Arguably the major theme of The Time Machine is its implied critique of Industrial Revolution society. As The Norton Anthology of English Literature, explains: change “characterized the Victorian period. Perhaps most important was the shift from a way of life based on ownership of land to a modern urban economy based on trade and manufacturing. By the beginning of the Victorian period, the Industrial Revolution, as this shift was called, had created profound economic and social changes, including a mass migration of workers to industrial towns, where they lived in new urban slums” (http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/victorian/welcome.htm). Clearly, the future society that the Time Traveller visits is an extension ad infinitum (and, perhaps, ad absurdum) of this seismic social shift. The Traveller explicitly connects the relationship he sees between the Eloi (the beautiful, “above ground” species of future humanity) and the Morlocks (the ugly, “below ground” species) to the gap he sees in his own era between the “haves” and the “have nots”: “it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer was the key to the whole position…. Even now there are existing circumstances to point that way” (p. 46). The society of A.D. 802,701 thus represents a blow to the “great triumph of Humanity” for which the Traveller had hoped—and which many of Wells’ contemporaries (and, in his earlier career, Wells himself) had come to regard as almost inevitable. Early industrial society placed great faith in science and technology. This confidence, coupled with the revolutionary theory of evolution by natural selection posited by Charles Darwin (i.e., the “survival of the fittest”) had led many thinkers to expect that human civilization could not do anything but advance in the eras to come. The Traveller’s narrative gives the lie to this expectation: “Man had been content to live in ease and delight upon the labors of his fellow-man, had taken Necessity as his watchword and excuse, and in the fulness of time Necessity had come home to him” (p. 58).
Closely connected to this theme is the theme captured in the Latin phrase sic transit gloria mundi, or “thus passes the glory of the world.” Wells’ novel exemplifies a common literary theme of its day, the fin de siècle, or a kind of malaise and foreboding of the future associated with the turn of the century. It was, as critic Bernard Bergonzi notes, “the feeling that the nineteenth century—which had contained more events, more history than any other—had gone on too long, and that sensitive souls were growing weary of it. In England this mood was heightened by the feeling that Queen Victoria’s reign had also lasted excessively long… The fin de siècle mood produced, in turn, the feeling of fin du globe, the sense that the whole elaborate intellectual and social order of the nineteenth century was trembling on the brink of dissolution” (Bergonzi, The Early H.G. Wells, Manchester, England: University Press, 1961; pp. 3-4). The Traveller’s experience of the far future echoes this disillusionment with days to come. At first, he experiences the world of the Eloi as an Edenic paradise. Initially, it seems to confirm his expectations of progress: “The whole world will be intelligent, educated, and co-operating; things will move faster and faster towards the subjugation of Nature” (p. 29). Ultimately, however, once he learns the truth that the world of the Eloi exists at the expense of the subterranean world of the Morlocks, the Traveller must abandon his hope for the future of the race: he faces it for what it is, a “wretched aristocracy in decay” (p. 58). The Traveller’s second expedition, to the end of time itself, literally confirms the importance of the fin de siècle/fin du globe theme in the book. The Traveller finds himself in a time of “abominable desolation” (p. 77), the very twilight of life on Earth itself. The human civilization in which Victorian Britons took such pride has vanished by the time of the Eloi and Morlocks; in the end, any recognizable human life at all will pass away. Only our narrator’s tenacious clinging to Weena’s two withered flowers as a sign of hope for the future alleviates the Traveller’s bleak conclusion to his narrative.