape (1980) emphasizes the interrelationships among present, past, and future in very direct ways, concerned as it is with the short-term effects of recent ecological carelessness. No matter what the reigning tendency of a particular story, however, time travel is itself always metaphorical, the result of a “false” condensation of time with space.3The Time Machine, for example, offers itself as a prophetic warning of the decline of the human race and this “devolution” is the apparently direct result of the class divisiveness of Wells's contemporary social situation. Nevertheless, the “scientific” rationale for the temporal journey which makes possible this warning is developed solely through spatial metaphors. The Time Traveller's central contention is that “there is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it” (TTM [The Time Machine] 1:5).

It is indicative of the changes that have occurred in scientific and philosophical “discursive formations” (to borrow a term from Michel Foucault) that SF no longer defines itself solely as an extrapolative genre. This is due in large part to the comprehensive realization that reality is constituted by language; that the language from within which we speak constantly mediates between the self and experience of reality. Ferdinand de Saussure's insight into the arbitrary nature of the bond between sign and referent, his conclusion that “every means of expression used in society is based, in principle, on collective behaviour or—what amounts to the same thing—on convention” (p. 68), indicates both the contingency and indeterminacy of these linguistic mediations. We are led to the unavoidable conclusion that experience of reality is always already interpretation, since “without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula [a happily fortuitous SF metaphor]. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language” (Saussure: 112). Like other literary metaphors, a time-travel story is a metaphor once removed, a metaphor of a metaphor which may or may not have any direct relationship with objective reality, since that reality is screened from direct apprehension by the very language through which we speak of it. Language speaks of time in spatial metaphors and produces the concept of travel in time.4

Rose suggests that the metaphorical tendency in contemporary SF far outweighs its predictive intent. In his initial distinction between fantasy and SF, he discusses analogy and extrapolation in the following terms:

it may be useful … to conceive the opposition between fantasy and science fiction in terms of Roman Jakobson's distinction between metaphor and metonymy as poles of literary behavior. The changed worlds of fantasy are presented as literary substitutions for reality; they are related to the empirical world paradigmatically or metaphorically. … The changed worlds of science fiction, however, are presented as logical extensions of reality; they are related to the empirical world syntagmatically or metonymically. This is what is meant when science fiction is called an extrapolative form.

(Rose: 21-22)5

Recognizing that “both principles are at work in science fiction as in all discourse” (p. 22), Rose nevertheless notes a shift in emphasis from metonymy to metaphor in more recent SF, which has resulted in “a radical reinterpretation of the genre” (p. 16). We may conclude from this that time travel is not the anomaly it might at first appear to be, since its overtly metaphorical function is now the rule of the genre, rather than the exception.6 Darko Suvin (pp. 222-42) has suggested The Time Machine as a “structural model” for SF; in the present context, it offers itself as a linguistic paradigm as well.7

Suvin has defined SF as a genre “whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment” (p. 8). From this perspective, time travel is “a means of reality displacement” (p. 71) similar to space travel, in that it functions to introduce the reader into the alternative framework of the SF text as an “extension and exaggeration of some facet of our experience into [sic] another setting” (Lindsay: 126). Extending beyond such generic displacement, however, time travel also achieves a displacement specific to itself, and this is its subversion of certain traditional approaches to the question of time. This holds true whether the stories in which it appears offer themselves to the reader as metaphorical commentaries, as exercises in extrapolation, or as blends of both.

It will be useful at this point (for critical theory can be as much a force for defamiliarization as SF itself)8 to continue this discussion of the particular nature and function of time travel from within the context of Derridean deconstruction. Jacques Derrida's (anti)philosophical strategies are so named because they recognize the impossibility of effecting any complete or permanent breakdown of the conventionalized modes of thought from within which we interpret human reality. Derrida cautions that

it is not a question of ‘rejecting’ these notions; they are necessary, and, at least at present, nothing is conceivable for us without them. It is a question at first of demonstrating the systematic and historical solidarity of the concepts and gestures of thought that one often believes to be innocently separated.

(OG, pp. 13-14)

Both SF and post-structuralist theory in general are involved in the processes of defamiliarization: SF achieves a “cognitive estrangement”9 through its displacement of the social/political/cultural present, while deconstruction seeks to expose the conventional nature of the “gestures of thought” of the Western metaphysical tradition. Thus both call attention to the historical contingency of their subject matter.10 On the other hand, both SF and deconstruction must speak from within the contexts which they seek to defamiliarize: there is no getting outside of the discourses of consensus reality. Derrida is at his most succinct here: “il n'y a pas de hors-texte” (OG, p. 158). There is no vantage point outside the boundaries of the observable, no privileged observer, no completely innocent reading of “reality.”

2. Time travel is always potentially deconstructive, effecting as it does a displacement of the human “here and now” upon which we tend to base our interpretations of reality. Its immediate fascination for writers, as for scientists and logicians, is the fact that time-travel stories are always constructed around and within paradox, “the contradiction that at each different moment we occupy a different moment from the one which we are then occupying—that five minutes from now, for example, [we] may be a hundred years from now” (Williams: 105). The time traveller experiences diachrony (succession) as synchrony (simultaneity), but the effect is not simply a reversal of these two perspectives, because the time-travel story does not abandon the notion of historical change, which tends to result when synchrony is privileged over diachrony. The result is rather a paradoxical movement in which the narrative synchronicity of temporal events highlights rather than hides differences in times. The instantaneous displacement of the time traveller from one moment to another creates an immediate juxtaposition of differences which our habitual sense of the successivity of events renders less discontinuous and jarring than it in fact is.

At the heart of the time-travel motif is the “scandal” of temporal paradox. The Grandfather Paradox is the best-known version of this peril of backward time travel. Larry Niven develops it as follows:

At the age of eighty your grandfather invents a time machine. You hate the old man, so you steal the machine and take it sixty years back into the past and kill him. How can they suspect you?

But you've killed him before he can meet your grandmother. Thus you were never born. He didn't get a chance to build the time machine either.

But then you can't have killed him. Thus he may still sire your father, who may sire you. Later there will be a time machine …

You and the machine both do and do not exist.

(Niven: 111)11

As Niven concludes, “with the Grandfather Paradox operating, the effect, coming before the cause, may cause the cause never to come into effect, with results that are not even self-consistent” (p. 113). This variation of the time-travel story leads the reader to “the point at which thought encounters an aporia—or self-engendered paradox beyond which it cannot press” (Norris: 49).

The structure of the time-loop story creates another version of temporal paradox. Readers who try to unravel the threads of Robert A. Heinlein's “All You Zombies—” (1959) will find themselves ensnared in the same time-loop which traps its protagonist: through time travel and sex change, he is his own mother and father; trapped in a process of endless supplementation, he must repeatedly travel into the past to (re)create himself.12

Heinlein's brilliant exercise in solipsism is a virtual dramatization of Derrida's (non)concept of the supplement, which he develops in his deconstruction of the nature/culture opposition. As Derrida demonstrates, the concept of the supplement contains two differing significations. At its most obvious, it is a surplus, an addition to full presence: “it cumulates and accumulates presence” (OG, p. 144). Thus, for example, culture supplements nature, and writing supplements speech. Traditionally, nature and speech are privileged over culture and writing, which are considered to be supplementary constructs. In addition, however (as its own “supplementary” implication), the supplement compensates for a lack of full presence and comes to replace that which it supplements: “it intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of” (OG, p. 145: emphasis in original).13

In demonstrating the impossibility of arriving at the origin of the “entity” (his protagonist Jane), Heinlein dramatizes the always already supplemented nature of that entity. At which point did Jane enjoy a pure un(re)created state if s/he is caught in the deterministic strands of an endless time-loop? “All You Zombies—” is the fictional analogue of the Derridean contention that “the apparent addition/substitution of the supplement actually constitutes the seemingly unsupplemented entity” (Leitch: 172; emphasis in original). Heinlein's Jane is always already supplemented by his/her trips into the past to repeat the act of (re)creation: “the indifferent process of supplementarity has always already infiltrated presence” (OG, p. 163; emphasis in original).14 Heinlein's story is arguably the masterpiece of its type, but the disturbing play of supplementarity is inherent in any time-loop situation, from Robert Silverberg's hard-bitten “Absolutely Inflexible” (1956) to the parodic “Seventh Voyage” of Stanislaw Lem's Star Diaries (1964).

3. As I suggested earlier, to write about time travel is always already to have performed a reading; that is, it requires that the writer has first interpreted time in order to structure it as space. Since scientific discourse is one of the frameworks within which all SF is written, the revolution which overturned the Newtonian scientific paradigm has necessarily had an effect upon how time-travel stories read time. This scientific revolution accounts for a major shift in the development of the motif, since interpretation of time is a crucial differentium between the Newtonian and Einsteinian worldviews.15 As James Ziegler explains:

To Newton time was a constant, to be measured in the same way that mass, density, and volume are measured. To Einstein time is relative in the same way that mass, density, and volume are relative. Since mass, density, and volume change as their velocities change, time also changes—hence the popular term fourth dimension.

(p. 74)

If the reading of time takes place within the paradigm of Classical Physics, temporal structure will tend to be linear, homogeneous, and consecutive; on the other hand, relative time is nothing if not a “post-structure,” tending towards heterogeneity and indeterminacy. Or, to invoke an analogous set of metaphors developed by Roland Barthes, Newtonian time is read as Work (œuvre), Einsteinian time as Text (texte).16

Before exploring this analogy, however, it is necessary to review the implications of the several sets of binary oppositions that have appeared in my own text. I have already made use of Rose's Jakobsonian distinction between metonymy and metaphor, and two more polarities have just been introduced: the opposition between the Newtonian and Einsteinian scientific paradigms and Barthes' opposition of the Work to the Text. While each of these is a functional opposition in this present analysis, it should not be supposed that they are in any fundamental sense truly antithetical. Indeed, the configuration of binary oppositions, as the principal structural convention of our mental operations, is the prime target of Derridean deconstruction.17 Derrida's deconstruction of the “proper” discourse of philosophy (in his essay “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy”), as it demonstrates the metaphorical nature of all language, leads inevitably to the conclusion that, so far from standing in opposition to metaphor, metonymy may in fact be defined as a special case of metaphor. Nor does Relativity Theory consider Newtonian science in opposition to itself: “Relativity does not … contradict classical physics. It simply regards the old concepts as limiting cases that apply solely to the familiar experiences of [human beings]” (Barnett: 58).

Hence, if my contention that time may be read as either Work or Text is to hold up, it is necessary to “supplement” Barthes' argument, to recognize that all literary productions are texts (or intertexts, for that matter—a more radically heterogeneous view of literary discourse). The Work, best exemplified in the world-view of the 19th-century realist novel, is a limiting case of Text, one more consonant with “the familiar experiences” of human reality, which we tend to interpret in linear, causal patterns, as logical structures. It is différance which defines and which “invites us to undo the need for balanced equations, to see if each term in an opposition is not after all an accomplice of the other” (Spivak: lix). In place of presence, of center, of secure ground upon which to base our knowledge of reality, Derrida offers the “play” of différance as the (non)principle of reality. Différance, a Derridean neologism which conflates the effects of both deferral and difference, is the gap between signifier and signified, between sign and referent, between our interpretations of the world and the world “in itself.”18

Barthes makes the distinction between Work and Text in “From Work to Text,” a product of his later, post-structuralist, career. Recognizing that the idea of the Work arises from within the same epistemological matrix (or epistemè) as does Classical Physics, he writes of it as “a traditional notion that has long been and still is thought of in what might be called Newtonian fashion” (p. 74). The implication here, of course, is that the Text is to be aligned with Einsteinian “fashion.” Derrida has also recognized the post-structuralist affinities of relativistic science. In his seminal essay “Play, Structure and Sign in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” he observes that “the Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability—it is, finally, the concept of the game” (p. 267). Relativity becomes identified with free play and différance, the (non)principles of the “post-structure.”

Time-travel stories influenced by Newtonian fashions rely heavily upon an interpretation of time-as-Work, which limits the free play of both narrative event and structure: the Newtonian universe is “a closed system operating by fixed rules that [can] be discovered by reason based on observation” (Ziegler: 70). Newton's idealist physics defined time as absolute: in Book One of his Principia Mathematica (1687), he writes that “absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external” (quoted in Thayer, p. 17). Absolute Time (functioning like a kind of metaphysical Greenwich Mean Time) joins the company of transcendental signifieds, the centers which determine the fixed nature of metaphysical structures. By the 19th century, the concept of Absolute Time had given way to a belief in Natural Law as the organizing principle which secured and determined the nature and structure of time.

In many ways, The Time Machine appears to be an exemplary demonstration of time as Newtonian Work. Wells's Traveller journeys through one dimension of a rational universe which is itself a fixed structure, a totality whose “truth” is, at least potentially, accessible to scientific discovery. The Victorian scientist is presented as an intelligent and competent reader of time future, the quintessential privileged observer, the subject who enjoys a vantage point hundreds of thousands of years removed from the object of his study.19

Because time is a linear and homogeneous Work, the Time Traveller moves along a fixed time-line into a future which is the direct and apparently inevitable result of his present (time read as classic realist novel). His ability to return to this present (as opposed to any other “present”) is never in question. As he gazed at the stars of the far future (he tells his listeners), he “thought of their unfathomable distance, and the slow inevitable drift of their movements from the unknown past into the unknown future” (1:79). This “inevitable drift” of the stars is both a fact of Wells's narrative universe and a resolutely spatial metaphor for the fixed structure of time.

Inevitability is a keynote of time-as-Work. The “devolution” which Wells saw threatening the society of his own day is figured first in bio-sociological decline and then repeated in the entropic decay of the Solar System (scientifically determined according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics).20 At the level of narrative event, the logic of Wells's reading seems to require the final disappearance of the Traveller himself from the text.21 The most powerful event in The Time Machine is a dramatically visual depiction of this vast determination: the Traveller at the terminal beach, a helpless and horrified spectator at the end of the world. Wells's epilogue seems to suggest that time future is as fixed as time past: “If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so” (12:117). Nothing to be done. Interpreted within the framework of the Newtonian world-view, the Narrator's rather enigmatic conclusion invites this fatalistic reading.

When time is read as Work, SF tends to function metonymically—that is, as extrapolation—since temporal structure is comprised of a rational and successive series of cause-and-effect events. Temporal free play is usually limited to forward movement in time; the “scandal” of temporal paradox is quite firmly excluded from the game. This may be the reason that most early time-travel stories limit themselves to trips into the future. Examples would include the optimistic anticipation of Edward Bellamy's best-selling utopia, Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888), and the “death-watch” anxieties of John W. Campbell's twin stories “Twilight” (1934) and “Night” (1935), which together offer Campbell's own version of the triumph of entropy. These future journeys provide some protection against the dangers (to narrative event and/or to the discourse of the text) of temporal paradox. One of the earliest stories to admit the potential for temporal paradox, Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), dissolves finally into a metaphysical negation of reality, conveniently erasing temporal structure altogether. In place of the majestic drift of the stars in The Time Machine, Hank Morgan in A Connecticut Yankee refers to his life as “this pathetic drift between the eternities” (18:161).

4. When the Einsteinian scientific paradigm displaces the Newtonian, SF is invited to explore what we might call the infinite free play of temporal structure, the play of time-as-Text, heterogeneous, indeterminate, and uncentered, completely at odds with the notion of fixed structure. Considered in this context, Derrida's explication of the concept of centered structure implicates Classical Physics in the game of Western metaphysics:

The concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a freeplay based on a fundamental ground, a freeplay which is constituted upon a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which is itself beyond the reach of the freeplay. With this certitude anxiety can be mastered, for anxiety is invariably the result of a certain mode of being implicated in the game, of being caught by the game, of being as it were from the very beginning at stake in the game.

(“Play, Sign and Structure,” p. 248)

Derrida's (anti)philosophy is clearly a product of the same epistemè which produced the Principle of Indeterminacy. This holds, in part, that “the very act of observing alters the object being observed” (Heisenberg: 24). The scientist as well as the philosopher is implicated in the game. We may also see in the Principle of Complementarity, by which contemporary physics recognizes both the wave and particle properties of light, a recognition of the fundamental différance in the nature of reality.

Relativity offers a new (non)definition of both space and time:

space and time are forms of intuition, which can be no more divorced from consciousness than can our concepts of color, shape, or size. Space has no objective reality except as an order or arrangement of the objects we perceive in it, and time has no independence apart from the order of events by which we perceive it.

(Barnett: 19)

Scientific discourse admits its own status as metaphor. Time has no reality outside of our interpretations and it invites a potentially vast variety of possible “readings.” Time is read as Work in a reality defined by discourse that upholds the traditional hierarchical opposition between science and fiction, in which science is the privileged term. In post-structuralist epistemology, of which Relativity Theory is one expression, this opposition has been subverted. Science, no longer privileged, has become subsumed under fiction as a particular system of discourse, and this has greatly expanded the possibilities for SF's explorations of the nature and structure of time.22

Jorge Luis Borges has left us one of the most memorable figurations of this new awareness of time in his story “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1944), which concerns a book which is also a labyrinth, a remarkable image of time-as-Text. Borges writes that the author of this book

did not think of time as absolute and uniform. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a dizzily growing, ever spreading network of diverging, converging parallel times. This web of time—the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries—embraces every possibility.

(p. 156)23

Borges's radical postmodern philosophy is echoed in less extreme form in many SF stories which function within the Einsteinian paradigm. The fixed time-line of The Time Machine loses its privileged status in the face of the heterogeneity of times of the relative universe. Such offshoots of the time-travel story as alternate and parallel world stories, which frequently include the ideas of multiple time-tracks and branching time-lines, are extensions of this reading of time-as-Text. James Blish's Jack of Eagles (1952), for example, is an early novel which suggests the possibility of a split in the time-line. Larry Niven explores some of the darker implications of a universe of universes created by endlessly branching time-lines in his story “All the Myriad Ways” (1968). Alternate times and multiple time-tracks shape stories such as Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962), in which Germany and Japan have won World War II. Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream (1972), which is “really” Adolph Hitler's 1953 award-winning novel, The Lord of the Swastika, also fits into this category. In many of these stories, scientific relativity finds its analogue in a serious exploration of cultural relativity.

Time-as-Text invites us not only to read it, but to participate in writing it as well, to admit our active role in the creation of the structure, our complicity in the game: “the Text requires an attempt to abolish (or at least to lessen) the distance between writing and reading, not by intensifying the reader's projection into the Work, but by linking the two together in a single unifying process” (Barthes: 79). Because Wells's Time Traveller reads the future as logical and determined extrapolation of his present, he confirms the inevitability of devolution and apocalypse, a confirmation which severely limits the freedom of the human subject to shape events in time. Relativity has contributed to the restoration of this freedom in many SF stories. Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), for example, posits at least two opposing futures which are potential in the present, and one of these, a feminist utopia, uses time travel in an effort (whose outcome is left open) to ensure its actualization. Benford's Timescape (1980) assumes an even greater freedom to write time: the doomed world of 1998 successfully uses time travel to warn the world of 1962 of its impending ruin; the result is a split in the time-line, as the world of 1962 veers towards its new future, while the “old” future continues to decline. Writing time in this instance includes (re)writing the past.

Even when a time-travel story inscribes itself within the Newtonian paradigm (as many still continue to do), it is (at least, from a “postmodern” perspective) always already deconstructive of any mechanical reading of the universe. The Time Machine can once again provide the model for this particular textual activity. We have already seen, for example, some of the effects of Wells's reading of time-as-Work: the determinate nature of time, the linearity of temporal structure, and the apparently extrapolative tendency which develops from this view of time. But by the very fact that this is a time-travel story, narrative activity disruptive of specific aspects of the 19th-century positivist world-view is already at play within the text.

In the first place, in order to postulate time travel as one of the givens of his narrative universe, Wells had to separate the subjective time of his Traveller from the objective time by which his temporal perceptions are supposedly determined. Private time breaks free of public time. This situation is analogous to Derrida's subversion of the langue/parole (language as system/language as individual speech-act) hierarchy erected by Saussurean structural linguistics. This deconstruction of the opposition between public and private time also anticipates Relativity Theory, which, in Stephen Kern's delightful image, has “filled the universe with clocks each telling a different correct time” (p. 19). Kern identifies the collusion between the normative and the coercive, between “the authority of uniform public time” and “centralized public authority” (p. 16) which is implicit in the idea of a public time. Now there is no more privileged Time, only an infinite number of individual times which together constitute the illusion of an absolute and universal Time.

As a consequence of this subversion of public time, the concept of “now” becomes displaced from its privileged point on the time-line: this is the characteristic gesture of displacement particular to the language of time travel. “Now” is no longer “here” but “there.” There is no longer a privileged “now” of any empirical force. Within the discourse of the time-travel story, “now” becomes shifting and unstable, indicative of any point in the past, present, or future inhabited by the subjective present of the time traveller.24 Language recognizes temporal subjectivity; it is always limited to private time. No words exist to fix the absolute present, the Now, while narrating the time traveller's experiences in the past or future relative to that absolute present. Wells's Narrator demonstrates this linguistic peculiarity as he speculates on the Time Traveller's “present” whereabouts: “He may even now—if I may use the phrase—be wandering on some plesiosaurus-haunted Oolitic coral reef, or beside the lonely saline lakes of the Triassic Age” (12:117).

As as point of reference, the time traveller acts as both the functional (not absolute) center of the temporal structure and as a floating signifier released from any fixed relationship to that structure. Time-travel stories, then, are never “really” versions but are always subversions of traditional temporal structure; their absolute rejection of an absolute Present works to negate the very concept of temporal Presence, “temporal presence as point … of the now or of the moment” (OG, p. 12).

5. In an important early essay, “The Rediscovery of the Unique” (1891). Wells demonstrates his anticipation of several key Derridean concepts. The focus of the essay is the “rediscovery” of difference: “All being is unique, or, nothing is strictly like anything else. It implies … that we only arrive at the idea of similar beings by an unconscious or deliberate disregard of an infinity of small differences” (Philmus & Hughes: 23; Wells's emphasis). Even more significant is Wells's conclusion:

[The “human delusion” of sameness] has grown with the growth of the mind, and is, we are quite prepared to concede, a necessary feature of thought. We may here remark, parenthetically, that we make no proposal to supersede ordinary thinking by a new method … This … is outside the scope of the present paper, and altogether premature.

(ibid., pp. 25-26)

According to Derrida, the present moment is no more conducive to new methods of thinking than was the late 19th century:

the movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures. Inhabiting them in a certain way.

(OG, p. 24; emphasis in original)

Wells's answer to this dilemma, that there is no ground upon which to base any attack upon conventionalized systems of thought outside of those systems themselves, proves to be the same as Derrida's. Just as Derridean deconstruction is a profoundly ironic enterprise, one which, in the words of Paul de Man, “splits the subject into an empirical self that exists in a state of inauthenticity and a self that exists only in the form of a language that asserts the knowledge of its inauthenticity” (p. 197), so The Time Machine is a profoundly ironic text. It simultaneously inhabits the world of Classical Physics and ironizes that world-view. We have already seen how the classical definition of time is crucial to the logic of the narrative events and to the Time Traveller's interpretations of these events. It will therefore be worthwhile to examine in more detail the cumulative effects of Wells's ironization of the Newtonian paradigm on the “meaning” of his novella.

An implicit confession of disloyalty to the classical world-view is embedded in the very title of this “exemplary” Newtonian production. While “the time machine” refers to the invention by which the Victorian scientist moves into the far future, Wells's title invites at least two more readings. Mark Rose points out that the machine of the title is also “the relentless turning of history … a diabolic mechanism whose workings lead to death” (p. 101). Time is the machine which will eventually crush the life out of the very universe. A third reading reminds us, self-reflexively, that the time machine is the story itself, which creates the time of its particular narrative universe. Although Wellsian time travel is a direct literalization of linguistic metaphor—diachrony treated as synchrony—his story-as-time-machine works its own considerable deconstruction upon the time machine of Classical Physics.25

Robert M. Philmus and David Y. Hughes have discussed in some detail the subversion of the Newtonian world-view which takes place on the level of narrative event in The Time Machine. They link this to the rising influence of evolutionary theory in the latter half of the 19th century:

The newly posited entanglement of species in the destiny of one another reopened the question of ‘humanity's’ relation to (the rest of) nature and to the universe at large in part because it rendered the concept of isolation (itself a spatial concept) anachronistic, if not obsolete.

(p. 3)

Wells's repudiation of “the anthropocentric fallacy” (Philmus & Hughes: 8) is demonstrated both in the disappearance of the human race from the universe of the far future and in the disappearance of the Time Traveller himself from the universe of the story.26 What is of interest within the terms of this present discussion is that there is a parallel attack against such a centrist perspective in the text's ironically compromised sense of commitment to the ideal of logocentrism as well, an ideal framed by the same epistemè from within which the intellectual conventions of scientific positivism were developed. The very discourse of Wells's text subverts the notion of full presence through its ironic treatment of this traditional metaphysical concept. This can most clearly be seen in the development of the “frame story” within which the events of The Time Machine occur. There is a constant tension between the logocentric idealism of Wells's Narrator and the events which he reports at second hand.

Vincent Leitch explains that

the logocentric system always assigns the origin of truth to the logos—to the spoken word, or to the Word of God. Moreover, the being of the entity is always determined as presence: the ‘object’ of science and metaphysics is characteristically the ‘present entity.’ In these circumstances, the full presence of the voice is valued over the mute signs of writing. … Writing represents a fall from full speech.

(p. 25)

It is this hegemony of Speech over Writing that Derrida criticizes in Saussure; Wells's Narrator is a supporter of the same metaphysics of presence and would undoubtedly agree with Saussure (p. 30) that “writing obscures language; it is not a guise for language but a disguise.” The “truth” of the Traveller's story is apodictically proven through his own account of it. a convention used in the 19th century to support the fictional truths of texts as disparate as Jane Eyre (1848), David Copperfield (1850), and Dracula (1897) (although, as a compendium of written reports, Dracula is already contaminated by a fall from immediate presence).

Wells's Narrator is so extremely conscious of the truth-value of the present voice that he enters the following disclaimer for his own second-hand account:

In writing it down I feel with only too much keenness the inadequacy of pen and ink—and, above all, my own inadequacy—to express [the] quality [of the original narration]. You read, I will suppose, attentively enough; but you cannot know the speaker's white, sincere face … nor hear the intonation of his voice.

(2:21-22; my emphasis)

Derrida reminds us that writing in the logocentric system is always the sign of a double absence: “the absence of the signatory, to say nothing of the absence of the referent” (OG, p. 40). The Time Machine calls particular attention to these absences, since the only I/eye-witness disappears from the text. Committed as Wells's novella apparently is to the tradition in which Presence supports the truth of narrative event, it nevertheless informs us at the end that “the Time Traveller vanished three years ago. And, as everybody knows now, he has never returned” (12:117). This last-minute supplementary information changes the very essence of the narrative: the presence of the Time Traveller has, in fact, always already been an absence. This is further underlined by a strange and seemingly irrelevant occurrence which takes place during the Time Traveller's exploration of the Palace of Green Porcelain. He recounts that, “yielding to an irresistible impulse, I wrote my name upon the nose of a steatite monster from South America that particularly took my fancy” (8:89). The unnamed Traveller has at last named himself, but that name exists on a monument from the past buried in a museum in the future—never in the present. Presence is always already past or to come: it is never immediate. If, as Derrida defines it, “a written signature implies the actual or empirical non-presence of the signer” (“Signature Event Context,” p. 194), then Wells's text here reinforces the absence at its core, since not only the “signer” but his very signature is lost in time.

6. Paralleling this subversion of logocentrism in Wells's text is the displacement of the human subject from the center to the periphery of natural structure, and, finally, to a point outside the picture altogether. This movement is analogous to the reversal of the evolutionary process which the Traveller discovers to be the fate of humanity. If we view the time from which the Traveller embarks as one in which humanity is the center and meaning of the natural world, then the world of 802,701 is one in which the Eloi and the Morlocks are less central and more marginal—that is, less “human” and more “natural”—than before; in the distant future at the end of the world, humanity is no longer even a peripheral presence but a complete absence. In this extreme displacement of the subject, only the object, the world of nature, remains. The “object” has overwhelmed the “subject” in a deconstructive reversal of the traditional scientific conviction of the power of the Cartesian res cognans over the res extensa.The Time Machine, to borrow the words of Paul de Man, is an ironic treatment of “the purely instrumental, reified character of [our] relationship to nature.” It demonstrates that “Nature can at all times treat [us] as if [we] were a thing and remind [us] of [our] factitiousness, whereas [we are] quite powerless to convert even the smallest particle of nature into something human” (p. 196). Under these circumstances, the gestures of “observation” and “reason” become sadly diminished and ineffectual. Humanity as transcendental signified, the ground of the Time Traveller's explorations into the future, has been removed as part of the narrative equation; and any “meaning” based on such a ground has vanished with it.

This is supported by the ironic role played by the figure of the White Sphinx in the text. The various references to the Oedipus myth in The Time Machine (noted in Ketterer: 340-41, and Huntington: 44-45) are focussed upon this inscrutably “colossal figure” with its “unpleasant suggestion of disease” (TTM 3:27); the answer to its ancient riddle is also the answer which correctly interprets the world of 802,701. Only now the riddle of the Sphinx might more suitably be: “What is missing from this picture?” In each case, the answer is the same: “Man”; but while the original question bespeaks presence, the revision in The Time Machine points to absence. The discourse of Wells's text is also constituted by absence, so that the Time Traveller is a correlative on the textual level of the absence repeated on the level of narrative event.27 The end result of the Time Traveller's readings of the future is absence, just as his absence is the final note in our reading of The Time Machine.

