Literary Analysis Of The Time Machine By H. G. Wells

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

Transition into the twentieth century incorporated more than just the change of numbers. The Victorian era brought about scientific discoveries, a variety of literary movements, and the industrial revolution with all its benefits and challenges (Hammond 11). However, this era came to an abrupt halt with political and societal tensions. From the shift between these two world states came the works of H. G. Wells. Because of this, Wells’ books have been interpreted differently depending upon which time frame and literary movement the analysts choose to emphasize. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells builds upon previous literary movements and relevant challenges to society to initiate literary techniques used in the future modernist era.

The Time Machine’s development and synthesis coincided with the apex of the Victorian era (Hammond 77). Wells drew from elements of this time period, weaving some aspects of this age into the fabric of the story. At the same time, elements of his story counter these Victorian aspects. One such aspect is drawing on imperialism to create the future scenario. The British practiced imperialism in asserting their dominance over non-European tribes. Imperialist stories became popular during the mid-1880s, attempting to justify European dominance. One aspect of imperialism is orientalism: using polarized concepts to consistently place European culture over the savage cultures. For instance, Wells categorized the Eloi as submissive, passive, and inactive while portraying the Time Traveller as inquisitive, forceful, and active. Another characteristic of the imperialist romance is the love affair between the European and an indigenous woman. This is evident in The Time Machine when the Time Traveller falls in love with the indigenous Weena. However, despite using imperialism as a base line for plot, Wells satirized the principles of imperialism. The Morlocks, representing the oppressed tribes, overthrow the Eloi, representing the British oppressors, creating the scenario the British feared and tried to prevent. Wells framed his plot with elements of imperialism while condemning its practices.

Along with the Victorian era came an atmosphere of innovation and experimentation. From this wave of scientific principles came the development of modern psychology along with the theory of evolution. Wells also employed these aspects of the time period in The Time Machine. The Time Traveller spends most of his visit in a psychological condition of fear and hysteria, a state that biases the narrative and questions the authenticity of every statement the Time Traveller makes (Hovanec 468). Darwin hypothesized that creatures only possess qualities such as intelligence or complexity if these traits are advantageous for natural selection (James 58-59). The popular opinion was that evolution invariably led to progress. Wells rebuffed this theory, preferring the motif that “the growing pile of civilization may be only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end.” Wells made a controversial interpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution by hypothesizing that a currently useful and valued trait can be destroyed through natural selection when it no longer serves a purpose. This is presented in the book through the Eloi: creatures with simple and concrete vocabulary, no written language, and no taste for art or beauty.

During the Victorian era, a primary method of scientific inquiry was empiricism, accumulation of knowledge from observation and experience. Once again, Wells used this principle to expose the fallacies in this line of thought (Hammond 80). Wells set empiricism up to fail from the beginning of the novel. When the Time Traveller demonstrates his time machine prototype, the proof that his invention works relies on two premises. The first premise is that the vision of the miniature time machine disappearing is reliable, and the second premise is that multiple witnesses are necessary to confirm the vision. The Time Machine uses the limits of the Time Traveller’s eyesight in both extreme light and darkness to emphasize that vision is objective, thus skewing the first premise. The Time Traveller’s first-person narration without any other witnesses nullifies the second premise. At the end of the narration, the frame narrator is the only one in the room who even partially believes the story, exposing the issue of combining science and subjectivity (Hovanec 470).

“If romance is enjoyable but in no way improving, and realism too complicit in social conditions, then Wells implies an ideal of fiction that should combine aspects of both.” Because this book was written in a transitional literary period, Wells drew his story from several diverse philosophies. Wells both incorporated and ironized the traditional romantic novel. By beginning with a discussion of time, Wells employed elements of the Romantic style to attract readers. However, the book quickly changed direction, transitioning from a book highlighting emotion and thought to a book exposing current concerns for society. A popular aspect of the Romantic period was Aestheticism, or the principle of “art for art’s sake”. Although Wells appreciated art with cultural or historical significance, Wells is often considered an anti-Aesthetic. His opposition to Aestheticism is shown through the ruined books and artifacts in the museum of green porcelain. The vision suggests cultural memory devolving in a perfect world where it is no longer needed. This in turn provided Wells with the evolutionary science to justify a world of beauty with no cultural significance. On the other hand, Wells partially endorsed Aestheticism through the unique experience of traveling through time. The vivid scene of the world falling behind is purely an aesthetic depiction; however, it serves a purpose of giving the Time Traveller an idea of the evolutionary time scale.

