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The Time Machine

by H. G. Wells

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The Plot

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509

H. G. Wells’s fascination with the idea of time travel into the future was first expressed in his story “The Chronic Argonauts” (1888). He wrote at least four other versions before the first book publication of The Time Machine: An Invention in 1895.

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The Time Machine is a frame narrative. The outer narrator, Hillyer, briefly sets the scene for the much longer inner narrative, the Time Traveler’s story about his experiences in the future. Hillyer concludes the narrative with a description of the subsequent disappearance of the Time Traveler and offers a brief speculative epilogue.

Hillyer is one of a group of professional men who regularly gather for dinner and conversation at the Time Traveler’s house. One evening, the host explains to his skeptical visitors that he has discovered the principles of time travel. He demonstrates a miniature time machine and shows his visitors an almost-completed full-sized version in his laboratory.

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At Hillyer’s next visit, the Time Traveler enters, disheveled and limping but eager to tell his visitors about his travels in the far future. He begins by graphically describing the subjective effects of compressing years into moments of time. He then tells them how he arrived in c.e. 802,701 and encountered a race of creatures, evolved from humans, called Eloi. They are small, frail, gentle, childlike vegetarians. He theorizes that humanity has reached a state of contented inactivity in harmony with nature. Soon thereafter, the time machine vanished into the hollow pedestal of a statue, and he realized that this future world harbored disturbing secrets.

Other occurrences made him determined to explore the mysteries beneath the placid surface of the world. He discovered the Morlocks, small, apelike creatures who tended vast machines in dark caverns and visited the surface only during the night. He concluded that the Eloi and Morlocks were the descendants of the capitalist and laborer classes of his own time and that social separation had led to the evolution of two distinct human species. He also learned to his horror that the Morlocks killed and ate Eloi.

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He and Weena, an Eloi female whom he had saved from drowning, then visited a ruinous museum in the hope of finding some means of freeing the time machine from the Morlocks. On their return journey, they were surrounded by Morlocks at night in a forest. Weena was lost, but the Time Traveler escaped. He returned to the statue and found the pedestal open. He mounted the time machine as the Morlocks sprang their trap but was able to escape by traveling in time.

Curious about Earth’s fate, he voyaged farther into the future and found that all traces of humanity had vanished. More than thirty million years hence, he found himself on a desolate beach facing a swollen red sun, life having devolved to the point of extinction. Horrified, he returned to his own time.

Hillyer, deeply affected by the Time Traveler’s story, returns the next day to find his host about to depart. Invited to wait, he does so, but in vain.

Places Discussed

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Time Traveller’s home

Time Traveller’s home. Although it is reasonable to infer that Wells’s unnamed traveler lives in London—and probably southwest London—nothing in the novel locates his home precisely. His home is a large upper-middle-class house typical of homes of its class in the late nineteenth century. Wells takes pains to make the home warm and welcoming, comfortable and convivial. It appears to be popular with visitors, as the two times the house is mentioned in the novel it is the setting of well-attended dinner parties that bring together intelligent and well-connected men. The guests are identified only by their professions, for example, such as the Medical Man and the Editor. There are also servants and other indications that the Time Traveller is wealthy. Thus, the home in which the Time Traveller tells his story is a place of both solid reality and aspiration, the height of ambition for Wells’s audience. This is the measure of achievement, the sign that these intelligent and comfortable Victorians really are the peak of evolution.

Eloi world

Eloi world. The Time Traveller’s first stop in the remote future. Although it occupies the same space as the Time Traveller’s home, the world of the Eloi is separated from it by some 800,000 years. That fact alone expresses Wells’s primary Darwinian purpose: to demonstrate that evolution will continue beyond the world he and his readers know. This setting is, at first, a pastoral idyll, a place of green fields, strange flowers, and a curious innocence. Soon, however, a different impression is created, as the Time Traveller notices the decaying buildings, the sense of things running down, and in particular the sense that the inhabitants of this world, the Eloi, are, though pretty and innocent, also in decline. This is emphasized in his visit to the Palace of Green Porcelain, once a great museum though now most of its exhibits have rotted away; the age of human achievement is long passed.

