The Eloi and the Morlocks, the two distinct species into which the human race has evolved in the year A.D. 802,701, are the dominant metaphor in The Time Machine. The central question occupying the Traveller’s mind as he moves into the future is, “What might not have happened to men?” (p. 21). The question is important because it is the question Wells, as author, is putting to his readers regarding their contemporary society: What will we make of humanity? The Eloi and Morlocks symbolize two possible fates for the human race. The Eloi (the “above ground” species in the future society), while physically beautiful, are intellectually immature and symbolize “humanity upon the wane… the sunset of mankind” (p. 29). They are a race that has relied too long upon mechanisms they no longer understand; they exhibit no natural curiosity about their world; they have indulged creature comfort to a fault. The Morlocks (the “below ground” species), in contrast, are ugly and brutish; at several points, the Traveller finds himself thinking of them as less than human (e.g., “these inhuman sons of men,” p. 58). Yet they, too, are human: a humanity of “Workers getting gradually adapted to the conditions of their labour” (p. 46); a humanity deprived of light and life, ground down by generations of social injustice and neglect; a humanity, in effect, dehumanized by the mechanical. Together, the Eloi and Morlocks symbolize a “wretched aristocracy in decay” (p. 58), and represent a powerful critique of the Victorian society in which Wells wrote.
The White Sphinx is among the first structures that the Traveller sees when he reaches A.D. 802,701, and, appropriately enough, it remains the most enigmatic (even more so than the Palace of Green Porcelain, which seems to have been a library in its own day). Notably, the novel’s first edition featured a picture of the Sphinx on the cover, indicating that it is, in fact, a key symbol in the book. On one level, the Sphinx—modeled as it is after the monster in Greek mythology known for posing virtually impossible riddles (as in the tale of Oedipus)—is a concrete manifestation of the mysterious, “riddle-like” nature of the future society in which the Traveller finds himself. Only upon his first sight of it does he stop to ask virtually impossible questions: “What might appear when that hazy curtain was altogether withdrawn,” etc. (pp. 20-21). On another level, the Sphinx symbolizes in its own form the nature of the future society: it is described as having “sightless eyes” and “the faint shadow of a smile on the lips”; it is “greatly weatherworn… [with] an unpleasant suggestion of disease” (p. 20). Similarly, the future society is “sightless” because neither the Eloi nor the Morlocks can see the true nature of their relationship to each other; the Sphinx’s “faint shadow of a smile” hints, almost Mona Lisa-like, at a deep secret waiting to be revealed (see also the Traveller’s continuing efforts to get into the Sphinx’s pedestal, to literally unlock its secrets); and that secret is indeed a kind of “disease”: the parasitic relationship of neglect and violence that has divided the Eloi from the Morlocks.
Weena’s flowers are another notable symbol in the text. When the Traveller first sees the flowers of far futurity, he is “puzzled” by them, “but later I began to perceive their import” (p. 25). That importance begins to accrue to them when Weena presents the Traveller with two white flowers as a childlike token of affection. In fact, the Traveller’s recollection of the moment when Weena decided his jacket pockets were “an eccentric kind of floral vase” (p. 55) constitutes the only significant moment in which our narrator interrupts his record of the Traveller’s recitation (note the paragraph of italicized text at that point), further calling attention to the flowers’ metaphoric significance. What do they signify? For the Traveller, haunted as he remains by Weena’s death, they seem to symbolize, in their withered state upon his return to Victorian times, the ultimate decay of humanity—and, indeed, of the Earth itself—that he has witnessed. For our narrator, however, the flowers, given as they were as a gift of innocent love, suggest that “gratitude and a mutual tenderness” will always “live on in the heart of man” (p. 85).