In his early writings, Wells explored both absolutist and psychologistic approaches in his discussions of the nature of time, oscillating between concepts of cosmic determinism and human free will in his earlier versions of The Time Machine. Philmus and Hughes (pp. 47-56) demonstrate the balance achieved in the final version between Wells's idea of “the universe rigid”28 and the theory that time is a subjective phenomenon, stressing Wells's ultimate adherence to a principle of complementarity in what has become the definitive edition of the text. In like manner, John Huntington emphasizes that “the coexistence of opposites is a fundamental element in all of Wells's early fiction,” and cites the juxtaposition of the world of 802,701 against the present world of The Time Machine as one example of what he terms “this two world structure” (p. 21). He goes on to argue that “by a series of fairly simple transformations a number of other oppositions in Wells's early fiction derive from this … structure” (p. 22), such as “the moral opposition” (p. 33) represented by the scientist and the anarchist of “The Stolen Bacillus” (1895). What is of interest here is Huntington's contention that the typical Wellsian opposition, that between nature and culture, is an ironic one, maintaining as it does “a constant and balanced reciprocity[;] … the one cannot exist without the other” (p. 22). The two world(view)s which are woven together throughout both narrative events and textual discourse in The Time Machine function in a manner similar to Huntington's “two world structure.” As he concludes, “in such a structure neither world in itself holds our interest; what is important is the two of them together and the linked oppositions they establish” (ibid.). (We might observe here once again that oppositions as oppositions tend to exist “in the eye of the beholder”; as a rule, they are effects produced by difference rather than fundamental antitheses.)

The end result of the presence of these complementary world-views is a play between narrative metonymy (The Time Machine as extrapolative work) and textual metaphor (The Time Machine as figurative text), which is as integral to its structure as is the play between present and future. There is an implicit insistence upon this in the Time Traveller's invitation to his listeners (which is also a self-reflexive moment of textual duplicity):

Take it as a lie—or a prophecy. Say I dreamed it in the workshop. Consider I have been speculating upon the destinies of our race until I have hatched this fiction. Treat my assertion of its truth as a mere stroke of art to enhance its interest. And taking it as a story, what do you think of it?


The Time Machine is essentially an exercise in aporia, an oscillation between the desire for presence and the awareness of absence, between the objectivity of extrapolation and the subjectivity of metaphor, between—one is tempted to add, given its historical moment—the 19th century and the 20th century.

The Narrator's acknowledgment of human ineffectuality in the face of a determined future—his “If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so” (12:117)—begins to take on additional resonance at this point, in view of the complementary existence of both world-views in the text. Balanced against the deterministic universe of the Newtonian paradigm is the refutation of that very paradigm. If the future is not, after all, a fixed and determined one, then perhaps the refusal on the part of humanity to read time as though it were inevitable might avert the devolution to which the Traveller bears witness.29

Certainly The Time Machine is about “making a difference”; its narrative defamiliarizes apparently natural class-structures by taking them to their biosociological extremes; its discourse achieves at least a partial displacement of the logocentric system through a comparable act of deconstruction. Like the (anti)philosophy of deconstruction, it both admits the ineluctability of our metaphysical structures and effects a defamiliarization of those structures. It acknowledges its inevitable inscription within the logocentric system of Classical Physics at the same time as it inhabits that system “in a certain way,” with an ironic skepticism which questions some of its own fundamental narrative commitments.

In 1933, in his “Preface to the Scientific Romances,” Wells referred to The Time Machine as an “assault on human self-satisfaction” (p. v). The strategic position occupied by The Time Machine accomplishes much more than simply an overt attack upon 19th-century moral complacency, however; in its deconstruction of some fundamental aspects of traditional logocentric discourse, it looks forward to the projects of much contemporary critical theory. It attempts at once to displace a smug humanity from its privileged position at the center of creation and to remind us of our ineluctable ties to the natural world. And what, after all, is the aim of post-structuralist theory if not a continuation, in another form, of that same “assault on human self-satisfaction”?


  1. This essay was in part made possible through a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

  2. See, for example, Larry Dwyer's essay, “Time Travel and Changing the Past,” for a discussion of the implications of the Einstein-Maxwell equations and Kurt Gödel's solutions to the field equations of general relativity “which permit closed timelike lines to exist in spacetime” (p. 344). Dwyer's is only one of many philosophical attempts to justify at least the logical possibility of time travel. Other challenging discussions include David Lewis's “The Paradoxes of Time Travel” and Paul Horwich's “On Some Alleged Paradoxes of Time Travel.”

  3. Donald Davidson points out that “most metaphors are false” (p. 39). For his discussion of this aspect of metaphor, see “What Metaphors Mean,” pp. 39-41.

  4. Time travel is the result of a kind of linguistic extrapolation, then, even as it functions as literary metaphor. I am indebted to David Ketterer for this observation.

  5. Rose is applying the distinctions between metaphor and metonymy drawn by Jakobson in his “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbance.” See especially, Jakobson, pp. 76-82.

  6. The most overtly “metonymical” trend in SF today is probably cyberpunk, which may be one of the reasons that it stands out as a “movement.” The sensibility of a novel like William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), for instance, is firmly rooted in technological extrapolation, although it is by no means devoid of metaphorical content. Cyberpunk seems to be an SF current flowing against the contemporary tide.

  7. In his recent essay, “Futurological Congress as Metageneric Text,” Robert M. Philmus has discussed several aspects of generic self-reflexivity in The Time Machine, demonstrating its value as a model in this context as well. The heterogeneity of meaning of Wells's title, to which I refer below, is also a key factor in Philmus's analysis. See especially pp. 313-15.

  8. Terry Eagleton writes, for example, that “the genuinely theoretical question is always violently estranging, a perhaps impossible attempt to raise to self-reflexivity the very enabling conditions of a range of routinized practices …” (p. 89).

  9. Suvin's definition of the genre, which is the most useful yet devised, reads in full: “SF is … a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment” (pp. 7-8).

  10. Carl Freedman has made a similar point about the conjunction of SF and critical theory, which I will quote at length, because of its importance:

    It is … a matter of the shared perspectives between SF and critical theory, of the dialectical standpoint of the SF tendency, with its insistence upon historical mutability, material reducibility, and, at least implicitly, Utopian possibility. In a sense, SF is of all genres the one most devoted to historical specificity: for the SF world is not only one different in time or place from our own, but one whose chief interest is precisely the difference that such difference makes, and, in addition, one whose difference is nonetheless contained within a cognitive continuum with the actual. …

    (p. 186-87)

  11. This is never posed as a “Father Paradox.” It is as if the SF community is evading the Oedipal aspects implicit in its favorite model of temporal paradox.

  12. Even a narrative line as uncomplicated as that of The Terminator (1984) creates the potential for endless repetition which the viewer must tacitly ignore in order to collaborate in the closure of the film.

  13. The sign, for example, “is always the supplement of the thing itself” (OG, p. 145), at the same time as it stands in for the full presence which it both defers and differs from. The aim of Derrida's argument is to deny the notion of origin, of the unsupplemented entity. Nature is a construct of culture; speech of a larger writing (hence Derrida's grammatological undertaking); “the thing in itself” of the sign used to “replace” it. For a useful summary of Derrida's theories of the supplement, see Leitch, pp. 169-78.

  14. As Leitch explains, the always already “works to insert the supplement into any seemingly simple or pure metaphysical conceptualization” (p. 171).

  15. My initial thinking about the effects of Relativity on the development of the time-travel motif was generated by Andrew Gordon's excellent essay, “Silverberg's Time Machine.” Gordon discusses, for example, the disparity of subject and form in many time-travel stories: “the problem is that time-travel stories have been trying to deal with twentieth-century conceptions of time in narrative forms borrowed from the 19th-century” (p. 348). These narrative forms, of course, were developed to explain the reality created by nineteenth-century scientific metaphors.

  16. Since availing myself of Barthes' distinction between oeuvre and texte, I have come across another instance of the same application to quite different circumstances. This suggests to me that the Barthian treatment of oeuvre and texte is a flexible notion with potential for a wide range of applications. See Patrice Pavis's discussion of oeuvre and texte (pp. 2-12).

  17. In “Signature Event Context,” Derrida draws attention to the political character of such oppositions:

    an opposition of metaphysical concepts … is never a confrontation of two terms, but a hierarchy and the order of a subordination. Deconstruction cannot be restricted or immediately pass to a neutralization: it must … put into practice a reversal of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system. It is on that condition alone that deconstruction will provide the means of intervening in the field of oppositions it criticizes and that is also a field of non-discursive forces.

    (p. 195; emphasis in original)

  18. In her Preface to Of Grammatology, Gyatri Spivak neatly exemplifies the dual effects of différance in her discussion of the nature of the sign: “Such is the strange ‘being’ of the sign: half of it is always ‘not there’ [the signified, which is constantly deferred] and the other half always ‘not that’ [the signifier, which is always different from that which it signifies]” (p. xvii).

  19. As Spivak points out, however, “the description of the object is as contaminated by the patterns of the subject's desire as is the subject constituted by that never-fulfilled desire” (p. lix).

  20. In his “Preface” to the 1931 Random House edition, Wells draws attention to his application of the Second Law of Thermodynamics in The Time Machine (pp. ix-x).

  21. See Philmus's discussion of this point in his “The Time Machine: or, the Fourth Dimension as Prophecy” (pp. 534-35).

  22. British physicist Michael Shallis writes: “the world exists for us only in the form we clothe it. Our descriptions or explanations define our world. Our technology manifests our explanations” (p. 197).

  23. Borges demonstrates a more pragmatic approach to the subject, however, in his ironic “A New Refutation of Time.” After developing arguments which seem to deny the objective reality of time, he nevertheless concludes that “denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations. … Time is the substance I am made of. … The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges” (p. 222). Borges thus neatly sums up the apparent impossibility of reconciling contemporary scientific descriptions of “reality” with our human experience of it.

  24. The separation of private from public time, or as Hilary Putnam phrases it, “the relativistic notion of proper time” (p. 669), has been recognized as the only route logic can take to defend the philosophical possibilities of time travel. See, for example, Putnam's essay, “It Ain't Necessarily So” and David Lewis's “The Paradoxes of Time Travel.”

  25. Even this “obvious” reading suggests the play of différance: Philmus and Hughes (p. 48) draw attention to the fact that Wells's “invention” includes not only the machine itself, but “the notion of travelling through time” and, even more importantly, “its rationale.”

  26. The formal irony of The Time Machine has elsewhere been identified by Bernard Bergonzi, for example, in his “The Time Machine: An Ironic Myth,” and by Hughes in his “H. G. Wells: Ironic Romancer.”

  27. I am here distinguishing between two aspects of The Time Machine as narrative fiction, based upon Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan's structuralist distinctions (pp. 3-4). The first is that aspect of “written discourse,” or “text,” through which “all the items of the narrative content are filtered”; in the case of The Time Machine, the text is permeated by the absence of the Time Traveller, necessitating a secondary Narrator and a second-hand “translation.” The second aspect is that of the “story,” “the narrated events” of the fiction, which in the present instance include the final disappearance of humanity from the world as well as the “actual” disappearance of the Traveller himself.

  28. Although the original version of Wells's essay entitled “The Universe Rigid” has been lost, he includes what might be considered an “abstract” of this lost essay in the first book version of The Time Machine, published in the United States by Henry Holt. This “abstract” probably gives a much truer idea of the original argument than does the reconstruction undertaken by Wells nearly 40 years after the fact in his 1934 Experiment in Autobiography (see Philmus & Hughes, pp. 4-5, 51-53).

  29. I am indebted to David Y. Hughes for this reminder of possible alternative readings of the Narrator's conclusion.

Works Cited

Barnett, John. The Universe and Dr Einstein. 2nd ed. rev. [1957]; rpt. NY: Bantam, 1968.

Barthes, Roland. “From Work to Text” [1971]; rpt. in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. Josué V. Harari (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1979), pp. 73-81.

Bergonzi, Bernard. “The Time Machine: An Ironic Myth,” Critical Quarterly, 2 (Winter 1960): 293-305.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Garden of Forking Paths” [1944], in The Traps of Time, ed. Michael Moorcock, trans. Helen Temple & Ruthven Todd (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1968), pp. 145-57.

———. “A New Refutation of Time,” trans. James E. Irby, in The Discontinuous Universe: Selected Writings in Contemporary Consciousness, ed. Sallie Sears & Georgianna W. Lord (NY: Basic Books, 1972), pp. 208-23.

Davidson, Donald. “What Metaphors Mean,” in On Metaphor, ed. Sheldon Sacks (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1979), pp. 29-45.

De Man, Paul. “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” in Interpretation: Theory and Practice, ed. Charles S. Singleton (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1969), pp. 173-209.

Derrida, Jacques. “Différance,” in Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison & Newton Garver (Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1973), pp. 129-60.

———. Of Grammatology [1967], trans. Gyatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

———. “Signature Event Context,” trans. Samuel Weber & Jeffrey Mehlman, Glyph, 1 (1977): 172-97.

———. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” [1967], in The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, ed. Richard Macksey & Eugene Donato (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1972), pp. 247-72.

———. “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy,” New Literary History, 6 (Autumn 1974): 5-74.

Dwyer, Larry. “Time Travel and Changing the Past,” Philosophical Studies, 27 (1975): 341-50.

Eagleton, Terry. The Function of Criticism: From “The Spectator” to Post-Structuralism. London: Verso Editions, 1984.

Freedman, Carl. “Science Fiction and Literary Theory,” SFS, 14 (1987): 180-200.

Gordon, Andrew. “Silverberg's Time Machine,” Extrapolation, 23 (1982): 345-61.

Heisenberg, Werner. Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science [1958]; rpt. NY: Harper & Row, 1962.

Horwich, Paul. “On Some Alleged Paradoxes of Time Travel,” Journal of Philosophy, 72 (Aug. 1975): 432-44.

Huntington, John. The Logic of Fantasy: H. G. Wells and Science Fiction. NY: Columbia UP, 1982.

Hughes, David Y. “H. G. Wells: Ironic Romancer,” Extrapolation, 6 (1965): 32-38.

Jakobson, Roman. “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances,” in Fundamentals of Language (The Hague: Mouton, 1956), pp. 53-82.

Kern, Stephen. The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1983.

Ketterer, David. “Oedipus as Time Traveller,” SFS, 9 (1982): 340-41.

Leitch, Vincent. Deconstructive Criticism: An Advanced Introduction. NY: Columbia UP, 1983.

Lewis, David. “The Paradoxes of Time Travel,” American Philosophical Quarterly, 13 (Apr. 1976): 145-52.

Lindsay, Clarence. “H. G. Wells, Viktor Shlovsky, and Paul de Man,” in The Scope of the Fantastic: Theory, Technique, Major Authors, ed. Robert A. Collins & Howard D. Pearce (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985), pp. 125-33.

Niven, Larry. “The Theory and Practice of Time Travel,” in his All the Myriad Ways (1971; rpt. NY: Ballantine, 1981), pp. 125-33.

Norris, Christopher. Deconstruction: Theory and Practice. NY: Methuen, 1982.

Pavis, Patrice. “The Classical Heritage of Modern Drama: The Case of Postmodern Theatre,” Modern Drama, 29 (Mar. 1986): 1-22.

Philmus, Robert M. “Futurological Congress as Metageneric Text,” SFS, 13 (1986): 313-28.

———. “The Time Machine: or, The Fourth Dimension as Prophecy,” PMLA, 84 (1969): 530-35.

———. & David Y. Hughes (eds.) H. G. Wells: Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction. Berkeley: California UP, 1975.

Putnam, Hilary. “It Ain't Necessarily So,” Journal of Philosophy, 59 (1962): 658-71.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. NY: Methuen, 1983.

Rose, Mark. Alien Encounters: Anatomy of Science Fiction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1981.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin, ed. Charles Bally & Albert Sechehaye. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1966.

Shallis, Michael. On Time: An Investigation into Scientific Knowledge and Human Experience. Markham, Ont.: Penguin, 1983.

Spivak, Gyatri Chakravorty. “Preface” to Of Grammatology, pp. ix-lxxxvii (see Derrida).

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Thayer, H. S. (ed.). Newton's Philosophy of Nature: Selections from his Writings. NY: Hafner, 1953.

Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court [1889]; rpt. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1971.

Wells, H. G. “Preface” to The Time Machine (NY: Random House, 1931), pp. vii-x.

———. “Preface” to The Scientific Romances of H. G. Wells (London: Victor Gollancz, 1933), pp. iii-vi.

———. The Time Machine [1895], in The Works of H. G. Wells, The Atlantic Edition, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1924), I:3-118.

Williams, Donald C. “The Myth of Passage,” Journal of Philosophy, 48 (1951); rpt. in The Philosophy of Time, ed. Richard M. Gale (Garden City, NY: Doubleday-Anchor, 1967), pp. 98-116.

Ziegler, James D. “Primitive, Newtonian, and Einsteinian Fantasies: Three Worldviews,” in The Scope of the Fantastic (see Lindsay), pp. 125-33.

Kathryn Hume (essay date spring 1990)

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SOURCE: Hume, Kathryn. “Eat or Be Eaten: H. G. Wells's The Time Machine.Philological Quarterly 69, no. 2 (spring 1990): 233-51.

[In the following essay, Hume investigates the function of oral fantasies and imagery in The Time Machine.]

“It is very remarkable that this is so extensively overlooked,” says the Time Traveller, speaking of time as the fourth dimension.1 Similarly remarkable is the way we have overlooked the comprehensive functions of oral fantasies in The Time Machine. They play a fourth dimension to the other three of entropy, devolution, and utopian satire. They ramify, by regular transformations, into those other three; into the social and economic worlds of consumption and exploitation; and into the realm of gender anxieties. They transform the ideological commonplaces from which the text constructs its reality. They create a network of emotional tensions that subliminally unites the three time frames: Victorian England, the Realm of the Sphinx, and the Terminal Beach. At the same time, this nexus of related images undercuts and fragments the logical, scientific arguments being carried out on the surface of the tale.

The Time Machine is the first of Wells's scientific romances to achieve canonical status.2 In their eagerness to elevate and assimilate this text, however, critics have lost awareness that some of its parts are not explained by their normal critical strategies. One such feature to disappear from critical discourse is the failure of any coherent social message to emerge from the world of the Eloi and Morlocks. Another partly repressed feature is the disparity between the Time Traveller's violent emotions and the experiences that evoke them.3 A third feature lost to view is the dubious logic that binds the two futuristic scenarios.

I would like to approach the text with both the oral image complex and these elided mysteries in mind. What emerges will not fill the gaps in the narrative logic; the text resists such treatment, for reasons that will be shown. Rather, I wish to explore the hidden dynamics of emotion and logic. Since the semes attached to eating, consumption, and engulfment point in so many directions, I shall start instead with the public ideologies of power, size and gender. Then we can explore their symbolic manifestations as fantasies of being eaten or engulfed; as equations involving body size, intelligence, and physical energy; and as gender attributes projected on the world. Once sensitized to these concerns, we can examine the two future scenarios and their relationship to the Victorian frame. By exploring the interplay of ideology with its symbolic distortions, we will better sense what the text represses, and why despite (or even because of) this hidden material, the book has such disturbing power.


Ideology, used here in Roland Barthes' sense, means the unexamined assumptions as to what is natural and inevitable and hence unchangeable. One realizes these “inevitabilities” to be historical and contingent most readily by comparing cultures, for within a culture, the ideological is taken to be “real.”

The part of the general ideology relevant here consists of a nexus of values that include power, body size, and gender. Separating the values even to this extent is artificial; they intertwine tightly, and in turn link to other values such as dominance, exploitation, race, physical height, and bodily strength. They also merge with political and social and military power. The form taken by this family of assumptions in England made the British Empire possible.

Let us assume you are a nineteenth-century Briton—white, male, and a member of the politically powerful classes. You are also nominally Christian and equipped with the latest weaponry. You could expect to march into any country not blessed with most of these characteristics and expropriate what you wanted, be it raw material, cheap labor, land, or valuables. Such power gives the ability to exploit and consume. The so-called inferior races had no choice, since their technology was insufficient to resist British force. The Traveller's outlook is very much that of the nineteenth-century Briton among the aliens. His strength, technological know-how, and culture elevate him in his own mind. He scribbles his name on a statue, much as other nineteenth-century Britons carved theirs on Roman and Greek temples. To the empire builders, killing Africans or Indians was not “really” murder; they were Other and hence less than truly human. While the Traveller controls his impulse to massacre Morlocks (and is even praised for his restraint by one critic),4 he smashes at their skulls in a way he would never dream of doing in Oxford Street. He is outraged (as well as frightened) when his trespassing machine is impounded. In the “kangaroo” and “centipede” episode found in the New Review serialization of the novel, his immediate impulse is to hit one of the kangaroo-like creatures on the skull with a rock. When examination of the body suggests that it is of human descent, he feels only a flash of “disagreeable apprehension,” evidently directed toward this proof of Man's degeneration, not at his own murderous action. His regret at leaving the body (possibly just unconscious) to the monstrous “centipede” appears to be regret at the loss of a scientific specimen, not guilt at leaving this “grey animal … or grey man” to be devoured.5 He protects himself from any acknowledgment of this self-centeredness by viewing his urges as scientific, but ultimately he sees himself as having the right to whatever he wants, and cherishes himself for being the only “real” human and therefore the only creature with rights.

Part of this superiority stems from physical size, the second element in the ideology and one closely linked to power. Size generally permits a man to feel superior to women, and a British man to feel superior to members of shorter races. In English, size is a metaphor used to indicate that which is valuable, good, desirable. “Great,” “high,” and “large” are normally positive markers.6

In the two paragraphs that encompass the narrator's first language lesson and his response to it, we find the word “little” used eight times. Attached in his mind to the littleness of the Eloi is their “chatter,” their tiring easily, their being “indolent” and “easily fatigued,” and their “lack of interest” (p. 35). Littleness and its associated debilities are so grotesquely prominent that one cannot help note this obsession with the inferiority attaching to bodies of small size. What the narrator thinks will shape and limit what he hears and sees. When he first hears the Eloi (p. 29), they look and sound like “men” running. Later, his senses register “children”: “I heard cries of terror and their little feet running” (p. 46).

The ideological inferiority of littleness is reinforced for readers by the Traveller's reactions to artifacts of the prior civilization. He admires and wonders at the “ruinous splendor” consisting of “a great heap of granite, bound together by masses of aluminium, a vast labyrinth of precipitous walls” (p. 36). He cannot describe such a building without expressing this admiration for sheer size: the buildings are “splendid,” “colossal,” “tall,” “big,” “magnificent,” “vast,” “great,” and “huge.” He never wonders whether the size was functional and if so, how. Nor does he speculate on whether it was achieved through slave labor, as were the colossal monuments of antiquity which it resembles, with its “suggestions of old Phoenician decorations” (p. 33). He simply extends automatic admiration to such remains because of their impressive size.

The third element in the common ideology, besides power and size, is gender. Power and size support the superior status of maleness. Wells extends this prejudice to the point of defining humanity as male. Early in his narrative, the Time Traveller recounts his fear that “the race had lost its manliness” (p. 28). No sooner does he identify the Eloi as shorter than himself than they become “creatures” and are quickly feminized with such terms as “graceful,” “frail,” “hectic beauty,” “Dresden china type of prettiness.” All later descriptions use codes normally applied to women or children: mouths small and bright red, eyes large and mild, a language that sounds sweet and liquid and cooing and melodious. Ultimately, he equates loss of manliness with loss of humanity.

To sum up the ideological assumptions: the text shows as natural and inevitable the interconnection of power, size and male gender. Wells was to prove capable of challenging the politics of power in later scientific romances. He questions the might-makes-right outlook of Empire in his reference to the Tasmanians in The War of the Worlds (1898), and in Dr. Moreau's parodic imposition of The Law on inferior beings (1896). Callousness towards non-British sentients is rebuked by Cavor, who is shocked by Bedford's slaughter of Selenites in The First Men in the Moon (1901). However, though power may be somewhat negotiable to Wells, size and maleness remain positively marked throughout the scientific romances. In The Food of the Gods (1904), size automatically conveys nobility of purpose, and this idealized race of giants consists so exclusively of men that it will have trouble propagating.

If this text merely echoed the ideology of its times, The Time Machine (1895) would be drab and predictable. The symbolic enlargements and distortions of these values are what create the images and tensions that make it interesting, so let us turn to them.


Power belongs to the same family of values as “exploitation” and “consumption.” These terms from the political and economic spheres take on added resonances when they emerge as oral fantasies about eating and being eaten. As Patrick A. McCarthy points out, cannibalism lies at the heart of this darkness, or so at least the Traveller asseverates.7 Actually, the evidence for cannibalism is far from complete, as David Lake observes, and the narrator may be jumping to totally unwarranted conclusions. However the notion of humans as fatted kine for a technologically superior group will reappear in The War of the Worlds, so it evidently held some fascination for Wells. The latter book certainly makes the connection between eating people and economic exploitation,8 a parallel made famous by Swift's “Modest Proposal.”

The putative cuisine of the Morlocks is only the most obvious of the oral fantasies. “Eat or be eaten” is a way of characterizing some social systems, but in Wells's futures, the words are literally applicable, and the text regales us with variations upon the theme of eating. The Time Traveller fears that the Morlocks will feed upon him as well as on Eloi. In the extra time-frame of the New Review version, the centipede appears to be hungry. The crabs make clear their intentions to consume the Traveller. The Sphinx traditionally devoured those who could not guess her riddle; the Traveller's entering her pedestal constitutes but a slight displacement of entering her maw. The Victorian frame features a prominent display of after-dinner satisfactions (including drinks, cigars, and feminized chairs that embrace and support the men) and a meal at which the Traveller urgently gobbles his food. Oral fantasies also take the forms of engulfment: one can be overwhelmed, drowned, swallowed by darkness, or rendered unconscious. Both in the narrator's dreams and in his physical adventures, we find several such threats of dissolution.

Norman Holland observes that “the single most common fantasy-structure in literature is phallic assertiveness balanced against oral engulfment,”9 exactly the pattern of The Time Machine. Typical of the phallic stage anxieties is the exploration of dark, dangerous, and congested places. Time travel and other magic forms of travel are common omnipotence fantasies at this stage of development. So is the pre-oedipal polarization of agents into threatening and non-threatening, and the focus on a single figure. Opposing this phallic quest are oral anxieties. One such wave of anxiety oozes forth as the engulfing embraces of night (e.g., “dreaming … that I was drowned, and that sea-anemones were feeling over my face with their soft palps”—p. 57). Another such anxiety grips the narrator when he faces the yawning underworld; indeed, upon escaping from below, he collapses in a dead faint. The threat of being eaten, and the enfolding gloom of the Terminal Beach are two others.

The protagonist faces engulfment of body and mind. When he returns to his own time, he responds with typical defenses against oral anxieties; he eats something (“Save me some of that mutton. I'm starving for a bit of meat”—p. 18), and he tells his tale. Holland observes that “a common defense against oral fusion and merger is putting something out of the mouth … usually speech” (p. 37).

This fantasy content forecloses many options for plot development. Within the economy of oral anxieties, the subject eats or is eaten; there is no third way. When the Time Traveller finds himself on the Terminal Beach, where nothing appears edible or consumable or exploitable, he cannot assert his status as eater. Evidently, he subliminally accepts power relationships in terms of this binary fantasy, and thus dooms himself to being devoured through sheer default of cultural imagination. His technological magic may permit him to withdraw physically, but psychically, he is more defeated than triumphant at the end. Like his strategic withdrawal from the underworld, his departure is a rout. We note that although he returns home, he does not long remain. He is swallowed up by past or future.10

The commonplace assumptions in this text about bodily size undergo equivalent amplifications and distortions that affect the plot. We find elaborate equations between bodily size, intelligence, and bodily energy. Some of these simply reflect the science of the day. Researchers were establishing averages for sizes and weights of male and female brains, and followed many dead-end theories as they tried to prove what they were looking for: superiority of men over women and of whites over darker races. Furthermore, many scientists were convinced that the First Law of Thermodynamics, conservation of energy, applied to mental “energy” as well as physical.

Food was taken in, energy (including thought) emerged, and the energy was “an exact equivalent of the amount of food assumed and assimilated.” In Hardaker's crudely quantitative universe bigger was definitely better, and men were bigger.11

If the human race dwindles in size, so will its brain size, so will intelligence, and so will physical energy. Thus much is good science of the day. The text moves from science to symbolism, however, in linking the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics and implying that energy loss in the universe will directly diminish the mental and physical energy of humanity. Although Wells does not state this explicitly, he apparently accepted it. The loss of culture and security would otherwise have reversed the devolutionary decline as the descendants of humans had once more to struggle for existence. This reason for species degeneration remains implicit, but it clearly follows the fantastic elaboration of ideology and science.

The explicit reason given for degeneration is Darwinian. The Traveller decides that strength and size must have declined because they were no longer needed for survival: “Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is strength, would become weakness. … And in a state of physical balance and security, power, intellectual as well as physical, would be out of place” (p. 42). Such a safe society dismays him. He relishes swashbuckling physical action, and is loath to consider a world that would exclude it. Indeed the Morlocks provide him with a welcome excuse to exercise powers not wanted in London. “I struggled up, shaking the human rats from me, and, holding the bar short, I thrust where I judged their faces might be. I could feel the succulent giving of flesh and bone under my blows, and for a moment I was free” (p. 95). “Succulent” is highly suggestive, relating as it does to the realm of the edible.

The equivalence of body, mind, and energy determines major features of the futuristic scenarios. We find something like medieval planes of correspondence. As the cosmos runs down, men will lose energy individually—a linkage no more logical than the Fisher-King's thigh wound causing sterility to fall upon the crops of his realm. Given this as a textual assumption about reality, however, we can see that clever, efficient and adaptive beings are impossible, although a setting like the Terminal Beach would call forth precisely such a humanity in the hands of other writers.

Gender, the third ideological element, undergoes a different kind of symbolic transformation. The traditional semes of “masculine” and “feminine”—whether culturally derived or natural—are widely familiar and even transcend cultural boundaries. Semes of the masculine include such constellated values as culture, light, the Sun, law, reason, consciousness, the right hand, land, and rulership. The feminine merges with chaos, darkness, the Moon, intuition, feeling, the left hand, water, and the unconscious.12 The dialogue between them in some cultures involves balance; in the West, however, we find masculine consciousness fighting off or being overwhelmed by the feminine powers associated with unconsciousness. Thus the eat-consume-overwhelm nexus also enters the story as an attribute of gender.

