Herbert George Wells was born in Bromley, Kent, England, on September 21, 1866. His father was an unprosperous shop keeper, his mother a head housekeeper for a Sussex estate. Wells always loved to read, but his early formal education was uneven. At thirteen, he was apprenticed to a dry goods merchant. Four years later, after negotiating a release from his apprenticeship agreement, he obtained a teaching position at Midhurst Grammar School and simultaneously continued his studies. A year later, at eighteen, he won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science at South Kensington. There he studied under T. H. Huxley, whose ideas on biology and science were a lasting influence. During three years of study, he participated in the socialist gatherings of the Fabian Society in London.
The Time Machine is deservedly considered a science fiction classic. In it, Wells creates the intriguing world of the Morlocks and the Eloi, based on his concepts of human and social evolution. In this future world, the long-term dangers of an exaggerated class structure, in which the “have nots” are oppressed by the “haves,” become apparent. In Wells’s view, as often expressed by the time traveler, exploitation of the working classes produces a race of subhuman Morlocks, while years of self-indulgence and dependence lead to the moral degradation of the Eloi.
Geographically the story is confined to a small area near the Thames River in South Kensington, a suburb of London; it is the shift in time that makes the Setting unusual. The story ostensibly opens in the year of its telling, 1895, in the home of the unnamed time traveler. As the traveler takes over the role of narrator, the machine moves him into the year ad 802,701. Society has evolved into two races, the upper-world Eloi and the lower-world Morlocks. The narrator remains in the future for a week, during which time most of the action occurs.
The human Characters at the start of the story represent some of the types of people with whom Wells himself interacted. Each of these Characters-editor, journalist, medical man, psychologist, silent man, and argumentative man-is, in his own way, skeptical of the nameless time traveler’s journey. Only the narrator expresses belief in the traveler’s story. The traveler himself is presented as an extremely patient inventor, interested not only in scientific investigation but also in philosophic thought. The time traveler’s efforts to understand the mysteries surrounding him are expressed in exemplary logical style, but they demonstrate how easily the human mind can be deceived by appearances.
Wells once said that the challenge faced by a writer of scientific romances is to “trick” the reader into accepting some plausible assumption and then to make the story as human and as real as possible, avoiding unnecessary fantastic elements. The humanness of the traveler is particularly evident in his efforts to understand the world in which he finds himself and in the scenes in which he feels his isolation from other humans. And even though the reader suspects that the idea of a “fourth dimension” stretches known scientific facts, the traveler’s argument is developed so logically that time travel sounds plausible.
Wells’s theories of regressive evolution and his dissatisfaction with many of the social and economic factors of his own time contribute to the pessimistic tone of many sections of the novel. The traveler’s philosophical discourses show that the unpleasant picture of the future need not be realized, however. Choices available to humans in 1895, and to humans today, can indeed change the course of the future for the better. Welles’s shocking picture challenges the complacent view that “progress” left to itself always produces something better.
1. At the beginning of the story, how does the time traveler explain what happens to the demonstration model of his time machine? How does this fit in with his explanation of the “fourth dimension”?
1. Consider the physical aspects of Wells’s world of ad 802,701. Describe the land surface, waterways, climate, plants and animals, natural resources, and inhabitants as objectively as possible, as if you were writing an atlas entry about England at this time.
Among the seven full-length scientific romances written by Wells, three others were nearly as popular as The Time Machine. The Invisible Man tells the story of a young man who seeks power through the secret of invisibility, but discovers only isolation and insanity. The novel also shows the violence to which unbridled power can lead and the extent to which fear can overwhelm society.