Morlock world

Morlock world. Though visited only once and very briefly, the underground realm of the Morlocks forms a constant counterpoint to the pastoral simplicity of the world of the Eloi. It is a lightless world, a world of dark oppression, and the Morlocks are as much its victims as anyone else. There is a sense of machinery, though the reader never encounters it directly.

Beach

Beach. After finally escaping the world of the Eloi and the Morlocks, the Time Traveller flees to a point in the far distant future when the world is coming to an end. In one of the most effective and influential scenes in the whole of science fiction, he describes a tideless sea and desolate shore, all bathed in the dim, red light of a huge and unmoving Sun. Far out across the water one lone, dark shape flops hopelessly. Given the scientific knowledge of Wells’s time, it is an accurate portrait of one possible end-of-the-world scenario—with the Moon gone, the Sun’s energy failing, Earth pulled from its orbit and losing its rotation, with only the steady approach to the dying sun preventing it being a completely frozen waste. It is also an effective metaphor for the message of evolution: All this must pass.

Historical Context

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The Time Machine had numerous incarnations, the first of which was a story called "The Chronic Argonauts," which Wells published in Science Schools Journal in 1888. The story achieved its final form in 1894. An adherent of evolutionary theory and a staunch advocate of women's suffrage and workers' rights, Wells was deeply influenced by his times. In the 1880s and 1890s, Britain's population was booming, roughly doubling between 1851 and 1901. The rise of industrialization was emptying the farms of residents and rural laborers, as people flocked to the cities and industrial towns to work in factories. By the turn of the century, more than eighty percent of Britain's population lived in urban areas. The shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy meant that England was now dependent on imports to feed its growing population and that the landed gentry who relied on income from renting farmland now had to find another way to make money. As a city dweller and a Progressive, Wells was sensitive to the working conditions of the factory laborer. His description of the Eloi and the Morlocks dramatizes the exploitative relationship between owners and workers in Victorian England.

Wells's time machine itself was a product of an imagination nursed on the extraordinary technological advances of his day, advances that fueled industrial development and changed the complexion of the workforce. In the 1870s, for example, both the typewriter and the telephone were invented. These inventions enabled office work to be done more efficiently, work that fell overwhelmingly to women. Other inventions that altered the daily lives and thinking of Victorians include suspension bridges, the telegraph, subway trains, steamships, buses, automobiles, and electric lights. These inventions made traveling places and moving goods less expensive and opened up vistas of opportunity for entrepreneur and worker alike. Public transportation enabled workers to live farther away from urban centers, which were becoming increasingly crowded, unsafe, and unsanitary. These inventions also sped up the pace of daily life, giving it a kind of urgency previously unknown and adding to the sense that the world was spinning out of control.

England celebrated its domestic progress in 1887 with Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee and its world empire in 1897 with its Diamond Jubilee. By the late nineteenth century, England controlled a sizeable portion of the world's land, including India large swaths of Africa and China, Australia, and Canada. Some were outright colonies, while others held "dominion" status. The British rationalized their imperialist policies, in part, not by claiming that their acquisitions were in the military or economic interest of the country (which they were) but by claiming it was their duty as the superior race to "civilize" primitive peoples who were incapable of governing themselves. Rudyard Kipling referred to this duty as "the white man's burden." British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli used Darwin's theories to support his claims for racial superiority. However, just as Britain's empire was at its peak, it began to crumble from within, as trying to contain nationalist movements spreading throughout the colonies drained Britain economically and politically.

Setting

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Geographically the story is confined to a small area near the Thames River in South Kensington, a suburb of London; it is the shift in time that makes the setting unusual. The story ostensibly opens in the year of its telling, 1895, in the home of the unnamed time traveler. As the traveler takes over the role of narrator, the machine moves him into the year A.D. 802,701. Society has evolved into two races, the upper-world Eloi and the lower-world Morlocks. The narrator remains in the future for a week, during which time most of the action occurs.

