H.G. Wells’ „The Time Machine" in Terms of "Victorian Class Struggle" and "Evolution"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006
24 Pages, Grade: "-"


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Literary structure
2.1 Function of the Narrative frame
2.2 The Narrators
2.3 The Protagonist: Time Traveller
2.4 Structure of Time and Place

3. Historical Background
3.1 Eloi vs. Morlocks image of a late nineteenth-century class struggle

4. Eloi and Morlocks – Failures of Evolution?
4.1 Social Darwinism

5. Summary

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In this paper, I am going to explore the concept of evolution in H.G Well’s "The Time Machine”. This enormously successful and influential novel, first published in 1895, has been made into two movies in the twentieth century. The novel is generally credited with the concept of time travel using a vehicle which allows the user to explore the fourth dimension by going forward or backwards in time. On another level it is a critical view of the late nineteenth-century Victorian society, and an early masterpiece of dystopian writing. Historically considered, it is one of the first science fiction writings ever published. Wells himself called his work “scientific Romance” and the majority of reviewers at the time used the term, too. “The Time Machine” was later seen by literary historians as having laid the path for modern science fiction writing. Moreover, the novel utters a sharp criticism of the decadence of the bourgeoisie and provides a critical perspective on the growing gap between upper and lower class in Wells’ own time. The main themes and leitmotifs are very ambiguous. The plot illustrates how a typical utopian paradise turns into a dark dystopian vision of a remote future for mankind.

In the first part of my paper, the focus lies on the novel’s structure as well as on the specific literary devices employed. This includes the narrative frame, interesting aspects of the narration and the protagonist, who is simply, yet amply named “The Time Traveller” and an overview of the extraordinary structures of time and place.

Most of the supporting characters e.g. the psychologist, the young man or the lawyer are also nameless. They are representing different parts of society and stand for the elite. Their minor roles are almost neglected, because there is no real “second plot”, but a narrative frame, whose function will be explored later on. I will give a short overview of the work’s historical background and some biographical information on H.G. Wells, which should help to understand some significant connections between his life and work. After the technical explanations, which should give an impression of the complexity of the narrations structure, I will discuss with special emphasis how the “Eloi” and the “Morlocks” symbolize the class-struggle in Victorian society. This is one of the most remarkable aspects of Wells’ work, in which way this critical view on the contemporary society is encrypted, comparable with other works, we talked about in the seminar, e.g. Jonathan Swifts “Gulliver’s Travels”, or Jonathan Butler’s ”Erewhon”. A precisely elaborated method which prevented the authors from difficulties with the rigorous authorities of their time.

Finally, I will elaborate on the connection between Wells’ novel and Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, what is of special interest, because the author’s ideas where very sophisticated, compared with the state of the scientific and technical knowledge of this period. I will define “Social Darwinism” and debate the change of the Traveller’s point of view. Several ambiguities and different leitmotifs will be analyzed. After having evaluated the book’s significance within its historical context, I will conclude my paper with a brief comment on my own reading experiences and discuss what “The Time Machine” still has to offer to post-modern readers.

Direct quotations and page numbers originate from the text version edited by Dieter Hamblock and published by Reclam in 1984.

2. Literary structure

For over fifty years after the original publication of “the Time Machine”, until his death in 1946, Wells commented repeatedly on his narrative technique: “The more fantastic the narrative, the more ordinary the frame has to be.”[1] This quotation relates to the two different levels of the story. The narrative frame is set in a late nineteenth century “club-men atmosphere”[2], consisting mainly of the Time Traveller, the narrator and a couple of different characters of minor importance. The central narrative is a fantastic adventure, set in the year 802.701, where the most important and longest part of the plot takes place. In the last part of his journey through time, he ends up in an even further future 35 million years from now, in which all signs of human life have vanished. He returns to the late 19th century for a couple of hours and disappears forever in the very end. In the epilogue a friend of his is speculating about his fate and destination.