Much of what troubles us in the realm of the Sphinx derives its power from the text's manipulation of these values. The grotesque is frequently formed from the mingling of characteristics from two “naturally” separate sets, man and beast, for instance. Despite cultural changes since the turn of the century, the traditional assumptions about gender are well enough ingrained in us by reading, if nothing else, to give the story's grotesques most of their original power. Wells attaches but also denies “feminine” and “masculine” attributes to both Eloi and Morlocks. The resulting contradictions prevent us from resolving the tensions roused by these grotesques into the kinds of reality that we are culturally conditioned to find comfortable.

The Eloi at first appear to be the only race, and then the superior of the two. Their life consists of a pastoral idyll, sunlight, and apparent rulership. Thanks to happiness, beauty, absence of poverty, and uninterrupted leisure, their life better fits our notion of Haves than Havenots. However, closer inspection shows them to be small, lacking in reason, deficient in strength, passively fearful, ineffectual, and ultimately just not “masculine” enough to be plausible patriarchal rulers, the standard against which they are implicitly held. In the National Observer version the Eloi have personal flying machines, but Wells ultimately deprived them of anything so technical. For all that they are feminized, however, they lack positive identity with the feminine, so we cannot reconcile them to our sense of the real by means of that pattern.

The Morlocks, by virtue of living in the dark and underground, seem first of all sinister, but secondarily are marked with symbolism of the unconscious and hence the feminine. Their access to the innards of the Sphinx reinforces the latter. Confusing our judgment, however, is their possible control of the machines, a power linked in Western eyes with the masculine rather than the feminine. Likewise, their apparently predatory aggression, their hunting parties (if such they be) fit “masculine” patterns. However, they seem deficient in strength and size to the Traveller, and their inability to tolerate light makes them obviously vulnerable in ways not befitting a “master” race. When comparing the two races, we find that both have traits associated with ruling and exploiting. The Eloi apparently live off the labor of the Morlocks while the latter apparently live off the flesh of the former. However, both are “feminized” in ways that render them less than masterful. These ambiguities in the cultural symbol system cannot be resolved. The traits associated with each race remain in uneasy tension, and contribute to the difficulty that critics have had in putting labels to the two races.

Power, size, and gender; oral fantasies, the laws of thermodynamics as applied to bodies and thought, and the grotesque: this peculiar mixture propels the story and gives it much of its intensity, its disturbing power. However, these concepts are not entirely consistent and harmonious. The conflicts they generate undermine the narrative logic and thereby dissolve the coherence of the ideas Wells was exploring. As we move to the future scenarios, we will note the gaps in the logic.


Almost any way we approach this addled utopia, we find irreducible ambiguity. Does The Time Machine seriously concern a possible—albeit distant—future, or is futurity only a metaphoric disguise for the present? Darko Suvin focuses on the biological elements of the story, so he views the futurity as substantial and important. Others who focus on entropy or time travel likewise assume the significance of the futurity.13 After all, without a real time lapse, anatomical evolution would be impossible. Alternately, the “future” settings may be read as versions of Wells's present. “If the novella imagines a future, it does so not as a forecast but as a way of contemplating the structures of our present civilization.”14 Social warnings of danger 800,000 years away will inevitably fail to grip. Hence, the reality of time in this text—Wells's cherished fourth dimensional time—depends upon whether readers are focusing on biological or social systems.

Even if the critic ruthlessly simplifies to one or the other, interpretations go fuzzy at the edges or lead to contradiction. The biological reading appears at first to be straightforward. Wells asks, “what if progress is not inevitable and devolution can happen as well as evolution?” The Traveller decides that the Eloi degenerate because they no longer need to fight for survival—an interesting argument to present to the increasingly non-physical Victorian society. The need for serious, bodily rivalry makes utopia a dangerous goal, and social restraint unhealthy. Wells thus raises a genuine problem, but does not develop it.

The social reading is yet more disturbing in its inability to satisfy the expectation of coherence. Oppressing the working class is dangerous as well as inhumane, and if we continue along such lines, the Haves will fall prey to the Havenots. At first glance, this seems like an unexceptionable social warning about mistreating the Workers. Somewhat unexpectedly, Wells treats the situation not as a revolution devoutly to be desired, but as a nightmarish terror. He evidently could not work up much sense of identification with the exploited. Hence the dilemma: not improving conditions leads to nightmare, but improving them in the direction of equality gets us back to utopia and its degeneration. If one accepts the biological message—physical competition—one must ignore the social message; if one accepts the social—improved conditions—one must ignore the biological. Wells offers us no way to accept both.

Since these two approaches lead to contradiction, one might try to escape the ambiguity by generalizing the referents of Eloi and Morlocks. Then one can read this as a parable about human nature,15 or opt for Bergonzi's approach, and see the struggle between Eloi and Morlocks as polysemous. They are Pre-Raphaelite aesthetes and proletarians, and their struggle variously resonates with “aestheticism and utilitarianism, pastoralism and technology, contemplation and action, and ultimately … beauty and ugliness, and light and darkness” (Bergonzi, p. 305). If you are content, with Bergonzi, to call the tale “myth” and agree that meaning in myth is always multiple, you have one solution to the problem of interpretation. Otherwise, you must accept that the Eloi and Morlocks do not form coherent portraits. Their unstable identities—e.g., Morlocks as underclass or rulers—seem better likened to the duck/rabbit optical illusion, which has two embedded forms but which we are compelled to see as only one at a given time. The Eloi are an upper class in terms of pleasant material living conditions and freedom from toil, but they are an exploited class if they are being kept as cattle. The same double-identity obscures any explanation of the Morlocks. I have argued elsewhere that another possibility is that the two represent a dual assessment of the middle class alone: on the surface, we find an idealized and ineffectual claim to sweetness and light and vague aestheticism, but the vicious, exploitive side of bourgeois power, which preys upon the helpless, is hidden (Hume, pp. 286-87). We can (and will) make many other such equations because each reader's assumptions will activate different voices within the text. Resolution, though, is unlikely. The two races have been rendered permanently ambiguous through their clashing qualities.

They also resist interpretation because of the disparity between the Traveller's emotions and what he actually experiences. The Morlocks are only guilty of touching him and of trying to keep him from leaving them. They use no weapons, and they attempt to capture rather than kill him. They may be interested in studying him or in trying to establish communication. After all, as Lake points out, the Morlocks apparently visit the museum out of curiosity. The Traveller is as ready to jump to dire conclusions as Bedford is in The First Men in the Moon. What pushes him to such extremes of fear and loathing may be his deep uneasiness over code violations. The grotesque mixing of masculine and feminine and of human and animal seem to produce in him much the sort of panic and hostility as that felt by some people towards transvestites and physical freaks.

Even the Sphinx plays her part in such confusions. “The State” and its powers are conventionally symbolized by the masculine, the father, the lawgiver. Wells's symbols for government are patriarchal in other romances, and his heroes either rebel against this oedipal oppressor or make their way into patriarchal power and identify with it. Dr. Moreau is such a threatening father, indeed a not-very-displaced castrating father. Almost all the clashes over authority in The Food of the Gods are put in terms of fathers and sons. The Invisible Man's hatred for established authority causes him to act in a way that literally kills his father. The Martians allow the protagonist to project his dissatisfactions with the social system onto an enemy, and with the defeat of the enemy, take up a patriarchal role and uphold the status quo.

The Sphinx, though, is female, the spawn of chaos.16 She looms over the landscape, evidently the symbol of a ruling power, present or past, but also a grotesque yoking of beast and woman. (The other ornaments in her realm—a griffin and a faun—are also hybrids.) Bram Dijkstra has explored the Sphinx in late nineteenth-century art. He sees her renditions there as embodying tensions between the sexes that reflect male fears of

a struggle between woman's atavistic hunger for blood—which she regarded as the vital fluid of man's seminal energies and hence the source of that material strength she craved—and man's need to conserve the nourishment that would allow his brain to evolve. Woman was a perverse instrument of the vampire of reversion, and by giving in to her draining embrace, men thought, they must needs bleed to death.

(Dijkstra, p. 332)

In the art of this era, then, we find the same configuration of man being consumed, that consumption being carried out in such a way as to diminish not only his manly strength but also his intelligence. Oral fantasies here merge with the peculiarly end-of-the-century way of construing conservation of energy in physical and mental terms. Wells's world ruled by the Sphinx is indeed one bled of its masculinity and mental power, a world of reversion.

Wells's susceptibility to such oral anxieties is underlined by another gap in the logic. The oral fears emerge in a curiously skewed form. Haves normally exploit, “eat,” or consume Havenots in a capitalist system; that is how the image usually enters socio-economic discourse. In The Time Machine, however, the cannibalistic urges are instead projected onto the Havenots. One finds a similar reversed logic in the martial fiction of America and England in the period of 1870 to the 1920s. Those white, Anglo-American populations who were spreading empire and invading the Philippines or carrying out wars in India and Africa entertained themselves with invasion tales in which they themselves were the victims. The War of the Worlds is just such an invasion tale, probably the greatest to emerge out of this literary type in England. Wells likens Martian treatment of Britons to British treatment of Tasmanians. America battened on fictions about the Black Menace, the Yellow Menace, the Red Menace, not to mention fears that England, Canada, or Mexico would invade America. Throughout the same period, America was stripping Native Americans of land and lynching Blacks, and sending armies to the Philippines and Haiti.17 Whether Wells is using this trick of mind to characterize his protagonist, or whether Wells himself is denying political guilt and replacing it with self-justifying political fears simply is not clear. The application of the cannibalistic fantasy to the exploited group remains a notable gap in the logical fabric of the whole.

What are we to make of this adventure in the realm of the Sphinx, then? A rather mixed message, at best. Utopias by most definitions eliminate competition. This proves a dangerous ideal, because so safe an environment would encourage bodily weakness, and then degeneration of mind and feminization. In other words, beware Socialism! However, the paradise of capitalists is a world in which the Great Unwashed lives underground, its misery unseen and ignored. This too leads to degeneration, as we see, because it also abolishes real struggle. Without the chance or need to compete—literally to destroy or exploit or “consume”—man devolves, according to Wells's ideology. The importance of competition comes out when we realize its relevance to power, size, and masculine behavior patterns, and its status as guarantor of intelligence. This competitive violence appears to be the most consistently upheld value in the first adventure, but even such struggle is undermined by the arguments in the second adventure, the excursion to the Terminal Beach. There entropy, by means of the planes of correspondences, cancels the energizing effect of struggling for existence.


“Journey to the interior” nicely condenses what happens here. The Time Machine as a totality consists of a trip to the interior of some unknown land, as found in She, Henderson the Rain King, Heart of Darkness, and The Lost Steps. The foray from 800,000 to thirty million years into the future is an embedded journey to the interior, a mise en abîme repetition. Call the Terminal Beach a mindscape reached by being eaten. The Traveller enters the Sphinx much as Jonah or Lucian enter their respective whales.18 Entropy may supply the logic that links the two scenarios, but the emotional unity derives from oral fantasies.

The Terminal Beach actually consists of two scenes and several fractional visions. The crab-infested litoral comes first, then the world in which life lingers in the form of a black, flapping, tentacled “football.” The eclipse and snowflakes both belong to the second scene, increasing its inhospitability. However, both form a continuum of desolation and an invitation to despair.

That the Traveller's responses need not be quite so bleak becomes clear if we contrast Wells's handling this situation with what might be called the Germinal Beach in Arthur C. Clarke's 2010. There, new life is discovered, but the physical conditions are much the same as in Wells, and Clarke clearly had both of Wells's beaches in mind. Clarke's setting consists of ice and water, where Wells has water, pebbles, and ice. Clarke's tragic snowflakes result from the ruptured space ship. Clarke offers a huge, slow-moving, semi-vegetative creature. Both authors suggest the frailty of life through flickering, flapping, flopping, intermittent movement. In The Time Machine, day and night “flap” as the Traveller zooms into the future; the black creature on the strand flops, a screaming butterfly flutters, crab mouths flicker, the sea surface ripples. The larval stages of Clarke's life-form remind the speaker of flowers and then butterflies, and then flop about like stranded fish. Wells eclipses the sun to squeeze the last drop of symbolic value out of the light and darkness; Clarke has his observer break their artificial light so that the phototropic life-form will return to the sea. The Time Traveller sees “a curved pale line like a vast new moon” (p. 107) and as the eclipse passes off, notes “a red-hot bow in the sky” (p. 109); Clarke's Dr. Chang notes that “Jupiter was a huge, thin crescent” (p. 81),19 and a few pages after this scene, another character stares at a picture of Earth as a thin crescent looming above the Lunar horizon.

Even in the most distant future, the Time Traveller can breathe the atmosphere and can escape any immediate danger by pulling a lever, yet he despairs. Clarke's Chinese astronaut will die as soon as his oxygen runs out, yet he remains scientifically alert and basically excited and pleased, although the level of life visible in each scene is roughly the same: non-human, non-intelligent, and probably scarce. Clearly the two authors perceive the landscapes from different vantages. To Clarke, Europa is the key to hegemony of the outer planets, the source of “the most valuable substance in the Universe” (p. 66). With Europa's water and cold fusion, settlers would enjoy virtually unlimited power for themselves plus fuel for their spaceships. By contrast, the Time Traveller sees nothing worth colonizing in either scene, nothing to exploit or utilize, nothing to consume. Wells and Clarke are at one in valuing worlds for what we can exploit.

Again, Wells disturbs his Traveller by violating his codes for normal reality. Instead of finding light and dark, he finds all liminal and borderline colors and values: palpitating greyness, steady twilight (p. 104), a sun that glows dully, and a beach on which there are no waves, only an oily swell. An eclipse is suitably liminal as well, a state that produces neither true day nor true night. In addition to being in a permanently transitional phase, his world is also liminal with regards to land and water. The ocean has approached over the millennia; what was high land in Victorian London and 800,000 years later is about to be overwhelmed by the advancing ocean. Light and land, often mindscape equivalents to mind and body, are threatened by the encroaching, engulfing forces of darkness and water. Insofar as sea and darkness have symbolic associations with the unconscious and the feminine, this threat repeats both the gender and oral anxieties seen in the earlier adventure.

One's first instinct upon reading the Terminal Beach chapter is to interpret it solely as a funereal rhapsody on entropy, as a look at the inevitable death of the sun and the ramifications of this eventuality for mankind. George H. Darwin provided Wells with ideas about tidal friction and slowed rotation. The Book of Revelation contributes water-turned-blood. These simple transformations, plus the narrator's depression at what he finds, make the bleakness and hopelessness seem natural and inevitable. I would argue that to some degree they are actually cultural and ideological.

One has only to look at The War of the Worlds or even The First Men in the Moon to see very different fictional responses to apparently dead-end situations. The protagonists in those stories, or various lesser characters, face new situations with the same sort of scientific curiosity and engagement shown by Clarke's Dr. Chang. They are not foolish optimists, but a bleak and threatening situation is cause for intellectual stimulation, for forming and confirming theories, for taking pride in observing new phenomena, for striving against the environment. The Time Traveller, though, seemingly suffers an entropic loss of his own energy as he observes that life in general has lost the struggle. The point of failure, however, actually came where Wells's thermodynamic fantasy overcame his Darwinian science. When the social system eventually disintegrated, the descendents of Eloi and Morlocks should have improved through survival of the fittest. His assumptions about mind, energy, and body, though, render his fictional creations helpless long before the final scenes. That helplessness was dictated by a fantastic distortion of the laws of thermodynamics, not by the laws themselves, so here again, we find the amplifications and elaborations of basic ideologies affecting plot. Mankind disappears because of one such fantasy; the Traveller's panic takes its form from another.

In superficial regards, The Time Machine is obviously enough a social satire to justify our expecting a reasonably coherent warning. The doubled identities of both Eloi and Morlocks turns them into the literary equivalent of an optical illusion. Coherence can no more emerge from them than from Escher's drawing of water flowing downhill in a circle. Scientifically, The Time Machine explores entropic decline, but refuses to give us ingenious humanity striving ever more ferociously to put off the inevitable. Humanity has already degenerated irreversibly through the exercise of what is generally considered its higher impulses. Even that would be a warning, but Wells undercuts it with his thermodynamic fantasies, which would bring about similar degeneration in any case through the links he posits among body and mind and energy. Thus do some of the rather fierce undercurrents in this romance break up its arguments, leaving them as stimulating fragments rather than logical structures. The powerful emotions both expressed by the Traveller and generated in readers are tribute to the sub-surface currents, especially the oral-stage anxieties. The torment they represent is most clearly seen in the blind, defensive, totally illogical projection of savagery and cannibalism upon the group most apparently exploited. Like the imperialistic nations fantasizing their own humiliation at the hands of invaders, Wells's Traveller, and possibly Wells himself, are projecting behavior upon others in ways that suggest considerable repressed social guilt.

The return of the repressed is important to the dynamics of this tale. I will finish my arguments with one further variant on that theme. When the Time Traveller seeks the ruler of the pastoral realm, he seeks an Absent Father, and finds instead the Sphinx, avatar of threatening femininity. Within the classical Greek world view, “man” is the proud answer to the Sphinx's riddle, and man as Oedipus vanquishes the feminine and chaotic forces from Western civilization. In The Time Machine, “man” is no longer as proud an answer, and man has no power to prevent the lapse from order towards entropy. One might even argue that this time-travelling Oedipus is to some degree the criminal responsible for the status quo, for the ideologies he embodies have limited his culture's vision and rendered alternatives invisible. The Greeks and their civilization based on patriarchal structures banished the Sphinx. Here, she returns, and she succeeds in swallowing humanity after all.


  1. The Atlantic edition of The Works of H. G. Wells, 1 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1924): 4-5.

  2. Bernard Bergonzi rendered The Time Machine orthodox by bestowing upon it two charismatic labels: “ironic” and “myth.” See “The Time Machine: An Ironic Myth,” Critical Quarterly 2 (1960): 293-305.

  3. See David J. Lake, “Wells's Time Traveller: An Unreliable Narrator?” Extrapolation 22, no. 2 (1981): 117-26.

  4. John Huntington sees this mastery of his actions as index to the protagonist's superiority over both Eloi and Morlocks, since they lack such self-control. See The Logic of Fantasy: H. G. Wells and Science Fiction (Columbia U. Press, 1982), p. 51.

  5. For details of this and many other variants, including a previously unpublished draft of an excursion into the past, see The Definitive Time Machine: A Critical Edition of H. G. Wells's Scientific Romance, with introduction and notes by Harry M. Geduld (Indiana U. Press, 1987), quotations from p. 179.

  6. In her utopian novel, The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin calls our attention to this unthinking esteem for height by replacing commendatory terms based on size with those based on centrality.

  7. See McCarthy's “Heart of Darkness and the Early Novels of H. G. Wells: Evolution, Anarchy, Entropy,” Journal of Modern Literature 13, no. 1 (1986): 37-60.

  8. See Kathryn Hume, “The Hidden Dynamics of The War of the Worlds,PQ 62 (1983): 279-92; Wells developed the connection more forcefully in the serialized version.

  9. Norman N. Holland, The Dynamics of Literary Response (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975), p. 43.

  10. For an argument in favor of the Traveller's being a traditional monomyth hero, and hence triumphant, see Robert J. Begiebing, “The Mythic Hero in H. G. Wells's The Time Machine,Essays in Literature, 11 (1984): 201-10. Wells's many escape endings are analyzed by Robert P. Weeks in “Disentanglement as a Theme in H. G. Wells's Fiction,” originally published in Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters 39 (1954), reprinted in H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Bernard Bergonzi (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1976), pp. 25-31. Interestingly, Wells considered another kind of ending, at least in response to editorial pressures. In the version of this story serialized in The National Observer, the story ends with the Traveller referring to hearing his child crying upstairs because frightened by the dark. This ad hoc family man, however, may result from hasty termination of the serial. Henley, as editor, liked Wells's work while his replacement, Vincent, did not. See Geduld for such variants.

  11. For the nineteenth-century science behind all the assumptions about body size and energy, see Cynthia Eagle Russett, Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood (Harvard U. Press, 1989), p. 105.

  12. In other words, Yin, Yang, and Jung. These symbolic clusters of values are discussed and illustrated throughout both the following Jungian studies by Erich Neumann: The Origins and History of Consciousness, Bollingen Series 42 (Princeton U. Press, 1970) and The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype, Bollingen Series 47 (Princeton U. Press, 1972).

  13. Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (Yale U. Press, 1979), chapter 10. For an analysis of time travel, see Veronica Hollinger, “Deconstructing the Time Machine,” Science-Fiction Studies 14 (1987): 201-21.

  14. Huntington, p. 41. Others focusing on social issues include Patrick Parrinder, “News from Nowhere, The Time Machine and the Break-Up of Classical Realism,” Science-Fiction Studies 3, no. 3 (1976): 265-74, and Wayne C. Connely, “H. G. Well's [sic] The Time Machine: It's [sic] Neglected Mythos,” Riverside Quarterly 5, no. 3 (1972): 178-91.

  15. Stephen Gill sees the Morlocks as “the bestial nature of human beings.” Hennelly sees it about the failure to reconcile the contraries in the human heart, and Lake explores it as a protest against death. See Gill, Scientific Romances of H. G. Wells: A Critical Study (Cornwall, Ontario: Vesta Publications, 1975), p. 38, and Mark M. Hennelly, Jr., “The Time Machine: A Romance of ‘The Human Heart,’” Extrapolation 20, no. 2 (1979): 154-67; and David J. Lake, “The White Sphinx and the Whitened Lemur: Images of Death in The Time Machine,Science-Fiction Studies 6, no. 1 (1979): 77-84.

  16. See Frank Scafella, “The White Sphinx and The Time Machine,Science-Fiction Studies 8, no. 3 (1981): 255-65, p. 259. Bram Dijkstra explores the fin de siècle fascination with sphinxes in art in Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture (Oxford U. Press, 1986), pp. 325-32.

  17. For an analysis of the British version of such invasion jitters, see Cecil Degrotte Eby, The Road to Armageddon: The Martial Spirit in English Popular Literature, 1870-1914 (Duke U. Press, 1987). For the American version, see H. Bruce Franklin, War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination (Oxford U. Press, 1988).

  18. Two mindscapes similarly reached in a physical interior are Harlan Ellison's “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54’ N, Longitude 77° 00’ 13” W,” and Norman Spinrad's “Carcinoma Angels.” In the latter, the protagonist psychically descends into his own body to kill cancer cells. He “finally found himself knee-deep in the sea of his digestive juices lapping against the walls of the dank, moist cave that was his stomach. And scuttling towards him on chitinous legs, a monstrous black crab with blood-red eyes, gross, squat, primeval.” The Wellsian intertext enriches the cancer/crab wordplay. “Carcinoma Angels” is found in Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison (London: Victor Gollancz, 1987), 513-21, quotation, p. 521.

  19. The “Germinal Beach” occurs on pp. 77-82 of Arthur C. Clarke, 2010 (London: Granada, 1983).

David C. Cody (essay date fall 1993)

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SOURCE: Cody, David C. “Faulkner, Wells, and the ‘End of Man’.” Journal of Modern Literature 18, no. 4 (fall 1993): 465-74.

[In the following essay, Cody judges the influence of The Time Machine on William Faulkner's 1950 Nobel Prize speech.]

          We finish thus; and all our wretched race
Shall finish with its cycle, and give place
To other beings, with their own time-doom;
Infinite eons ere our kind began;
Infinite eons after the last man
Has joined the mammoth in earth's tomb and womb.

—James Thomson, “The City of Dreadful Night” (1874)

Why should we bear with an hour of torture, a moment of pain,
If every man die for ever, if all his griefs are in vain,
And the homeless planet at length will be wheel'd thro' the silence of space,
Motherless evermore of an ever-vanishing race,
When the worm shall have writhed its last, and its last brother-worm will have fled
From the dead fossil skull that is left in the rocks of an earth that is dead?. …
Have I crazed myself over their horrible infidel writings? O yes,
For these are the new dark ages, you see, of the popular press,
When the bat comes out of his cave, and the owls are whooping at noon,
And Doubt is lord of this dunghill and crows to the sun and the moon,
Till the Sun and the Moon of our science are both of them turn'd into blood
And Hope will have broken her heart, running after a shadow of good. …

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Despair: A Dramatic Monologue” (1881)

One must err to grow and the writer feels no remorse for this youthful effort. Indeed he hugs his vanity very pleasantly at times when his dear old Time Machine crops up once more in essays and speeches, still a practical and convenient way to retrospect or prophecy.

—H. G. Wells, Preface (1931) to The Time Machine (1895)

In his 1950 Nobel Prize speech, William Faulkner contemplates the ultimate fate of mankind in a nuclear age and considers the role that the writer might play in helping to determine that fate. In one of the most famous passages he would ever write, he suggests that the young writer of his day, although living in the debilitating shadow of “a general and universal fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it,” must “teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”1 “Until he relearns these things,” Faulkner insists, “he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail” (p. 4).2 Although the Nobel Speech is addressed to “the young man or woman writing today” and although it concerns itself with “our tragedy today” (“There are no longer questions of the spirit,” Faulkner writes, “… There is only the question: when will I be blown up?”), it has as one of its central themes the crucial importance of remembering or re-learning the “old universal truths” which mankind is in danger of forgetting. Faulkner insists that man is immortal not merely because he will “endure,” but because he is possessed of a soul, “a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance” which will permit him, in the end, to “prevail,” and he makes the point too that “the poet's voice” is one of the “props” or “pillars” that will help man to do so: “The poet's, the writer's duty,” he informs us, “is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past” (p. 4).3

The Speech, then, is emphatic in its defence of the “old verities and truths of the heart.” Whether Faulkner's life's work is in fact “uplifting” in this sense—whether he really did believe, that is, that his own work signified an affirmative belief—is a complex question that is not easily resolved. In the Speech, however, Faulkner contrasts his own efforts on behalf of mankind with the work of other writers who have failed in their duty because they have written as though they “stood among and watched the end of man.” He does not identify such writers by name, but that oddly detailed reference to a “last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening” gives us some sense of what he had in mind—for although it has been plausibly suggested that in the Speech as a whole he disparages the pessimistic view of man's future that had been expressed by Joseph Conrad in his essay “Henry James: An Appreciation,” the very specificity of that apocalyptic reference makes it clear that Faulkner is in fact recalling the climacteric scene in H. G. Wells's The Time Machine: An Invention (1895).4

We do not know when Faulkner first encountered Wells's “scientific romance”—which purports, of course, to be the narrative of a traveller who has quite literally “stood among and watched the end of man”—but we do know that his personal library at Rowan Oak contained a copy of a special limited edition published in 1931, with a preface by the elderly Wells and remarkable “designs” in color by W. A. Dwiggins.5 In the penultimate chapter of The Time Machine, the Time Traveller moves forward into the distant future, watching as the earth's rotation upon its axis gradually slows, the planet eventually coming to rest “with one face to the sun, even as in our own time the moon faces the earth” (77). As he begins to slow his motion through time, “the dim outlines of a desolate beach” gradually become visible, and when he comes to rest he finds himself in a world very different from the one he has left behind:

The sky was no longer blue. North-eastward it was inky black, and out of the blackness shone brightly and steadily the pale white stars. Overhead it was a deep Indian red and starless, and south-eastward it grew brighter to a glowing scarlet where, cut by the horizon, lay the huge hull of the sun, red and motionless. The rocks about me were of a harsh reddish colour. … [T]he machine was standing on a sloping beach. The sea stretched away to the south-west, to rise into a sharp bright horizon against the wan sky. There were no breakers and no waves, for not a breath of wind was stirring.

(p. 77)

It was on this desolate beach, clearly, with its tideless sea brooding beneath a red and dying sun, that Faulkner first stumbled over his “last worthless rock.” It is not a pleasant place, and the Time Traveller—appalled by the “abominable desolation,” but “drawn on by the mystery of the earth's fate”—decides to venture still further into the future. When he halts once more, “more than thirty million years hence,” he finds himself upon the same stretch of beach, now lying cold and apparently lifeless in a dying world in which “the huge red-hot dome of the sun had come to obscure nearly a tenth part of the darkling heavens.” Here, troubled by “a certain indefinable apprehension,” he watches as “an inner planet passing very near to the earth” gradually eclipses the sun. […] As the eclipse becomes total, the silence, cold, and darkness grow overwhelming, but one final epiphany awaits him:

A horror of this great darkness came on me. The cold, that smote to my marrow, and the pain I felt in breathing, overcame me. I shivered, and a deadly nausea seized me. Then like a red-hot bow in the sky appeared the edge of the sun. … As I stood sick and confused I saw again the moving thing upon the shoal—there was no mistake now that it was a moving thing—against the red water of the sea. It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it; it seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about. Then I felt that I was fainting. But a terrible dread of lying helpless in that remote and awful twilight sustained me while I clambered upon the saddle.

(p. 80)

In much of the horror literature produced in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, characters experience symptoms such as nausea, sickness, and confusion after an encounter with the “uncanny”—Freud's “unheimlich”—or with what we have more recently come to refer to as the “abject.” In her Powers of Horror (1982), Julia Kristeva defines “abjection” as that which “disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.”6 Such encounters appear so frequently in the horror literature of the fin de siècle that they might almost be called a defining characteristic of the genre, just as the literature itself was a symptom of the intense anxiety which existed in the culture that engendered it. In Kipling's “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes” (1885), for example, the protagonist, caught up in his Imperialist nightmare, compares his “inexplicable terror” to “the overpowering nausea of the Channel passage—only my agony was of the spirit and infinitely more terrible.”7 We might also recall the “horror and revolting nausea” experienced by the doctor who witnesses the ghastly demise of Helen Vaughn in Arthur Machen's “The Great God Pan” (1890); the “horror” and “loathing” with which Basil Hallward views the infamous portrait in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891); and the “horrible feeling of nausea” that overcomes Jonathan Harker when he meets the Count in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897): in all such descriptions, the response is triggered by the realization that an ontological border (between the normal and the abnormal, the safe and the unsafe) has been violated.8 In this sense, the Time Traveller's nausea is due not merely to the cold and the thin atmosphere which he encounters in the future, but also to his realization—not as mere theory or hypothesis, but as fact—that mankind has no place there. Faulkner's young writers, attempting to create in a time when not the century, but the world itself seemed about to come to an end, were similarly distressed—and so, if the speech is any indication, was Faulkner himself.