As the time traveler explores the upper world, he frequently refers to the Thames, which has changed its course slightly since 1895, and to neighboring places, but he is primarily concerned with the idyllic rural surroundings and seeming innocence of the world's childlike inhabitants. He interprets the apparent ease and good health of the Eloi, the abundance of fruit and flowers, and the absence of annoying insects and weeds as a sign that humanity has mastered the problems of his own day. Only when he explores one of the many well-like openings in the area does he find the foreboding underworld, the dwellings and factories of the bestial Morlocks.

To escape from the Morlocks, the traveler moves thirty million years into the future, where he finds a world on the verge of decay, apparently inhabited only by amphibious creatures, a world that he has no desire to explore before returning home.

Literary Style

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Scientific Romance
A combination of fantasy and science fiction, The Time Machine is an example of a sub-genre known as a scientific romance. A popular genre that Wells helped to refine, science fiction's action is often set in the future and examines the relationship between the future and technology. It is also defined by the appearance of characters and setting being dramatically different from those of realistic fiction. For example, the Eloi and Morlocks could not appear in a story by Ernest Hemingway a realist. Fantasy is also a popular genre but does not necessarily rely on scientific explanations for behavior or action. Rather, fantasy fiction explores supernatural and non-rational phenomena that may or may not exist in realistic settings. J. R. R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings is a popular example of fantasy fiction. Other scientific romances of Wells's include The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898).

Narrator
The narrator is a speaker through whom the author tells a story. This influences the story's point of view. Wells constructs an ingenious frame for The Time Machine, using, in essence, two narrators. The first is the "true" narrator, Hillyer, who introduces the Time Traveller and the other guests present at his house in the first two chapters, and who writes the concluding words in the epilogue. The second narrator is the Time Traveller himself, who takes over the narration, beginning with the third chapter, and who disappears into the future at the end of the twelfth chapter. This narrative technique allows Wells to speculate about the future and at the same time voice his positions on topics such as politics and evolution through the voice of others and within the framework of an adventure story. This strategy makes potentially difficult ideas accessible to more readers. It also gives credibility to the Time Traveller's story, as Hillyer presents the story in the Time Traveller's own words.

Symbolism
Symbols are things or ideas that stand for other things or ideas. The relationship, however, is not one to one but one to many. Wells uses symbols to evoke ideas and emotions and to figuratively stitch together many of the story's themes. For example, the Palace of Green Porcelain, a museum containing artifacts from England of the 1890s, signifies the idea of home, civilization, and extinction—all at once—for the Time Traveller. Other major symbols are the White Sphinx, which evokes the spiritual degradation of the Eloi-Morlock society, and The Time Machine itself, symbolizing Victorian progress and the promise—and the danger—of technology.

Literary Qualities

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Wells once said that the challenge faced by a writer of scientific romances is to "trick" the reader into accepting some plausible assumption and then to make the story as human and as real as possible, avoiding unnecessary fantastic elements. The humanness of the traveller is particularly evident in his efforts to understand the world in which he finds himself and in the scenes in which he feels his isolation from other humans. And even though the reader suspects that the idea of a "fourth dimension" stretches known scientific facts, the traveller's argument is developed so logically that time travel sounds plausible.

The trip into the future contains one of the most vivid sections of description within the story, as the traveller moves rapidly through changing seasons and civilizations. The elusive vision creates a blend of colors and shapes which not only convey a sense of speed, but also prepare the reader for the moment when the traveller is literally dumped from his machine into the future world.

Wells controls the frame technique effectively. He allows the traveller's guests to raise questions at the beginning and end of the novel, and surrounds even this frame with the narrator's combined wonder and belief. This story-within-a story takes the form of a dramatic monologue as the time traveller relates his adventures. Although there is no dialogue within this central narrative, the traveller's occasional direct address to his audience personalizes the lengthy account.

Details such as the traveller's disheveled appearance after his journey, the movements of his housekeeper at the moments of his departure and return, the position of the time machine, geographical allusions to the Thames River, and the strange flowers in his pocket all lend credibility to his narrative. Despite passages of philosophical commentary, the plot moves quickly, intertwining the traveller's interpretations of the social and economic world of the future, his hints of coming adventures, and his ongoing narrative.