2.1 Function of the Narrative frame

The composition of the whole text is very straightforward. The narrative frame is only used in the first two chapters and in the very end of the narration. It is a story within a story. The main narrative starts in the Time Traveller’s house. It begins with a lecture given by the Time Traveller himself about the fourth dimension and the possibility to move within it in the same manner as in the other three dimensions. Wells makes use of an idea of the contemporary mathematician and astronomer Simon Newcomb who called his theory “The Four Dimensional Geometry”.[3] Michio Kaku finds that Wells anticipates the concepts of Einstein, who later assumed that the fourth dimension would be time and not, as popular opinion held it at the time, an extra dimension of space.[4] These scientific excursus familiarize the reader with the possibility of time travel; a concept that must have seemed even more absurd in Wells’ time than it would today. A further reason for the author to include a frame story, set in an upper-middle class environment, would be to let the reader know that the story takes place in Victorian England, in a world of gas lamps, cigars, and gentlemen with the leisure time to discuss topics like the fourth dimension.[5]

Bernard Bergonzi compares the narrative frame with the beginnings of several short stories by Rudyard Kipling which all start in the same way. Its function is to give the reader a basis in contemporary life at its most ordinary.[6] Bergonzi notes that the atmosphere of the frame creates a sharp contrast to what is to follow. It lends credibility to the central narrative, preventing it from being seen as a mere fairy tale. On the one hand it makes the plot appear more realistic, on the other hand it prepares the reader for the protagonist’s fantastic adventures. Schnackerts calls this technique “schrittweise Domestikation des Unmöglichen”.[7]

The author himself describes the intended effect in the following way:

“For the writer of fantastic stories to help the reader to play the game properly, he must help him in every unobtrusive way to domesticate the impossible hypothesis. He must trick him into an unwary concession to plausible assumption and get on with his story while the illusion holds…”[8]

In the following part, after the small model of the time machine has vanished and the full- scale machine is presented, the author uses romantic and impressionistic methods to underline the reader’s impression of a real time machine. He describes it as follows:

“Parts were nickel, parts were ivory, parts had certainly been filled or sawn out of rock crystal. The thing was generally complete, but the twisted crystalline bars lay unfinished upon the bench beside some sheets of drawings…”[9]

Wells gives details, but does not truly explain how the mechanism really works. Since this would be impossible, he has to divert the reader’s attention at this point. Bergonzi writes about this method, that the assemblage of details is, strictly speaking, meaningless but nevertheless very effectively conveys a sense of the machine without forcing the author to give a direct description.[10]

In the second chapter, the dishevelled Time Traveller stumbles into his room, where his friends are waiting for him. It thereby becomes plausible to the reader that he must have been travelling in time. The curiosity of the reader is growing, because he becomes aware of the fact that the central narrative is already over before he has read it. This paradox sets up a good amount of suspense and increases the interest and expectation of what has happened to the Time Traveller.

2.2 The Narrators

The first remarkable quality of the text is the existence of two different narrators. In the first two chapters and in the very end of the text, one of the Time Traveller’s friends is telling the story, but in the novel’s main body, the Time Traveller himself is taking over the role of the storyteller. The most significant difference between the two different narrators is that the Time Traveller is also the protagonist, who is experiencing the adventure himself, while the first narrator is only a part of the Time Traveller’s audience. He becomes another listener and is from that point onwards in the same receptive position as the reader and the other people listening to the Time Traveller’s tale, until the end, when he resumes his role as narrator.[11]

His name “Hillyer” is very rarely used and was even erased in some of the multiple editions of the text. His function is to support the Time Traveller’s claims, assuming the role of an interpreter for the reader. A anonymous comment on the Internet suggests that his most important function is to suspend his disbelief of such a fantastic concept as time travel, and, by doing so, provide a measure of realism to balance the unreal nature of the rest of the story.[12] This assumption seems to be plausible. This fits well with his function within the novel’s overall narrative frame. His purpose is also to encourage the reader into considering the possibility that such a utopian thing as time travel could actually be realized in the future. Hillyer`s doubts are diminished in the course of time and so are the readers`. He gathers more and more evidence that the protagonist has really been travelling through time. In the very end he is convinced that the Time Traveller’s tale is true, which becomes evident in the last sentence of the narrative, the reason being that he owns two white flowers brought back through time by the Traveller:

“And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers – shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle – two witness what even when my mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.”[13]

Both storytellers are classical examples of first-person-narrators. The first one even directly addresses the reader e.g. in the end of the second chapter, right before the Time Traveller takes over his part. He even doubts the quality of his narration, a quality that makes him more authentic:

“In writing it down I feel with only too much keenness the inadequacy of pen and ink – and above all, my own inadequacy – to express its quality.”[14]

The Time Traveller as narrator has a different point of view. He is in the middle of the action. Robert Philmus argues that, though his point of view is more comprehensive than that of any of the other characters (including Hillyer), it is still limited; and this limitation finds its structural correlative in the fact that his narrative is related second-hand, as it were, three years after his disappearance.[15]

This is another reason for the reader to be unsure of the reliability of the whole story since he realizes in the end that Hillyer wrote his narrative three years after the Time Traveller disappeared and was never seen again.