To appreciate the relevance of Faulkner's reference to The Time Machine, then, we must be cognizant, as Faulkner himself obviously was, of the various implications of that final moment of horror, which is given particular emphasis in Wells's narrative not merely because the encounter itself marks the culmination of the Time Traveller's adventuring (the round object the size of a football is the last sight he sees before he flees back to the relative safety of the late-nineteenth century) and not merely because it provides us with a glimpse of the end of life on earth. In his preface to the 1931 edition of The Time Machine, the elderly Wells noted that although his romance “seems a very undergraduate performance to its now mature writer, as he looks it over once more,” it nevertheless “goes as far as his philosophy about human evolution went in those days” (p. ix). During the Victorian period as a whole, of course, and during the fin de siècle in particular, the prevailing “philosophy about human evolution” underwent a remarkable transformation. For many years, many more or less eminent Victorians, equating technological advances with moral ones, had attempted to reconcile the moral values of Christianity with what was (ostensibly, at least) morally neutral Darwinian thought: their tendency, inevitably, was to distort the latter so that in various ways it could be made to reinforce belief in human “Progress,” both spiritual and material. By 1895, however, the great age of Victorian optimism was already over, and in this sense The Time Machine reflects an ongoing ideological crisis within late-Victorian culture itself, as the heirs of Darwin asserted the primacy (and the purity) of their own vision, which was much less overtly anthropocentric. It is only a slight exaggeration to suggest, as two recent critics have done, that by 1895 “the conventional pieties of romantic Christianity seemed on the verge of being finally destroyed by the overwhelming evidence for Darwinian materialism.”9

The groundwork for such destruction, however, had been laid much earlier. In 1834, for example, William Whewell had noted in his Bridgewater Treatise on Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology that all planets orbiting the sun were gradually losing velocity because of the resistance offered by an “ethereal medium”:

It may be millions of millions of years before the earth's retardation may perceptibly affect the apparent motion of the sun; but still the day will come (if the same Providence which formed the system, should permit it to continue so long) when this cause will entirely change the length of our year and the course of our seasons, and finally stop the earth's motion round the sun altogether. The smallness of the resistance, however small we choose to suppose it, does not allow us to escape this certainty.10

By 1852, seven years before the first publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species, Lord Kelvin and others had already formulated the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and Kelvin himself had stated that “Within a finite period of time past, the earth must have been, and within a finite period to come, the earth must again be, unfit for the habitation of man as at present constituted.”11 In his The Conservation of Energy (1873), Balfour Stewart would note that “We are led to look to an end in which the whole universe will be one equally heated inert mass, and from which everything like life or motion or beauty will have utterly gone away.”12 In his Degeneration (1893), the eccentric Max Nordau would suggest that even the “degenerate” art and music and literature of the day betokened doom: “The old Northern faith contained the fearsome doctrine of the Dusk of the Gods. In our days there have arisen in more highly-developed minds vague qualms of a Dusk of the Nations in which all suns and all stars are gradually waning and mankind with all its institutions and creations is perishing in the midst of a dying world.”13 Many of the most prominent scientists of the period agreed that in the long term at least, the prospects for continued human existence were grim; this view is also reflected in such dark and anxiety-ridden poems as James Thomson's “The City of Dreadful Night” (1874) and the elderly Tennyson's “Despair: A Dramatic Monologue” (1881).

The same premise, of course, shaped The Time Machine. Looking back in 1931 on the weltanschauung that had prevailed during his youth, Wells would note that “the geologists and astronomers of that time told us dreadful lies about the ‘inevitable’ freezing up of the world—and of life and mankind with it. There was no escape, it seemed. The whole game of life would be over in a million years or less. They impressed this upon us with the full weight of their authority …” (ix-x). That Darwin himself eventually accepted this pessimistic vision of the future of mankind, and that he too found the idea profoundly disturbing, is made clear in one of his letters to J. D. Hooker, dating from Feb. 9, 1865:

I quite agree how humiliating the slow progress of man is, but everyone has his own pet horror, and this slow progress or even personal annihilation sinks in my mind into insignificance compared with the idea or rather I presume certainty of the sun some day cooling and we all freezing. To think of the progress of millions of years, with every continent swarming with good and enlightened men, all ending in this, and with probably no fresh start until this our planetary system has been again converted into red-hot gas. Sic transit gloria mundi, with a vengeance. …14

The same point would later recur in William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), although James inverted the central metaphor:

The lustre of the present hour is always borrowed from the background of possibilities it goes with. Let our common experiences be enveloped in an eternal moral order; let our suffering have an immortal significance; let Heaven smile upon the earth, and deities pay their visits; let faith and hope be the atmosphere which man breathes in;—and his days pass by with zest; they stir with prospects, they thrill with remoter values. Place round them on the contrary the curdling cold and gloom and absence of all permanent meaning which for pure naturalism and the popular scientific evolutionism of our time are all that is visible ultimately, and the thrill stops short, or turns rather to an anxious trembling.

For naturalism, fed on recent cosmological speculations, mankind is in a position similar to that of a set of people living on a frozen lake, surrounded by cliffs over which there is no escape, yet knowing that little by little the ice is melting, and the inevitable day drawing near when the last film of it will disappear, and to be drowned ignominiously will be the human creature's portion. The merrier the skating, the warmer and more sparkling the sun by day, and the ruddier the bonfires at night, the more poignant the sadness with which one must take in the meaning of the total situation.15

Wells's “imaginative romance,” then, is a dramatization of the views of those “geologists and astronomers” who were proponents of “popular scientific evolutionism” and of their counterparts in physics, biology, and even philosophy. As a literary fantasy, The Time Machine owes a great deal to works by Swift, Poe, Stevenson, Twain, and Kipling; as a modern myth, it echoes ancient legends concerning the Twilight of the Gods; but as a presumably scientific Jeremiad, it is most obviously and specifically indebted to the thought of Thomas Henry Huxley, the great rationalist and defender of Darwin whose lectures on Biology and Zoology had greatly impressed Wells during his first year (1884) as a student at the Normal School of Science.16 In his influential essay “Evolution and Ethics” (first presented as a Romanes lecture, in 1893), Huxley acknowledged that to the popular mind, “evolution” meant “progressive development,” but he emphasized that “every theory of evolution must be consistent not merely with progressive development, but with indefinite persistence in the same condition and with retrogressive modification.”17 It was Huxley's definition of the latter term as “progress from a condition of relative complexity to one of relative uniformity” that provided Wells with the “central idea” for the work that would eventually become The Time Machine. “The theory of evolution,” Huxley wrote, “encourages no millennial anticipations. If, for millions of years, our globe has taken the upward road, yet, some time, the summit will be reached and the downward route will be commenced. The most daring imagination will hardly venture upon the suggestion that the power and intelligence of man can ever arrest the procession of the great year” (p. 85). Fascinated by the concept of “degeneration following security,” Wells would vividly describe its ultimate consequences in the penultimate chapter of The Time Machine, in which the “round thing” encountered on the dying beach is, in fact, the last representative of degenerate “man”—man as he would appear after thirty million years of inexorable “progress” on a “downward route” dictated by laws of physics and thermodynamics.

It is this denial of the possibility that man might somehow “prevail,” then, that Faulkner condemns in a Speech which implicitly contrasts the uplifting “old verities and truths of the heart” with the deeply pessimistic premise underlying Wells's late-Victorian nightmare. In this sense, Faulkner's Speech, always viewed as a classic affirmation of the values of humanism, is also a profoundly conservative work in which he adopts the traditional stance of the Biblical prophet—or of the Victorian sage. Ignoring his own prolonged flirtation with literary Decadence and with the implicitly nihilistic attitudes of the Lost Generation, Faulkner condemns Wells because in writing The Time Machine he had contributed to rather than helped to alleviate the potentially overwhelming anxieties that would eventually begin to cripple modern literature. Hence Faulkner's invocation of implicitly Victorian virtues in the Speech itself, and hence the relevance of the fact that in the midst of an attempt to “uplift the hearts” of the young writers who lived in the shadow of a possible nuclear holocaust, he would invoke—as epitomizing a decadent and enervating sense of imminent and inevitable doom—a work written fifty-five years earlier (and two years before Faulkner himself had been born) in the midst of another period of cultural malaise.18 Even in this sense, however, his choice of The Time Machine as a text to react against was singularly apt, for as Wells informs us, the Time Traveller “thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end” (p. 86). In declining to accept “the end of man,” then, Faulkner is rejecting the very premise that haunts the conclusion of The Time Machine—the assumption that life itself has no ultimate or transcendent meaning.

The connection between Faulkner's Nobel Prize Speech and Wells's work does not end there, however, for in declining to accept the end of man, Faulkner was also echoing or recapitulating a memorable conversation that Wells had had in 1906 with Theodore Roosevelt, then President of the United States. Roosevelt, of course, was a staunch advocate of American expansionism—his best-known literary work, The Winning of the West, being in effect, as David Wrobel has noted, “a study of American imperialism and its march across the continental mainland.”19 Many years afterwards, in his Experiment in Autobiography (1934), Wells recalled the conversation and brooded over its implications:

It is a curious thing that as I talked with President Roosevelt in the garden of the White House there came back to me quite forcibly that undertone of doubt that has haunted me throughout this journey. After all, does this magnificent appearance of beginnings, which is America, convey any clear and certain promise of permanence and fulfilment whatever? … Is America a giant childhood or a gigantic futility, a mere latest phase of that long succession of experiments which has been and may be for interminable years—may be, indeed, altogether until the end—man's social history?

I can't now recall how our discursive talk settled towards this, but it is clear to me that I struck upon a familiar vein of thought in the President's mind. He hadn't, he said, an effectual disproof of a pessimistic interpretation of the future. If one chose to say America must presently lose the impetus of her ascent, that she and all mankind must culminate and pass, he could not conclusively deny that possibility. Only he chose to live as if this were not so.

That remained in his mind. Presently he reverted to it. He made a sort of apology for his life, against the doubts and scepticisms that, I fear, must be in the background of the thoughts of every modern man who is intellectually alive. He mentioned my Time Machine. … He became gesticulatory, and his straining voice a note higher in denying the pessimism of that book as a credible interpretation of destiny. With one of those sudden movements of his he knelt forward in a garden-chair—we were standing, before our parting, beneath the colonnade—and addressed me very earnestly over the back, clutching it and then thrusting out his familiar gesture, a hand first partly open and then closed.

“Suppose, after all,” he said slowly, “that should prove to be right, and it all ends in your butterflies and morlocks. That doesn't matter now. The effort's real. It's worth going on with. It's worth it. It's worth it—even so.” …

I can see him now and hear his unmusical voice saying, “The effort—the effort's worth it,” and see the gesture of his clenched hand and the—how can I describe it?—the friendly peering snarl of his face, like a man with the sun in his eyes. He sticks in my mind at that, as a very symbol of the creative will in man, in its limitations, its doubtful adequacy, its valiant persistence, amidst perplexities and confusions. He kneels out, assertive, against his setting—and his setting is the White House, with a background of all America.20

In his Speech, then, Faulkner—himself speaking, as it were, “with a background of all America”—is also rehearsing the role played by Roosevelt when, acknowledging the possibility that it might all end in “butterflies and morlocks,” proclaims that he nevertheless “chose to live as if this were not so.” Both Roosevelt and Faulkner reject Wells's premise that America itself is a “gigantic futility,” just as both refuse to accept the inevitability of “the end of man.” Perhaps they do so because to do otherwise would be to admit that their own struggles and sacrifices, their own “anguish and travail”—Faulkner's as an artist, Roosevelt's as a “reformer”—had been in vain. Speaking as a writer, speaking to writers, and for writers, Faulkner also speaks—as sage and prophet—to all mankind, refusing to accept the Time Traveller's testimony that the writer's struggle to uplift the human heart is a pointless one. By implication, he offers himself as a writer who has both uplifted hearts and insisted that human existence is meaningful; in this crucial sense, the Nobel Speech is also an attempt on his part both to find meaning in his own existence and to define a philosophical perspective from which that existence can be judged. His ringing affirmation of humanist values upon the occasion of his receipt of the most prestigious of literary awards, then, may have been at least in part an attempt to respond to or forestall criticism of his own work; criticism grounded on the premise that his own work was not “uplifting.” In the Speech, he undertakes both to enhance his status and reputation as an American man of letters and to influence or even to re-define the context within which his audience would receive and react to his own “life's work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit,” and in a dramatic sense he uses the Speech to position himself as the very incarnation of what Wells, speaking of Roosevelt, had called the “very symbol of the creative will in man, in its limitations, its doubtful adequacy, its valiant persistence, amidst perplexities and confusions.” The general outlines of this effort are readily visible in the portions of the Speech in which he proclaims the continuing importance of certain traditional values in a world which has come to neglect them. Faulkner does so, perhaps, because he feared that without that faith in the meaningfulness of his own life's work he would himself be consumed by the same “general and universal” fear of which he speaks so eloquently in the Nobel Speech and elsewhere—the fear that had preoccupied H. G. Wells as it had preoccupied Shakespeare: the old fear that all our yesterdays have but lighted fools the way to dusty death.


  1. William Faulkner, “Speech of Acceptance upon the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, delivered in Stockholm on the tenth of December, nineteen hundred fifty,” in The Faulkner Reader (Random House, 1954), pp. 3-4. All citations from the Nobel Speech refer to this edition.

  2. The reference to “the last worthless rock” is, of course, accompanied by a reference to “the last ding-dong of doom,” otherwise the world's death-knell—a Faulknerian variation on the traditional Crack of Doom that is to herald the Day of Judgment. It is tempting to read this phrase as a deliberate echo or redaction of Shakespeare's reference to “the last syllable of recorded time” in the great nihilistic speech from Macbeth that had already provided Faulkner with the title for The Sound and the Fury. In this sense, the thrust of the Nobel Speech would also refute Macbeth's conclusion that life—the “walking shadow,” the “poor player”—will “strut and fret his hour upon the stage” and then “be heard no more.” What Faulkner meant by the word “prevail” is an interesting question in itself. One wonders whether he meant more than is implicit in the ambiguous vision, set forth four years afterwards in A Fable, of man's progress through the Universe as a sort of interplanetary Mad Hatter's Tea Party: “Oh, yes, he will survive it because he has that in him which will endure even beyond the last ultimate worthless tideless rock freezing slowly in the last red and heatless sunset, because already the next star in the blue immensity of space will be already clamorous with the uproar of his debarkation, his puny and inexhaustible voice still talking, still planning; and there too after the last ding dong of doom has rung and died there will be one sound more: his voice, planning still to build something higher and faster than ever before, yet it too inherent with the same old primordial fault since it too in the end will fail to eradicate him from the earth.” [William Faulkner, A Fable (New York, 1954), p. 354.]

  3. Joseph Blotner and several other critics have remarked the fact that three years later, in the preface to The Faulkner Reader, Faulkner would repeat that the writer's purpose was “to uplift man's heart,” even though the source of this “hope and desire” may be “completely selfish, completely personal.” [William Faulkner, The Faulkner Reader (Random House, 1954), p. x.] On this occasion he suggested that he remembered encountering the phrase as a boy in the preface to an unidentified book by the Polish novel Laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz. (Several commentators have noted that the book was Pan Michael, the third volume of a lengthy historical romance typical in its way of the nineteenth-century revival of interest in the medieval cult of chivalry). In fact, the passage appears at the end of the book, not in the preface, but this reference too suggests a connection between Faulkner's speech and his sense of the importance of the values of the past. His hortatory invocation of the “old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice” as the proper study of “the young man or woman writing today” has a characteristically Victorian ring: we might, for example, compare it with the sentiment expressed by the young John Buchan, when in 1896 he reminded his reader that “The old noble commonplaces of love and faith and duty are always with us, since they are needful for the making of any true man or woman.” [John Buchan, “Prefatory,” in Scholar-Gypsies (Bodley Head, 1896).]

  4. In 1967 Eric Solomon suggested that Faulkner owed “much of the rhetoric and many of the key ideas” in the speech to Conrad's essay on James, first published in the North American Review in 1905 and later reprinted in Conrad's Notes on Life and Letters. Conrad refers to the last day as a moment when some last artist “will formulate, strange as it may appear, some hope now to us utterly inconceivable.” Solomon notes that Conrad and Faulkner employ “remarkable similar phrases and attitudes that reflect their essentially hopeful views of man's chances in a doom-ridden world.” Christof Wegelin, writing in 1974, agreed that “the final paragraph of Faulkner's speech owed its rhetoric and its key ideas to Conrad,” but concluded that “there is nothing in Conrad to match Faulkner's optimism” and went on to suggest that “while Faulkner expressed an essentially hopeful view, Conrad was at best dubious about man's end.” Conrad suggests that “When the last aqueduct shall have crumbled to pieces, the last airship fallen to the ground, the last blade of grass have died upon a dying earth,” a man “gifted with a power of expression and courageous enough to interpret the ultimate experience of mankind in terms of his temperament, in terms of art” will be “moved to speak on the eve of that day without tomorrow—whether in austere exhortation or in a phrase of sardonic comment, who can guess?” Hence, presumably, Faulkner's sardonic glimpse of post-Doomsday man and his “puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.” This stands in stark contrasts, obviously, to the Time Traveller's vision of the overwhelming silence that reigns at the end of things. See Eric Solomon, “Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, and the Nobel Prize Speech,” Notes and Queries (New Series XIV, 1967), pp. 247-48, and Christof Wegelin, “‘Endure’ and ‘Prevail’: Faulkner's Modification of Conrad,” Notes and Queries (New Series XXI, 1974), pp. 375-76. For the relevant passage in Conrad's essay, see his Notes on Life and Literature (Doubleday, Page & Company, 1924), pp. 13-14. It may be worth noting that Conrad (a longtime friend who would in 1907 dedicate The Secret Agent to Wells, was himself indebted to The Time Machine both in the essay on Henry James and in such crucial works as Heart of Darkness. In any case the pages of Faulkner's copy of Notes on Life and Literature remained uncut, and we might also note that in describing his “last evening” Conrad refers only to the “feeble glow of the sun,” and to the “last flicker of light on a black sky”: his evening is neither “tideless” nor “red,” and there is no reference to any rock, “worthless” or otherwise.

  5. H. G. Wells, The Time Machine (Random House, 1931). All citations from The Time Machine refer to this edition. See Joseph Blotner's William Faulkner's Library—A Catalogue (University Press of Virginia, 1964), p. 75.

  6. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 4.

  7. Rudyard Kipling, The Portable Kipling, ed. Irving Howe (Viking, 1982), p. 14.

  8. For relevant citations and insightful commentary see Susan J. Navarette's “The Physiology of Fear: Decadent Style and the Fin de Siècle Literature of Horror” (Doctoral Dissertation, Department of English, The University of Michigan, 1989), pp. 53-54. I am also indebted to Professor Navarette for bringing the relevant passage in Max Nordau's Degeneration to my attention.

  9. See Samuel L. Hynes and Frank D. McConnell, “The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds: Parable and Possibility in H. G. Wells,” in H. G. Wells, The Time Machine; The War of the Worlds: A Critical Edition, edited by Frank D. McConnell (Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 345.

  10. William Whewell, Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (William Pickering, 1834), pp. 199-200.

  11. Lord Kelvin, quoted in Sir William Thomson's Mathematical and Physical Papers, 5 Volumes (Cambridge University Press, 1882-1911), I: p. 514.

  12. Balfour Stewart, The Conservation of Energy (H. S. King, 1873), p. 153.

  13. Max Nordau, Degeneration (1893), (D. Appleton and Company, 1895), p. 2.

  14. Charles Darwin, More Letters of Charles Darwin, 2 Vols. ed. Francis Darwin (D. Appleton and Company, 1903), vol. I, pp. 260-261.

  15. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), (Penguin Books, 1982), p. 141.

  16. For information on this relationship, and for an interesting commentary on the genesis of the various versions of The Time Machine, see Harry M. Geduld's introduction to The Definitive Time Machine: A Critical Edition of H. G. Wells's Scientific Romance (Indiana University Press, 1987).

  17. Thomas H. Huxley, “Evolution and Ethics,” in Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays (AMS Press, 1970), p. 85. We might note in passing that Huxley begins his lecture with a summary of the plot of “Jack and the Bean-Stalk” and that it would appear that Wells also appropriated the basic structure of this fairy tale for The Time Machine.

  18. Wells in middle age was guardedly optimistic about man's future, but by the time of his death in 1946 he had—as such works as The Fate of Man (1939) and Mind at the End of its Tether (1946) reveal—become increasingly bleak and pessimistic. As he wrote in The Fate of Man (Longmans, Green, & Co., 1939):

    There is no reason whatever to believe that the order of nature has any greater bias in favor of man than it had in favor of the icthyosaur or the pterodactyl. In spite of all my disposition to a brave looking optimism, I perceive that now the universe is bored with him, in [sic] turning a hard face to him, and I see him being carried less less and less intelligently and more and more rapidly, suffering as every ill-adapted creature must suffer in gross and detail, along the stream of fate to degradation, suffering, and death. … Adapt or perish, that is and always has been the implacable law of life for all its children. Either the human imagination and the human will to live, rises to the plain necessity of our case and a renascent Homo Sapiens stuggles on to a new, a harder, and a happier world dominion, or he blunders down the slopes of failure through a series of unhappy phases, in the wake of all the monster reptiles and beasts that have flourished and lorded it on the earth before him, to his ultimate extinction.

    (pp. 247-48)

    It is difficult to determine how familiar Faulkner was with Wells's later works, although Blotner also notes that Faulkner kept a copy of The Outline of History (1923) in the bookcase in his bedroom at Rowan Oak.

  19. David M. Wrobel, The End of American Exceptionalism (University Press of Kansas, 1993), p. 66.

  20. H. G. Wells, Experiment in Autobiography (The Macmillan Company, 1934), pp. 648-649.

Bruce David Sommerville (essay date winter 1994)

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SOURCE: Sommerville, Bruce David. “The Time Machine: A Chronological and Scientific Revision.” Wellsian 17 (winter 1994): 11-29.

[In the following essay, Sommerville traces the complex chronological structure of The Time Machine, asserting that the accepted chronology of the novella “is erroneous and that the true chronology reveals a hidden series of events.”]


For work having time as a major theme, it is rather odd that the chronology of H. G. Wells's The Time Machine has not been fully analysed. Its chronological structure is complex, comprising an outer framework of events set in the late Victorian atmosphere of the Time Traveller's Richmond home, and a more extensive inner core of events ostensibly set in the distant future.

The chronology of the outer framework will be explored in detail here. It will be shown that the accepted chronology of The Time Machine is erroneous and that the true chronology reveals a hidden series of events. The discussion below will establish the following points:

  • 1 The chronology of the outer framework forms a puzzle, the solution of which reveals the Time Traveller to have hoaxed his guests, especially the narrator, Hillyer. The Time Traveller has not travelled in time but has dreamed his vision of the future after returning to his workshop from a cycling excursion.
  • 2 The disappearance of the model time machine and the Time Traveller's final departure are optical illusions which, along with his theory of time and his dream, accord with contemporary theories of psychology and visual perception.
  • 3 The relationship between the Time Traveller's hoax and the book's theme of evolutionary retrogression is best understood by viewing The Time Machine as an indictment of late nineteenth century complacency. The Time Traveller's deception of Hillyer is Wells's way of ridiculing the naïve optimism and complacency Hillyer displays in the Epilogue.

One result of this analysis of The Time Machine is a greater appreciation of its scientific basis, especially in the area of psychology. Autobiography is also important and indicates the whereabouts of the Time Traveller following his final “disappearance” on the “Time Machine”.

The outer framework is here considered to include the passages describing the Time Traveller's departure and return. Unless stated otherwise, all references to The Time Machine are to the Heinemann edition of 1895.


There are eleven references to puzzles in The Time Machine, three on one page (111). If one takes this as a hint and reads carefully, contradictions can be found in the chronology of the Time Traveller's account which yield the solution to a puzzle and a new reading.


Literary critics and the Time Traveller's guests alike assume that the Time Traveller returns to his laboratory from the future at eight o'clock in the evening on the day of his departure. Geoffrey H. Wells (226) and Harry M. Geduld (11) both affirm this chronology which, to the best of my knowledge, has not been disputed. However, a close reading of the second paragraphs of Chapters 4 and 15 show this assumption to be wrong. Here is the Time Traveller's account of his departure on his machine on the second Thursday afternoon:

Then I noted the clock. A moment before, as it seemed, it had stood at a minute or so past ten; now it was nearly half-past three!

… The laboratory got hazy and went dark. Mrs Watchett came in, and walked, apparently without seeing me, towards the garden door. I suppose it took her a minute or so to traverse the place, but to me she seemed to shoot across the room like a rocket. I pressed the lever over to its extreme position. The night came like the turning out of a lamp, and in another moment came tomorrow.


Note that Mrs Watchett traversed the laboratory after half-past three but before the night came.

In Chapter 15, where the Time Traveller describes his return from the future, he again encounters Mrs Watchett: “As I returned, I passed again across that minute when she traversed the laboratory. But now her every motion appeared to be the exact inversion of her previous ones” (142-43). According to his own account, the Time Traveller returns almost to his starting time, in the late afternoon, before nightfall. Yet at eight o'clock he belatedly greets his guests creating the impression that he had only just returned. He later upholds this false impression when telling how he stopped the machine and sat down on the bench:

For a time my brain went stagnant. Presently I got up and came through the passage here, limping, because my heel was still painful, and feeling sorely begrimed. I saw the Pall Mall Gazette on the table by the door. I found the date was indeed today, and looking at the timepiece, saw the hour was almost eight o'clock.


The words “For a time” and “Presently” imply a short duration between his return and his entry into the dining room. But the Time Traveller has spent several hours in his laboratory with a “stagnant” brain while his guests, unaware of this, have begun dinner in his absence. The Time Traveller's mind has been elsewhere for this period: “Around me was my old workshop again, exactly as it had been. I might have slept there, and the whole thing have been a dream” (143). The Time Traveller has dreamed the entire future adventure with the Eloi and Morlocks while sitting on the bench in his laboratory. Wherever he has travelled, he has not travelled in time. His claim to have done so is part of an elaborate hoax.1 This interpretation is confirmed by another missing piece of time. In the second to last paragraph of Chapter 3 the Time Traveller prefaces his story by remarking: “I was in my laboratory at four o'clock, and since then … I've lived eight days … such days as no human being ever lived before!” (25). This statement does not square with the implication that he began his journey at half-past three and returned at eight o'clock.

The contradiction can be resolved by accepting the Time Traveller's claim to have been in his laboratory at four o'clock and by taking the statement “such days as no human being ever lived before” literally. His remarks are then clearly a hint that his vision of the future occurred in the laboratory after four o'clock as “no human being”—which includes the Time Traveller himself—has lived those eight days before four o'clock. It can thus be concluded that the Time Traveller's vision of the future was in the form of a dream which occurred between four o'clock and eight o'clock on the second Thursday evening after he returned to his laboratory and before he greeted his dinner guests. The chronological inconsistencies are a clue to understanding this.

The chronology of the rest of the evening supports this view. Allowing about three-quarters of an hour for the Time Traveller to wash, dress and dine, we can assume he begins his narrative at about a quarter to nine. He concludes four hours later, given by the Journalist's remark, “I'm hanged if it isn't a quarter to one” (146). The duration of the story concurs with that of the dream.

The Time Traveller openly admits his story is a dream when he says:

No. I cannot expect you to believe it. Take it as a lie—or a prophecy. Say I have dreamed it in the workshop. Consider that I have been speculating upon the destinies of our race, until I have hatched this fiction.


The ingenuity of his hoax is shown by his claim to have seen not only Mrs Watchett as he returned from the future, but also Hillyer, who “passed like a flash” (143). He also implies that he saw the whole party of guests as he returned, for to them he remarks, of the Time Machine, “It had come to rest again in the north-west, against the wall where you saw it” (143). At this stage, only three of his guests have seen the machine, and then only after dinner on the previous Thursday when it was in the south-east corner of the laboratory.

The Time Traveller's claims are prophecies: first, that Hillyer will return, which he does the next day; and second that the whole party will go to view the machine against the north-west wall, which they do after the Time Traveller concludes his story. Although seeming to confirm his story, both prophecies are realised by the Time Traveller. He perceives that Hillyer credits his story more than the other guests and shrewdly guesses that he will return to discuss time-travelling—indeed, prompts him to do so by naming him. The Time Traveller also arranges for the whole group to view the machine by rushing to the laboratory with the lamp to reassure himself of the machine's reality.

Did I ever make a Time Machine, or a model of a Time Machine? Or is it only a dream? … I must look at that machine. …

The Time Traveller put the lamp down on the bench and ran his head along the damaged rail. “It's all right now,” he said. “The story I told you was true. I'm sorry to have brought you out here in the cold.” [my italics]


The Time Traveller is a clever man indeed.

There is strong evidence that the chronological “faults” of the outer framework are deliberate and not the result of errors in writing or in publication. This evidence will now be reviewed.


In June 1894, Wells reviewed Dr O.W. Owen's Sir Francis Bacon's Cipher Story. In “More Bacon”, Wells describes Owen's efforts to uncover a cipher story hidden in some literary works attributed to Bacon, and notes the literary euphemisms that typified the age.

Then language and thought alike were permeated by the spirit of Euphues, so that whereas we aim nowadays at subtlety of meaning and simplicity of expression, the ambition of the educated man of the early seventeenth century was invariably to conceal a simply idiotic meaning beneath an imposing, brilliant, and even enigmatical form.


Two other unsigned essays published in April and May 1894 which discuss cryptograms and hidden symbols could also belong to Wells.2

The text of The Time Machine was revised by Wells before, during and after its serial publication in the New Review (Bergonzi “Publication of The Time Machine” 43-45). Apart from the two well-known major revisions to Chapters 1 and 14 of the Heinemann edition, I count forty-five minor revisions of the New Review version prior to its publication by Heinemann. None of these revisions changes the chronology of the outer framework. In 1924, Wells revised the text again for inclusion in The Works of H. G. Wells, Atlantic Edition (Preface vol 1 Atlantic Edition xxii). Despite re-reading and revising, Wells still made no changes to the chronology of the story. Given his writing on literary puzzles and his detailed revisions of The Time Machine (all of which left the chronology intact) it is clear that the chronological irregularities of the book are part of Wells's design. The work has been carefully and cleverly written.