Social Sensitivity

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Wells's theories of regressive evolution and his dissatisfaction with many of the social and economic factors of his own time contribute to the pessimistic tone of many sections of the novel. The traveller's philosophical discourses show that the unpleasant picture of the future need not be realized, however. Choices available to humans in 1895, and to humans today, can indeed change the course of the future for the better. Wells's shocking picture challenges the complacent view that "progress" left to itself always produces something better.

The traveller's first impressions of the future world are modified by his experiences there. He notices, for example, the beautiful vegetation, which seems to require so little attention from the Eloi, and concludes that control of nature no longer drains human energy. People of Wells's day hoped for farms and gardens free from insects and blights, a hope apparently fulfilled in the world of the future. But the use of pesticides and fertilizers to achieve this hope in the twentieth century has already generated unforeseen toxic side-effects. In a similar way, Wells's contemporaries hoped for a life of abundance and ease, but the traveller later realizes that the ease of the Eloi's life probably contributed to the dangerous inertia that enables the Morlocks to dominate them. The traveller also believes that he has found a world without fear but learns that in reality fear has intensified and is focused on one object—the Morlocks.

Through the course of the story, the reader is constantly reminded of oppressive situations and attitudes that produce this world of extremes. Wells wrote The Time Machine at the end of the nineteenth century, but almost a hundred years later the world is still coming to grips with the struggles between developed and undeveloped countries, between those who live in luxury on top of the social and economic ladder and those who struggle daily to survive. Wells's message to his contemporaries is still relevant: oppression and injustice lead inexorably to social and economic disruption.

Compare and Contrast

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1890s: Numerous countries are at war over disputed territory, including China and Japan, the United States and Spain, Turkey and Greece.

Today: Numerous countries and people feud over disputed territory, including the Palestinians and Israelis and the Pakistanis, and Indians.

1890s: In 1895, T. H. Huxley, a popularizer of Darwin's theory of evolution and Wells's teacher and a primary influence on his thinking and writing, dies.

Today: In 2002, Stephen Jay Gould, perhaps the twentieth century's most prominent proponent of evolutionary theory, dies.

1890s: Wilhelm Roentgen discovers x-rays and Marconi invents radio telegraphy, both of which dramatically change the way people live in the twentieth century.

Today: The continued development of technology in general, and of computer technology specifically, change the way that millions of people live, work, and play.

Media Adaptations

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The Time Machine has been adapted into film three times. Its first adaptation was released in 1960. Directed by George Pal and starring Rod Taylor, Alan Young, and Yvette Mimieux, this version could be considered the best of the three. The second adaptation, released in 1978, was directed by Henning Schellerup and stars John Beck, Priscilla Barnes, and Andrew Duggan. The most recent adaptation, released in 2002, stars Guy Pearce and Jeremy Irons and is directed by Simon Wells. All three films are widely available in libraries and major video stores.

In 1997, Simon & Schuster Audioworks released an audiocassette of Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy reading The Time Traveller as part of its Alien Voices Presents Series.

For Further Reference

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Bergonzi, Bernard. The Early H. G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967. Bergonzi analyzes the concepts with which Wells was particularly concerned at the time when he was creating The Time Machine.

Hammond, J. R. An H. G. Wells Companion. New York: Harper and Row, 1979. Gives an overview of Wells's background and literary reputation, and provides brief analyses of each of his scientific romances and novels, alphabetized guides to characters and locations, and an appendix on principal film versions of Wells's works.

Hillegas, Mark R. The Future as Nightmare: H. G. Wells and the Anti- Utopians. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Hillegas analyzes Wellsian anti-utopianism and traces Wells's influence on later futurists.

Philmus, Robert M. "The Time Machine." In Survey of Science Fiction Literature, edited by Frank N. Magill, vol. 5. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1979. Philmus provides a brief summary of the novel and the concept of Wells's "prophetic" vision.

