Analysis of ‘The Time Machine’

The Time Machine is a science fiction novella written by H.G. Wells and published in 1895. The novella has spawned three movies and two TV adaptations, and the idea of time travel in general has inspired the premises of many popular sci-fi stories, films, and TV shows. His story is a warning that the future doesn’t necessarily bring progress.

Here are some quotes:

“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…Really this is what is meant by the Fourth Dimension, though some people who talk about the Fourth Dimension do not know they mean it. It is only another way of looking at Time.” –The Time Traveller, Chapter I, pages 2 and 3

“Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness.” –The Time Traveller, Chapter IV, page 36

“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!” –The Time Traveller, Chapter IV, page 39

“It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. 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.” –The Time Traveller, Chapter X, page 97

The novel begins with a group of men in the house of a man known only as “the Time Traveller,” who discusses the topic of his given namesake. Indeed, most of these men (except one named Filby) are referred to by their professions (“the Psychologist,” “the Provincial Mayor,” “the Medical Man,” etc.) rather than by their names: it’s as though their professions are somehow more important than who they are as people; since Wells was a socialist (more of a social democrat, really–contrast his notions of socialism with those of Stalin, with whom he would, decades after the publication of this novella, have an interesting conversation), his labelling most of the men by profession seems a comment on the social alienation inherent in capitalism.

The Time Traveller discusses the fourth dimension of time with the other gentlemen, speaking of time as if it could be measured on a plane: one can go up and down in length, or side to side in breadth, or back and forth in depth, on planes of the first three dimensions; but imagine going back and forth in time, or skipping points in time, instead of just following time forward, second by second, an eternal now emerging from the past and disappearing into the future, in only that direction.

The following Thursday, the Time Traveller is to meet with some of those men (including the first person narrator) and a few new ones (“the Editor,” “the Doctor,” “the Journalist,” etc.); but when he arrives, he walks with a limp, his coat is “dusty and dirty,” with a cut on his chin, “his hair disordered,” and his face is “ghastly pale…his expression…haggard and drawn, as by intense suffering.” (page 15) He’s just returned from the remote future, a harsh world in which he’s had some traumatizing experiences. Therefore, when he tells the men his story, we must keep in mind how distraught he is; and so his emotional state, among other things, will distort his perception of the events of the future.

The men are incredulous, of course, but willing to hear his story. So, the first-person narrator is giving the account based on his recollection of the Time Traveller’s words.

Frequently, if not typically, a first-person narration is unreliable, at least to some degree, since the narrator is incorporating, consciously or unconsciously, his own biases; but here we have the first person narrator (seeming to be socialist Wells: recall his enthusiastic remark, “To discover a society…erected on a strictly communistic basis.” [page 6]) giving an account based on another first-person narration, so in this story we have not one, but two biases!

These biases seem to be contradictory opposites, one with communist beliefs, the other with anti-communist leanings (those of the Time Traveller). In fact, a major theme of this novella is dualism, or a conflict between contradictory opposites. These include above/below, metaphorical heaven/hell, metaphorical gods/devils, light/darkness, and forward in time vs. backward in time.

The Time Traveller describes the great discomfort he feels from shooting forward in time (page 21; also briefly noted on page 100); this could be seen to symbolize the displeasure often felt by reactionaries when social progress is made; also, the discomfort from this forward movement could symbolize a fear of facing the uncertain future.

He stops the forward movement at the year 802,701. He gets out of the time machine and sees a giant white sphinx. Since he gets the impression that there has been great neglect in the care of his surroundings (e.g., “a long-neglected…garden,” and “suggestions of old Phoenician decorations” that were “very badly broken and weather-worn,” page 30), this sphinx is symbolically comparable to that of ancient Egypt in that this future world seems to be the end of a former great civilization. Great eras of history seem to rise and decline in cycles. (Also, that sphinx will contain the riddle of where his time machine will be moved, when he later discovers it missing.)

Further proof of such a civilizational decline, in his opinion, is when he meets the Eloi, small, curly-haired, simple-minded, childlike people who live in idleness, eating only fruit. He has expected great advances in civilization, knowledge, technology, and strength; but it seems the world has gone backward in many ways.