The circumstances of the Time Traveller's return to his laboratory, however, indicate that he has somehow travelled somewhere. We will now examine the “how” and the “where” of the Time Traveller's journey.


The Time Traveller's dishevelled state when he enters the dining room at eight o'clock is described by Hillyer.

His coat was dusty and dirty, and smeared with green down the sleeves; his hair disordered, and as it seemed to me greyer—either with dust or dirt or because its colour had actually faded. His face was ghastly pale; his chin had a brown cut on it—a cut half-healed; his expression was haggard and drawn, as by intense suffering.


He is also lame, having on his feet only a pair of tattered, bloodstained socks (21) as well as having scarred knuckles (146). His condition resembles that of another of Wells's characters, Mr Hoopdriver of The Wheels of Chance, whose bruised ankles and legs were merely the visible sign of more extensive injuries.

Fired by these discoveries, an investigatory might perhaps have pursued his inquiries further—to bruises on the shoulders, elbows, and even the finger joints, of the central figure of our story. He had indeed been bumped and battered at an extraordinary number of points.


Hoopdriver's injuries were based on injuries Wells himself sustained while learning to ride the bicycle, as he makes clear in his autobiography: “The diamond frame had appeared but there was no free-wheel. You could only stop and jump off when the treadle was at its lowest point, and the brake was an uncertain plunger upon the front wheel” (543). The importance of cycling in Wells's life in the 1890s is described by David C. Smith, who states that Wells used his safety bicycle to explore the Thames valley (Smith “Little Wars for Little People” 127-28). In the text and notes of his biography of Wells, Smith also discusses cycling and its relationship to Wells's early journalism (H. G. Wells 136, 523).

In an early essay, “Specimen Day”, Wells recounts a journey to Crawley on a tricycle. This essay has many points in common with the Time Traveller's account, some of which are best illustrated by a direct comparison:


The road to Midhurst … goes up and down like a switch back.


We have a pleasant but all too short run together, and upset in a heap on as soft a parch of turf as I have ever fallen on.


… certain little misadventures on the road had made me, to say the least, dusty.



There is a feeling exactly like that one has upon a switchback—of helpless headlong motion!


… I was sitting on soft turf in front of the overset machine.


His coat was dusty and dirty, and smeared with green down the sleeves. …


These autobiographical parallels indicate that in the interval between his two dinner engagements, the Time Traveller has been learning to ride a bicycle. He may have embarked on one or more cycling excursions, or a holiday. The Time Traveller's dream of the future occurs on his return, just as Hoopdriver was wont to “ride through Dreamland on wonderful dream bicycles that change and grow after a day's cycling” (Wheels of Chance 81). The Time Traveller's machine is no ordinary bicycle, being one of his own design made of nickel, ivory and quartz (15-16). Nevertheless, the most audacious part of his hoax is his act of passing off this bicycle to his guests as a machine capable of travelling in time.

Many references in the text of The Time Machine support the bicycle hypothesis. On stopping his machine suddenly, the Time Traveller falls off it: “Like an impatient fool, I lugged over the lever, and incontinently the thing went reeling over, and I was flung headlong through the air” (32). What is more, a brazen hint equating the Time Machine with a bicycle is given by Wells in his Preface to a later edition of The Time Machine: “So The Time Machine has lasted as long as the diamond-framed safety bicycle, which came in at about the date of its first publication”.3 The similarities between the Time Machine have been noted by other commentators but none identify the Time Traveller's absence, activities or physical condition with cycling.4

It is true that the claim that the Time Machine is a bicycle and the Time Traveller's vision is a dream demands a revision of the cardinal incidents in the book.


The Time Traveller invites his guests to dinner one Thursday evening, planning a hoax based on the construction of his own bicycle. After discussing space and time (1-7) and causing a model to disappear by means of an optical illusion (to be discussed below), he shows his guests the full-size machine in the laboratory, declaring his intention to explore time (16).

He completes his machine and takes a cycling holiday around the Thames valley, during which he has an accident, injures himself and damages the machine (148). The Time Traveller finds two flowers which are “sports” (146), that is, variations of a species type.5 Given his lameness, it is probable that he loses his machine and has to walk a long way to recover it. He sends a note to his home stating that his return may be delayed (19).6

Reaching his laboratory at four o'clock in the afternoon on the second Thursday, he dismounts shakily and sits down on his bench. Exhausted, he falls asleep and has a dream in which his cycling experiences and his thoughts about the future of the human race are mixed together. Awakening just before eight o'clock, the Time Traveller approaches the dining room and, upon hearing this guests discussing the “ingenious paradox and trick” (19) of the previous week, decides to continue the hoax. He then washes, dresses, dines and imparts his vision (27-144). Most guests are sceptical, but the gullible Hillyer returns the following afternoon (148). Expecting his visit, the Time Traveller has set up a second optical illusion (see below). After asking Hillyer to wait for half an hour, the Time Traveller goes out of his laboratory, primes his illusion and departs on his machine in advance of Hillyer's (and the manservant's) entry (150-51). The hoax is completed by the Time Traveller's failure to return.

This solution to Wells's puzzle may, however, be only partial. Readers of his time could not have used the biographical details used here. We must, therefore, assume that the true series of events in The Time Machine can be discovered purely on internal evidence. The following passage, spoken by the Time Traveller, points to a cryptogram hidden in the work.

I felt I lacked a clue. I felt—how shall I put it? Suppose you found an inscription, with sentences here and there in excellent plain English, and, interpolated therewith, others made up of words, of letters even, absolutely unknown to you? Well, on the third day of my visit, that was how the world of Eight Hundred and Two Thousand Seven Hundred and One presented itself to me!


Note that the initial capitals of the date, when rearranged, spell “THE HOST”. This probably refers to the Time Traveller and could form part of a longer message. As the cryptogram belongs to the inner core of the narrative, it is not my intention to deal with it here, but in a subsequent paper.

If, as I have argued, the Time Traveller has not physically travelled in time, how are we to understand his theory of time, his vision of the future, his demonstration of the model and his disappearance? These questions will now be addressed.


Book reviews and articles by Wells published between 1893 and 1895 indicate that he was abreast of developments in psychology and visual perception. These theories underpin the outer framework of The Time Machine.


By the early 1890s, physiologically-based theories of the perception of time were well-established in psychology. Herbert Spencer, who was a seminal influence on Wells, broaches the subject of temporal perception thus: “The doctrine that Time is knowable only by the succession of our mental states calls for little exposition: it is so well established a doctrine” (2: 209). In “The Position of Psychology”, a review of George Trumbull Ladd's Psychology, Descriptive and Explanatory, and C. Lloyd Morgan's Psychology for Teachers, Wells boldly criticises psychological research, showing a familiarity with the main trends in this science and the work of researchers such as William James and James Sully (715).

In The Time Machine, the Time Traveller provides a “proto-(William) Jamesian demonstration that time is a dimension of consciousness.”7 The nature of his discourse can best be understood by examining the emphasis placed on nervous physiology in contemporary theories of perception in such works as James's Principles of Psychology (1890) and Spencer's Principles of Psychology (1881).

When time is discussed in absolute or objective terms spatial analogies are used, with the similarities and differences between our perception of time and our perception of space being stressed (James 1: 610-11). For example, events are located in time in a certain succession or order, separated by intervals, just as objects are in space (1: 631 text and note; Spencer 21: 210-11, 217). However, James notes, a major difference is that our perception of time is limited to a few seconds (the present) while our perception of space is more extensive (1: 611). Spencer also articulates this by applying the term “co-existence” to our feelings of space, and “sequence” to our feelings of time (1: 210-11 et seq., 2: 208-9).

Subjectively, our perception of time is said to depend on principles of nervous action. The slow decline of nervous activity after a presentation (such as the after-images we see after looking at a bright light) gives rise to our sensation of the present which then fades into a sensation of immediate past as the nervous action passes into memory and is succeeded by a new presentation. Our perception of time is thus produced by a continual succession of nervous sensations, or feelings (James 1: 632-45; Spencer 1: 268; Sully Human Mind 1; 269-72).8

In Chapter 1 of The Time Machine, the Time Traveller relates space, time and consciousness by stressing extrinsic similarities between space and time, but noting the difference in our perception of them:

… any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness and—Duration. But through a natural infirmity of the flesh which I will explain to you in a moment, we incline to overlook this fact. There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives.


The Time Traveller proposes that time and space have common objective properties, such as extension, but a difference arises in our (subjective) perception of them. He calls the difference an “unreal distinction” due to a “natural infirmity of the flesh” because the distinction is a mental one produced by our nervous sensations. Successive nervous sensations cause us to perceive time as a sequence, or as the Time Traveller puts it, as an intermittent movement of consciousness. This discussion of space, time and consciousness is quite in accordance with psychological theory espoused by James and Spencer. Wells, however, uses a language suited to a popular readership.

The joining of the absolute standpoint—seen most clearly in the version which depicts a rigid physical universe extended in four dimensions—with the standpoint of human consciousness is not contradictory but complementary (Philmus & Hughes 51). However, it appears that Wells has leaned closer to the latter standpoint than commonly realised, for the Time Traveller's journey through time is in the form of a series of mental states, a dream. Contemporary scientific literature shows much common ground between psychology and visual perception.9 James emphasises the role of visual sensations in temporal perception by describing how the world would appear to a being whose nervous system operates 1000 times more slowly than ours, creating the impression of a rapid movement through time.

Winters and summers will be to him like quarters of an hour. Mushrooms and the swifter growing plants will shoot into being so rapidly as to appear instantaneous creations; annual shrubs will rise and fall from the earth like restlessly boiling-water springs; the motions of animals will be as invisible as are to us the movements of bullets and cannon-balls; the sun will scour through the sky like a meteor, leaving a fiery trail behind him. …

(James 1: 639)

Similarly, the Time Traveller's successive sensations of the external world cover increasingly larger intervals as he moves forward in time.

The slowest snail that ever crawled dashed by too fast for me. … the jerking sun became a streak of fire, a brilliant arch, in space; … I saw trees growing and changing like puffs of vapour, now brown, now green: they grew, spread, shivered, and passed away. I saw huge buildings rise up faint and fair, and pass like dreams. The whole surface of the earth seemed changed—melting and flowing under my eyes.


The similarity of these two passages, together with the Time Traveller's Jamesian discussion of time, indicate the strong influence of theories of psychology and visual perception in the outer framework of The Time Machine. This intermediate field where psychology and physiology meet has also influenced Wells in his design of the Time Traveller's experiment with the model.


The two phenomena most relevant to the model's disappearance are: (i) the concept of presentation below the threshold; and (ii) the illusory nature of visual perception.

(i) The use by Wells of the phenomenon of “presentation below the threshold” (14-15) again indicates an acquaintance with psychology. Wells's knowledge of this could have come from a number of sources. Sully, for example, writes: “Every stimulus must reach a certain intensity before any appreciable sensation results. This point is known as the threshold or liminal intensity of sensation” (The Human Mind 1: 87). James Ward states that if the intensity of a presentation is less than a certain assignable value it is said to lie “below the threshold of consciousness” (19: 49).

(ii) Wells would have undoubtedly been struck by the importance of optical illusions for research in psychology. Optical illusions are discussed in detail by James (2: 86-103, 243-68), while Sully devotes an entire work to the psychology of illusions. Ladd deals with illusions in the context of suggestion, feeling and association:

Our ideas, feelings, and volitions take part in determining how we shall see the spatial qualities and relations of any object. … Or—to say the same truth in more popular phrase—within given limits, we see what we think or imagine ought to be seen; what we are expecting to see; and what we by an act of will determine to see.


The Time Traveller is portrayed as an expert in physical optics (114). Relevant to this field, as to psychology, were theories of colour vision. Researchers in both psychology and optics often employed “colour tops” because visual illusions resulted when the tops, with patterns on their flat upper surface, were spun.10 In “The Visibility of Colour” (1895), Wells indicates a knowledge of colour vision and refers to the new Spectrum Top, a device mentioned some months earlier in Nature.11 These concepts all bear on the demonstration of the model.

The Time Traveller places his model on a table before his guests. It is a “glittering metallic framework” about the size of a small clock, containing ivory, “some transparent crystalline substance,” and brass (10). The Time Traveller then gets the Psychologist to push a little white lever to start the model. As Hillyer observes:

One of the candles on the mantel was blown out, and the little machine suddenly swung round, became indistinct, was seen as a ghost for a second perhaps, as an eddy of faintly glittering brass and ivory; and it was gone—vanished! Save for the lamp the table was bare.


The Time Traveller has made the model less visible by causing it to spin rapidly, like a top, so that the presentation of the framework approaches the threshold of perception. The framework-like construction of the model would allow things behind it to be visible through it, so enhancing the illusion. Moreover, the model is made of materials that are white, highly reflective or transparent, rather than opaque. The model is then no more appreciable than “the spoke of a wheel spinning” (15). The psychological phenomenon of suggestion also plays a part in this demonstration. Ladd emphasises the importance of suggestion in optical illusions:

In the wider meaning of that much-abused word, all visual perception, true or false, our daily sights of the most practical and ordinary kind as well as the wildest hallucinations of the hypnotic dreamer or of the inmate of the madhouse—involve “suggestion.”


Before causing the model to disappear, the Time Traveller provides his guests with the appropriate suggestion. “‘Presently’”, he tells them, “‘I am going to press the lever, and off the machine will go. It will vanish, pass into future time, and disappear’” (12). After his guests see what they expect to see, the Time Traveller stands and turns to the mantel to fill his pipe, removing the model as he does so. His guests are not observing his actions here, for, as Hillyer faithfully records, “We stared at each other” (13). The illusion of the model's disappearance may thus be explained in terms of psychology and colour vision. The disappearance of the full-sized Time Machine can be similarly explained.


Hillyer's account of the Time Traveller's disappearance is vague, being qualified by the words “seemed”, “indistinct” and “apparently”. Here is his testimony:

As I took hold of the handle of the door I heard an exclamation, oddly truncated at the end, and a click and a thud. A gust of air whirled round me as I opened the door, and from within came the sound of broken glass falling on the floor. The Time Traveller was not there. I seemed to see a ghostly, indistinct figure sitting in a whirling mass of black and brass for a moment—a figure so transparent that the bench behind with its sheets of drawings was absolutely distinct; but this phantasm vanished as I rubbed my eyes. The Time Machine had gone. Save for a subsiding stir of dust, the further end of the laboratory was empty. A pane of the skylight had, apparently, just been blown in.


The Time Traveller has a reputation as a practical joker, having once shown his guests a ghost (16). The creation of such illusions was a common Victorian parlour trick involving a “magic lantern”: a three-dimensional image was created seemingly in mid-air by reflecting a brightly-lit object onto a sheet of glass, and this probably explains the Time Traveller's ghost and his “disappearance”.12

Expecting Hillyer to turn up, the Time Traveller has earlier removed a sheet of glass from the skylight to provide a reflective surface for his illusion, which is triggered by Hillyer touching the door handle. The sounds Hillyer hears are easily explained by a phonographic recording, and the gust of air arises as the door is opened between the “long, draughty corridor” (15) and the laboratory which has a hole in the skylight. Hillyer's perception of events accords with the suggestions arising from the Time Traveller's story.

If it is accepted that the Time Traveller has not travelled in time, we might expect that his dream vision of the future may be understood in terms of psychology. Again, we find evidence of this in Wells's early journalism.


In his 1893 essay, “The Dream Bureau”, Wells recounts a psychological explanation for dreams in which they are simply “the imperfect and exaggerated interpretation by the somnolent mind of the sensations that affect it, together with the flow of suggestions that naturally follow such impressions” (3). Wells discusses the work of the French scientist, Alfred Maury, on the origin of dream images, as does Sully who gives a very thorough account of Maury's researches into how the external and internal sensations that affect us while sleeping influence dream imagery (Illusions 10).

James considered dreams to be a perfectly valid alternative world where our perceptions arise from re-presentations from our memory rather than presentations from the external world.

The world of dreams is our real world whilst we are sleeping, because our attention then lapses from the sensible world. Conversely, when we wake the attention usually lapses from the dream-world and that becomes unreal. … The dream holds true, namely, in one half of that universe; the waking perceptions in the other half.

(2: 294n)

These presentations to the mind from the memory were considered to constitute a form of perception, Sully acknowledging that “recent psychology draws no sharp distinction between perception and recollection” (Illusions 10). Thus even the Time Traveller's dream can be brought within the science of psycho-physiology, presenting to the Time Traveller's mind a vivid alternative reality derived from his cycling memories, his thoughts on the human future and the associations arising therefrom.

The important role of psychology in the outer framework greatly strengthens the scientific foundation of The Time Machine. Commentators have erred in describing the Time Traveller's theory and demonstration as “pseudo-scientific”, “bogus” or “verbal flimflam”.13 On the contrary, the related areas of nervous action, visual perception, memory, suggestion and illusion, which underpin almost the entire outer framework, are informed by some of the major scientific works of Wells's day.

The question arises as to how the outer framework relates to the inner core, with its theme of human evolutionary degeneration. A comparison of the views of the Time Traveller and Hillyer will help clarify this.


As Mark R. Hillegas argues, the theme of evolutionary retrogression in The Time Machine attempts to jolt the reading public out of its complacency by an imaginative presentation of the “cosmic pessimism” of the naturalist T. H. Huxley.14 In his essays of the late 1880s and early 1890s, Huxley attacks the “optimistic dogma” that the evolutionary state of nature is “the best of all possible worlds”. Hillegas's view accords with a comment made by Wells that The Time Machine depicted a future “that ran counter to the placid assumption of that time that Evolution was a pro-human force making things better and better for mankind” (Wells, Preface to Scientific Romances ix).

It is not my purpose here to discuss the inner core of The Time Machine further. Bearing in mind that the book can be viewed as an attack on the complacency inherent in optimistic evolutionism, the Time Traveller's motive for what I have argued is his deception of Hillyer can be more easily understood.


The Epilogue of The Time Machine contrasts with the apparent pessimism of the Time Traveller with the dogged hopefulness of Hillyer, who writes:

I, for my part, cannot think that these latter days of the weak experiment, fragmentary theory, and mutual discord are indeed man's culminating time! I say, for my own part. He, I know—for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made—thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end. If this is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so. But to me the future is still black and blank—is a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places by the memory of his story.


Some commentators cite this apparent ambiguity as revealing a deep conflict in Wells's own outlook, the Time Traveller's pessimistic view representing that of “a scientist who had gone to the end of science” and Hillyer's hopeful view constituting an “almost existential courage against the void” (Hynes & McConnell 353, 355). Or Wells could be enforcing ambiguity, showing us how to accept both sides of a contradiction by balancing the unresolved pessimism and optimism of the Epilogue (Huntington 52-53). The dichotomy is also said to reflect the problem of determinism and free will—the determinate evolutionary laws of the inner core being balanced by an affirmation of the importance of human responsibility where, at the level of individual action man must behave as though he were free” (Haynes 129).

However, the ambiguity of the Epilogue vanishes once we accept that the events of the outer framework constitute a hoax. Let us re-examine the views of the Time Traveller and Hillyer, and their relationship, in this light. Hillyer is an optimist. Despite the “fragmentary theory and mutual discord” of his time, he anticipates continued progress. Despite the Time Traveller's vision of evolutionary degeneration, Hillyer cannot think that it may occur, or that it may have already begun. The phrase “these latter days of weak experiment” implies an existing ebbing of intelligence about which Hillyer is unconcerned. With the words “for my own part” Hillyer opposes his view to that of the Time Traveller.

In fact, Hillyer is in reaction to the Time Traveller's vision. If that bleak future is true, “it remains for us to live as though it were not so” says Hillyer. This is not an existential courage against the void, but a romantic evasion by Hillyer of the Time Traveller's future. Hillyer is contented that the future remain “a vast ignorance.”

The final sentence of The Time Machine reveals Hillyer's romantic view of the human story: “And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers—shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle—to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man” (152). Hillyer sees the Time Traveller's flowers only as a source of comfort in the face of the harsh future he depicts. Hillyer's concern, like that of the ancestors of the Eloi and the Morlocks, is for comfort and security.

The Time Traveller's poor regard for Hillyer is shown by his “disappearance” when the latter arrives on the Friday afternoon, and the blatant lie the Time Traveller tells just before departing. Hillyer naïvely recalls his challenge to his friend:

“But is it not some hoax?” I said. “Do you really travel through time?” “Really and truly I do.” And he looked frankly into my eyes.


The character of Hillyer, along with the complacent and optimistic views he represents, is the subject of devastating ridicule by Wells. The hoax of the outer framework supports the evolutionary arguments of the inner core by implying that those of Hillyer's views, therefore, are not Wells's views.


The outer framework of The Time Machine has been examined in detail. It has been shown that the book is constructed as a puzzle which, when solved, shows the Time Traveller's story to be a hoax. His vision of the future is a dream experienced after returning from a cycling excursion. However, the Time Traveller's activities could also be the subject of a cryptogram.

The Time Traveller's theory of time, his optical illusion and his dream are informed by an intermediate area of scientific research involving psychology and the physiology of visual perception. The hoax of the outer framework supports the theme of the work as a whole by ridiculing the optimistic and complacent outlook of the narrator, Hillyer. The Epilogue is not ambiguous, as the fooling of Hillyer shows that Wells favours the Time Traveller's view.

It is not my aim here to pursue the implications (if any) of this reading, except to propose that the dominant role of psychology and consciousness, culminating in the Time Traveller's dream, destroys the sense of the cosmic determinism superficially present in the work. At the deeper level the human mind predominates. If it could once be said that the role of consciousness “reaffirms the possibilities for human will in a Rigid Universe” (Philmus & Hughes 55) we must further ask whether Wells placed any credence in a rigid determinism at all.

An important feature to emerge here is the strong scientific foundation of The Time Machine, built from Wells's education in biology, his reading in psychology and colour vision, and his own science writing. The design of the book as an intellectual puzzle and the extensive revisions made to the text, indicate a brilliant conception and meticulous execution, where Wells has displayed a creativity almost rivalling that of his scientific coevals on whose work The Time Machine is based.

It remains only to suggest that the Time Traveller's final departure is simply the start of a second, more extensive, cycling holiday. His three-year absence (151) may be explained in terms of Robert P. Weeks's analysis of many of Wells's characters as being driven by a profound desire to escape social, evolutionary or scientific restrictions (Weeks 26-30). The escape of the Time Traveller may even reflect a desire by Wells to escape from some of all of the restrictions described by Weeks; a desire which surfaced in 1901 when Wells vanished for two months on his bicycle without informing his wife of his whereabouts (West 258-59).

In any case, soon after the publication of The Time Machine, Wells had a tandem bicycle made to his own plans by Humber, after which he and his wife began exploring the south of England on this machine (Autobiography 543). Perhaps the Time Traveller was not far behind.


  1. A hint as to the role of the later chapter in uncovering this puzzle is given in the second to last paragraph of Chapter 7 where the Time Traveller, puzzling over the loss of his machines, says ‘In the end you will find clues to it all’ (65).

  2. Philmus and Hughes attribute ‘More Bacon’ to Wells, and suggest that ‘Mysteries of the Modern Press: Secret Marks in Printing’, Pall Mall Gazette 58 (April 23 1894):3; and ‘A Remarkable Literary Discovery: Francis Bacon the Author of “Box and Cox”!’ Pall Mall Gazette 58 (May 3 1894):3, could also be by Wells.

  3. H. G. Wells, Preface to a revised edition of The Time Machine, 1931 x.

  4. See Williamson 52, Batchelor 10, Geduld 96, 192.

  5. In ‘Discoveries in Variation’, Wells notes that lilies may sometimes have their floral organs in fives instead of threes, just as the Time Traveller's flowers have an unusual gynaeceum (312).

  6. The presence of the note is another inconsistency discrediting the Time Traveller's tale. He would have no excuse for being late if he could really travel in time. Also, how could the note have been sent?

  7. Philmus and Hughes, Early Writings 48. This comment refers to the first instalment of the 1894 National Observer series of articles by Wells on time travelling, but it is equally applicable to the Heinemann edition.

  8. James, Principles, 1:632-45; Spencer, Principles, 1:268. For discussion of time perception see also James Sully, The Human Mind: a Textbook of Psychology, 2 vols. London: Longman, Green, 1892 1:269-72, 318-29; 2;343-45.

  9. The German physiologist, Hermann von Helmholtz, discusses psychology extensively (see H Helmholtz, Helmholtz's Treatise on Physiological Optics vol. 3. Ed. James P.C. Southall. Menasha Wisconsin: Optical Society of America, 1925, 1-35; H. Helmholtz, Popular Lectures on Scientific Subjects. Trans. E. Atkinson. London: Longmans, Green, 1873, 197-99, 306-16. Conversely, Helmholtz's work is freely cited by psychological researchers).

  10. See James, 2:23-24; Ladd, 106, 109; Sully, Illusions 56; Helmholtz, Treatise 215-24; Capt. W. de Abney, Colour Vision, Being the Tyndall Lectures delivered in 1894 at the Royal Institution. London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1895 (32-34).

  11. H. G. Wells. ‘The Visibility of Colour’ Pall Mall Gazette 60 (March 7 1895):4. This is a review of Abney's Tyndall lecture (see above). Abney does not mention the Spectrum Top, but Wells was also reviewing books for Nature in late 1894 and may have read of the Spectrum Top there.

  12. Frank D. McConnell, ed. H. G. Wells: The Time Machine,The War of the Worlds: A Critical Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 1977 (22n). See also Geduld, who, in The Definitive Time Machine (98, 119) links the ghost trick to the Time Traveller's disappearance.

  13. These comments are made by, respectively: Bernard Bergonzi, The Early H. G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romance, Manchester: Manchester UP, 1961 (33); Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, New Haven: Yale UP, 1979 (212); Robert Crossley, H. G. Wells, Mercer Island, Washington: Stamont House, 1986 (21).

  14. Mark R Hillegas, ‘Cosmic Pessimism in H. G. Wells's Scientific Romances’ Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts and Letters 46 (1961): 656-57.

Works Cited

Bergonzi, Bernard. The Early H. G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1961.

Crossley, Robert. H. G. Wells. Mercer Island, Washington: Starmont House, 1986.

———. “The Publication of The Time Machine 1894-5.” Review of English Studies. 11 (1960): 43-45.

Geduld, Harry M., ed. The Definitive Time Machine: A Critical Edition of H. G. Wells's Scientific Romance. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

Haynes, Roslynn D. H. G. Wells: Discoverer of the Future. London: Macmillan, 1980.

Helmholtz, H. Popular Lectures on Scientific Subjects. Trans E. Atkinson. London: Longmans, Green: 1873.

———. Treatise on Physiological Optics. 3 vols. Ed. James P. C. Southall. Menasha, Wisconsin: Optical Society of America, 1925.

Hillegas, Mark R. “Cosmic Pessimism in H. G. Wells's Scientific Romances.” Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts and Letters. 46 (1961): 656-57.

Huxley, T. H. “The Struggle for Existence: A Programme.” Nineteenth Century 23 (1888).

Huntington, John. The Logic of Fantasy: H. G. Wells and Science Fiction. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

Hynes, Samuel L. & Frank D. McConnell. “The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds: Parable and Possibility in H. G. Wells.” McConnell, H. G. Wells: The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds: A Critical Edition. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

James, William. The Principles of Psychology. 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1890.

Ladd, George Trumbull. Psychology, Descriptive and Explanatory: A Treatise of the Phenomena, Laws, and Development of Human Mental Life. London: Longmans, Green, 1894.

McConnell, Frank D., ed. H. G. Wells: The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds: A Critical Edition. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Philmus, Robert M. & David Y. Hughes, eds. H. G. Wells: Early Writings in Science and Science and Science Fiction. Berkeley: California UP, 1975.

Smith, David C. H. G. Wells: Desperately Mortal. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.

———. “Little Wars for Little People: Sport, Games, and Leisure Time in the Work and Life of H. G. Wells.” Arete 2 (1985): 127-28.

Spencer, Herbert. The Principles of Psychology. 3rd ed. 2 vols. London: Williams & Norgate, 1881.

Sully, James. Illusions: A Psychological Study. London: C. Kegan Paul, 1881.

———. The Human Mind: A Textbook of Psychology. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1892.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Ward, James. “Psychology.” Encyclopædia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences and General Literature. 9th ed. 20 vols. Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1883.

Weeks, Robert P. “Disentanglement as a Theme in H. G. Wells's Fiction.” H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays.” Ed. Bernard Bergonzi. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall, 1976.

Wells, H. G. “Discoveries in Variation.” Saturday Review 79 (1895): 312.

———. Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain. 2 vols. London: Gollancz, 1934.

———. Prefaces. The Atlantic Edition of the Works of H. G. Wells. 28 vols. London: Unwin, 1924.

———. [unsigned] “The Dream Bureau: A New Entertainment.” Pall Mall Gazette 57 (October 25 1893).

———. “The Position of Psychology.” Saturday Review 78 (1894): 715.

———. The Scientific Romances of H. G. Wells. London: Victor Gollancz, 1933.

———. [H. G. Wells]. “‘Specimen Day’ (From a Holiday Itinerary).” Science Schools Journal 33 (October 1891): 17-19.

———. The Time Machine: An Invention. London: Heinemann, 1895.

———. The Wheels of Chance: A Holiday Adventure. Macmillan Colonial Library Series. London: Macmillan, 1986.

———. “The Visibility of Colour.” Pall Mall Gazette 60 (March 7 1895): 4

Wells, Geoffrey H. The Works of H. G. Wells 1887-1925: A Bibliography, Dictionary and Subject Index. London: Routledge & Sons, 1926.

Patrick Parrinder (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Parrinder, Patrick. “Possibilities of Space and Time (The Time Machine).” In Shadows of the Future: H. G. Wells, Science Fiction and Prophecy, pp. 34-48. Liverpool, United Kingdom: Liverpool University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Parrinder explores the significance of time travel in Wells's fiction, particularly The Time Machine.]


