This book is the archetypal “scientific romance”, the wondrous joy that set the tone and mood for all others of its ilk to follow. I’ve started with The Time Machine, as it’s my favourite book or story. I read it as a sixteen year old and it had the most profound effect upon me. It was this novella that spurred me into a writing escapade of my own. Forsooth, my first book was an attempted sequel to it. Yes, it was not very good though I wish I still had it…
According to shmoop.com, this was Wells’ first published novel (though he had published many short stories beforehand). Wells had written about time travel before in a short story called the Chronic Argonauts. That story was expanded upon, and at the urging of his publisher, Wells wrote the novella, where it was serialised in The New Review. Reputedly, he was paid £100 for his efforts, a sizeable sum in 1895. It has never been out of print since.
The novella is written in the style of a third party narration, where an unnamed guest (though he’s identified as Hillyer in some sources) is recording the words and deeds of the Time Traveller. So in effect, it’s written from the viewpoint of two people.
At 33000 words, it’s brief and is easily read in an afternoon. It is in the public domain in many places and can be found in downloadable form if searched for.
At this point, I need to be clear that there were two published versions of The Time Machine. The novel was submitted simultaneously to English and American publishers, and the text of the American Holt version differs from the English Heinemann edition. This review refers to the Heinemann edition. In addition, a section of Chapter Eleven was removed at Wells’ insistence. This segment is commonly known as The Grey Man and can be found here.
The Time Traveller (who isn’t named) is gathered with a group of his friends, where he starts to discuss his theories of time. The novella has arguably one of the more awkward sounding introductions in literature:
The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us.
I remember having to consult a dictionary with reference to “recondite” and “expounding” – neither of which were words in the canon of a sixteen year old. Even so, it’s an odd and off-putting introduction, and much has been made of it elsewhere. The American Holt edition has a syntactically simpler introduction.
All right, the Time Traveller is discussing time with a select group of friends, and he demonstrates a small example model of a time machine. While his friends watch with varying states of credulity, he sends the model into the future. He then takes the party to his workshop to view a larger model upon which he intends to go travelling.
We return to the house in Richmond, London a week later, with a slightly different cast of friends. The Time Traveller is late for dinner, but arrives shortly after in a very dishevelled state. While his friends listen (and the narrator records) the Time Traveller gives a recounting of his adventures into the future. He travelled to 802,701 AD, where he finds a ruined yet outwardly idyllic landscape, of bountiful fruit trees, endless gardens and tumbled and deteriorated buildings. He encounters the Eloi, who are small child-like folk approximately the size and shape of a seven or eight year old child. He rescues one of these from drowning, and notes at the time the complete insouciance and disregard the Eloi have for each other when imperilled.
The Eloi live an ostensibly serene existence, doing no work or toil, living out their days playing games and other carefree pastimes. Apart from an initial curiosity, the Eloi pay the Time Traveller no further regard, an attitude that gives the traveller some pause.
Returning to the area where he arrived in this age, he finds his time machine gone, seemingly dragged by some unknown force into the base of a large sphinx-like statue nearby. It’s about this time he realises that humanity has diverged into two separate strains after witnessing a Morlock escape a cluster of falling masonry to run and clamber down a well-like structure further away. He’d previously wondered why the Eloi were not active at night, and stayed in doors in tight knit groups.
He develops a paternal (and innocently happy) relationship with the Eloi he rescued, who gives her name as Weena. From her, he learns the rudiments of the Eloi language, and some basic information about the world including the startling fact that fear had not yet left the human world. She makes it clear to the Time Traveller that she (and presumably the remainder of the Eloi) live in fear of the new moon, when the night is completely dark.
The reason for this is made clear to the Time Traveller after he descends the well into the Morlock’s domain. He sees meat on a table and later makes the connection that the Morlocks eat the Eloi – they are their only source of food. He also wakes pre-dawn one morning to see a brace of Morlocks scurry away holding a captive between them.
The Time Traveller, devising a plan to retrieve his machine, takes Weena and heads to a distant building, which he dubs the Palace of Green Porcelain. There he finds it is a museum, complete with a whole array of varying exhibits. More importantly, he finds both a weapon in the form of a lever, light in a box of matches and fuel in a lump of camphor.
So armed and with Weena in company, the Time Traveller starts out on his return walk back to the vicinity of the sphinx. Night falls, and he and Weena are beset by Morlocks. He keeps them at bay by lighting a fire, which quickly gets out of control in the dry underbrush. During the fight with the Morlocks, he loses sight of Weena (who had fainted) and her ultimate fate remains unknown.
The next morning, he returns to find the base of the sphinx open and his time machine in plain view. Avoiding another close call from the Morlocks, he moves ahead into the future. There, he discovers a world in its final days, all trace of mankind vanished into the ages. The sun is a huge red orb, the oceans still, the air thin and what life there is, is a sad pitiful remnant of what once was.
He returns to his own age, where he relates the tale (dutifully recorded by the narrator). The following day, prepared with provisions and supplies, he travels again on the machine, never to be seen by friend again.
At its heart, The Time Machine is a story of those who have and those who have not. The Eloi have it all – leisure time, freedom, happiness, the open air, sunlight, peace, and though it’s implied, there’s signs of sexual liberation. The Morlocks are the have nots. You could argue they have freedom in their own way, but they are also beholden to their habits. In truth, both races are products of hundreds of thousands of years of divergent evolution.
You see, the story is a fictional relating of the class and social theories Wells held. His Time Traveller (who often acts a mouthpiece for Wells) theorises that the Eloi and the Morlocks are the end product of a separate evolutionary process that started in 1800’s Industrial Revolution England. For as much as The Time Machine is an adventure story, it’s a social treatise. The Eloi are the descendants of the upper classes and the Morlocks are the proletariat, the working classes slaving away in the dim factories of the late 1800s.
Yet, as the novella eventually portrays, there is interdependence – nearly a mutualism, to use an ecological term. Both races are bound to each other, are exactly one half of a total ecosystem. They cannot survive without each other, though there is absolutely no beneficial contact between the two species. You see, the Eloi rely upon the Morlocks for their clothing, housewares and other utensils, and in turn, the Morlocks rely upon the Eloi for food.
This aspect of the story was not obvious to me when I first read it. What moved me the most was Weena, specifically her loss that night on the hill. I can’t say it as effectively as Wells said it, so let me quote it here – my exact feelings on this. These are the last words of the story.
And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers—shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle—to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.
For all the futurity, and the gulf between the Time Traveller and Weena, the time they shared together – as innocent as it was – was a reaffirmation that the humanity and the scope for compassion had never left the Eloi. That simple act where Weena filled the Time Traveller’s pockets with flowers. Or when she tried in vain to stop him from climbing down the well into the lair of the Morlocks. Plain and simple heartfelt gestures. Sweet and trusting moments.
And it makes her loss that night on the hill that much more poignant. So, this novella works at many levels. For sure, there’s the Social Darwinism, the evolutionary divergence, the communistic overtones, the ultimate sense of futility of human ambition but underpinning it all is the attachment to basic human values. The desire for company, the need for shared affection, and resolution in the face of adversity.
It’s what makes The Time Machine the greatest tale ever written.