I remember reading The Time Machine back in junior high, but I recently found it while looking for a copy of another book, and I decided to re-read it.
The novel begins with our protagonist, called simply the Time Traveller, in his parlor “expounding a recondite matter” (p. 3) to some of his friends. He explains, “‘There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time'” (p. 4). He is immediately met with the objection of why, if time is no different a dimension from space, we cannot move in time the way we can in space. He replies that we in fact can, and shows them a miniature time machine he has constructed. He sets it off, which disappears and he claims it has moved through time. Of course, this is met with skepticism.
The next Thursday, his guests are again at his home, awaiting the Time Traveller’s arrival for dinner. He is late, and when he finally arrives he is in a horrible condition: “His coat was dusty and dirty, and smeared with green down the sleeves; his hair disordered, and as it seemed to me greyer – either with dust and dirt or because its colour had actually faded. His face was ghastly pale; his chin had a brown cut on it – a cut half healed; his expression was haggard and drawn, as by intense suffering” (p. 13). After eating, he sits down and tells his guests about his journey into the future. Up to this point, the novel was narrated by the guest, but now it essentially becomes a first-person narrative from the Time Traveller’s perspective.
The Time Traveller reaches the year A.D. 802701, and is surprised when it appears that the only creatures are a small, gentle, child-like race known as the Eloi that spend most of the day in robes and playing with each other. However, his next day in the future, he discovers that his time machine is no longer where he left it. In the next few days, he realizes that there is an underground race, which look more like monkeys than men, which produce the products for the Eloi. However, he also realized that the underground race, known as the Morlocks, hunt the Eloi in the night for food. In an adventurous final two nights in the year 802701, he finally manages to access his Time Machine (which was taken and stored by the Morlocks) and eventually manages to travel home.
A major theme running through The Time Machine is that things are never so simple as they first appear. This begins with the Time Traveller’s remarks in the beginning of the book that, although time seems totally different from height, width, and depth, it is in fact just as much a dimension as they are. It also apparent when he travels in the future. He at first thinks that the Eloi are the only race, and that they are the product of humanity reaching a perfect state of security: without danger, their minds devolved: “‘Very simple was my explanation, and plausible enough – as most wrong theories are!'” (p. 33). When he then thinks up another theory to explain the Morlocks, he remarks “‘It was an obvious conclusion, but it was absolutely wrong'” (p. 40). This comes out especially right after the climax:
‘About eight or nine in the morning I came to the same seat of yellow metal from which I had viewed the world upon the evening of my arrival. I thought of my hasty conclusions upon that evening and could not refrain from laughing bitterly at my confidence. Here was the same beautiful scene, the same abundant foliage, the same splendid palaces and magnificent ruins, the same silver river running between its fertile banks. The gay robes of the beautiful people moved hither and thither among the trees … I understood now what all the beauty of the Upperworld people covered.’ (p.78).
Another related point seen throughout the novel is the astonishing power of time to transform. Not only is time like the other dimensions, in some ways it’s more powerful than they are. The Time Traveller frequently speaks of the year 802701 as if it were a totally different planet than Earth. Wells is excellent at describing environments and making the reader feel like they are experiencing them. This comes out in the end of the book, where the Time Traveller travels millions of years into the future before finally returning back home:
‘The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives – all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.’ (p. 85).
This helps what I think was Wells’s desire in writing the book: for it to act as a prophecy about what changes now would mean for the future fate of mankind. Though it is not obvious at first, what seem like small changes now carried out over vast lengths of time have grave consequences. Specifically, the Time Traveller remarks that the division between the Eloi and Morlocks first began when the upper-class began exploiting and moving further and further away from the lower-class, which eventually led to their total separation – one above ground, the other below – and evolution then took its course.
In conclusion, Wells was a pioneer of science fiction, and here he uses it very well for what would later become a common use of the genre: prophecy. Although his application of the theory of evolution to this end is a bit much, the fact remains that The Time Machine is an extremely engaging and well-written novel.
Novel quotes are taken from the 2007 Penguin Red Classic edition of The Time Machine.