Towards the end of The Time Machine, the Traveller finishes the story of his adventures, pauses, and looks around at his listeners. He is like a lecturer waiting for the first question after his talk, and like many nervous lecturers he tries to start the ball rolling by interrogating the audience himself. ‘“No. I cannot expect you to believe it”’, he begins. ‘“Take it as a lie—or a prophecy. Say I dreamed it in the workshop. … Treat my assertion of its truth as a mere stroke of art to enhance its interest. And taking it as a story, what do you think of it?”’ (§12). There is another awkward silence, while the Time Traveller fiddles with his pipe, and the audience shift uneasily in their chairs. Then the newspaper editor says that their host ought to be a writer of stories. The narrator, who is not sure what to think, returns to the Traveller's house in Richmond the next day, just in time to speak with him before he departs on the second voyage, from which he never returns. As Robert Philmus has observed, within the narrative framework it is the Traveller's second disappearance and failure to return that proves the reality of time travel, establishing him as a prophet rather than a liar.1

For the narrator in the ‘Epilogue’, the Time Traveller's tale appears as a brief moment of enlightenment, like the flaring of the match in ‘The Rediscovery of the Unique’, amid the vast ignorance and darkness of the future. The light of prophecy is also the light of science—but it is the extent of the blackness that terrifies. Wells says something very similar in The Future in America, when he speaks of the loss of his belief in the imminence of the Christian apocalypse during his adolescence. The study of biology revealed to him an ‘endless vista of years ahead’ (p. 10). Space, too, appeared as an endless vista, and it is notable that in his early works Wells often uses the word figuratively to indicate a measure of time, as in the phrase ‘a space of time’.2 The complementarity of space and time in the Wellsian universe is summed up in the title of his 1899 volume of stories, Tales of Space and Time.

But travel in time with its prophetic associations engages Wells's imagination more intensely than journeys into space. Despite his reputation as the founder of modern science fiction, he took little or no interest in the fiction of spaceships and stellar travel. His rhetorical vision in The Discovery of the Future of beings who ‘shall laugh and reach out their hands amid the stars’ (p. 36) was to inspire other writers, though it corresponds to very little in Wells's own output. Apart from the mystical dream-narrative of his short story ‘Under the Knife’, The First Men in the Moon is his only narrative of a journey beyond the earth's atmosphere; and it is notable that Bedford, the narrator, experiences the dissolution of identity in ‘infinite space’ during the comparatively short return journey from the moon. He recounts this phase of his adventures in a detached, almost serene way, very different from the Time Traveller's ‘hysterical exhilaration’ (§3) as he rushes into the future. There is fear and trembling in Wells's imagination of time travel; in The First Men in the Moon, however, the experience of thrilling revelation is reserved not for the journey but for the discoveries that the two explorers make on the moon.

What, then, was the source of the exhilaration of time travel? It reflects the bias of Wells's scientific interests, in evolutionary biology and palaeontology rather than astronomy and physics, but it also has a more personal appeal, reflecting his imaginative ‘impatience’. We can hardly avoid relating it both to the religious millennialism of his upbringing,3 and to his intimations of an early death. The fundamental commonsense objection to time travel is the one put forward by Wells's fellow-novelist Israel Zangwill, writing about The Time Machine in his Pall Mall Magazine column in September 1895. To travel forward more than a few years in time, Zangwill argued, is to travel through one's own death.4 (It is also, one might add, to travel through the death of the machine: metal fatigue and corrosion are often swifter processes than the decay of the human body.) Admittedly, the idea of ‘travelling through’ death is misleading, since what the time machine achieves for its rider is the circumvention and bypassing of the ravages of time. Since he is still alive and has only aged by a few hours when he reaches 802,701, his journey takes place in a different time-frame from the one that he leaves behind and later re-enters.5 Wells is aware of some at least of the paradoxes that beset all time-travel narratives. These are most obtrusive at the end of the story, when the narrator returns to Richmond the day after the Traveller's return and sees the Time Machine in the empty laboratory before meeting its inventor in the smoking-room. The Traveller has already passed through this moment in the empty laboratory twice, once on his journey forwards and once on his return journey; on the latter occasion he ‘“seemed to see Hillyer … but he passed like a flash”’ (§12). If Hillyer is the narrator (as Geduld suggests),6 the Traveller is seeing him either at this moment or on the occasion, somewhat later, when the narrator re-enters the laboratory. On that second occasion, the narrator catches sight of the ghostly figure of the Traveller on the machine, in the act of departure—or arrival—or both. There are further complications that could be teased out from the story's opening-up of such paradoxes.7

Before receiving his ‘death warrant’ after his footballing accident in 1887, Wells had written ‘A Vision of the Past’. Immediately after it, he wrote ‘The Chronic Argonauts,’ the first version of The Time Machine, which is set in present time. At the end of ‘The Chronic Argonauts’ the Reverend Elijah Cook returns from an involuntary voyage into the future, but we never hear his tale of what happened there. Wells's friends complained about the abrupt ending, but it was many years before he was able to write the promised sequel to his own satisfaction. When it eventually appeared in book form, it had been revised at least half a dozen times.8 For six years (1888-94), we may say, Wells had hesitated on the brink of a genuinely prophetic narrative. His exultation once he had succeeded in giving the future a body and shape is perhaps mirrored in the pun (supposing it is a pun) in Section 4 of The Time Machine, when the Traveller reflects on the ‘oddness of wells still existing’.

In ‘The Chronic Argonauts’ there are two narratives, which Wells calls ‘exoteric’ and ‘esoteric’. The exoteric or external story is told by ‘the author’ (that is, Wells himself), while the esoteric or internal one is told, in an incomplete and fragmentary form, by the Reverend Elijah Cook. The figure who never tells his story is Nebogipfel, the inventor of the time machine or ‘Chronic Argo’ himself. He only expounds the principles of time-travelling, in conversation with Elijah Cook. In the National Observer version of Wells's tale, published between March and June 1894, Nebogipfel, now rechristened or relabelled the Time Traveller, is constantly interrupted by his hearers. His mixture of philosophical argument and adventure narrative is punctuated by commentaries and outbursts of scepticism. The sheer imaginative power of his tale is never given full rein, as if some inhibition still curbed its author. As storytelling, this version is bungled just as ‘The Chronic Argonauts’ is bungled.9 But in the final version Wells's inhibitions are overcome, and, once we are with the Traveller on his voyage, the smoking-room setting of the tale is forgotten for very long stretches. The Delphic voice pours forth at last. The Traveller is now more than a mere narrative device. He is a heroic figure within the confines of the story, as well as an avatar of the visionary personality that Wells was discovering, with growing confidence, within himself.


When Dr Nebogipfel's unwilling passenger, the Rev. Elijah Cook, arrives back from his journey in ‘The Chronic Argonauts’ he announces that he has several depositions to make. These concern a murder in the year 1862 (indicating that, unlike the Time Traveller, the Argonauts have gone both ways in time), an abduction in 4003 and a series of ‘“assaults on public officials in the years 17,901 and 2”’.10 In the National Observer ‘Time Machine’, the world of the Eloi and Morlocks is set in AD 12,203. In the final version, the date, conveniently registered on the Time Machine's instrument panel, is 802,701. There follows the ‘Further Vision’, in which the Traveller journeys forward another twenty-nine million years. The reader of the different versions of The Time Machine succumbs to the spell of these mysterious numbers themselves—above all, the puzzling figure 802,701—but, beyond that, the meaning of such vast expanses of imaginary time calls out for explanation.

When the Time Traveller's guests encounter the idea of visiting the future, it is plain how limited their (and, by extension, our) horizons are. The Journalist dubs their host ‘Our Special Correspondent in the Day after To-morrow’ (§2). The Editor wants a tip for next week's horse-racing. The Very Young Man suggests investing some money and travelling forward to collect the profits. Yet even the relatively modest National Observer voyage crossed a timespan of more than twice as long as recorded history. Wells's familiarity with the prehistoric vistas opened up by nineteenth-century geology and archaeology had shaped his vision of time travel. As a South Kensington student, he belonged to the first generation of young people to learn as a matter of course about the Stone Age, the era of the dinosaurs, and the formation of the earth. This marvellous new field of knowledge, which rapidly became a staple of popular culture, is evoked in the Epilogue to The Time Machine where the narrator imagines the Traveller voyaging into Palaeolithic, Jurassic and Triassic times.

Humanity emerged at a relatively late point in the evolutionary chain, yet our race is still almost unimaginably old. In Wells's next scientific romance, Dr Moreau reminds the narrator that ‘“Man has been a hundred thousand [years] in the making”’ (Ch. 14). Actually, Moreau's figure is a gross underestimate, as the chronological horizon of The Time Machine hints. In The Outline of History, Wells was to put the emergence of the subhuman pithecanthropus erectus at six hundred thousand years ago, though since the advent of radio-carbon dating this has been increased to 1.8 million years.11 In September 1994 reports appeared of the discovery of a fruit-eating humanoid creature (possibly analogous to the Eloi on the evolutionary scale) said to be 4.4 million years old.

Before The Time Machine Wells had implied a possible chronology for future evolution in ‘The Man of the Year Million’. Then, in a discussion of ‘The Rate of Change in Species’ (December 1894), he outlined the considerations that may have led him to lengthen the Time Traveller's journey from the ten thousand years of the National Observer version to eighty times as long. Wells claimed it was a little-noticed biological fact that the rate of possible change was governed by the gap between generations, and hence by the average age of maturity in a species. Evolution by natural selection—the strictly Darwinian model to which Wells and Huxley adhered—could not have brought about significant changes within the human species within recorded history, so that any such changes must be cultural, not natural in origin. Wells was determined to show the results of hypothetical natural evolution, not of artificial or eugenic processes in The Time Machine. The Traveller's voyage through the best part of a million years thus reflects both the probable age of the human species, in the understanding of Wells's contemporaries, and the minimum time needed for natural selection to produce new degenerate beings descended from present-day humanity.

The time-horizon of Wells's story is also affected by contemporary physical predictions of the future of the solar system. The Traveller reaches a point where not only humanity, but the sun's heat itself is manifestly on the wane. If the story of evolution pointed to the plasticity of biological species, Lord Kelvin's Laws of Thermodynamics portrayed the universe as a finite enclosure in which energy was limited. As a student, Wells had once engaged in a spoof demonstration of a perpetual motion machine (powered by a concealed electromagnet)12—a thermodynamic impossibility not unlike a time machine, since both depend on the ability to bypass the normal framework of what, in a lost article, he had called the ‘Universe Rigid’.13 The Second Law of Thermodynamics with its statement that energy always tends to disperse made it clear that the sun and other stars must eventually cool and burn out. The Time Machine reflects this entropic process, as well as Sir George Darwin's calculations of the effects of tidal drag on the earth's motion. Later in his life, however, Wells readily admitted that his astronomical predictions had been too gloomy.14 The study of radioactivity had revealed that the source of the sun's heat was thermonuclear fusion rather than combustion; the sun was not a coal fire, so to speak, but a nuclear reactor. The predicted life of the solar system increased from the implied timescale of the ‘Further Vision’ to ten thousand million years, or perhaps a million million years.15

These are unimaginable and almost meaningless expanses of time, yet paradoxically The Time Machine renders a thirty million-year future thinkable. That is the ‘virtual reality’ effect of the story's mythical, apocalyptic hold over the reader. To ask how Wells manages it is to come up against the truism that our only models for imagining the future derive from our knowledge and understanding of the past. He could write of travelling one million or thirty million years ahead only in the light of the geologists' consensus that the earth was already much older than that, though precisely how much older was a matter of conjecture. Kelvin had estimated that the age of the oldest rocks was as little as twenty-five million years, while T. H. Huxley guessed at four hundred million. Summing up the controversy in The Outline of History, Wells is unable to arbitrate between these two. Reusing one of his favourite metaphors, he adds that ‘Not only is Space from the point of view of life and humanity empty, but Time is empty also. Life is like a little glow, scarcely kindled yet, in these void immensities’ (p. 8). In The Time Machine he had slightly prolonged that little glow.


Wells's use of geological chronology does not explain how he was able to depict the sub-civilisation of the Eloi and Morlocks at a precise date in the future, given in the final version as 802,701. Readers have often wondered why he settled on this curious figure. We may approach an answer by looking more closely at the sensations of time-travelling described in the story. Riding into the future, the Traveller observes the speeding-up of natural phenomena: the alternation of night and day until the two are indistinguishable, the flickering change of the seasons, the swift growth and disappearance of trees. This part of his narrative, which has the vertiginous effect of a constantly accelerating film, may make us wonder how fast he is travelling and how ‘long’ his journey takes. At one point he mentions a speed of more than a year a minute, but if this were his average velocity it would take nearly eighteen months to reach 802,701. Travelling more rapidly later in the story, he approaches the ‘Further Vision’ at a speed of something like fifty years per second; but, in fact, five hundred years per second would be a more plausible average speed.16 At that rate he could have reached the age of the Eloi and Morlocks in less than half an hour.

During his voyage he sees signs of changing civilisations as well as changing natural phenomena. ‘“I saw huge buildings rise up faint and fair, and pass like dreams”’, he reports (§3). How often did this happen? ‘“I saw great and splendid architecture rising about me, more massive than any buildings of our own time, and yet, as it seemed, built of glimmer and mist”’. There would have been no need to go forward three-quarters of a million years in order to see the architecture of successive human civilisations. Our knowledge of past history suggests that 800 years might have been enough. Even given vastly more durable building materials, 8000 years would have been amply sufficient. Assuming some degree of continuity in human civilisation, changes in architecture would normally take place far more frequently than the natural climatic changes that the Traveller also observes—‘“I saw a richer green flow up the hillside, and remain there without any wintry intermission”’ (§3)—let alone the species modifications that have produced the Eloi and Morlocks.

The order of the figures in 802,701 suggests a suitably entropic and cyclical ‘running-down’ number.17 We can explain how Wells may have arrived at it, however, by the supposition that The Time Machine embodies not one future timescale but two. The two scales, those of historical time measured by the rise and fall of cultures and civilisations, and of biological time measured by the evolution and devolution of the species, are superimposed upon one another. To begin with, I suggest that Wells must have projected the invention of the Time Machine forward to the beginning of the twentieth century, so that the dinner party at Richmond may be imagined as taking place in 1901. (Analogously, the events of The War of the Worlds—which Wells began writing immediately after The Time Machine was published—also take place ‘early in the twentieth century’ (I,1).) He had already used the early twentieth century as baseline in ‘The Chronic Argonauts,’ where the furthest point that we know to have been reached is the years 17,901-02: that is, a voyage of 16,000 years. In The Time Machine the world of the Eloi and Morlocks is located not 16,000 but 800,800 years after 1901—a significantly bifurcated number. The 800 years, enough to allow for the rise and fall of a civilisation or two in historical time, take us to 2701. To this figure Wells added a further 800,000 (that is, the best part of a million years) of evolutionary time. Supposing the number 802,701 to have been determined by a process such as this, its poetic appeal as a symbol of entropy would have ensured its adoption. Its significance—to be further explored in Chapter Five below—is that The Time Machine is plotted with both timescales, the evolutionary and the historiographic, in mind, though these are incompatible in certain respects. Without the 800-year timescale we cannot easily explain such crucial details as the survival of unmistakably classical forms of architecture into the far future, creating an essentially familiar landscape dominated by the Sphinx and surrounded by ruined palaces and gardens.


The Sphinx and the decaying palaces are central to the symbolism of the story. The Sphinx is the symbol of foreboding and prophecy. The palaces and gardens suggest the landscape of neoclassical paintings and country houses, while alluding to a line of English utopian romances which would have been fresh in the minds of Wells's first readers: Richard Jefferies' After London (1885), W. H. Hudson's A Crystal Age (1887), and, above all, William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890). Morris's death in 1896 drew an affectionate if patronising acknowledgment from Wells in the Saturday Review—‘His dreamland was no futurity, but an illuminated past’, Wells wrote18—but a more wholehearted tribute, and one which hints at the strong connections between News from Nowhere and The Time Machine, appears at the beginning of A Modern Utopia:

Were we free to have our untrammelled desire, I suppose we should follow Morris to his Nowhere, we should change the nature of man and the nature of things together; we should make the whole race wise, tolerant, noble, perfect … in a world as good in its essential nature, as ripe and sunny, as the world before the Fall. But that golden age, that perfect world, comes out into the possibilities of space and time. In space and time the pervading Will to Live sustains for evermore a perpetuity of aggressions.19

Chapter Five of The Time Machine in the first edition is titled ‘In the Golden Age’. In Wells's vision, the ‘possibilities of space and time’ are not unlimited. In space and time what appears to be a Morrisian utopia can only be fatally flawed; no earthly paradise of this sort is possible. The words Eloi and Morlocks signify angels and devils, and the two races, the products of natural selection, are held together in a predatory and symbiotic relationship—a ‘perpetuity of aggressions’ without which neither could flourish.

The Time Machine is both an explicitly anti-utopian text, and one which deliberately recalls News from Nowhere at a number of points. Morris's pastoral, idyllic society is centred on Hammersmith in West London, while the society of the Eloi is centred two or three miles upstream at Richmond. Both are placed in a lush parkland replacing the nineteenth-century industrial and suburban sprawl beside the River Thames. The Eloi, like the inhabitants of Nowhere and of most other contemporary socialist utopias, eat together in communal dining halls. William Guest, Morris's ‘time traveller’, learns about the history of twentieth- and twenty-first century England from an old man at the British Museum, while Wells's Traveller journeys to the Palace of Green Porcelain, an abandoned museum of the arts and sciences modelled on the Crystal Palace and the South Kensington Museum.20 On the evening of his first day with the Eloi, the Traveller climbs to a hilltop, surveys the countryside and exclaims ‘“Communism”’ (§4) to himself. The Communism he has in mind must be the pastoral utopia of Morris and Thomas More, rather than the revolutionary industrial society of Marx and Saint-Simon.

On two occasions the Time Traveller mocks at the artificiality of utopian narratives, as if to establish the superior authenticity of his own story. A ‘“real traveller”’, he protests, has no access to the vast amount of detail about buildings and social arrangements to be found in these books (§5). He has ‘“no convenient cicerone in the pattern of the Utopian books”’ (§5); instead, he has to work everything out for himself by trial and error. The emphasis is not on the exposition of a superior utopian philosophy but on the Traveller's own powers of observation and his habits of deductive and inductive reasoning. In terms of narrative structure as well as of evolutionary possibility, Wells claims to present a less self-indulgent, more realistic vision than Morris and his tradition could offer—as if the world of 802,701 were somehow less of a wish-fulfilment fantasy than Morris's Nowhere. The Time Traveller shows himself in the opening chapters to be a master of several sciences. He is a brilliant inventor and engineer, who is able by his own efforts to test the practical consequences of his theoretical discoveries in four-dimensional geometry.21 He understands the principles of biology and psychology, and in studying the Eloi and Morlocks without the benefit of a guide he finds himself in the position of an anthropologist and ethnographer. Like an enthnographer in the field, he learns the language of his hosts and attempts to question them about ‘taboo’ topics such as the mysterious wells dotted across the countryside. At each stage, but always aware that he may lack some crucial information, he attempts to theorise his findings.22 In a characteristic Wellsian touch, he reverses the usual relations between a nineteenth-century anthropologist and his subject-matter, comparing his account of the Eloi to the ‘“tale of London which a negro, fresh from Central Africa, would take back to his tribe”’—though he adds that the negro would find plenty of willing informants, and in any case, ‘“think how narrow the gap between a negro and a white man of our own times, and how wide the interval between myself and these of the Golden Age!”’ (§5).

Admittedly, the Traveller often fails to live up to his ideal of scientific detachment. Unlike the utopias against which he is reacting, Wells's tale is a violent adventure story as well as something resembling a fieldwork report. The Traveller's behaviour in moments of crisis is typically hysterical, panic-stricken, negligent and, when he confronts the Morlocks, ruthless and desperate. In all this he embodies what Wells in A Modern Utopia was to call the Will to Live. Equally, the bloodthirstiness of Wells's anti-utopian realism invites the rejoinder that William Morris made in his review of Edward Bellamy's urban, collectivist utopia Looking Backward: ‘The only safe way of reading a utopia is to consider it as the expression of the temperament of its author’.23The Time Machine debunks the utopian dream (a dream that would be reinstated in many of Wells's later works) en route to the discovery that the human species is engaged in a brutal struggle for survival which, in the long run, it cannot win—since all terrestrial life is doomed to extinction. Wells enables his Time Traveller to circumvent his own natural death—to cheat death, so to speak—only to inflict violent death on some of humanity's remote descendants, before going on to witness the collective death of the species and the environment that has sustained it.

In speaking of authorial temperament, Morris was invoking one of the principal categories of late nineteenth-century literary theory. He would have been aware of the widespread reaction against the claims to scientific objectivity made by the realist and naturalist movements; every work of art, it was argued, betrayed the imprint of its maker's personality.24 To modern readers, once we have acknowledged the complexity and uniqueness of a text like The Time Machine, such appeals to personality and temperament have come to seem tautologous rather than illuminating. Nevertheless, we may say that when Wells's artistic imagination was at its most vivid, in the early scientific romances, it was also at its most violent. Ten years after the searing anti-utopianism of these books, he was ready to present his own, comparatively pacific vision of A Modern Utopia. As it happens, this apparent change of heart runs parallel with a dramatic improvement in his medical condition.

The cannibalistic Morlocks, the bloodsucking Martians and the bath of pain in which the vivisectionist Dr Moreau transforms wild animals into sham human beings were all conceived during the years in which Wells himself was often bedridden and spitting blood. Since tuberculosis had been (wrongly) diagnosed, it is significant that the first of the Eloi whom the Time Traveller meets face to face has the ‘“hectic beauty”’ of a ‘“consumptive”’ (§3). The Traveller feels intensely for this society of doomed consumptives, and, once he is armed with a rusty iron bar, he does his best to wreak havoc among the species that lives off them. Wells suffered a final serious relapse in 1898, after the completion of his early romances. He moved to the south coast and commissioned the architect Charles Voysey to build him a house on the cliffs at Sandgate, designed to accommodate the wheelchair to which he soon expected to be confined. But this soon became irrelevant to the needs of its resilient and indeed hyperactive owner.

As his self-identification with the consumptive Eloi came to seem groundless, so did the calculations of planetary cooling reflected in both The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds lose their sway over contemporary scientific opinion. In The Interpretation of Radium (1908)—the book which led Wells to envisage the possibility of atomic warfare—Frederick Soddy wrote that ‘Our outlook on the physical universe has been permanently altered. We are no longer the inhabitants of a universe slowly dying from the physical exhaustion of its energy, but of a universe which has in the internal energy of its material components the means to rejuvenate itself perennially over immense periods of time’.25 Wells's switch shortly before the First World War from entropic pessimism to a position much closer to Soddy's thermonuclear optimism followed his discovery of the internal energy and potential for self-renewal of his own body, so that he was doubly removed from the outlook of the author of The Time Machine.


However anti-utopian its outcome, the Time Traveller's voyage confirms that a kind of utopia had been achieved in the ‘nearer ages’, when, for example, disease had been stamped out, the processes of natural decay slowed if not halted, and population growth brought under control. Nature had been subjugated—for a time (§4). There emerged the monumental civilisation whose buildings and landscapes still dominated the age of the Eloi and Morlocks. It is the Traveller's fate to chart the seemingly inevitable decline that followed once the human species had reached its zenith, or what the narrator terms the ‘manhood of the race’ (Epilogue). Pursuing Wells's deterministic hypothesis of a necessary downward curve in human fortunes, he is a symbolic figure embarking on the central quest of the scientific romance, the journey towards, and beyond, the ‘last man’.26

The Time Traveller is a variant on the heroes of nineteenth-century Gothic and romantic melodrama. He arrives in the future in the midst of a thunderstorm, but when he discovers that the Morlocks have removed his machine his elation gives way to a frenzy of despair. His violent emotionalism is reminiscent of Frankenstein—a literary model which Wells acknowledged27—and, since Mary Shelley's romance is subtitled The Modern Prometheus in allusion to Prometheus's legendary role as the creator of humanity, it is interesting that the Time Traveller has a still better claim to Promethean ancestry. The name Prometheus means ‘forethought’.28 Just as Prometheus was one of the Titans, the Traveller is identified with the race of ‘giants’ who preceded the Eloi and Morlocks and built the great palaces. The Eloi recognise his semi-divine status when they ask, at the moment of his arrival, if he has come from the sun (p. 39). He brings a box of matches with him, and when they run out he steals another box from the Palace of Green Porcelain. Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and brought it down to earth as a gift concealed in a stalk of fennel, to show his friendship for suffering humanity. But neither the frugivorous Eloi nor the half-blind Morlocks are fit recipients for the gift of fire. Future humanity has degenerated so much that the Traveller's matches are used only as purposeless toys, or in self-defence against the Morlocks. In the end his playing with fire causes reckless destruction including, it would seem, the death of Weena who is the one friend he has made in the new world.

Pursuing the imaginative logic of the Time Traveller's identification with Prometheus, we can come to a possible solution to the mystery of his disappearance on his second voyage. Can it be that—punished for his daring in setting out to discover the future in defiance of the gods—his fate is to remain bound to his machine, condemned to perpetual time-travelling just as Prometheus was bound to a rock and condemned to perpetual torture? All that we know is that the narrator's question, ‘Will he ever return?’, must be answered in the negative. A life of torture, too, was the fate of another famous figure of Greek legend, with whom the Traveller must also be identified: Oedipus, who answered the riddle of the Sphinx, which was the riddle of human life. What the Traveller instinctively fears as he looks into the Sphinx's sightless eyes is the death of humanity and his own inability to survive in a post-human world: ‘“I might seem some old-world savage animal … a foul creature to be incontinently slain”’ (§3). But he does not flinch from his self-appointed mission of traversing the valley of the shadow of death and reporting the Shape of Things to Come to the people of his own time: ‘“It is how the thing shaped itself to me, and as that I give it to you”’ (§10).


  1. Robert M. Philmus, ‘The Logic of “Prophecy” in The Time Machine’ in Bernard Bergonzi, ed., H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976), pp. 67-68.

  2. See, for example, The Time Machine, §§ 3 and 4; ‘How I Died’, p. 182.

  3. See Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie, The Time Traveller: The Life of H. G. Wells (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973), especially pp. 24, 121-24.

  4. Israel Zangwill, ‘Without Prejudice’, reprinted in Patrick Parrinder, ed., H. G. Wells: The Critical Heritage, pp. 40-42.

  5. Recent discussions of this question include those by Roslynn D. Haynes in H. G. Wells: Discoverer of the Future (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1980), p. 58, and by Harry M. Geduld in The Definitive ‘Time Machine’: A Critical Edition of H. G. Wells's Scientific Romance, ed. Geduld (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 96-97.

  6. The Definitive ‘Time Machine’, p. 118.

  7. See ibid., p. 120, n. 6.

  8. Geoffrey West, H. G. Wells: A Sketch for a Portrait, pp. 288-94.

  9. ‘The Chronic Argonauts’ and the ‘National Observer Time Machine’ are reprinted in The Definitive ‘Time Machine’, pp. 135-52 and 154-74 respectively.

  10. The Definitive ‘Time Machine’, p. 145.

  11. Henry Gee, ‘What's our line?’, London Review of Books, 16:2 (27 January 1994), p. 19.

  12. Geoffrey West, H. G. Wells: A Sketch for a Portrait, p. 61.

  13. See H. G. Wells, ‘Preface’, The Time Machine (New York: Random House, 1931), p. ix.

  14. Ibid., pp. ix-x.

  15. See H. G. Wells, The Discovery of the Future, p. 17, n. 6.

  16. ‘Fifty years per second’, because the dials of the Time Machine are calibrated in days, thousands of days, millions of days, and thousands of millions, and the Traveler reports that the ‘thousands hand was sweeping round as fast as the seconds hands of a watch’ (§11). If one complete revolution of the ‘thousands’ dial represents a million days, he is covering a million days a minute, or 46 years per second—but it would still take more than a week to traverse 30 million years. We may, of course, find the references to the dials highly implausible, especially as the time to be measured is not linear. If the dials measure terrestrial days, one must wonder how they cope with or allow for the slowing down of the terrestrial day to the point where a single solar revolution ‘seemed to stretch through centuries’ (§11)!

  17. Cf. William Bellamy, The Novels of Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy 1890-1910 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 221.

  18. H. G. Wells, ‘The Well at the World's End’, in H. G. Wells's Literary Criticism, p. 112.

  19. H. G. Wells, A Modern Utopia (London: Chapman & Hall, 1905), p. 7. Subsequent page references in text.

  20. This was the nineteenth-century name for what are now four separate museums clustered together in South Kensington: the Geological Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is to this Museum (not the district of London in which it is located) to which the Time Traveller refers when he describes the Palace of Green Porcelain as a ‘“latter-day South Kensington”’ (§8).

  21. The Time Traveller's discovery is that the fourth dimension is Time. In this he anticipates Einstein. The widespread popular view of the fourth dimension in the late nineteenth century was of an extra dimension of space, corresponding to the ‘spirit world’ and frequented by ghosts. See Michio Kaku, Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and The Tenth Dimension (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), especially p. 84.

  22. On two occasions his explanations make use of the contemporary anthropological concept of ‘“savage survivals”’ (§4).

  23. William Morris, ‘Looking Backward’, Commonweal (22 June 1889), p. 194.

  24. One influential expression of this view was Henry James's essay ‘The Art of Fiction’ (1884). See Henry James, Selected Literary Criticism, ed. Morris Shapira (London: Heinemann, 1963), p. 66.

  25. Frederick Soddy, The Interpretation of Radium: Being the Substance of Six Free Popular Experimental Lectures Delivered at the University of Glasgow, 3rd edn. (London: Murray, 1912), p. 248.

  26. On ‘last man’ fictions see Patrick Parrinder, ‘From Mary Shelley to The War of the Worlds; The Thames Valley Catastrophe’, in David Seed, ed., Anticipations: Essays on Early Science Fiction and Its Precursors (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995), pp. 58-74.

