The Time Machine
An Investigation into Humanity and Society
Fantasy literature, in contrast to its imaginary literary world, is a reflection of reality. Those literary works always express their authors’ views on society, religion, humanity, morality and so on. Though very different in artistic techniques from realistic literature, fantasy literature has a strong sense of realism. In this thesis, I’ll help you find realism in fantasy literature by analyzing The Time Machine.
The Time Machine is a science fiction written by British writer Herbert George Wells. It was the first science fiction written by Wells and the first edition of the book was published in 1895. As you can infer from the title, the theme of the fiction is time traveling. It tells a story about how an inventor traveled to the future using the time machine invented by himself and what he saw and experienced during the journey. As a dystopian writer, H. G. Wells expressed his concerns and warnings about the society in the fiction cryptically.
Herbert George Wells, known as H. G. Wells, was born in 1866 in Kent. His parents once had a shop but soon the shop failed and there was no steady income for the family anymore, so the family suffered from destitution and little Herbert didn’t get much education when he was a child as his parents could not afford it. But in 1874, a small accident kept him bedridden with a broken leg for a while, and it was during that time that little Herbert became devoted to imaginary worlds in literature and his desire to write was stimulated as his only way to kill time was to read books.
However, he didn’t start writing and turn into a writer right away. Because of the poor condition of his family, he had to start working at a very young age. At first, he worked as an apprentice in a cloth shop. He was highly pressed there and the working condition was terrible, so it was an unpleasant job for him, which, however, was the reason why his works always paid attention to lower-class people and irrational social structure.
Wells was lucky enough to get a new job as a pupil-teacher in a grammar school, where he could continue his self-education. Later he got a scholarship and was admitted to the Royal College of Science, studying biology under the famous biologist Thomas Henry Huxley. Huxley was a frim advocator of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, so the theory had a strong impact on Wells. Therefore, evolution was often the theme of Wells’ stories, and the plots of the book which we’ll soon talk about, The Time Machine, depend a lot on evolution.
Besides studying biology, he entered the Debate Society of the school and soon he became interested in a possible reformation of society. His views on social reforms were reflected in most of his works.
His devotion to literature could also be fulfilled in school. He wrote several short stories about time traveling for the school newspaper in 1888, which was the beginning of his writing. After leaving school, he started making a living by writing articles for newspapers and magazines. In 1895, the stories written for his school newspaper was collected by himself and adapted to a long story called The Time Machine.
The Time Machine caused a sensation in the literary world. It was thought to be the first science fiction and H. G. Wells became well-known as the father of science fiction. Now please allow me to lead you to the world in the book, and I promise that you’ll be fascinated by the brilliant imagination of Wells.
The story is told from a narrator’s perspective. The protagonist of the story was a friend of the narrator, a scientist who was called Time Traveler. The Time Traveler had developed a theory that time is the fourth dimension besides the three dimensions that people had already known, and people could travel to the past or the future along the fourth dimension. He invented a time machine according to his theory, and went on a time journey to the future.
At first, he came to the year 802,701. Yes, there’s nothing wrong with your eyes, that’s more than eight hundred thousand years from his time.
On his arrival, he came across the Eloi, a society of childlike people. They were well-dressed, looked elegant, ate well, lived in luxury futuristic yet slowly deteriorating buildings, and most surprisingly, they didn’t work at all.
The Time Traveler tried to communicate with them, but it seemed that they lacked curiosity and had no interest in communicating with him. Therefore, he had to speculate that it was a communist society where human had conquered the nature with technology for a long time and people’s intelligence to survive was no more needed.
After he got back to the site where he arrived, he was surprised to find his time machine stolen and hidden into a nearby structure which was locked from the inside by another species, the Morlocks. He was lucky that he had removed the levers of the machine so it wouldn’t work, but he was unlucky that the Morlocks seemed hard to deal with. The Morlocks were horrible creatures and they looked just like chimpanzees. They lived underground because they were afraid of light, and they only came to the surface during the night.
To get his time machine back, the Time Traveler managed to get into the underground dwellings where the Morlocks lived and found countless industrial machines, which obviously supported the Eloi society. Seeing that, the Time Traveler had a new understanding of the two species. He thought the Eloi were those upper-class people and the Morlocks were those exploited working-class.
However, he was shocked when he found that the Morlocks were fed on Elois and it was then that he knew the Morlocks were rearing Elois for food. He finally realized that their relationship was not one of capitalists and workers but of livestock and ranchers.
The Time Traveler happened to see that an Eloi named Weena was nearly drown while none of other Elois took actions or even took any notice. He then saved Weena, with whom he developed a close but innocent relationship in the following days.
The Time Traveler took Weena with him on his way getting back his time machine and planned to take Weena to his own age. However, they were attacked by a Morlock at night on their way and Weena died in a fire set up by the Time Traveler to distract the Morlock.
The Morlocks used the time machine as a bait to catch the Time Traveler, not knowing it can be used to escape. Luckily, the time traveler successfully traveled to another time before the Morlocks could catch him, and that time was thirty million years from his own time. There, he saw strange creatures on a dying earth. He continuously made short jumps through time, seeing the earth rotating slower and slower and the sun growing larger and larger, then he finally witnessed a lifeless and silent world where the last degenerate living things had died out.
He dispiritedly came back to his own age and told his friends about his adventure, showing two strange flowers given by Weena as proofs to the disbelieving audience.
Having promised to come back soon before another time journey, the Time Traveler never came back.
