Three Big Ideas in H.G. Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’

Analysis of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

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The Time Machine & the Theory of Evolution

In the popular mind, the term “evolution” is often synonymous with “progress.” But Darwin’s theory of natural selection actually has very little to do with progress toward an ideal goal or the betterment of a species. There is no “better” or “worse” in evolution.

Natural selection is all about adapting traits to ensure survival of the species in response to a specific environment. This means that if greater speed helps a species survive, the faster members of that species will live to pass on their genes while others that are slower die. This process eventually shapes the species to be faster overall. This theory also holds that when greater speed, intelligence or strength is not required for species survival, the species will stop getting faster, smarter, and stronger. It will only “progress” in those ways if it has to.

Whether we always understood this in evolutionary terms or not, humans have been applying the principles of “natural” selection for centuries in agricultural practices. Through selective breeding, scientists and farmers control reproduction of plants and animals to shape a species to their needs, making corn taller, making cows fatter, and taking the seeds out of grapes. And these are all things that wells points out in The Time Machine.

As a student of biology in his youth, H.G. Wells was fully aware of Darwin’s theory and its ambivalent relationship to progress. In The Time Machine, he highlights this ambivalence by contrasting the ideas of social evolution and biological evolution and in doing so he generates a comment on what he sees as an overly rigid social class structure in England.

With the story of the Eloi and the Morlocks, Wells depicts a scenario where natural, biological adaptation is driven by social progress to the point where a utopian vision is achieved. But this utopia is founded on a rotten social system where the labor class is oppressed by the leisure class. The biological process of evolution that accompanies human social progress eventually makes the Eloi into the delicate, elfin figures we encounter in the novel. Then evolution takes another step and turns this utopia into a dystopia.

Not only does the utopia (positive social vision) give way to a dystopia (negative social vision), the utopia is actually the source and cause of the dsytopia that overtakes it. Evolution doesn’t lead only to progress after all.

Throughout the novel, we can see Wells using the science of natural selection to challenge English social norms of the day. 

Credulity: The Tension between Belief and Disbelief

The Time Machine explores a conflict between belief and disbelief. Reasonable ideas are not automatically correct. And sometimes events that seem unlikely can be, in fact, true. So, what should our attitude be if we want to root out perspectives in truth?

The Time Traveller posits a number of theories to explain how the future of human life turned out the way it did. Yet, he struggles to invest full belief in any of these theories. He comments the questionable validity of his own theories and in doing so seems to comment on the validity of scientific and social theory in general. The novel thus poses the reader with a thematic question about the wisdom of putting one’s faith in every plausible theory (just because a theory is plausible, the Time Traveller argues, does not make it true).

This idea is fairly explicit in the text but the text also implies the idea that it may be wise to maintain a skeptical attitude if one hopes to arrive at an accurate theory. One should be prepared to challenge conventional wisdom and only a rigorous suspension of belief has a chance of achieving success in that effort. (And challenging conventional wisdom is a subtext in The Time Machine in a narrative that challenges prevailing views of what is scientifically possible and also confronts accepted attitudes toward both evolution and the English economic system.)

Partly, this theme is depicted as a matter of credibility when the dinner guests are forced to consider whether or not the Time Traveller is being honest about his story of traveling through time. However, the theme is more consistently attached to the deeper issue of credulity, which relates to an individual’s willingness or ability to believe in the truth of an idea.

Social Class: The Politics & Morality of a Division between Upper and Lower Classes

Descriptions of working conditions for one group and the bright and glib lives of another group address a distinctly political idea in The Time Machine.

The most pointed and political theme in The Time Machine is related to social class. The Eloi and the Morlocks each represent a distinct social class. While most of the novel’s explicit content on this theme is presented within the story of the Eloi and the Morlocks, we can see this theme also play out in the frame story (the “present day”) where the Time Traveller and the dinner guests enjoy weekly dinners in a house that employs servants.

During several of his asides to his listeners, the Time Traveller comments directly on the ways that a social class structure exactly like the one in England in the 1890s – characterized by stark differences in class and deplorable labor conditions for the working class – can and will lead to a metamorphosis of human life if allowed to continue. And this metamorphosis, for H.G. Wells is not a positive one. The Time Traveller encounters a world of exploitation, fear, and severe class difference when he arrives in the future. The differences are so severe as to morph humanity into two distinct species.

The specific dynamics between the Eloi and the Morlocks are important to understanding this theme. As the upper class or leisure class, the ancestors of the Eloi created a world that suited their own desires but that oppressed others. This unnatural state of affairs leads to a role reversal, which Wells implicitly describes as entirely natural by suggesting that the process of evolution has done the work of shifting the power imbalance. This inevitable “comeuppance” suggests that the politics of class division has a stark moral component as well.


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