Memory and modernity in H.G. Well's "The Time Machine"

Essay, 2004

15 Pages, Grade: Distinction


Memory and Modernity in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine

The semantic field opened up by the term modernity describes a multifaceted body of experiences that are seen as somehow different from earlier, more traditional modes of experience. This modern “experience of space and time, of the self and others, of life’s possibilities and perils” seems to be marked by a sense of perpetual change brought about by the continuous and relentless application of techno-scientific knowledge (Berman 1983:2). The perpetually shifting paradigms of scientific knowledge and the social consequences of the application of techno-science to the subjugation of nature undermine any notion of stability and continuity. Pierre Nora’s use of the phrase “acceleration of history” to signify “an increasingly rapid slippage of the present into a historical past that is gone for good” crystallizes the general sense of uncertainty which is often seen as an integral part of modern experience (Nora 1989:7). In the following passage Nora introduces a distinction between memory and history:

On the hand, we find an integrated, dictatorial memory – unself-conscious, commanding, all-powerful, spontaneously actualizing, a memory without a past that ceaselessly reinvents tradition, linking the history of its ancestors to the undifferentiated time of heroes, origins, and myth – and on the other hand, our memory, nothing more in fact than sifted and sorted historical traces (Nora 1989:8).

In order to critique “how our hopelessly forgetful modern societies, propelled by change, organize the past” Nora juxtaposes an archaic, undifferentiated, mythical form of memory, which ties a community organically to its past with modern historiography, which produces simulacra of a memory that has been destroyed by modern history (Nora 1989:8).

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno locate the source of modernization and its vicissitudes in the enlightenment conception of knowledge as a tool to “conquer[] superstition, [and] to rule over a disenchanted nature (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002:2). By exorcizing myths the Enlightenment becomes – through a dialectical twist – its own myth:

Just as myths already entail enlightenment, with every step enlightenment entangles itself more deeply in mythology. Receiving all its subject matter from myths, in order to destroy them, it falls as judge under the spell of myth (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002:8).

Nora’s memory is both mythical, insofar as it “link[s] the history of the ancestors to the undifferentiated time of heroes, origins, and myth” and his own historically unspecified myth which he deploys to point out history’s “true mission to suppress and destroy [memory]” (Nora 1989:8, 9). In order to dispel the myth of modern historiography Nora invokes his own myth of an archaic, organic memory as “a bond tying us to an eternal present” juxtaposed to an archival, modern memory which consists in a mere collection of facts which are in themselves devoid of any meaning (Nora 1989:8). Ultimately, Nora’s critique stays within the bounds set by the object he is criticizing, namely the Enlightenment’s tendency to discard myth – to quote Horkheimer and Adorno:

Any intellectual resistance it [the Enlightenment] encounters merely increases its strength. The reason is that enlightenment also recognizes itself in the old myths. No matter which myths are invoked against it, by being used as arguments they are made to acknowledge the very principle of corrosive rationality of which enlightenment stands accused. Enlightenment is totalitarian (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002:3-4).

Thus, any rational critique of enlightenment can be seen as inherent to the project of the Enlightenment itself, insofar as it confirms the enlightenment principle of rationality[1].

The socio-historical processes of modernization seem to have produced their own critiques which are lumped together under the term modernism (Berman 1983:16). Writing about what the dissonant and diverse voices of nineteenth-century modernism share, Berman states:

It [the voice of modernism] is ironic and contradictory, polyphonic and dialectical, denouncing modern life in the name of values that modernity itself has created, hoping – often against hope- that the modernities of tomorrow will heal the wounds that wreck the modern men and women of today (Berman 1983:23).

This essay will explore one modernist voice in particular: H.G. Wells’s novella The Time Machine is a modernist text because its critique of modernity stays within the parameters “of values that modernity itself has created” (Berman 1983:23). The critical strategy used in The Time Machine is quite similar to what Pierre Nora does in his "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux De Memoire". As I have shown above, Nora uses the opposition between memory and history, which are inscribed into the past and the present respectively, to critique the latter, whereas in The Time Machine Wells opposes his present society to the ‘society’ of a distant future in order to critique the former.

In his The Logic of Fantasy. H.G. Wells and Science Fiction John Huntington holds that the primary opposition between “the freedom of human thought and the fatality of the natural act” provides “the essential mechanism of Well’s imaginative strategy in all his early work” (Huntington 1982:8). This opposition echoes classical philosophical debates about the tensions between freedom and determinism or nature and culture. We can clearly see the conflict between ethics and evolution as the central opposition, which structures The Time Machine, and from which all the other oppositions in the novella derive (Huntington 1982:8, 41). As this conflict is inscribed into a temporal axis and a juxtaposition between the present of the frame narrative, the future of the year 802,701, and a past, which, paradoxically, is the Time Traveller’s present when he is in the future and the future itself becoming his personal past when he returns to his own time, a conflict between two kinds of memory is mapped onto the opposition between evolution and ethics: a passive, evolutionary memory which is inscribed into the body and an active, ethical memory which, by explaining the world of the year 802,701 in terms of its past, acts a bridge between the present and the future.


[1] Ironically, the same criticism can also be levelled against Horkheimer and Adorno themselves. This will become clearer later in this essay when I discuss their use of the Odysseus myth as an allegory for the division of labour.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Memory and modernity in H.G. Well's "The Time Machine"
University of Newcastle upon Tyne  (School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics)
Reading the Past
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Memory, Well, Time, Machine, Reading, Past
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M.A. Markus Kienscherf (Author), 2004, Memory and modernity in H.G. Well's "The Time Machine", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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