(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

“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...

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Bernard Bergonzi (essay date 1960)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert M. Philmus (essay date May 1969)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jean-Pierre Vernier (essay date 1971)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Alex Eisenstein (essay date 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Alex Eisenstein (essay date July 1976)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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....

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Patrick Parrinder (essay date November 1976)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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David J. Lake (essay date March 1979)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Frank Scafella (essay date November 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Huntington (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert J. Begiebing (essay date fall 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Veronica Hollinger (essay date July 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kathryn Hume (essay date spring 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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;...

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David C. Cody (essay date fall 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Bruce David Sommerville (essay date winter 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Patrick Parrinder (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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John S. Parrington (essay date October 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jan Hollin (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Martin T. Willis (essay date July 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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 entire section is 425 words.)