A great story, isn’t it? Wells’ splendid imagination has brought us a brand-new world where we can treat ourselves to an incredible adventure to the future together with the Time Traveler. However, Wells’ ambition was not only to tell a great story, but also to express his views on humanity and society through literary ways.
Symbolization is one of the most important techniques used in this novel, and most opinions of the author were reflected in this way. The age in which Wells lived and had most of his famous works written was the Victorian era, when capitalism met its first peak. Though economy and technology were developing at a high speed that had never been seen in history, social problems also started to burst out. Considering Wells’ early life as a working-class, it may not be very difficult to find out what he wanted to tell us in this novel.
As it has been suggested in the story, the Eloi and the Morlocks were evolved from the human race. The Eloi lived an easy, or in some respects, banal life. They didn’t have to worry about food, clothes or dwellings, everything they needed would be perfectly prepared. They were good-mannered, yet coward and selfish. They would do nothing when their company fell into water and almost get drown, they were afraid of the Morlocks, and they never got united to fight against their enemies. Their lives and characters were just the same as capitalists in Victorian era except that they lived to be eaten by the Morlocks while those capitalists didn’t, and actually it was also implied in the story that their ancestors were indeed those upper-class people.
The Morlocks, on the contrary, were a symbol of those working-class people. They worked hard to support the Eloi society, they behaved rudely, they lived in poor conditions, and they paid no attention to their appearance (in fact they looked disgusting and they did not dress at all). The only difference between them and their ancestors, those workers in Victorian era, was that their ancestors were the exploited ones while they were at the top of the overall society of both the Eloi and the Morlocks.
I’d say it was an interesting reversal. Well, “interesting” may be a little cruel in this situation. but truly it was. Yeah, here comes what Wells wanted us to understand. There was a gap between the rich and the poor in Victorian era, and still it does exist now. For all these years since the rising of capitalist society, this gap has been widening continuously, and conflicts have been happening all the time.
Born in a poor family and growing up as a working-class teenager, Wells had seen the great differences between his peers as well as himself and his employers, and is well aware of the gap. He knew clearly that the social structure was preposterous, and the society needed a thorough reform. If we ignore this and do nothing, the stratification of human society will become uncontrollable, causing a social collapse.
That’s a warning to us from Wells. Though human’s evolution into two species and the “interesting” reversal of social positions are a little ridiculous from a scientific prospect of view, the problem itself was realistic and is still realistic now. In fact, such social upheavals did happen throughout the time of more than a whole century since the publishing of the book. In Victorian era, Wells had foreseen this. And today, we have to face this.
So, what should we do? Or what can we do?
We don’t know, and neither did Wells.
He found the problem, but he didn’t find out the answer to it. He was puzzled by himself, and his emotions were revealed in his words. If you read the book carefully enough, you can find that there’s a sense of sadness in the whole story.
There’s one particular plot that is worthwhile to be paid more attention to. The Time Traveler saved Weena, who would have been drown in the river without him, and decided to take Weena to his own age. However, having gone through many difficulties, Weena didn’t escape from the fate that she would die.
Of course, that’s not fatalism. In actuality, that’s an obscure expression of Wells’ deepest sorrow, for the human history and the incapability of people. Capitalism is of critical importance in the process of the development of human society, thus there must be a long period of time during which a minority of people are at the top of the society while other at the bottom. Class polarization is inhuman and bloody, while we can do nothing but to endure it, so long as we want the human race to get advanced continuously. Just like the Time Traveler couldn’t save Weena, neither could Wells come up an idea to save those who were at the bottom of the society, nor could he change the social system.
The story, beneath its surface of a science fiction or a fantasy novel, is a deep investigation into humanity and society. Should we sacrifice the justice of the society to accelerate the development of human? Shouldn’t we do something to save those exploited ones at the bottom of the society? What would happen if we just let things go?
By telling the story, Wells was questioning himself as wells as all his readers. It has been more than a century since the book was published, and these questions still remain unanswered.
I have read the book twice. When I read the Chinese edition for the first time at the age of 13, I was just fully attracted by the beautiful words used in the novel and splendid imagination of the author. Child as I was, the deep meanings of the story made no sense to me. However, when I just finished reading its original English edition recently, I felt lost and frustrated. The story was still interesting, but Wells’ thoughts depressed me. His sorrow became mine.
Today, capitalism still exists, and so does class differentiation. The human race does have developed a lot, and working-class people do live a better life now, while the social system is still as it was in Victorian era. The gap between the rich and the poor is wider, and capitalists in the old days have now become monopolists, using methods like setting up trusts or applying patents. Money flows from the poor to the rich, and wealth is concentrated to the top of the society.
At the same time, protests are staged every now and then. The exploited ones are calling for an equitable distribution of wealth, and furthermore, they’re fighting against those powerful rich ones for civil rights. Some caused economic and political turmoils in countries, and made the problems more complicated. Some started revolutions and succeeded, yet left some of the problems unsolved.
I can do nothing to help. Neither can you. Nor can every individual. Those problems are ones that the whole human race has to face directly, and they are too big to be solved at present. They are to be left to the future. And we can only leave them to the future.
But for Wells, we are living in the “future”, and nothing has changed. Though the “evolution” predicted in the novel hasn’t become reality yet, a thorough social reform or revolution also remains unhappened.
I can’t tell whether it’s lucky or unlucky for us that we don’t have time machines in the real world. Will those horrible predictions in the novel come true in the future? Or will the society change towards a better direction? At least, with no time machines, we don’t have to worry about that.
But, if we had time machines and were able to travel to the future, what will the future be like?
Only time will tell.