Realism is also prevalent throughout The Time Machine. Realism portrays the plight of the common man. In the juxtaposition of the Eloi and the Morlocks, “The book…models the tensions and dilemmas of its time” (Hammond 74). Through the extreme class divisions of the working class Morlocks and the social elite Eloi, Wells emphasized the faults of the real world. Naturalism and the line between civilization and savagery is also somewhat incorporated into the novel. The Time Machine climaxes with the dehumanization of the Time Traveller after he is forced to fight the primitive Morlocks (James 63). Throughout his life, Wells never strayed from the philosophy that “man is inherently animal and there is no reason whatever to believe that the order of nature has any greater bias in favour of man than it had in favour of the ichthyosaur or the pterodactyl.” In this sense, Wells used scientific innovation to force the readers to grapple with real material concerns of the time period. However, considering the Time Traveller makes an impossible leap into the future, Realism has a negligible influence on plotline. The Realism principles and scientific plotline places The Time Machine into the scientific-realism category.

Fin-de-siècle, or the turn of the century, time frame is widely considered the precursor to Modernism. Due to several allusions, the beginning and end of The Time Machine is obviously set in this time period. In this era, a pessimistic viewpoint of the world arose that carried into the Modernist era. Wells intentionally wrapped his pessimism towards the current world into an anti-utopia. Many utopian novels were synthesized from 1860 to 1905. The Time Machine’s setting in the distant future and the speculation over Britain’s place in the evolution of the world was common with the time period. However, Wells chose to focus more on the realist aspects of the degrading socioeconomic Britain rather than the potential of a perfect world, differing from the viewpoints of this time. In this sense, Wells’ work followed along an anti-utopian realism more common in the Modernist era. By combining elements of science, adventure, and real-world issues, The Time Machine turned the scientific-romance into the roots of science-fiction (James 12). The anti-utopian format presents the Time Traveller’s disillusionment in the seemingly perfect world and Wells’ disappointment in society evidenced by his political views. When Wells produced The Time Machine, he withdrew from political activism as if trying to advocate his ideology through a different medium (Taunton, “H. G. Wells’s Politics”).

As a writer in the period tying two worlds of literature together, Wells also exhibited traces of the upcoming Modernist literary movement. One facet of Well’s modernist tendencies was his writing style. Wells believed that no rules or restrictions could be placed on a novel or any other artistic work. Humans never fully develop and constantly adapt to their environment; therefore, a novel must also be provisional and open to interpretation. One writing technique that Wells used is called delayed decoding, which occurs in a novel when the author gradually reveals the entire truth. Delayed decoding is featured in The Time Machine through the Time Traveller’s series of hypotheses interpreting his experiences in the future. By using this technique, Wells satirized imperialism. The Time Traveller believes he can walk into any lesser society and fully understand the workings of that society. As he gradually learns more, he realizes how little he comprehends about this new culture. Also, the delayed decoding leaves the reader uncertain whether the final hypothesis is true. Another aspect of Wells’ writing is the somewhat disjointed narrative that appears to occasionally jump between the future and the dinner party room (Ruddick 339). This narriative displays a story within a story, commonly found in fin-de-siècle works. His discursive and disjointed story is the precursor to the fragmented narrative, a common technique found in Modernist works.

In addition, aspects of Modernism appear in some perspectives Wells addresses. One such concept is the different temporal perspectives. When traveling into the year 802,701, The Time Machine juxtaposes transient historical time and cultural memory to the power of interminable evolutionary and geological time. Under this disparity, historical time becomes insignificant. Time travel opposes the idea that plot events must connect through time and causality (James 57). This concept is furthered with the comparison of the guests’ trivial concerns of the present to the gross concerns of civilization with the passing of evolutionary time. Comparisons of both geological features such as bodies of water and star patterns and infrastructure demonstrate the geological impacts and further the insignificance of historical time. Overall, the book incorporates the frightening idea “that man is simply one of many species and is subject to the same immutable laws governing all forms of life.”

To show how the time frame and the literary movements affect the novel’s analysis, the portrayal of the Eloi and Morlocks is examined through the eyes of several critiques. Most critics agree that the Eloi represent the British elite and the Morlocks the impoverished workers that have separated into two distinct races. From an imperialist perspective, the Morlocks represent the subjugated colonists taking revenge on the British controllers (Cantor and Hufnagel, 43). From an Aesthetic viewpoint, the Eloi represent the problem of beauty with no useful purpose. With temporality in mind, the vast differences between humans and the two evolved species highlights how a vast, evolutionary time frame supersedes historical time and the insignificance of current history. This array of interpretation demonstrates the difficulty in classifying this novel.

The Time Machine is a unique blend of fallible first-person narration, anti-utopia, and satire. Wells manages to satirize, criticize, and utilize all periods and literary styles surrounding him (James 12). Born out of a time of world-wide upheaval, this transitional book ushers in a new era of thought and creativity in writing. Wells truly symbolizes this change and all it entails. The transition to modernism was not simple, and Wells helped to close the gap between the differences in societal structure by connecting his unfamiliar and foreign ideologies to the familiar and comfortable movements of the past. 


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