Smith, David D. H. G. Wells: Desperately Mortal: A Biography. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986. In this comprehensive biography Smith traces many of the influences in Wells's life— persons, events, and ideas. Although Smith makes no attempt to include detailed analyses of literary works, he does discuss the varied types of reception accorded these works and places them in the context of Wells's life.

Vernier, J. P. "Evolution as a Literary Theme in H. G. Wells's Science Fiction." In H. G. Wells and Modem Science Fiction, edited by Darko Suvin and Robert M. Philmus. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1977. Vernier concentrates on Wells's attempts to create "plausible visions" of the future in his science fiction.

Wells, H. G. "On Science Fiction, Utopian Fiction, and Fantasy." In H. G. Wells's Literary Criticism, edited by Patrick Parrinder and Robert Philmus. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1980. The editors summarize Wells's views on "scientific fantasies," including excerpts from some of his own critical commentaries. A brief headnote by the editors provides a context for each excerpt.

Young, Kenneth. H. G. Wells. London: Longman, 1974. Young offers a concise summary of Wells's life and of his fantasy fiction, realistic fiction, and theoretical writing.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources:
Asimov, Isaac, Introduction, in Three Novels of the Future, Nelson Doubleday Inc., 1979, pp. vii-xii.

Bergonzi, Bernard, "The Time Machine: An Ironic Myth," in H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Bernard Bergonzi, Prentice-Hall Inc., 1976, pp. 39—56.

Burnett, John, The Annals of Labour: Autobiographies of British Working Class People, 1820—1920, Indiana University Press, 1974, p. 14.

Costa, Richard Hauer, H. G. Wells, Twayne Publishers, 1967, pp. 31-35.

Philmus, Robert M., "The Logic of 'Prophecy' in Time Machine," in H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Bernard Bergonzi, Prentice Hall Inc., 1976, pp. 56-69.

Pritchett, V. S., "The Scientific Romances," in H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Bernard Bergonzi, Prentice Hall Inc., 1976, pp. 32-39.

Wells, H. G., The Time Machine and Other Stories, Scholastic Book Services, 1963, pp. 1-124.

West, Anthony, "H. G. Wells," in H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Bernard Bergonzi, Prentice Hall Inc. 1976, pp. 8-25.

Further Reading
Bergonzi, Bernard, The Early H. G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances, Manchester University Press, 1961.
Bergonzi played a large part in establishing Wells's reputation as a great science fiction writer, arguing that Wells's scientific romances such as The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds are classics of the English language.

Coren, Michael, The Invisible Man: The Life and Liberties of H. G. Wells, Atheneum, 1993.
Coren explores the contradictions of Wells's life, claiming that although Wells championed women's suffrage, he was also a misogynist, and that although he was sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, he held anti-Semitic views.

Huntington, John, The Logic of Fantasy: H. G. Wells and Science Fiction, Columbia University Press, 1982.
Huntington examines the relationship between Wells's writing and the genre of science fiction and considers how Wells contributed to the emerging form.

MacKenzie, Norman, and Jean MacKenzie, The Time Traveller: Life of H. G. Wells, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973.
The MacKenzies provide a relatively straightforward and uncontroversial account of Wells's life in this accessible biography.

Bibliography

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Bergonzi, Bernard, ed. H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976. Two critical essays on The Time Machine. One addresses the novel as myth, the other as prophecy. Readable and informative.

Costa, Richard Hauer. H. G. Wells. New York: Twayne, 1967. Multiple references to The Time Machine, with critical references. A good starting place.

Hammond, J. R. H. G. Wells and Rebecca West. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Associates the novel with the writer’s scientific understanding of the human species and with his interest in a fourth dimension. Illustrated. Bibliography.

Hammond, J. R. H. G. Wells and the Modern Novel. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Finds Wells a deserving and overlooked, innovative writer. One analytical chapter calls The Time Machine a “watershed in the coming of modernism.” Appendix, notes, bibliography, and index. Evocative, scholarly, readable.

Wells, H. G., Julian S. Huxley, and G. P. Wells. The Science of Life. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1934. Describes Wells’s study of science and his consequent understanding of human life.

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