What is so fascinating on a second read of The Time Machine is how steeped in the Victorian frame of mind and belief that the narrative and its main character, the Time Traveler, are. Wells is also an early Modernist in how he constructs a narrative that focuses on Time, questioning how we experience it.
The Time Traveler travels to the year 802,701 and meets the human race as it is then, divided into two “worlds,” an upper and an underworld. After spending a week in this future time, he retrieves his time machine, stolen by the Morlocks of the Underworld, who feed on the beautiful, easily fatigued Eloi who live on the Earth’s surface, and travels even further into time, into the millions, and finds a world in time and space without the human race, and only sees a few large, mysterious crustacean-like creatures roaming the Earth. Eventually, he returns to the present year in which the frame narrative is set and tells the story which the unnamed narrator pens for his readers. I will not give away the ending for those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading this short, early work of science fiction.
The Time Traveler claims all bodies “must have extension in four directions” and that “there are really four dimensions,” the last direction and dimension each being duration and Time. “Time,” he claims, “is only a kind of Space” and that “There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it.” He goes on to say that, “Our mental existences, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time-Dimension with a uniform velocity from the cradle to the grave.”
He is right in believing that Time is a fourth dimension, and that the “direction” we move in through Time is the experience of duration, but I do not necessarily believe our mental lives are immaterial and without dimension, nor that, as he seems to imply, they move at a uniform velocity from birth to death. Of course, his definition of “immaterial” reads as “lacking in bodily form or substance” rather than as “irrelevant” as we use the word today. Nonetheless, our bodies and our minds experience Time, the seemingly forward movement into a future which is only experienced in an actual present; even the daydreams of future experiences we hope to know in reality that never live up to our fantasies are experienced in the present. We may think and dream about the future, but the future is nonexistent. Or does it exist?
This, along with the existence of the past, is at the heart of the concept of a time machine. What is implied in the very structure of this narrative is that a past, present, and future coexist at all times, that each bead of Time is, in some way, continuously occurring simultaneously with all the others, vibrating together in a harmony of eternal Being that none of us can experience because we have human bodies, weights that leave us stranded on the ground of the finite senses, senses that can only be transcended through mindful contemplation and death. As for the Traveler’s belief that our mental lives move forward in the dimension of Time, that is easily refuted by our daydreams of the future and our memories (whether false or accurate) of the past.
Wells was a product of his Victorian upbringing. The upper world and underworld that the Traveler visits undermines and exposes the distinct classes of London society, the servants who lived and worked below and the aristocrats that lived above in the domestic sphere, and which is also found in the public sphere, where the upper classes lived lives of pleasure and luxury thanks to the hard labor of the working-class poor, whom many of them employed or received rent from. He hints at the perceived physical and moral weakness that is a consequence of luxurious living when, in speaking of the Eloi, telling his listeners that they gave him language lessons in little doses, he says, “I never met people more indolent or more easily fatigued.” This remark is at the center of the fear many British people had concerning the society in which they lived: the 1880s and 1890s were the age of decadence, in which the British Empire was still at its height, earning wealth and buying luxury goods from its outlying territories, keeping its global power in place at the expense of the lives of its colonized peoples.
This is something the Traveler returns to near the narrative’s end when he remarks that, in witnessing the lives of the Eloi and Morlocks, “the human intellect . . . had committed suicide. It had set itself steadfastly towards comfort and ease, a balanced society with security and permanency as its watchword, it had attained its hopes—to come to this at last.” He seems to be mocking the Victorians who believed that they had achieved a perfect society, in which the classes were clearly defined, the upper being secure in their wealth and power because the lower were “secure” in having life and work to occupy themselves with. Yet, underneath it all there is and was, as he goes on to speak of the world he visited, one thing these worlds lacked—“absolute permanence.”
The Morlocks, as with the lower classes in the eyes of the aristocracy, were a continuous object of fear to the Eloi, as shown in how they come out at night, hoping to attack and kill the Eloi. In having wealth and power, neither of which is necessarily stable but can give man the fulfillment of his desires, it was feared that the aristocracy would rest on its laurels, believing it could continue on unharmed, while the lower classes toiled and never got much out of their pitiful lives. This would lead to idyll, thoughtless living by the aristocracy, some believed, while the initiative to become upwardly mobile was something, it was thought, the working class would never fail to have, which, if implemented successfully, would upset and overturn the balance of power in Victorian society. As the Traveler tells us, “There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need to change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.” This, domestically, along with the fear of reverse imperialism from the colonies abroad, were two of the potential realities the Victorians feared and did battle with in their literature and fiction.
The Time Machine is what great literature should be, thought provoking, instilling readers with questions one hopes can be solved, ideas to be worked out, and, of course, the desire to read more stories by the same author and other works just like it.