The Time Machine
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The Time Machine Themes

by H.G. Wells

Major Themes

Critique of Capitalism

"The Time Machine" is Wells's Socialist warning of what will befall mankind if capitalism continues to exploit workers for the benefits of the rich. As the Time Traveler theorizes, the working class has been pushed underground for so long that it has evolved into a distinct, nocturnal species. The upper class has remained above ground, and their advanced civilization, stocked with amenities, has turned them into weak, lazy, and dependent creatures. But at some point the underground group--the Morlocks--ran out of food and was forced to hunt down the Eloi, which it now breeds like cattle. While the TT deems this turning of the tables merely an act of survival, to Wells it may have meant more. Schooled in Marxism, he may have seen in the origins of the Morlocks' revolution what is known in Communism as "class consciousness"; the working class sees itself as oppressed--it becomes conscious of its class--and bonds together to overthrow the ruling class. While the Morlocks evidence no signs of abstract thought (nor do the Eloi), we can see their revolution as a form of Marxist evolution. Wells tells his Victorian audience to look at its own time, in which the industrial revolution has further divided the classes, and consider the possibility of its turning into the Eloi if capitalism continues to run rampant.

Social Darwinism and Evolution

One of the major social theories of the late 19th-century adapted Charles Darwin's theories on evolution to justify 19th-century social stratification between the rich and poor. In "Origin of the Species," Darwin argued that different environments encouraged the reproduction of those species whose varying traits best suited them to survive; their offspring, in turn, would be better adapted for the new environment, as would their offspring, and so on. Social Darwinism frequently abused this concept of "natural selection." Evolution does not lead to the "perfectibility" of any species, as is generally perceived, but to the increasing adaptability and complexity of a species. Social Darwinism ignored this idea and contended that the social environment was much like the cutthroat natural environment, and that those who succeeded were biologically destined to do so and to continue in their march to human perfection. On the flip side, those who failed had inferior traits and deserved to do so.

Wells spots the holes in this argument. In "The Time Machine," the beautiful Eloi seem, at first, to be the perfect inhabitants of an advanced age. But the Time Traveler soon discovers that the advancements of civilization have enfeebled the Eloi; without any pressing requirements for survival, they have become weak, lazy, and stupid. While their civilization has seemingly become perfect, they have become decidedly imperfect. In other words, evolution has problems in application to the world of mankind, since man changes his environment as he himself changes. Therefore, the changing environment may not always produce desirable changes in man, and Social Darwinism's argument that those who succeed in a given environment are naturally superior is not valid. Wells uses more ironies in the novel to pound home this point: the TT turns into a near-primal savage in his dealings with the Morlocks, for instance, and he finds little use from the more advanced displays in the Palace of Green Porcelain (such as the ruined literature), opting instead for a simple lever as a weapon. Though the TT is in the world of 802,701 AD, behavior and tools of prehistoric man--such as fire, his main ally against the Morlocks--are more effective; he must devolve to survive in the evolved world.


The concept of entropy (from the Second Law of Thermodynamics) states that systems tend toward disorder and loss of energy over time, an idea many perceive as contradictory to evolution, since evolution implies that systems grow more ordered in their complexity over time. Wells is clearly a believer in entropy, as evidenced by two parts of "The Time Machine." The futuristic Eloi personify entropy; they are lazy, dull creatures whose energy is easily sapped (note how Weena can never keep up with the Time Traveler) and who live in chaotic fear of the Morlocks. But Wells explores natural entropy in Chapter XI, when the TT journeys into a future that slowly loses its energy (the earth stops moving, the sun dies, the winds cease). Ultimately, Wells's championing of entropy forms his argument against the existence of Social Darwinism (see above); rather than becoming more perfect, we are gradually losing our energy.

Relativity of Time

The Time Traveler explains some basic concepts of relativity in Chapter I, proposing that time is a fourth dimension of space and that we overlook this because "our consciousness moves along it." (Relativity would become an enormously influential and realized concept when Albert Einstein wrote a groundbreaking paper on it in 1905.) While "The Time Machine" is less a work of hard science than one of social science, Wells holds true to some of these ideas. For instance, the TT does not instantly appear in some future or past point, but must travel through time at an increased rate to get there; he goes into the future, for instance, by moving quickly relative to normal time. He also remains in the same space, since the Time Machine only moves along this fourth dimension (however, if the Time Machine were truly to stay in the same space, it would end up in some part of space as the earth revolved around the sun--but perhaps Wells assumed the machine would stay bounded by the earth's gravitational pull). Wells skirts some logical problems with time travel by using backwards travel only when the TT returns, and thus eliminates cause-and-effect paradoxes (for instance, if the Time Traveler killed his past self, he could not logically have existed in the future to perform such an act).

The White Sphinx

The White Sphinx is a curious landmark in 802,701 AD. The Morlocks stow the Time Machine inside its enclosed bronze pedestal, so it becomes a symbolic and literal barrier for the Time Traveler, much as the sphinx blocked the entrance for the Greek hero Oedipus. But the sphinx has a direct relationship to the Time Traveler's plight; a symbol of futurity and of man's submission to God, the Egyptian Sphinx faces the rising sun god Ra each day in worship. The TT, on the other hand, must in some ways defy God by embracing rational science as he gains mastery over time, and he must also break into the sphinx to escape from the future and go back in time. An additional irony of the sphinx is that the future inhabitants of 802,701 AD still seem to worship an idol as they did in ancient Egypt.

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