SUGGESTED ESSAY QUESTIONS
1. Discuss the ways in which Darwinian evolutionary theory influences the plot and themes of The Time Machine. Support your arguments with specific examples from the text.
>The future society of A.D. 802,701 to which the Time Traveller journeys is one that he believes is the end result of a Darwinian process of natural selection and adaptation in the struggle to survive. In other words, it is a society in which so-called “social Darwinism”—the belief (not advanced by Charles Darwin himself, but rather by those who applied his scientific theory to sociology) that “social stratification” (p. 46) was a natural (and even desirable) result of social pressures (see, for example, the discussion of how the Eloi adapted to a life in which they were served by the Morlocks and mechanisms, p. 31). “So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Havenots; the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour” (p. 46). Thematically, however, the Traveller judges this stratification to be definitely undesirable, for it leads both to the loss of intellectual curiosity and creative vigor among humans (illustrated by the Eloi idleness and frivolity) and to a brutal savagery (illustrated not only by the Morlocks’ cannibalism but also the Traveller’s own desire “to go killing one’s own descendants!,” p. 62). The novel as a whole seems to suggest that humans must not apply “social Darwinism” to our society if we are to maintain any hope of preserving our nobler selves, with their qualities of “gratitude and mutual tenderness” as identified by our narrator (p. 85).
2. How does The Time Machine express the sense of fin de siècle and fin de globe found in much nineteenth-century literature?
>Wells’ novel shares in the sense of malaise and antipathy regarding the end of the nineteenth century—and, by extension, the end of the world that educated readers had known—by presenting two great “declines” in the course of its pages. First, the Traveller sees in the situation of the Eloi and the Morlocks, the descendants of the human race in his own era, “a slow movement of degeneration” (p. 47), “the futility of all ambition” (p. 63)—in short, the slow death of civilization. Even though many in the Victorian age, in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, had supposed they were securing a bright future for the race (“The great triumph of Humanity I had dreamed of,” p. 47), they were instead, by fostering the division between the poor and affluent, sowing the seeds of humanity’s own destruction. Second, the Traveller, in his final visit to the far distant future, sees the “abominable desolation” of “the earth’s fate” (p. 77), the twilight of all terrestrial life, engulfed by a swollen Sun. He literally watches the end of the world, “that remote and awful twilight” (p. 79).
3. What does Wells accomplish by framing the Time Traveller’s tale between two sequences set in Victorian Britain?
>Wells likely chose to frame the Traveller’s narrative within a context familiar to his readers—namely, the dinner party and drawing room society of the educated, upper class—to gain a fair hearing for his fiction. It does further his narrative strategy of verisimilitude: for instance, readers may identify with “argumentative” Filby (p. 3) who dismisses all talk of time travel as rubbish. As another example, the device of the frame tale enables our narrator (a proxy, doubtless, for Wells the author) to vouch for the Traveller’s truthfulness by paying attention to the detail of the two withered flowers: a “witness” and a “comfort” for him (p. 85). More deeply, however, Wells surely felt—as the Traveller himself suggests, within the text—that the story, while made-up, had urgent, moral significance for the real world: “Take it as a lie—or a prophecy” (p. 81). By placing his readers in the same position occupied by the Time Traveller’s dinner guests, Wells, in effect, challenges us to pass verdict on the worth or worthlessness of the fiction he has spun (and, incidentally, that we have chosen to read!). The frame tale invites us into the Traveller’s social circle, to learn from him or not, as we choose. We must wrestle with the social and moral issues his tale raises, and we must live with the consequences. Like the Traveller at the book’s end, the narrator is no more—we are left only with the text, and its implications.
4. In Chapter 3, when the Traveller first journeys through time, he is made aware of the fleeting nature of existence. What various responses does he demonstrate, and how do these responses further Wells’ thematic aims in the text?
>The Travellers’ first response to the transitory nature of his world is to speculate about what kind of world will have replaced it. Some of the Traveller’s thoughts seem positive, anticipating that humanity will have progressed in the interim: “What strange developments of humanity, what wonderful advances upon our rudimentary civilization, I thought, might not appear when I came to look nearly into the dim elusive world that raced and fluctuated before my eyes!” (p. 19). And yet the Traveller also entertains the opposite possibility: “What if in this interval the [human] race had lost its manliness, and had developed into something inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful?” (p. 21). This question occupies much of Wells’ work—most notably, perhaps, in The War of the Worlds (1898), in which the devastating and monstrous Martian invaders are envisioned as one possible outcome of human evolution. Like so much science fiction, Wells’ “scientific romances” (as he called them) are commentaries on current society. Readers will see what the future society Wells creates has to say about his own Victorian one (as well as society today).
5. In Chapter 6, the Traveller descends to the realm of the Morlocks. How does this chapter draw on the mythological motif of the “descent to the underworld” or the “descent to the dead” to advance the novel’s argument?
>The Traveller’s brief descent among the Morlocks emerges as a somewhat ironic play on the classic mythical hero’s journey, as identified by Joseph Campbell and other scholars of mythology. In such myths, the hero descends to the underworld or the realm of the dead and returns to the surface or the world of the living with a boon, or gift. In the Traveller’s case, however—at least as far as the present chapter is concerned—he descends to “the Underworld” (p. 51), but returns empty-handed—without knowledge of his Machine’s location (his stated goal for his quest, p. 48), and even without his last few matches! More significantly, however, the Traveller’s descent demonstrates the ugly foundation on which the Eloi society has been long ago founded. As one critic argues, the Traveller’s descent into darkness marks the point at which “the story alters its key, and the Time Traveller reveals the foundation of slime and horror on which the pretty life of his Arcadians is precariously and fearfully resting” (Bergonzi, The Early H.G. Wells, p. 52). The Traveller’s descent thus proves to be ironically revelatory after all.