  27. See H. G. Wells, preface to The Scientific Romances of H. G. Wells (1933), reprinted in H. G. Wells's Literary Criticism, pp. 240, 241. Subsequent page references in text.

  28. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955), I, p. 148.

John S. Parrington (essay date October 1997)

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SOURCE: Parrington, John S. “The Time Machine: A Polemic on the Inevitability of Working-Class Liberation, and a Plea for a Socialist Solution to Late-Victorian Capitalist Exploitation.” Cahiers Victoriens et Edouardiens 46 (October 1997): 167-79.

[In the following essay, Parrington provides a sociopolitical interpretation of The Time Machine.]

H. G. Wells intended The Time Machine to be a polemic on the inevitability of a working-class rise to power and, an attempt to reveal why the achievement of revolutionary Socialism was necessary, as against Fabian parliamentary Socialism, the latter of which strives for Socialism without eliminating class struggle from society.

The Time Traveller's position in the book is interesting. He was a scientist of the Wellsian type in the sense that he was not a conventional late-Victorian inventor.

Throughout the story the reader is led to believe that the meetings held at the Time Traveller's home occurred not just in the two weeks described, but in several preceding weeks also. They were casual meetings in that different guests waded in and out of them without any apparent invitation or excuse. They were open, albeit to a select section of the community (i.e., the bourgeoisie, including a doctor, psychologist, provincial mayor, editor, etc.). The discussions were led by the Time Traveller himself and appeared to progress meeting by meeting, preparing the guests for what the Time Traveller revealed as his invention in the penultimate session.

It was in that session that the Time Traveller demonstrated his model Time Machine. Although the assembly generally considered the experiment hocus-pocus, the very act was a huge gamble. Why? Well, he did not only reveal the nature of his work, but he gave a demonstration of it to a group of potential Capitalists. To do so without having the Time Machine patented or without having previous guarantees of investment in his project seems extremely ingenuous. It was a security risk which put his experiment at the mercy of any spying scientific plagiarist who might have attended the meetings. In late-Victorian times this was unheard of and a more typical posture can be found in the actions of Griffin in The Invisible Man, who experiments on invisibility in secret for fear of losing his discovery to the senior professors around him.1 Wells's major criticism of the scientific world of his day was of their secrecy and scheming which led to militarism and war. The Time Traveller obviously did not subscribe to the scientific secrecy of his contemporaries. From this starting point, the Time Traveller's personality becomes apparent.

For a scientific mechanic, the Narrator reveals early in the book a strange invention made by the Time Traveller saying:

our chairs, being his patent, embraced and caressed us rather than submitted to be sat upon.2

A very strange invention by a man who strives to realise time travel! It seems that the Time Machine is not an end in itself. This is evidenced by the chairs. The Time Traveller makes things to improve human comfort. He reveals his secrets to the public rather than tender them out for maximum profit. His home is fitted with chairs to “embrace and caress” their users. This sounds like a man intent on advancing human comfort to the best of his ability, from chairs sat upon to societies to be lived in. Thus, his masterpiece is a Time Machine. What better way of maximising human comfort than by learning from future generations? Thus, when the Time Machine is built the Time Traveller chooses a revolutionary advance into the future rather than a reactionary descent into the past or, as Arnold Bennett puts it:

the Time Traveller goes forward, not into the dark backward and abysm.3

Such is the Time Traveller's motive for time travel.

What does this motive tell us? It can mean but one thing: the Time Traveller is a Socialist. However, he desires Socialism without believing in its advent. This is revealed at the end when the narrator states:

he, I know—for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made—thought but cheerlessly of the advancement of mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end

(TM [The Time Machine], 303)

The Time Traveller's attitude is such that any political commitment would be pointless. To create a world where all people would be equal would only be possible by going forward and learning from our descendants. In this way, the Time Traveller could return to his own time and use his acquired knowledge for progress. This attitude may seem naive but it is the one he holds before journeying into the future.

So we understand the position at the beginning of the book. A disillusioned Socialist has built a Time Machine with the ambition of making fundamental discoveries from the future in order to return to his own time and prevent human degeneration. This plot goes hand in hand with Wells's later warning:

human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.4

The Time Traveller is determined to obtain education in order to prevent human catastrophe.

Having determined the aims of the Time Traveller, we can now turn to his evolved perceptions of the social situation in the world of 802,701. On his arrival in the future, he quickly develops a Fabian Socialist critique of societal evolution. He anticipates, on his arrival in the year 802,701, that the people,

would be incredibly in front of us in knowledge, art, everything.

(TM, 226)

However, he learns otherwise when an Eloi asks him by sign whether he has come from the sun in the thunderstorm! This primitive intelligence, combined with the simplicity of their clothes, “their frail white limbs and fragile features” (TM, 226), make the Time Traveller revise his prejudgment. But despite the seeming lack of mental development made by the Eloi, the Time Traveller does not despair of humanity. His initial Fabian interpretation of the future remains and later, when he discovers the lack of private property and the abundance of collective living, he infers, “communism” (TM, 231). With this thought in his mind, he rapidly reassesses the world around him along that line of thinking:

Seeing the ease and security in which these people were living, I felt that this close resemblance of the sexes was after all what one would expect; for the strength of a man and the softness of a woman, the institution of the family, and the differentiation of the occupations are mere militant necessities of an age of physical force. Where population is balanced and abundant, much child-bearing becomes an evil rather than a blessing to the state; where violence comes but rarely and offspring are secure, there is … no necessity … for an efficient family, and the specialisation of the sexes with reference to their children's needs disappear.

(TM, 231)

It is clear from this passage that not only does the Time Traveller believe he is in a Socialist Utopia, but he also believes human evolution has proceeded beneficially for humanity. He is, in effect, drawing the equation that human evolution leads to Socialism. This again is a Fabian critique of the future: late-Victorian Capitalism need not be overthrown by revolution, as evolution will equalise society and create Socialism by design.

At this stage of the novel, therefore, Wells appears to be legitimising Fabian Socialist gradualism within a Capitalist society. The Time Traveller breaks off from his narrative in order to say more or less as much:

The science of our time has attacked but a little department of human disease, but, even so, it spreads its operations very steadily and persistently. Our agriculture and horticulture destroy a weed just here and there and cultivate perhaps a score or so of wholesome plants, leaving the greater number to fight out a balance as they can. We improve our favourite plants and animals … gradually by selective breeding … We improve them gradually, because our ideals are vague and tentative, and our knowledge is very limited; because nature, too, is shy and slow in our clumsy hands. Some day all this will be better organised, and still better … The whole world will be intelligent, educated, and co-operating; things will move faster and faster towards the subjugation of nature. In the end, wisely and carefully we shall readjust the balance of animal and vegetable life to suit our human needs.

(TM, 233)

This legitimisation of Fabianism, by extension, declares redundant the need for revolution as a means of replacing individualist society with collectivist society.

This is the situation by chapter four of the book. The reader is lured into a false security with futurity. One is made to believe that all is rosy in the garden of 802,701. The Time Traveller throws our vision of the future into chaos however on the last page of chapter four when he declares, concerning his theory of Eloi life:

very simple was my explanation, and plausible enough—as most wrong theories are!

(TM, 236)

Having revealed the Time Traveller's first impressions of the future, we must now analyse his revised vision as dictated by the new circumstances which challenge his applied Fabianism. In chapter five, the Time Traveller makes the fundamental discovery of the book. After encountering a Morlock and pondering over its significance, he declares:

gradually, the truth dawned on me: that man had not remained one species, but had differentiated into two distinct animals: that my graceful children of the Upper-world were not the sole descendants of our generation, but that this bleached, obscene, nocturnal Thing, which had flashed before me, was also heir to all ages.

(TM, 251)

With this discovery, the Time Traveller's Utopian image of the future crashes down before him. He ponders thus:

What, I wondered, was this Lemur doing in my scheme of a perfectly balanced organization? How was it related to the indolent serenity of the beautiful Upper-worlders?

(TM, 252)

Having questioned the future in this way, a void exists in the Time Traveller's reasoning. But once he has discovered the Morlocks' subterranean habitation, which drives him to his logical conclusion:

What so natural, then, as to assume that it was in this artificial Underworld that such work as was necessary to the comfort of the daylight race was done?

(TM, 253)

With this discovery, the realisation of a class-divided inheritor-society occurs to the Time Traveller. By considering late-Victorian Britain, he deduces continued Capitalist divergence between the classes. The working class situation grew thus:

Proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position … Even now there are existing circumstances to point that way. There is a tendency to utilize underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilization; … there are underground workrooms and restaurants, and they increase and multiply. Evidently, I thought, this tendency had increased till industry had gradually lost its birthright in the sky. I mean that it had gone deeper and deeper into larger and even larger underground factories, spending a still increasing amount of its time therein … Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth?

(TM, 253)

The Time Traveller describes the ruling class evolution thus:

The exclusive tendency of richer people—due, no doubt, to the increasing refinement of their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor—is already leading to the closing, in their interest, of considerable portions of the surface of the land … And this same widening gulf—which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process and the increased facilities for and temptations towards refined habits on the part of the rich—will make that exchange between class and class, that promotion by intermarriage which at present retards the splitting of our species along lines of social stratification, less and less frequent.

(TM, 254)

Having determined the Victorian seeds of futurity's evils, he defines the end product of Victorian exploitative Capitalism in the following terms:

So in the end you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below-ground the Have-nots, the workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour. Once they were there, they would no doubt have to pay rent, and not a little of it, for the ventilation of their caverns; and if they refused, they would starve or be suffocated for their arrears. Such of them as were so constituted as to be miserable and rebellious would die, and, in the end, the balance being permanent, the survivors would become as well adapted to the conditions of underground life, and as happy in their way, as the Upper-world people were to theirs.

(TM, 254)

The quotation of these lengthy passages has been necessary to make clear Wells's main argument of the book. The underground drudgery of the Morlocks and the relative luxury of the upper-world Eloi is a result of the continuation of late-Victorian Capitalism. The Capitalists' ownership of the land has driven the workers below ground and exploited their labour through the threat of suffocation and starvation. Throughout the rest of the book there is no evidence to suggest that this Capitalist evolution, as assumed by the Time Traveller, was wrong. The means by which class-division has continued is undeniably through the exploitation as described by the Time Traveller. However, Capitalist greed and individualism do not carry the day and the world of 802,701 has a curious twist in its tail, as the Time Traveller explains in the next section of the book.

The Time Traveller finally discovers the truth about the social order of 802,701 in chapter seven. He realises that:

the Upper-world people might once have been the favoured aristocracy, and the Morlocks their mechanical servants; but that had long since passed away.

(TM, 263)

The Time Traveller theorises that, although the Eloi may once have dominated the Morlocks, the old adage that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ still applies and, as the Time Traveller explains:

at some time in the long-ago of human decay the Morlocks, food had run short … Even now man is far less discriminating and exclusive in his food than he was … His prejudice against human flesh is no deep-seated instinct … These Eloi were mere fatted cattle which the ant-like Morlocks preserved and preyed upon—probably saw to the breeding of.

(TM, 269)

Thus, from a position of advantage and privilege, the Capitalist descendants, the Eloi, have degenerated, through their mood of complacency, and the struggling masses, the Morlocks, asserted their power and reversed the status quo of late-Victorian society. Or, as the Time Traveller puts it, society has “committed suicide” (TM, 286). The way in which the Morlocks asserted their power was explained thus by the Time Traveller:

As I see it, the Upper-world man had drifted towards this feeble prettiness, and the Under-world to mere mechanical industry … The Underworld being in contact with machinery, which, however perfect, still needs some little thought outside habit, had probably retained perforce rather more initiative, and when other meat failed them, they turned to what old habit had hitherto forbidden.

(TM, 287)

So, from late-Victorian Capitalism the world has continued, making no efforts to level out the disproportionate spread of wealth. Capitalism was perpetuated by the ruling class and the exploited masses were left to live in conditions of poverty. This exploitative progression continued, it seems, for many thousands of years. Eventually however, the ruling class, or Eloi, lost all ability to manage the world due to the perfect nature of their exploitation. The Morlocks became unable to throw off their yoke and eventually came to accept the divisions of society. As the year 802,701 shows, that division developed to such an extent that humanity came to resemble two different species. However, Wells reveals that the exploitation of the Morlocks by the Eloi was doomed to fail. The repressive nature of the Eloi developed to such an extent that the Morlocks could not even maintain the basic lifestyle they came to know. Starvation occurred hand in hand with the Morlocks' development of oxygenation of their subterranean habitats. Once the Morlocks released themselves from dependence on the Eloi for oxygen they became, in effect, the ruling class. For the clothing and food which the Eloi drove the Morlocks to produce thus ceased to be obtainable under exploitative conditions. Although the Morlocks could not return to living on the earth's surface, they could turn the tables on the Eloi and in turn become exploiters. Michael Coren supports this point when he writes:

the [Morlock], forced to toil beneath the surface like its proletarian ancestors, has reversed the class equation and feeds on the flesh of the effete surface-dwellers.5

Hence the Morlocks became farmers of the Eloi and used their upperworld cousins as a readily-available food supply. It is this situation that the Time Traveller discovers. The point thus to be deduced from the story is that the working class is the inevitable inheritor of worldly power. Under Capitalism, the gruesome expropriation of the ruling class will occur as the Time Traveller describes. The working class's inevitable rise under a Capitalist system, however, does not herald the end of the need for a Socialist struggle. This is made evident by the last section of the book, where the Time Traveller travels on to the dusk of life on earth. By depicting the end of the world as being empty of human life, Wells is demonstrating the ultimate failings of a Capitalist society. Within a Capitalist society there is, by definition, a struggle between the Haves and the Have-nots. In a situation where that struggle is perpetuated by the maintenance of an exploitative society, only immediate class interests are protected and not longterm human stability. Hence, in The Time Machine, class struggle, through the continuation of a Capitalist system, has provoked the short-term exploitation of one class by another and not the long-term guarantee of human and earthly protection. In the book, human extinction is inevitable because an exploitative society is maintained. Michael Sherborne is therefore wrong when he writes that:

the new world … is a savage mockery of the ill-conceived promises of Marxism.6

Rather, the vision of the year 802,701 highlights the need for Marx's proletarian revolution and reveals the inherent flaw in Fabian Socialism. This is where the attractions of revolutionary Socialism covertly enter the story. Although not verbalised by the Time Traveller, the inference from the book is that while Capitalism can only lead to human disintegration, true Socialism (i.e., a world devoid of class, racial or gender inequality and conflict) will lead to long-term comfort instead of short-term antagonism. With long-term planning, the end of the world can be anticipated and action to prevent human extinction can be taken. Although the Time Traveller reveals to his guests that the world is doomed if it follows its present course, there is nothing in the book to suggest that the future is fixed and unalterable. Indeed, Wells was later to write that:

if the world does not please you, you can change it … You may change it into something sinister and angry, to something appalling, but it may be that you will change it to something brighter, something more agreeable.7

The belief in a Socialist solution to societal degeneration is inferred and therefore given hope by one character at one time in the book. That character is the Narrator and the time when he offers humanity hope is in the epilogue. The passage reads thus:

[The Time Traveller] thought but cheerlessly of the advancement of mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end. If that is so, it remains for us to live as if it were not so.

(TM, 303)

“It remains for us to live as if it were not so.” It is with these words that Wells transforms the novel from one of uncompromising pessimism to a symbol of hope for the future. The book represents a warning to humanity, not a definite vision of things to come. This, we believe, is where Patrick Parrinder errs when he writes:

The Time Machine is an attack on Utopia.8

The book is actually, in the words of Brian Murray:

the first in a long line of Wellsian attacks on the kind of crude industrial capitalism he watched operate in the closing decades of the nineteenth century,9

and shows a vision of how things could go. This interpretation was supported by Wells himself when he declared that the book was about:

the responsibility of men to mankind. Unless humanity hangs together, unless all strive for the species as a whole, we shall end in disaster.10

Finally, we could draw an interesting parallel with a novel reflecting a similar hope. In the latter stages of Charles Dickens's “A Christmas Carol”, Ebenezer Scrooge is taken to a graveyard by the Ghost of Christmas yet to Come and is directed towards an untended grave. The passage reads as follows: ‘Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,’ said Scrooge, ‘answer me one question. Are these the shadows of things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?’

Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.

‘Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,’ said Scrooge. ‘But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!’

The Spirit was immovable as ever.

Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, EBENEZER SCROOGE …

‘No, Spirit! Oh, no, no.’

The finger still was there.

‘Spirit!’ he cried, tight clutching at its robe, ‘hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope!’

For the first time the hand appeared to shake.

‘Good Spirit,’ he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: ‘Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!’

The kind hand trembled.

‘… I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!’11

The message in this passage can easily translate into that conveyed in The Time Machine. The figure of Scrooge can symbolise late-Victorian Capitalism; the grave, future society; the Ghost of Christmas yet to Come, the Time Machine. Scrooge asks:

Why show me this, if I am past all hope!

(CT, 67)

The same question could be put to Wells regarding the future. Why did Wells show us his bleak picture of the future if it cannot be altered? Wells did believe that the shadows of the future revealed in The Time Machine may be altered by a change in social relationships. That change is offered by Socialism and it is Socialism that Wells intended to propagate—by highlighting the degenerative effect of late-Victorian Capitalism. What Dickens expressed regarding the individual, Wells expressed about society: with the necessary willpower, change can occur. This is what the Narrator, at the end of The Time Machine, means when he says, regarding the Time Traveller's pessimistic prophecy:

it remains for us to live as if it were not so.

The attitude of the Narrator is the attitude of Wells and the idea that society can be changed is the cornerstone message of the book.

Although things have changed between 1895 and today, the basic ruling principles of society are the same. Injustice and inequality remain. Racism and international exploitation as well as class division exist today as strongly, if not more so, than 100 years ago. Since The Time Machine was published, humanity has lost 100 years and the Socialist societal reconstruction of the world still remains as a job undone. The warnings of The Time Machine can aid us in the battle to fight injustice and we believe it was this message that H. G. Wells had in mind when he wrote this novel.


  1. H. G. Wells, The Invisible Man, The Secret Places of the Heart and God the Invisible King (London: Odhams Press, Undated), 79.

  2. H. G. Wells, The Wheels of Chance & The Time Machine (London: Dent 1935), 201.

  3. A. Bennett quoted in Harris Wilson (ed.), Arnold Bennett & H. G. Wells: A Record of a Personal and a Literary Friendship (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1960), 274.

  4. H. G. Wells, The Outline of History, Volume II (London: Cassell, 1925), 725.

  5. Michael Coren, The Invisible Man: The Life and Liberties of H. G. Wells (London: Bloomsbury, 1993), 50.

  6. Michael Draper, H. G. Wells (London: MacMillan, 1987), 38.

  7. H. G. Wells, The History of Mr. Polly (London: Longmans, 1965), 184.

  8. Patrick Parrinder (ed.,) The Wellsian, (N° 4). P. Parrinder “H. G. Wells's Journey Through Death”, 1981, 19.

  9. Brian Murray, H. G. Wells (London: Continuum, 1990), 90.

  10. H. G. Wells quoted in David Smith: H. G. Wells: Desperately Mortal (Yale, 1986), 49.

  11. Charles Dickens, Christmas Tales (London: Michael O'Mara Books, 1990), 67.

Jan Hollin (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Hollin, Jan. “The Time Machine and the Ecotopian Tradition.” Wellsian 22 (1999): 47-54.

[In the following essay, Hollin discusses The Time Machine as an ecotopian novel.]

In the following I should like to investigate the relationship between H. G. Wells's The Time Machine and utopian romances and utopian novels that envision an ecologically sound society and could thus be called ecotopian. I hope to demonstrate that The Time Machine is inter-linked with this literary genre because Wells addresses problems that lie at the very centre of the ecotopian discourse.

I would like to start by explaining what I mean by ecotopian writing because “ecotopian” is certainly not a widely used and well-established term. According to Krishan Kumar, William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890) can be considered as the “prototype” of ecotopian literature.1 Contrary to technocratic anthropocentric attempts at subduing nature, Morris and his successors expressed reverence for the beauty of nature and showed the dependence of the individual on it as a source of physical regeneration and mental inspiration.

The term “ecotopian” is derived from the novels Ecotopia (1975) and Ecotopia Emerging (1981) by the American writer Ernest Callenbach. The societies described in ecotopian writing oscillate between two poles. On the one side, unrealistically harmonious human communities have transformed the earth into a paradisaic garden. On the other side, subsistent agrarian societies, which are more or less post-industrial, attempt to use only renewable resources. As far as the form is concerned, the ecotopian genre can be seen as an amalgamation of different genre influences that all meet in the author's attempt to create the vision of an ecologically sound society. Such a mixture can already be seen in News from Nowhere as is indicated in the subtitle in which William Morris calls his book a utopian romance.

In 1907, Robert Blatchford published The Sorcery Shop, which can be seen as a follow-up ecotopian romance to News from Nowhere. Robert Graves' Seven Days in New Crete (1949) and Aldous Huxley's last novel, Island (1962), could be seen as further English examples of the ecotopian genre. Furthermore, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915), Austin Wright's Islandia (1942 posthumously), Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and Kim Stanley Robinson's Pacific Edge (1988) could be understood as American representatives of the ecotopian tradition.

These works of fiction share three characteristics which represent the central classifying elements of the ecotopian literary genre. First of all, ecotopias can be understood as counter-utopias to technocratic utopias that try to solve the problems of human society through technological progress and administrative improvement. Morris's News from Nowhere, for example, was written as a personal response after reading Bellamy's Looking Backward. Linked to this concept of an intertextual motivation is the second element that all ecotopian writing shares. It can be seen as an attempt to overcome the modern but also the postmodern feeling of having reached a cul-de-sac in human society. William Morris explained his reason for struggling to turn Nowhere into reality with a statement which may stand as the ecotopian motto: “So there I was in for a fine pessimistic end of life, if it had not somehow dawned on me that amidst all this filth of civilization the seeds of a great change, what we others call Social-Revolution, were beginning to germinate.”2

Thirdly, I would see ecotopian romances and novels as a romanticizing of the utopian novel because nature and love build the very core of the ecotopian vision. In addition to this, counter-cultural notions of the Romantic Movement bear particular importance in the ecotopian vision of a better world. Shelley's propagation of vegetarianism and De Quincey's description of mind-expanding drugs, for instance, find their counterpart in ecotopian writing. Whereas traditionally utopian novels concentrate on the best way of adapting nature to human demands, ecotopian endeavours try to overcome such an anthropocentric approach and try to find a non-domineering position for humanity in the great chain-of-being. Since Thomas More's Utopia love has played a relatively unimportant role in the utopian discourse. Contrary to this, love stands at the centre of ecotopia. Love is seen as the very life force that makes life worth living and humanity's journey through the ages worth undertaking.

Contrary to pastoral and Arcadian literary forms, ecotopian writing does not delete industrialization and its effects from its fictitious macrocosm in an escapist way but aims at representing—more or less—realistic ways of transforming the world. Literary vraisemblance is the foundation of the ecotopian vision. This explains why the ecotopian aeon is designed as a catalogue of proposals open for discussion by the readers rather than as an eschatological prophecy of a Golden Age.3 Ecotopian novels could thus be seen as a constructive answer to Karl Popper's criticism of utopian blueprints.

Following a central insight of ecology, ecotopian writing assumes growth and decay as the central processes of life on earth and thus overcomes the conceptual limitations of the western progressive paradigm in which the traditional utopian novel is rooted. Particularly after the Second World War, ecotopian writing seems to have followed the guideline which H. G. Wells set up for utopias after Charles Darwin: “the Modern Utopia must not be static but kinetic.”4 This might explain why, with the exception of feminist utopias, ecological utopias are the only literary utopias that have survived the rise of dystopian and the decline of eutopian literature after the Second World War.

To what extent is this ecotopian genre relevant for reading H. G. Wells's The Time Machine? First of all the prototype of the ecotopian genre, News from Nowhere, seems to be of particular importance because it represents a major influence on The Time Machine. Wells himself tells us in his Experiment in Autobiography that for him as a student Morris was one of the most impressive intellectual figures of the day:

Socialism was then a splendid new-born hope … Wearing our red ties to give zest to our frayed and shabby costumes we went great distances through the gas-lit winter streets of London and by the sulphureous Underground Railway, to hear and criticize and cheer and believe in William Morris, Bernard Shaw, Hubert Bland, Graham Wallas and all the rest of them, who were to lead us to that millennial world.5

Even in his preface to A Modern Utopia in 1905, Wells points out that it would be wonderful if we could follow Morris to his Nowhere. But at the same time Wells emphasizes that he finds Morris's utopian design utterly unrealistic.6

Morris's vision of a better world, News from Nowhere, was first published in The Commonweal, the weekly paper of the Socialist League, in 39 instalments from January to October 1890 and came out in book form a year later. News from Nowhere was a major literary success and influenced The Time Machine in manifold ways. For Patrick Parrinder, Morrisian influence can be detected mainly in the setting of The Time Machine:

Morris's pastoral, idyllic society is centred on Hammersmith, while the society of the Eloi is centred on Richmond; both are placed in a verdant parkland by the River Thames. Morris's narrator learns the history of his society by visiting the British Museum, while the Time Traveller journeys to the Palace of Green Porcelain, an abandoned science museum near Banstead. […] On the evening of his first day with the Eloi the Time Traveller climbs to a hilltop, surveys the view and exclaims “Communism!” to himself: the Communism referred to must be the pastoral utopia of Morris and More, rather than the revolutionary industrial society of Marx and Engels.7

The thoughts of the Time Traveller when arriving in the future and his interpretation of the situation of the English future make one think that the Time Traveller had finished reading News from Nowhere just shortly before embarking on his journey through the ages. In a sense, the Time Traveller seems to have arrived in a post-Nowherian England. Right after stopping in the year 802,701 the Time Traveller is overwhelmed by the impression that England has been transformed into a garden with beautiful, delicate inhabitants. The warm climate that the traveller experiences recalls the romance-like Mediterranean weather of Nowhere. The disappearance of houses and cottages and the demeanour of the inhabitants give the Time Traveller the opinion that he has entered a communist age.

Almost immediately after arriving, this positive impression is mixed with negative sensation. The people of the future seem to have lost the interest characteristic of Homo sapiens. Whereas William Guest arrived in an England where the filthy capitalist past is still a living memory among older Nowherians, Wells's Time Traveller arrives, it seems, at a post-Nowherian England where innumerable generations of living the good life in an English paradise have transformed the English into an infantile lot with almost animal-like stupidity. Experiencing this change turns the Victorian visitor into a cultural pessimist who laments the decline of civilization: “This has ever been the fate of energy in security; it takes to art and to eroticism, and then come languor and decay.”8

While the Time Traveller is still debating in interior monologues whether living in paradise is such a desirable lot for the human race, traces of the Morlocks and their actions are starting to deconstruct his first reading of the culture that he has entered through time travel. In this sense, it can be said that Wells's description of the Eloi mirrors Morris's merry Nowherians of the future, but by adding the cannibalistic Morlocks to the picture Wells satirizes Morris's idyllic vision of a peaceful post-industrial England of the future in a sarcastic way.—Actually, I think that ‘sarcastic’ is a very appropriate adjective in this context if you think about the etymology of the word.

The Time Machine can thus be read as H. G. Wells's attempt at pointing out the unrealistic parts in William Morris's utopian design: a Nowherian paradise on earth is not possible. For the Time Traveller it seems debatable whether such a society without toil and pain but also without challenges is at all desirable. In a sense the Time Traveller can be seen as a person taking up the line of argument that the old grumbler in News from Nowhere follows. The major part of News from Nowhere is a panegyric on the new utopian world; the old way of life is harshly criticized. It is only in the last third of the romance that we are confronted with a figure who is discontented with life in Nowhere: Ellen's grandfather, who belongs to the group of those grumbling about the new society. He is bored by the epoch of rest that he has to live in. He finds this earthly paradise without competition dull: “I think one may do more with one's life than sitting on a damp cloud and singing hymns.”9 The praiser of past times believes that Guest's age, full of struggle, was much more exciting and tells the visitor, “you are brisker and more alive, because you have not wholly got rid of competition.”10

In The Sorcery Shop Robert Blatchford follows Morris's utopian vision uncritically and restricts himself to adding decorous details like avid propagation for vegetarianism to the ecotopian picture. This might explain why Laurence Thompson comments about The Sorcery Shop in his biography of Robert Blatchford: “It is the dying voice of William Morris in a world thrilling to the new voice of H. G. Wells.”11 It seems though as if Robert Blatchford had sensed the epigonal anachronism that underlies his utopian romance and tried to update his vision of a better society by evoking the name of his famous contemporary: Nathaniel Fry, the wizard who in The Sorcery Shop acts as a cicerone to the ecotopian Manchester of the future, introduces himself as an artist who works for the company Wells and Wells.12

In contrast to Blatchford, later ecotopian writing takes up Wells's criticism of Morris. In Seven Days in New Crete Robert Graves demonstrates, just like H. G. Wells in The Time Machine, the possible danger of stagnation that an ecotopian society has to face. Furthermore, Graves illustrates why a fully harmonious society, a paradise, is not possible on earth. To quote the argument of the Old Raja in Aldous Huxley's ecotopian novel Island:

One third, more or less, of all the sorrow […] is unavoidable. It is the sorrow inherent in the human condition, the price we must pay for being sentient and self-conscious organisms, aspirants to liberation, but subject to the laws of nature and under orders to keep on marching, through irreversible time, through a world wholly indifferent to our well-being, towards decrepitude and the certainty of death.13

The same kind of anti-Morrisian realism is characteristic of the experience of the Time Traveller. The insight he gains through time travel goes beyond the knowledge that death is certain for everybody. He has experienced the end not only of mankind but also of life on earth. The Time Traveller is too puzzled and too overwhelmed by his experience to ponder how one should deal with the insight that all human endeavours seem so futile and vain in the end. He is so fascinated by his experience, in a sense, so addicted to time travel that he leaves the Victorian age after collecting a few items that he hopes to find helpful on his journey. This explains why writing down the story remains as a task for the narrator and not for the Time Traveller. It is also the narrator who tries to assess what has happened by adding an epilogue to the account of the Time Traveller. The tale of the future has somewhat sobered the narrator from utopian optimism but the flowers that Weena gave to the Time Traveller remain as symbols of the ecotopian credo of love. These flowers, to quote from the interpretation by the narrator, “witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.”14


  1. Cf. Krishan Kumar, Utopianism (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1991), p. 103: “Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia (1975) appears to have named the form; but, as with the feminist utopia, the essence of the ecological utopia was presented much earlier, in William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890).”