As I will show later, the narration of the Time Traveller can be seen as very closely related to his role as a classical hero of a great adventure. One characteristic of his narrative to be mentioned here is its unreliability.

The characters who listen to the Time Traveller telling his story are sceptical as to whether or not he tells the truth. Hillyer seems to be the only one who is completely convinced in the end. All the minor characters have their doubts and even the first narrator is still sceptical when he describes the protagonist just after the model of the Time Machine has vanished and he has already shown the full scale machine to the people e.g.:

“I think that time none of us quite believed in the Time Machine. The fact is, the Time Traveller was one of those men who are too clever to be believed; you never felt that you saw all around him; you always suspected some subtle reserve, some ingenuity in ambush, behind his lucid frankness.”[16]

Besides the Time Traveller’s unconvincing traits, the term unreliable narrator can be examined on a different narrative level, too. The Time Traveller’s and the reader’s first impression of the year 802701 is very romantic and well illustrated in an impressionistic way. Wells uses a variety of metaphors for a typical “locus amoenus”, with flowers everywhere and beautiful humanlike beings called the “Eloi”. But it turns into a “locus terribilis” later, when he first encounters the “Morlocks”, who are pretty much the opposite of the “Eloi“. The author is conveying to the reader a false impression of paradise. One example for this utopian setting, still full of hope at this point, is his description of the seemingly always happy and satisfied Eloi:

“Then came one laughing towards me, carrying a chain of beautiful flowers altogether new to me, and put it about my neck. The idea was received with melodious applause; and presently they were all running to and fro for flowers, and laughingly flinging them upon me until I was almost smothered with blossom.”[17]

I will refer to the Morlocks in one of the following chapters.

2.3 The Protagonist: Time Traveller

First off all the Time Traveller is a representative of the upper-class (or upper-middle class), because he owns a nice house in Richmond which is - and already was in Wells’ time, a wealthy quarter in the suburban areas of Southwest London. He has the time and the money on his hands to become an inventor and build a “Time Machine.

As mentioned before, he is narrating the central tale of the book, but he is also the protagonist and the hero of a classical adventure story, since he has to fight against evil and darkness when he faces the Morlocks, who are an apelike savage race living in the underground. He is superior to both races he meets in the future, because he combines the qualities of “Eloi” and “Morlocks”. The “Morlocks” e.g. cannot live above the ground, because they are blind and cannot stand the sunlight, while the “Eloi” are afraid of the dark. While the Eloi are not capable of working machinery anymore, the “Morlocks” are deficient in human behaviour, acting like wild animals. The Time Traveller can move in both worlds above or under the surface. He uses matches to light a fire, which are a kind of “tool” the “Eloi” are not aware of. On the other hand the Time Traveller even uses fire as a weapon against the attacking “Morlocks”. As Parrinder stresses, neither the “Eloi” nor the “Morlocks” are “fit for the gift of fire anymore” because of the ongoing degeneration of both human-like races.[18] Although the “Time Traveller” is able to handle fire, what also gives him another considerable advantage, he only uses it as a kind of torch or for self-defence. In the end his playing with fire even causes reckless destruction and the death of his only friend among the Eloi, the female named “Weena”, whose life he saved before.