For the Time Traveller, intellectual growth is driven by the need to survive; the easy living of the Eloi has made them complacent, lazy, and weak. The large, palace-like buildings he sees them living in–with no small houses characteristic of England–suggest the communal living of communism (page 34), of which one suspects he disapproves (Having sat–at the novella’s beginning–with his middle-to-upper-middle class guests in the comfortable chairs he’s invented, and with a housekeeper, Mrs. Watchett, among other servants in his home, the bourgeois Time Traveller would naturally be opposed to socialism.). Elsewhere, he notes how the Eloi seem to have little differentiation in terms of sex, symbolizing the future equality of the sexes.

There’s more to this utopia, this Spenserian bower of bliss, than meets the eye, though. First, after having left the time machine for a while, he returns to where it has been left, only to find it missing! Someone took it? Who? The Eloi are too small to have moved such a heavy machine. Will he be trapped in this strange world forever?

After searching fruitlessly for it in the bushes and elsewhere, he concludes that someone must have hid it in the White Sphinx. Since it cannot have been the puny Eloi who have moved it, there must be another people he hasn’t encountered yet. He also notices wells, connections to the underworld, where he’ll find those other people.

Here, we’ve encountered the main dualism in the story: that of the opposition between the Eloi living above and the Morlocks living below. Their names are puns on, respectively, the Hebrew Elohim (gods), and the pagan god Moloch, this latter god requiring child sacrifices. In other words, the Eloi are being represented as the angelic ‘good’ people, and the Morlocks are being represented as the devilish ‘bad’ people. Given the Time Traveller’s obvious bourgeois liberal biases, however, we shouldn’t be too sure about the accuracy of his portrayal of these two peoples.

At first, he associates the Eloi with the privileged capitalist class, in their indolence and easy living; similarly, he associates the Morlocks with the oppressed proletariat, since they make all the things the Eloi need to live. The emphasis of such a perspective could be due to the biases of the socialist first-person narrator who is recording the Time Traveller’s account (and who could be Wells himself–that is, if he isn’t Hillyer, possibly one of the Time Traveller’s servants, for all we know).

Such a perspective could also accord with the Time Traveller’s initial impressions of the Eloi and Morlocks, though he would judge such a situation with far less sympathy for the Morlocks than Wells (as I’ll call the first-person narrator, for convenience’s sake). For it won’t be long before the Morlocks are portrayed as savagely evil.

The Eloi live up in the light, in their near-Edenic, would-be paradise. The Morlocks live down in the darkness, fearing the light as any demon would. The Morlocks’ underground abode is easily characterized as a symbolic hell. The Eloi are like sweet children of God, for “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

It is only natural that a bourgeois liberal will portray the members of his own class as good, even if flawed morally (recall the Eloi failing to rescue one of their own, Weena, from drowning, thus making the Time Traveller get her out of the water [page 50]). Similarly, the bourgeois will characterize their class enemy, the working class, as dangerous or at least morally inferior. Accordingly, the Time Traveler cannot bring himself to think any kind thoughts about the ape-like, but mechanically-minded Morlocks (Chapters VI and VII, pages 61, 67, and 69).

Recall his judgement of the Morlocks here: “…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.” (page 82)

Even the names of the two peoples I have doubts about with respect to the Time Traveller’s representation of them. He claims to have learned a substantial amount of the Eloi’s language to know the names of the two peoples; but his brief sojourn in their world can only cause one to doubt that he’s learned all that much. So his learning of the peoples’ names, as with all else about them, can easily be tainted by his personal biases.

The horrific thing we learn about the Morlocks is that they apparently practice cannibalism–they come up from underground at night and eat any Eloi they catch. The absence of animals in this future world means that food has become scarce. This is why the Eloi eat only fruit; but why don’t the Morlocks just steal fruit from them at night?

Deprivation of food over long periods can drive anyone to resort to cannibalism. The Time Traveller changes his original position, from that of the Eloi as the capitalist Haves and the Morlocks as the proletarian Have-nots, to one of oppressed Eloi and oppressor Morlocks: that is, the latter provide for the former only because the latter are, as it were, farmers raising the former to slaughter.

