When the Sleeper Wakes

by H. G. Wells

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 547

When the Sleeper Wakes marks a watershed in H. G. Wells’s career as a literary prophet. From 1895 to 1899, Wells consistently offered his readers a dystopic view of the future. Such works as The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898) hold out little hope for the future of humankind and betray a mistrust of science and progress. After 1899, however, Wells, spurred on by the scientific positivism of his day and the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, began to write the utopic works with which his contemporaries most often associated him. These works include Mankind in the Making (1903), A Modern Utopia (1905), Men Like Gods (1923), and The Shape of Things to Come (1933). When the Sleeper Wakes, coming at the end of his dystopic period, may be the darkest of all his novels. New London sparkles with the scientific and technical progress of his later utopias, but mechanization, rather than liberating workers from drudgery, reduces them to mind-benumbed automatons. As in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888), in which the protagonist also reaches the future via a mesmeric trance, Wells’s New London is a highly organized One State; also as in Bellamy’s work, the socialist anthill is a place not of efficiency and happy labor but of drone workers reduced to a state of physical and mental slavery.

It is surely an irony of literary history that, although the utopic works of Wells often infuriated the anti-utopic writers of his day (Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, 1932, began as a short-story parody of Men Like Gods), When the Sleeper Wakes may be considered a sort of original text for the dystopic novels that followed it. Works as diverse as Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Brave New World, and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) all share a common dystopic vision that can be traced to When the Sleeper Wakes. This vision, which may be described simply as radical socialism gone bad, incorporates the following elements: the complete regimentation of society and the massing of people into crowded cities; the abolition of the family, of individual privacy, and of romantic love; the division of society into a powerful elite and a mass of proletarian workers; the systematic warping and crushing of the human soul through hedonistic indulgence (elite) and various forms of brainwashing (masses); and totalitarian rule by a group of controllers who seek power for its own sake.

In addition to shaping this dystopic vision, Wells’s novel also provided future writers with a common narrative thread. Nearly all the dystopic works listed earlier follow the pattern of When the Sleeper Wakes. An individual becomes aware of the injustices around him and of his own need for self-actualization. This “awakening” (generally triggered by contact with a woman who is emotionally and politically passionate) leads him to mount a personal and political rebellion that is unsuccessful. The radical ideals of this messianic figure are set against those of a strong, often ruthless leader who embodies fully the laws of the dystopia. A tortured love/hate relationship forms between the two men, and much of the action of the novel rises out of a series of heated debates between these two central characters.

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