The Time Traveller, like the author, is well educated and a man of science, which socialist leanings, who is drawn by emotional and romantic drives, like John Hammond states: “Again and again he refers to the beauty of flowers and blossoms, the effects of light and shadow on landscape and buildings, the wonder of moon and stars.”[19] Hammond emphasizes that those were not the reactions one would associate with a rational man of science, but the typical behaviour of Wells’ characters in his novels and short stories.[20]

There are several understandable analogies or similarities between Wells` biography and the life of his character. These can be broken down into his view of the world, his educational achievements, and his political thoughts. Patrick Parrinder analyzed these correlations as follows:

“The Traveller is now more than a mere narrative device. He is a heroic figure within the confines of the story, as well as an avatar of the visionary personality that Wells was discovering, with growing confidence, within himself.”[21]

Many reviewers suggest very biographical interpretations of the Time Traveller’s role as the protagonist. Some are really obvious, because the author was a Socialist for most of his life with communist leanings, and he argued in both his novels and his non-fictional works that capitalism was one of the great illnesses of modern society.[22] Other biological correlations are more subtle. Another example of a biographical analogy is pointed out by John Hammond. He compares the Time Traveller’s love affair to Weena, a member of the fragile race known as the Eloi with Wells decision to leave his wife Isabel in 1994 with Amy Catherine Robbins, a scandalous move in Victorian England. In Hammond’s opinion:

“The Time Machine can be read not only as the story of the Time Traveller and his journey to the future but as an allegory of the young Wells and his struggle to free himself from all the forces restraining him.”[23]

He justifies his thoughts by comparison of the romantic terms used for Weena and Cathrine who became his wife in 1895, the same year in which “The Time Machine” was first published in book form. Weena is described as “slight”, “beautiful”, “graceful”, “frail”, “Dresden China” and “pretty”, which are precisely the same terms employed in the author’s descriptions of Cathrine.[24] While Hammond is sure of the biographical importance of the Traveller’s love affair with Weena, Bernard Bergonzi calls it “the biggest flaw in the narrative, for it is totally unconvincing.” V.S. Pritchett even calls it “faint squirms of idyllic petting.”[25] Personally I agree with Hammond’s opinion. If you read the book without any background information about the author and his life, the love affair comes across as if it would not totally fit in, but if you consider the similarities of Wells` relationship to Cathrine, it becomes more plausible. He recorded for himself that Cathrine “stuck to him sturdily” and “was constantly by his side during the months in 1894 while he was writing the book.”[26] According to this the Time Traveller says about Weena:

“She was exactly like a child. She wanted to be with me always. She tried to be follow everywhere, and on my next journey out and about it went to my heart to tire her down, and leave her at last, exhausted and calling after me very plaintively.[…] Never the less she was somehow, a very great comfort.”[27]


[1] H.G. Wells “The Time Machine”: quoted in “Nachwort” by Hamblock:, 1984:153.

[2] H.G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays. Bergonzi: 1976:41.

[3] Hermann Josef Schnackerts:1992:103

[4] Michio Kaku; quoted in: Parrinder: ”Shadows of the future” 1995:44.

[5] Cp. www.sparknotes.com/lit/timemachine/section1.html

[6] Bergonzi: 1976:41

[7] Schnackerts:1991:105

[8] Wells: quoted in: Schnackerts:1991:105

[9] Wells „The Time Machine“:1984:17

[10] Cp. Bergonzi:1976:40

[11] Cp. Hamblock:1984:154

[12] Cp. H.G. Wells: Online/Booknotes: http://www.pinkmonkey.com/booknotes/monkeynotes/pmTimeMachine26.asp

[13] Wells:1984:141

[14] Wells:1984:26

[15] Cp. Philmus, Robert: The logic of prophecy in the Time Machine:1976:67

[16] Wells:1984:17

[17] Wells:1984:38

[18] C.P. Parrinder:1995:48.

[19] John Hammond: A preface to H.G. Wells:2001:176

[20] C.P. ibid.

[21] Parrinder:1995:37

[22] [22] C.P.: http://www.gradesaver.com/classicnotes/titles/time/about.html

[23] John Hammond: A preface to H.G. Wells:2001:183.

[24] Ibid.

[25] John Hammond: A preface to H.G. Wells:2001:182.

[26] John Hammond: A preface to H.G. Wells:2001:183

[27] Wells:1984:68.

Excerpt out of 24 pages


H.G. Wells’ „The Time Machine" in Terms of "Victorian Class Struggle" and "Evolution"
Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg  (Anglistik)
Literary Utopias and Dystopias in Britain
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ISBN (Book)
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The Time Machine, H.G. Wells, Evolution, Eloi, class struggle, morlocks
Quote paper
Kay Mankus (Author), 2006, H.G. Wells’ „The Time Machine" in Terms of "Victorian Class Struggle" and "Evolution", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/182351


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