The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

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.

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.

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.

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

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

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. 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

(Novels for Students)

The Time Machine had numerous incarnations, the first of which was a story called "The Chronic Argonauts," which Wells published in...

(The entire section is 503 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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...

(The entire section is 247 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Scientific Romance
A combination of fantasy and science fiction, The Time Machine is an example of a sub-genre...

(The entire section is 429 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Wells once said that the challenge faced by a writer of scientific romances is to "trick" the reader into accepting some plausible assumption...

(The entire section is 319 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Wells's theories of regressive evolution and his dissatisfaction with many of the social and economic factors of his own time contribute to...

(The entire section is 332 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1890s: Numerous countries are at war over disputed territory, including China and Japan, the...

(The entire section is 128 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. At the beginning of the story, how does the time traveller explain what happens to the demonstration model of his time machine? How does...

(The entire section is 309 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Consider the physical aspects of Wells's world of A.D. 802,701. Describe the land surface, waterways, climate, plants and animals, natural...

(The entire section is 198 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

In groups, draw a timeline with pictures of the evolution of human beings, beginning with prosimians and ending with the large crab-like...

(The entire section is 325 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Among the seven full-length scientific romances written by Wells, three others were nearly as popular as The Time Machine. The...

(The entire section is 218 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

The Time Machine has been adapted into film three times. Its first adaptation was released in 1960. Directed by George Pal and...

(The entire section is 114 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Charles Darwin's 1859 ground-breaking study of humanity's beginnings, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, had a profound...

(The entire section is 165 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Bergonzi, Bernard. The Early H. G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967. Bergonzi...

(The entire section is 353 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Asimov, Isaac, Introduction, in Three Novels of the Future, Nelson Doubleday Inc., 1979, pp....

(The entire section is 335 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.