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Further Thoughts On H G Wells’ The Time Machine

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I’m posting a little differently today. Normally I review a book before considering posting a ‘further thoughts’ piece, but when I came to write my review on this book I found I couldn’t; I ended up writing what’s below instead. As there are many, many spoilers in what I wrote, I thought I’d go ahead, post it now, and write a new review-like piece for later. This is technically analytical.

The Time Machine is an exceptional novella in which the goals of the writer are clear. Rather like Thomas More’s Utopia, the structure of the work is dialogue, conversation, between a traveller and his acquaintances, the clear purpose being to deliver to the reader the author’s messages. Whilst it is generally recommended that a reader read without thought for the writer, in the case of Wells’ book it is almost necessary to consider the author’s background; without it you may miss the nuances of the narration. Whether or not you read the book with a view to studying it, you’re very likely to find yourself studying it regardless; it could be argued that, like More’s work, Wells’ is as relevant if not more so than it was when it was first published.

“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.”

Wells was a socialist and this shines through his prose. He uses the idea of hindsight, of ideas, to get around the limitations a linear story can place on the number of messages an author wants to include. What’s interesting is that despite the fact the time traveller presents one of Wells’ messages as an idea that was later shown to be far from the truth, it’s that message that is perhaps the most compelling of the lot. Wells sets the scene of the year 802701 – written in text, which makes it seem even further into the future. Life is thus: having removed war from the world, hunger, disease, the need to work, hardship, even the need for two different genders, society has become weak. Language is simple, the people rather like fairies in their manner, of absolutely no intelligence whatsoever (see below), and very easily tired. There is no sense of self, everyone is the same. The only fear left is that of the people below, which makes everyone sleep in one room together. The removal of dangers have rid humanity of the idea of family. The people eat extremely genetically modified fruit, play in the river, and sleep. It’s both utopia and, as the time traveller comes to realise in the context of his own time and dare I say we ours, hell. As Wells puts it, it is the ‘perfect conquest of nature’.

It is interesting, then, to take away the time traveller’s point that though we may loath hardship and wish to improve the earth, we are better off for our suffering because it makes us strive to work towards the greater good which in turn keeps us on our toes. And it is equally interesting to learn that this idea, this takeaway of the Eloi world, is not the impression he leaves with.

This change in impression is interesting because on the perceived lack of character we have only the time traveller’s word to go by. Indeed the Eloi sound a world away from us, but it’s possible that the difference in language and culture, as well as the heightened fight or flight response from the Victorian, may well have coloured his perception, even that last impression (see below). Fight or flight certainly colours his perception when it comes to the Morlocks of the underworld, when he makes fires to keep them away. We often change our perception of people and places once we get to know them and had the traveller spent longer in 802701 he may have discovered that the Eloi simply possessed a different sort of intelligence, one he had no grounding in to understand. It’s unlikely they did, given Wells’ reason for the story, but interesting to think about nonetheless.

So the utopia/hell is a lot more complex than first thought. The time traveller, as he searches for the time machine that has disappeared, discovers the deep waterless wells in the ground and comes to know of the existence of the Morlocks, the workers, a second evolution of humanity that lives without light and takes the bodies of those above as food. This, then, is the continuation of hardship, even if by this time the hardship is nature and not noticed by the Morlocks as hardship. Here Wells infers that somewhere something would have to give – that it would be impossible to have a perfect, fully-functioning world, without some level of work. Nowadays we might see work in the future as the domain of robots, but in The Time Machine at least, robots are not on the radar. It’s interesting to consider Wells’ new message that a perfect world is unobtainable.

Yet there is some potentially good news, ‘potentially’ because the time traveller doesn’t stick around long enough to find out for certain. The Morlocks may have some sort of intelligence – they must have knowledge of whatever it is that keeps the world moving for the Eloi. Wells thereby focuses on the way high society could become if everything was considered nature to those lower than them, a contrast of the general idea today that money can buy education whilst those without must work instead. Of course the lives of the Morlocks are not good, and Wells is far from suggesting that the future is bright, but he is obviously making a point he wants you to take on board.

Somewhat inevitably the traveller comes to see the humanity that remains in society. The devotion of an Eloi for the traveller himself upon a rescue. It might not detract from the messages, because if it did it would render much of the work pointless, but it is the most positive idea that Wells puts forward; beyond the destruction and the communism that Wells does not like the idea of, people retain a base level of feeling. It could be said that the traveller missed it because of the difference in culture and his overwhelming desire to find his time machine. (The worry over the disappearance of the machine is itself an irony that’s worth considering. Should the traveller have left time alone and not tried to meddle with it?) The supposed lack of interest the traveller believes the Eloi possess is also held to be suspicious. Maybe, just maybe, intelligence is still there, just that it differs so much that the traveller cannot comprehend it.

In sum, Wells wants to warn against extreme progression but is against suggesting that humanity could ever be entirely lost. There is some hope always.

Away from the messages, it’s worth looking at the place Wells’ book holds in literature. An early science fiction book, it is widely held to be the first book that explored the idea of time travel via a mechanism. It is both a book of politics and a damn good read in itself, and in an era, our era, wherein films don’t tend to look all that far into the future except to be able to create space ships and aliens, Wells looked all the way to the ends of the earth. For a short book it packs a punch, even if it does go on a little towards the end.

Something that is interesting to note is the way Wells deals with gender but never race. This of course is where the novella is a little dated because it likely reflects the whiteness that would’ve been Wells’ world, yet it’s worth a short ponder because of the way Wells uses the area that would’ve been London and the fact that as the capital it would have been one of the more diverse places. Perhaps Wells saw a one mixed race as too obvious to comment on or, (likely?), he simply didn’t consider it, but given the way he mixes women with men, thereby showing a potential relative interest in women having a higher place, it is a surprise of sorts that race is not spoken of.

Of future thought, however, there is the fact of time. The time traveller is with the Eloi for eight days which is three hours of Victorian time. When he disappears he is not seen in the three years the narrator speaks of. Could it be that in three Victorian years the traveller, in the chosen future, had time to live out his life, or did three Victorian years register as but days? And is there a significance to be found in the way that in the future his laboratory is replaced with a sphinx, or in the fact the it is the door to the Morlocks? (I think I’m going to have a write another post on this at some point.)

Have you read The Time Machine? What did you think of it?

Further Reading

The Symbolism Of The Sphinx In H G Wells’ The Time Machine


Tracy Terry

January 23, 2015, 1:35 pm

Despite having seen the film (the older version, I didn’t like the new version) more times than I care to remember I have yet to read the book.


January 23, 2015, 3:04 pm

I read this book as a teenager, so vaguely categorized it as “one of those early SF books where everyone is categorized” like Brave New World and even Divergent.


February 16, 2015, 11:59 am

Tracy Terry: Yes, I’ve heard the new one isn’t too good (and the older is better). It’s time you read the book ;)

Jeanne: Oo, I like that category categorising. It’s very true.



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