While we know of the Morlocks attacking and giving their prey little bites, we know of no explicit evidence that the Morlocks are eating the Eloi, apart from the Time Traveller’s discovery of a meal of flesh underground (page 65). Could it not be the flesh of animals that he, during his brief stay in this future world, has never had the time to find? Those Morlock bites could just be attack bites rather than attempts to eat. Again, his biases against the Morlocks could easily be warping his perception of events.

One possible interpretation incorporating Morlock cannibalism (in a symbolic way) is in Hegel‘s master-slave dialectic. This interpretation fuses the Time Traveller’s (and Wells’s) original capitalist/worker conception with this new ‘farmer/livestock’ one. The Eloi were the masters originally, and the Morlocks were the slaves. Through the Morlocks’ ceaseless work, though, they have gained power, while the Eloi have grown dependent and indolent, causing the power imbalance to reverse itself.

The Time Traveller himself concludes similarly: “I felt pretty sure now that my second hypothesis was all wrong. The Upper-world people might once have been the favoured aristocracy, and the Morlocks their mechanical servants; that had long since passed away…The Nemesis of the delicate ones was creeping on apace. Ages ago, thousands of generations ago, man had thrust his brother man out of the ease and the sunshine. And now that brother was coming back–changed! Already the Eloi had begun to learn one old lesson anew. They were becoming reacquainted with Fear.” (page 70)

The Morlocks’ rising from underground at night can be seen to symbolize a proletarian uprising; they apparently eat the Eloi, just as the poor and deprived will one day have no other recourse than to eat the rich. The Time Traveller, as a bourgeois, naturally sympathizes with the Eloi; he criticizes them only because of their having backslid into apathy and laziness. He sees the necessity of strength, and strength coming from necessity. Such an attitude, of favouring competition over mutual aid–the former forcing one to adapt and to be strong, while the latter (so it is believed) causes one to be weak and complacent–is the conservative underbelly of liberals, which exposes itself whenever their class privileges are being threatened.

The Time Traveller fights off the Morlocks with a club, and uses his matches to build a fire to protect himself and Weena from them. The problem is that the fire he’s set causes a forest fire while he sleeps. In this story, fire–his weapon against the Morlocks–symbolizes civilization and technology; and as we can see, there are both good and bad sides to these two things we tend to regard as only good. Weena seems to have been killed in the fire; he prefers this fate to her having been possibly eaten by the Morlocks–though he doesn’t seem to give much thought to the fact that it is his fire that has killed her. Also, we can see fire as representing how bourgeois civilization and technology destroy the environment. Wells really seems to have seen the future…our real future.

The Time Traveller gets inside the Sphinx, and uses his time machine to escape and go far off into the future. He stops at a time with a black sky, a “salt Dead Sea” (page 103), an “air more rarefied than it is now” (page 102), reddish “monstrous crab-like creature[s]” (page 102), and a “sense of abominable desolation” (page 103). He goes ahead a hundred years from then, and sees “the same dying sea,” feels “the same chill air,” and there is “the same crowd of earthy crustacea creeping in and out…” (page 103)

He goes further and further into the future, by thousands of years, to discover ultimately no signs of life except for a “green slime on the rocks” (page 104). After Wells’s allegory of class struggle and violent proletarian revolution, we see the end not only of human and animal life, but of almost all life. Though Wells, of course, wouldn’t have known anything about nuclear war or global warming back in 1895, he seems here to have had the prescience of a time traveler; for he knew that we would have either socialism or barbarism, a world of social justice or our mutual destruction–more dualism.

The Time Traveller returns to his time in that physical and mental state of disarray already noted, such that we should be cautious in assessing the reliability and accuracy of his account. Only those withered white flowers from the future (symbolizing Eloi sweetness and innocence), given to him by Weena, indicate any truth to his story.

The Time Traveller uses his time machine again, never to return to his present. Has he gone into the past, or the future again? Has he returned to the Eloi and Morlocks, perhaps with a hope of either saving Weena from the fire, or avenging the Eloi and killing the Morlocks? Or have they killed him? Since, in his bias against the Morlocks, he’s chosen to resist proletarian revolution, we can see why he no longer has a now.

H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, Bantam Classic, New York, 1895

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