  2. William Morris, “How I became a Socialist”, Political Writings of William Morris, ed. A. L. Morton (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1973), p. 245.

  3. Cf. For instance Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston (Berkeley: Banyan Tree Books, 1975), p. 135: “… but evidently the Ecotopian revolution, whatever else it may have accomplished, has not touched the basic miseries of the human condition.” And p. 144: “Still, it is doubtful if Ecotopians are happier than Americans. It seems likely that difference ways of life involve losses that balance the gains, and gains that balance the losses. Perhaps it is only that Ecotopians are happy, and miserable, in different ways from ourselves.”

  4. H. G. Wells, A Modern Utopia (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967), p. 5. Cf. Also Bülent Somay, “Towards an Open-Ended Utopia”, Science-Fiction Studies 11 (March 1984), pp. 25-38.

  5. E. P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (New York: Pantheon, 1976), pp. 552-3.

  6. Wells, A Modern Utopia, p. 7: “Were we free to have our untrammel[l]ed desire, I suppose we should follow Morris to his Nowhere, we should change the nature of man and the nature of things together; we should make the whole race wise, tolerant, noble, perfect—wave our hands to a splendid anarchy, every man doing as it pleases him, and none pleased to do evil, in a world as good as its essential nature, as ripe and sunny, as the world before the Fall. But that golden age, that perfect world, comes out into the possibilities of space and time. In space and time the pervading Will to Live sustains for evermore a perpetuity of aggressions.”

  7. Patrick Parrinder, “The Time Machine: H. G. Wells's Journey through Death”, The Wellsian, 4 (1981), p. 20. See also “News from Nowhere, The Time Machine and the Break-Up of Classical Realism”, Science-Fiction Studies, 3.3 (1976), pp. 265-74, and Robert M. Philmus, “‘A Story of Days to Come’ and News from Nowhere: H. G. Wells as a Writer of Anti-Utopian Fiction”, English Literature in Transition, 30.4 (1987), pp. 450-5.

  8. H. G. Wells, The Time Machine (London: Dent, 1978), p. 38.

  9. William Morris, News from Nowhere, ed. James Redmond (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), p. 130.

  10. Morris, News from Nowhere, p. 128. Cf. my article, “The Old Grumbler at Runnymede”, Journal of the William Morris Society, 10.2 (Spring 1993), pp. 17-21.

  11. Laurence Thompson, Robert Blatchford: Portraits of an Englishman (London: Victor Gollancz, 1951), p. 184.

  12. Robert Blatchford, The Sorcery Shop: An Impossible Romance (London: The Clarion Press, 1907), pp. 5-6.

  13. Aldous Huxley, Island (London: Grafton, 1976), p. 99.

  14. Wells, The Time Machine, p. 105.

Martin T. Willis (essay date July 1999)

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SOURCE: Willis, Martin T. “Edison as Time Traveler: H. G. Wells's Inspiration for his First Scientific Character.” Science Fiction Studies 26, no. 2 (July 1999): 284-94.

[In the following essay, Willis contends that Thomas Edison could be the inspiration for the character of the Time Traveler in The Time Machine.]

Critics of H. G. Wells's The Time Machine have reached no conclusions about the character of, or inspiration for, the Time Traveler. Opinions differ greatly as to the personality of this central figure, with critics forming three distinct groups: those who see the Time Traveler as a poor example of the late Victorian scientist, those who view him as a scientific Everyman, and those who find him a reflection either of Wells himself or of some mythic precedent. Israel Zangwill, in a critique that appeared soon after the publication of the novel (1895), reflects the opinions of the first of these groups, arguing that the Time Traveler “behaves exactly like the hero of a commonplace sensational novel, with his frenzies of despair and his appeals to fate” (qtd. in Parrinder 40). A sizeable proportion of contemporary criticism agrees with this view. Robert J. Begiebing notes that Wells's hero is “a kind of Trickster figure, a seeming “‘quack’ and magician” (203) rather than a scientist; and John Batchelor defines the Time Traveler as “an ordinary, anonymous middle-class person” (9).

Obversely, Bernard Bergonzi—deservedly a well-regarded critic of Wells's work—suggests that the Time Traveler may at first appear as a sober bourgeois but remembers that “he is, after all, a late-Victorian scientist with a keen interest in technology” (55). John Huntington also places greater emphasis on the actions of the Time Traveler than on initial impressions, highlighting the club-making episode as indicative of an “ability to do more than serve machines the way the Morlocks do, but to improvise and invent” (40). Merritt Abrash obliquely lends his support to this critical position when he notes that “science is [the Time Traveler's] only topic of conversation” (5), while Brian Murray is outspoken in arguing that “The Time Machine features a central character, the ‘Time Traveler,’ who is not a ghoul; he is congenial, refined—precisely the sort of figure that Sir Richard Gregory had in mind when he praised Wells's ability to present “scientific workers” as “human beings” and not as the travesties in which they figure in novels and romances written without his intimate knowledge of them and their impulses” (Murray 88).

There remains a third view of the Time Traveler, however, one that seeks mythic or other models for this complex character. David Ketterer was the first critic to recognize the hero's mythological dimensions in The Time Machine: “It is tempting to identify him, by analogy at least, with H. G. Wells. However that may be, the analogue that Wells himself supplies is Oedipus” (340). Ketterer defends his interpretation by citing the similarities of the riddle, the image of the sphinx, the Time Traveler's limp, and the mythological allusions of the novel's conclusion. Begiebing likewise notes a mythical aspect to the central figure of Wells's novel, although he does not link the Time Traveler to a specific mythic or literary prototype. More generically, Begiebing believes that the Time Traveler “exhibits at least three characteristics of the primordial heroic figure” (202). Harry M. Geduld pursues Ketterer's suggestion that Wells himself can be found in the Time Traveler's character, suggesting that “a degree of self-idealization also seems evident in his depiction of the spare and solitary scientist of The Time Machine, but we must be extremely wary of any elaborate identification of the Time Traveler and H. G. Wells” (4). Brian Murray's criticism is more encompassing, agreeing with each of these critics in turn: “The Time Traveler stands for much that Wells would consistently praise: he is resourceful, intrepid, and intensely curious about the world he occupies; he is then linked to a long line of literary heroes, to Ulysses and Aeneas, bravely facing a series of hard tests and gaining wisdom as he goes” (89).

Disagreement among critics, then, is rife; and different interpretations of the Time Traveler may mark the work even of single commentators. There is consensus, however, on the protagonist of the short story that gave Wells the impetus for The Time Machine. Dr Nebogipfel, hero of “The Chronic Argonauts,” is commonly branded a poorly executed, quasi-magical figure whose necromantic leanings override and negate his scientific sensibilities and reduce the effectiveness of the story as a whole. As Bernard Bergonzi writes:

Dr. Nebogipfel, though supposedly a scientist and F.R.S., is a strange character to have been produced by the keen young student who had studied under Huxley. In fact, he has very little to do with the atmosphere of progressive thinking and intellectual inquiry that had characterized the Royal College of Science in the eighties … and a great deal to do with a literary tradition exemplified by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Stevenson's Dr Jekyll. Stevenson's story had appeared in 1886, two years before Wells' romance. Nebogipfel is the scientist as magician or alchemist, rather than the sober investigator of the physical world, and substantially the same type is to recur in Wells' fiction as Dr Moreau, and Griffin, the Invisible Man. Nebogipfel, like Frankenstein, is of a solitary and secretive disposition. To this extent, too, he corresponds to the contemporary aesthetic ideal of the artist who must necessarily be isolated and suffering before he can create.


Roslynn D. Haynes likewise views Dr Nebogipfel as a derivative of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, physically as well as symbolically: “Dr Nebogipfel of “The Chronic Argonauts” seems at first to be merely an exaggerated alchemist figure, his face that of the sunken-eyed fanatic, his demeanour reminiscent of Frankenstein” (197). John Batchelor, too, emphasizes literary precedent when, in terminology similar to Haynes, he points out that “Dr. Nebogipfel seems part demon, part alchemist, an uneasily jocular descendant of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and of Dr. Faustus” (9).

For the majority of critics, then, Nebogipfel and the Time Traveler have little in common as characters, despite the connection between “The Chronic Argonauts” and The Time Machine. Even critics who do not believe the Time Traveler is representative of the Victorian scientist still see a significant difference between the magician and trickster of the novel and the necromantic alchemist of the earlier story. The presumed disparity between the two protagonists is, however, illusory. Dr Nebogipfel and the Time Traveler—as well as the versions of these figures that appear in the interim Time Machine narratives—are far more closely connected than previous commentary has allowed. The continuity among the different protagonists is provided, I shall argue, by one historical figure: Thomas Edison. It was Edison who inspired H. G. Wells in creating the Time Traveler and all his prototypes.

While such a claim has not been made before with regard to Wells's writings, Edison did inspire other works of science fiction towards the end of the nineteenth century. The most important of these are Garrett Serviss's Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898), which can be categorized as a utopian version of Wells's own (largely dystopian) The War of the Worlds (1898), and Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's L'Eve Future (1886). The latter is the more interesting of the two for my purposes, for it characterizes Edison not only as a scientist and inventor but also as a figure of contemporary mythology, tied as closely to a necromantic as to a scientific tradition. The importance of this double image of Edison will be made clear as the present argument progresses. It is sufficient to highlight that writers of fiction were interested in Thomas Edison during the late 1800s, although Wells's own interest in Edison has not yet been remarked.

Towards the end of his career, Wells's knowledge of Edison is not in doubt. In The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1932), Wells wrote enthusiastically of Edison's contribution to science and human endeavor generally, suggesting that “his was certainly the most ingenious mind that has ever devoted itself to the commercial application of science” (454). Furthermore, in a phrase that could as easily be applied to the Time Traveler as to the American inventor, Wells argues that Edison was “driven by an indefatigable curiosity” (455). While this late work is useful in highlighting Wells's appreciation of Edison's character and inventions, it does not, of course, go any way towards proving that the younger Wells—the Wells who wrote “The Chronic Argonauts” and The Time Machine—had any detailed knowledge of Edison's work or any intention of drawing on Edison in creating his fictional characters. For evidence of this, it is necessary to turn to Edison's career in the 1880s and 1890s and to what Wells may have known of it at that time.

During the years from 1888 to 1895—from Wells's first conception of The Time Machine and, logically, of the Time Traveler, to the published version of the novel1—Thomas Edison was at the peak of his career. In this seven-year span he recorded hundreds of patents, improved his revolutionary phonograph, and extended the use of electric lighting into the public sphere.2 As Ronald W. Clark states in his biography of Edison, “between 1880 and 1890 Edison crossed that real but unidentifiable frontier which divides the famous from the celebrities” (149). The U.S. popular press had dubbed him the greatest living American and he was undoubtedly the world's best known living inventor. Edison recorded his first patent at twenty-one, earned and lost several fortunes during a long career, invented the first instruments to record and reproduce the human voice, brought electric light into homes world-wide, made the first piece of cinema complete with sound and movement, and continued to work at least a sixteen-hour day almost to the point of his death in 1931 at the age of 84. During the late nineteenth century, he was viewed as the ultimate Victorian hero, displaying all the qualities so exalted at that time, as encapsulated by Thomas Hughes: “[Edison] was known to Americans and to the world as a plain-speaking man of inventive genius who, through self-education and discipline, applied his talents to the solution of practical problems of substance and intrinsic interest” (3).

Despite this aggrandizement, public perceptions of Edison were not entirely homogenous. While the general layman would certainly have respected Edison's scientific pragmatism, a segment of the population regarded him with some superstition. The rural community of Menlo Park, where Edison founded a laboratory, feared the scientific experiments taking place almost on their own doorsteps. They called him “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” a title that, fueled by the popular media, became synonymous with the practical inventor. The irony of these opposing perceptions of Edison is very clear: while the world heard of yet another empirical invention revealing sound common sense, they were also hearing that a wizard had been behind its construction.

In Britain, too, the popular press saw Edison as a mixture of scientist and magician. H. G. Wells would have been aware of this mixed persona, perpetuated in numerous articles, as The Times of 31 December 1878 testifies: “Mr Thomas Alva Edison's present sayings and doings are watched and noted with feverish anxiety both in the United States and in this country” (4). The same article, indeed, exhibits both the magical and scientific view of Edison, claiming at one point that “he is in the position of a skilful conjurer” (4) and at another that “he has a large factory and laboratory at Menlo Park … where many highly skilled artificers are employed in constructing elaborate machinery” (4).

H. G. Wells works different sides of this dual image of Edison throughout the long genesis of The Time Machine. The early short story “The Chronic Argonauts” plays heavily on “The Wizard of Menlo Park” persona. Dr. Nebogipfel inspires great interest in the small Welsh village of Llyddwdd when he arrives unannounced and immediately occupies the Old Manse. Curiosity very quickly becomes distrust, however, as Nebogipfel proves himself to be somewhat odd: “In almost every circumstance of life the observant villagers soon found his ways were not only not their ways, but altogether inexplicable upon any theory of motives they could conceive” (137). Edison inspired similar feelings when he arrived in the quiet Menlo Park area of New Jersey, as Ronald Clark has reported: “By the simple inhabitants of the region … he was regarded with a kind of uncanny fascination, somewhat similar to that inspired by Dr. Faustus of old, and no feat, however startling, would have been considered too great for his occult attainments” (73).

In short, Nebogipfel's arrival in a rural community, his construction of a laboratory for his work, and the reaction to this intrusion from the resident population parallels exactly Edison's move from his New York workshop to his Menlo Park research facilities in 1876. And one further aspect of Nebogipfel's transformation of the Old Manse even more firmly allies him with Edison. The narrative reveals how, late one evening,

a strange whizzing, buzzing whirr filled the night air, and a bright flicker glanced across the dim path of the wayfarers. All eyes were turned in astonishment to the Old Manse. The house no longer loomed a black featureless block but was filled to overflowing with light. From the gaping holes in the roof, from chinks and fissures amid tiles and brickwork, from every gap which Nature or man had pierced in the crumbling old shell, a blinding blue-white glare was streaming, beside which the rising moon seemed a disc of opaque sulphur.


The coming of electric light is viewed as a transcendental experience by the local inhabitants of Llyddwdd; Wells emphasizes their ignorance of scientific advancement.

The light bulbs sending their beams streaming from the windows of the Old Manse also, of course, highlight Wells's engagement with perhaps the best known of Thomas Edison's inventions, one heavily covered by both the popular and scientific press. As early as New Year's Day 1880, an article in Nature discussed Edison's electric lighting at Menlo Park and found it “bright, clear, mellow, regular, free from flickering or pulsations, while the observer gets more satisfaction from it than from gas” (215). Wells apparently suggests a connection between Nebogipfel's electric lighting and Edison's spectacle of electricity at Menlo Park.

Now Wells discarded the electric light episode in later versions of The Time Machine: the final published novel explicitly refers to the gas lighting in the Time Traveler's home. Such regression from a scientific advancement of the late nineteenth century to mid-Victorian technology appears, at first, incongruous: science fiction most often extrapolates on contemporary ingenuity, rather than looking back to the past. This would also seem to obscure any connection of Edison with the Time Traveler.

But I believe that the final omission of this scene fits into a pattern common to all Wells's science fiction. In his well known introduction to Scientific Romances, Wells states that his narrative practice is to “domesticate the impossible hypothesis” (viii) in order to make plausible that which seems fantastic. The failure of “The Chronic Argonauts” rests upon just this problem: Dr Nebogipfel is too easily seen as a necromantic figure rather than a “plausible” scientist. Wells's irony—directed at the Welsh villagers—is not effective: in relying on the “Wizard of Menlo Park” component of Edison's myth in constructing Nebogipfel, that narrative becomes too overtly magical. In the versions of The Time Machine that were to follow “The Chronic Argonauts” (they were published in the National Observer and the New Review, respectively), Wells attempted to correct this bias, turning Nebogipfel into the Philosophical Inventor and discarding the Welsh village, the dark esotericism, and the electric light episode.

While Edison defined himself in phrasing similar to Wells's, suggesting in an interview that “I might be called a scientific inventor, as distinguished from a mechanical inventor” (Clark 67), the characteristics of the Philosophical Inventor in the National Observer and the New Review versions are at odds with the popular conceptions of Thomas Edison in the early 1890s. Indeed, the New Review version states that the Philosophical Inventor “was a mathematician of peculiar subtlety, and one of our most conspicuous investigators in molecular physics. … In the after-dinner hours he was ever a wide and variegated talker. … At these times he was as unlike the popular conception of a scientific investigator as a man could be” (175).

The discarding of the electrical light episode is a further example of the disguising of character that Wells attempts in his re-workings of the original tale. Although electricity itself has little connection with the necromancy that Dr. Nebogipfel epitomizes, the myth of the “wizard” Edison focused on his electrical experiments at Menlo Park. In the popular imagination, then, magic and the electrical light were, if not synonymous, at least well-linked. For this reason Wells's return to gas lighting in the final versions of his tale is no more than a further layer of domestication, a structuring of the commonplace and the traditional upon which the plausible foundations of his narrative are built. To have continued to emphasize electrical lighting—especially in the sensationalist manner of “The Chronic Argonauts”—would have been to upstage the most fantastic episodes of the narrative, which of course center on the time machine itself.

There do remain, regardless of Wells's alteration of the character of the Philosophical Inventor, echoes of Edison's myth both in the National Observer and the New Review versions. The protagonist in the National Observer version combines his professional and domestic affairs, with visitors appearing in his laboratory during the narrative—a domestic accommodation that parallels Edison's Menlo Park facilities. Although these characters are never named in the National Observer version, by the time of the New Review these visitors to the Philosophical Inventor's laboratory are given names: Blank, Dash and Chose. A ready comparison may be drawn here with Edison, who, inspired by his continued interest in telegraphy, nicknamed his first two children Dot and Dash.3

Other names in the National Observer version suggest further tenuous, though provocative, echoes of Edison's domestic life. In this version the Eloi woman Weena first appears, and her name remains unchanged in the final version of The Time Machine. Even granting the alteration in spelling, a parallel with Edison's own partner can be drawn. By the time of the writing of the National Observer narrative in the early 1890s, Edison had been married for several years to Mina, whose name is close to that of Wells's Eloi character both in linguistic form and pronunciation.

The clues from language do not end there. While revealing the model time machine to his collected guests, the German Officer—a character who does not survive Wells's later revisions—expresses his astonishment with the phrase “Gott in Himmel” (159)4, a perfectly apt reaction to the spectacle he has just witnessed. This character and his German exclamation, however, also recall Edison's demonstration of the prototype phonograph. In the company of his assistant John Kreusi, Edison recited a nursery rhyme and then played back the phonograph recording. He, like the German Officer of Wells's tale, was astonished: “Kreusi, after hearing the phonograph reproduce Edison reciting ‘Mary had a little lamb,’ could only respond, ‘Mein gott im Himmel’ [sic]” (Hughes 12). Although the phrase itself is common, its appearance, in both cases, in connection with the demonstration of a previously unseen invention under very similar circumstances suggests more than coincidence.5

From “The Chronic Argonauts” to the National Observer through the New Review, the characterization of Wells's first scientific protagonist altered dramatically. These changes, however, had more to do with Wells's conception of the narrative as a plausible piece of scientific extrapolation than with the discarding of Edison after the first short story. Indeed, Thomas Edison remains integral to the construction of each central character. It remains vital, however, to see how far elements of Edison's myth can be traced in the character of the Time Traveler himself. For this the 1895 version of The Time Machine—the finished work in a sense6—must provide the basis for reference. And the close connections between Edison and Wells's protagonist are still evident throughout that final version.

While many of the critics I have discussed earlier view the Time Traveler as a theorist, for instance, it is clear that practical invention is just as strong an impulse. A dinner guest reveals that “our chairs, being his patents, embraced and caressed us rather than submitted to be sat upon” (3). The Time Traveler's impulse to build a time machine rather than merely theorize over the scientific possibility of time travel surely marks him as working in the realm of the practical. Thomas Edison, similarly, decried the exclusively intellectual branches of scientific research that produce hypotheses and speculations but cannot apply them. Ronald Clark puts this succinctly in revealing that “preoccupation with development of a specific invention to meet a specific need was a feature of Edison's entire working life, and with it there went a contempt, barely concealed at times, for the man who dealt in theories rather than their practical application” (65). Furthermore, both Edison and the Time Traveler make practical provision for their “hands-on” philosophy. While Edison had a large-scale operation at Menlo Park, he also had a private workshop which, when he moved to West Orange later in his career, was connected to his own living quarters. Likewise the Time Traveler's laboratory, in which he builds his time machine, is at the rear of his suburban London house.

As for their actual working practices, parallels can again be found. Edison's methodology was “a curious combination of the personally intuitive and the strictly scientific” (Clark 71), a process of trial and error, of minor changes and alterations. The Time Traveler reveals a like-minded attitude in his examination of problems. During his sojourn in the future world of the Eloi and the Morlock, he puzzles for some time over the construction of the society of the year 802,701. Despite his limited knowledge, he immediately appraises the cultural situation: “‘Communism,’ said I to myself” (33). But later, the Time Traveler admits that his first theory was wholly wrong: “very simple was my explanation, and plausible enough—as most wrong theories are!” (38). Setbacks drive him to the discovery of new information, the continual evaluation of which brings him to his goal: a practical knowledge of the world of the far future.

Successful as the Time Traveler and Edison are in their trial and error approach to solving problems, it is undoubtedly a time-consuming and lengthy approach requiring much energy and dedication. Edison was renowned as an obsessive worker, spending days and nights in his workshops and catching only a few hours' sleep on his desktop when fatigued. He seemed incapable of relaxation when faced with a problem, preferring the frustration of repeated failure to giving up or retreating. The popular media were well aware of this trait in his character and Edison was cruelly lampooned by many humorous publications on the day of his first marriage, when a variety of cartoons depicted him in his laboratory in a frock-coat, holding aloft a light bulb while the wedding reception carried on the celebrations in the adjacent room. The Time Traveler, although never reaching this level of preoccupation, displays a similar restlessness and hatred of inactivity when confronted with a difficult problem. The clearest example of this occurs when he returns from a day-long expedition through his immediate surroundings to discover that the time machine is no longer parked on the grass in front of the statue of the white Sphinx. After recovering from his panic, and deducing that the time machine is now inside the Sphinx, the Time Traveler attempts vainly to break down the heavy doors that block his access to the interior. His strenuous actions produce no effect and “at last, hot and tired, I sat down to watch the place. But I was too restless to watch for long: I am too Occidental for a long vigil. I could work at a problem for years, but to wait inactive for twenty-four hours—that is another matter” (44). One need look no further than the mainstream Contemporary press to discover similar sentiments expressed about Edison himself. The Times reported during the 1870s that “having once undertaken to furnish a printing machine … [Edison] shut himself up in a room declaring he would remain there till he succeeded in getting the machine to his mind. He accomplished the task after 60 hours of continuous labour” (4).

Practicality and professional pragmatism are not the only qualities shared by the Time Traveler and Edison. Their ability to solve problems—particularly those that occur in the process of their own investigations—is accompanied by a flamboyance evident in both their personalities. The Time Traveler demonstrates this very early in the narrative when he provides his guests with the most eclectic of after-dinner entertainments—his model time machine:

He [the Time Traveler] took one of the small octagonal tables that were scattered about the room, and set it in front of the fire, with two legs on the hearthrug. On this table he placed the mechanism. Then he drew up a chair, and sat down. The only other object on the table was a small shaded lamp, the bright light of which fell upon the model. There were also perhaps a dozen candles about, two in brass candlesticks upon the mantel and several in sconces, so that the room was brilliantly illuminated[…]. There was a minute's pause perhaps. The Psychologist seemed about to speak to me, but changed his mind. Then the Time Traveler put forward his finger towards the lever. “No,” he said suddenly. “Lend me your hand.” And turning to the Psychologist, he took that individual's hand in his own and told him to put out his forefinger. So that it was the Psychologist himself who sent forth the model Time Machine on its interminable voyage.


The deference paid to the small model, the atmospheric illumination of the room, and the use of the Psychologist's finger all add to the theatrical spectacle the Time Traveler cleverly engineers. No mere presentation of fact or simple relation of events is good enough for the ingenious inventor to first reveal his remarkable discovery. Instead, he constructs a dramatic exhibition that has great impact upon the gathered witnesses.

This sense of showmanship was shared by Thomas Edison, who shrewdly realized that making an impression was often as important as providing a worthwhile invention. His demonstration of the electric lightbulb, first to a select group of important public figures and then to the general public, was just such a feat. As Thomas Hughes relates, “special trains from New York and elsewhere brought the prominent and the plain to view four houses illuminated, streets lit, and the laboratory glowing” (30). Equally spectacular was Edison's revelatory exhibition of the phonograph to reporters for Scientific American: he so excited and enthralled onlookers that “the editor had to stop the demonstration because the size of the crowd that had assembled threatened to collapse the office floor” (Hughes 13).

It can readily be seen, then, why interpretations of Wells's Time Traveler differ so markedly. A major influence on the character, Thomas Edison, was himself a man of paradox—utilitarian yet theatrical, necromantic yet scientific. In various versions of The Time Machine, Wells experimented with the different public personae of Edison: however unlikely it seems that any one figure could have influenced Dr Nebogipfel, the Philosophical Inventor, and the Time Traveler, these protagonists all share some aspect of the many-faceted personality and myth of Thomas Edison. In addition, details in the texts also locate roots of Wells's character in Edison's private world. A common thread can be seen to run from the early short story, “The Chronic Argonauts,” to the completed novel published in 1895. Nebogipfel explores the “Wizard of Menlo Park” side of the Edison myth, the Philosophical Inventor—although less explicitly representative—reveals some interesting biographical parallels, and the final protagonist, the Time Traveler, displays many of the characteristics of Edison as an indefatigable practical scientist.

In their roles as scientist and inventor, both Thomas Edison and the fully-fledged Time Traveler of the 1895 romance reveal marked similarities in technique, working practice, and personality. No longer should Wells's Time Traveler be seen as the cool scientific thinker, or a mythical hero in the epic mold, or an ordinary Victorian who is out of his depth in the world of the Eloi and Morlock. Rather he should be viewed as a subtle and complimentary portrait of the foremost scientist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a man whose work offered as powerful a vision of the future as Wells's evocation of the year 802,701.


  1. H. G. Wells began The Time Machine in 1888, with the short story “The Chronic Argonauts,” published in the Science Schools Journal between April and June of that year. Further versions appeared in the National Observer between March and June of 1894 and the New Review, which serialized the story from January to May 1895. The completed novel was first published in the United States in May 1895; this was closely followed by a more definitive edition published in Britain later that month. I recommend Harry M. Geduld's The Definitive Time Machine, which republishes “The Chronic Argonauts” and excerpts from the two later versions. This book was invaluable during my initial researches into the genesis of Wells's first scientific romance.

  2. On the life and work of Thomas Edison, see in Works Cited the studies of Ronald W. Clark, Thomas P. Hughes, Nina Morgan, and Keith Ellis.

  3. Ronald Clark makes note of this in his biography of Edison: “A daughter, named Marion [sic], was born the following year [1872]; four years later, a son christened Thomas and in 1879 a second son, William Leslie. Edison, still concentrating on the telegraph, nicknamed the first two children Dot and Dash” (32). I am unable to locate any publications contemporaneous with Wells's Time Machine narratives that tell this story and thereby prove that the nicknames were known to the wider public in the 1880s and 1890s.

  4. This page reference refers to the reprinted version of the National Observer articles that can be found in Harry M. Geduld (154-174).

  5. Although I find this parallel striking and undoubtedly suggestive I am unable, once again, to provide any evidence that the story of John Kreusi was told in contemporary publications. At the same time, it remains a piece of circumstantial evidence that is difficult to ignore.

  6. This was the last major revision of The Time Machine story. All future alterations were minor.

Works Cited

Abrash, Merritt. “The Hubris of Science: Wells' Time Traveler.” In Patterns of the Fantastic II, ed. Donald M. Hassler. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont, 1985. 5-11.

Anon. Nature 21 (Jan. 1, 1880): 215.

Anon. “Sketch of Edison.” Times (Dec. 31, 1878): 4.

Batchelor, John. H. G. Wells. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.

Begiebing, Robert J. “The Mythic Hero in H. G. Wells's The Time Machine.” In Essays in Literature 11.2 (1984): 201-210.

Bergonzi, Bernard. The Early H. G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1961.

Clark, Ronald W. Edison: The Man Who Made The Future. London: Macdonald, 1977.

Ellis, Keith, Thomas Edison: Genius of Electricity. London: Priory, 1974.

Geduld, Harry M. The Definitive Time Machine: A Critical Edition of H. G. Wells' Scientific Romance. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

Haynes, Roslynn D., H. G. Wells: Discoverer of the Future—The Influence of Science on His Thought. London: Macmillan, 1980.

Hughes, Thomas P. Thomas Edison: Professional Inventor. London: HMSO, 1976.

Huntington, John. “The Science Fiction of H. G. Wells.” In Science Fiction: A Critical Guide, ed. Patrick Parrinder. London: Longmans, 1979. 34-50.

Ketterer, David. “Oedipus as Time Traveler.” SFS 9.3 (Nov. 1982): 340-341.

Morgan, Nina. Thomas Edison. Hove: Wayland, 1991.

Murray, Brian. H. G. Wells. New York: Continuum, 1990.

Wells, H. G. The Scientific Romances. London: Gollancz, 1933.

———. The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind. London: Heinemann, 1932.

Zangwill, Israel. “Israel Zangwill on Time Travelling.” In H. G. Wells: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Patrick Parrinder. London: Routledge, 1972. 40-42.


Essays and Criticism