In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses the lasting appeal of H. G. Wells’s first great ‘scientific romance’
In some ways, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) is a ‘timeless’ text: it continues to enjoy huge popularity (as witnessed by big film adaptations in 1960 and 2002, as well as the fact that the novel itself has never been out of print and is available in a range of editions), it continues to exert a considerable influence on the literature and cinema produced since, and its very narrative structure – with much of the action of the novel taking place in a time that hasn’t happened yet, the year 802,701 – in a sense absenting it from its own context. But an analysis of Wells’s novella that sees it floating completely free of its 1890s context, much as the Time Traveller himself succeeds in leaving his late Victorian world behind, risks overlooking the extent to which The Time Machine is a novella deeply rooted in late nineteenth-century concerns. These concerns are neatly covered in Roger Luckhurst’s introduction to the recent Oxford edition of the novella, The Time Machine (Oxford World’s Classics).
In an interview published in 1899, Wells outlined his reasons for being so concerned with the future of mankind:
Why should four-fifths of the fiction of today be concerned with times that can never come again, while the future is scarcely speculated upon? At present we are almost helpless in the grip of circumstances, and I think we ought to strive to shape our destinies. Changes that directly affect the human race are taking place every day, but they are passed over unobserved.
This statement points up the value in speculating on the future, but in terms that are rooted in Wells’s present time: ‘fiction of today’, ‘At present’, ‘are taking place every day’. In The Living Novel, V. S. Pritchett remarked: ‘Without question The Time Machine is the best piece of writing. It will take its place among the great stories of our language. Like all excellent works it has meanings within its meaning’. This notion of multi-layered significance – of ‘meaning within meaning’ is worth bearing in mind when considering the novel’s themes. Like many great works of science fiction, Wells uses the concept of time travel, and the invention of the time machine, as a vehicle for exploring the issues of his time: class, industrialisation, and the implications of Darwinian evolution, degeneration (a big concern in the 1890s), imperialism, and many other things.
The Time Machine can be read as Wells’s attempt to understand the meaning of our existence in light of the theory of evolution, which had led many Victorians to question their firm faith in God and therefore in a Christian understanding of humanity’s purpose. If we’re not on Earth because God created us for his purpose, then what are we doing here? Is our existence merely random? Are we mere animals, albeit thinking ones? Partly what Wells is trying to do is examine the role of man in the modern world. He does this, I think, through several oblique references to the story of Oedipus, the mythical King of Thebes who inadvertently fulfilled a prophecy which stated he would kill his father and marry his mother. However, what is less well-known in the Oedipus story is how Oedipus came to be King of Thebes in the first place: namely, by solving the Riddle of the Sphinx and, through doing so, freeing the city of Thebes of its plague. The Riddle which the Sphinx asked people, but which nobody else had managed to solve until Oedipus came along, was the following question: ‘What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?’ The answer is ‘Man’, because humans crawl on all fours as babies, walk upright on two legs during adulthood, and then use a walking-stick when they’re older.
I would argue that Wells includes several references to Oedipus, and to the riddle he solves, in The Time Machine. He refers to ‘the riddles of our own time’ in the Epilogue (pointing up the fact that the Time Traveller’s journeys through time are really in order to answer the questions of his own time, the 1890s), but also the imposing presence of the ‘White Sphinx’ in the world of 802,701. (As if to invite this analysis, the first edition of The Time Machine, published by Heinemann in 1895, carried an illustration of the Sphinx, on its title-page.) Oedipus’ name literally means ‘swollen foot’, and the Time Traveller tells us that ‘I stood up and found my foot with the loose heel swollen at the ankle and painful at the heel’. There are also numerous references (made by the book’s narrator) to the Time Traveller’s ‘lameness’ and the fact that when he returns to the present day he is ‘limping’. Is the Time Traveller a modern-day Oedipus, attempting to solve the riddle of man – not over the course of one man’s lifetime (as Oedipus’ Sphinx had), but over the course of the entire species? In many ways The Time Machine offers itself to us as a modern myth for the scientific age: Oedipus among the machines.
Similarly, how might we read the imagery of Wells’s novella, and his use of certain tropes? Such features as the ‘pagoda-like plants’ and the ‘Palace of Green Porcelain’ evoke the Far East and, as part of this, the British Empire and the imperial romance as embodied by the work of such novelists as H. Rider Haggard. But there are other, even more pervasive images in The Time Machine which are worthy of analysis, and I’d like to consider one such image in particular, as a way of reading the imagery of the novel in its late Victorian context. The image I wish to focus on is fire, and representations of fire. This entails not just images of heat but images of light: one of the laws of physics is that we cannot generate light without heat. Every artificial light-source we’ve yet invented, from the incandescent light-bulb to strobe lighting or the laser, involves generating heat in order to generate light. This heat-light relationship is one which Wells, with his scientific training, would have known well.
Consider the many references to suns, fires, flames, and bright lights in The Time Machine, such as the literal sunset and the way that it puts the Time Traveller in mind of the metaphorical ‘sunset of mankind’, as well as the sunset of the far future which the Time Traveller witnesses towards the end of the novella, and, let us not forget, his trusty matches which he uses to keep the Morlocks at bay. Even just in the first few pages of the book, we have the narrator’s reference to the Time Traveller’s eyes which ‘twinkled’ (like a star?), his ‘flushed’ face, Filby’s ‘red hair’ (flame-haired, we might say), the ‘incandescent lights’, a very young man attempting to light his cigar over a lamp, and the Medical Man ‘staring hard at a coal in the fire’. Fire is everywhere in this short book.
But those matches are worth pondering. Man’s ability to create fire might be considered the starting-point of his technological development, but it is also often considered profane. Indeed, at the time of Wells’s novel a popular name for matches was ‘lucifers’, from the Latin for ‘light-bearer’; Lucifer is also, aptly, the Devil. For the Greeks, it was Prometheus who defied the gods by stealing fire from them and giving it to man; he was punished by the gods for this. A novel often considered the first science-fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), carries the subtitle The Modern Prometheus, continuing this tradition of seeing scientific experimentation as a dangerous way of playing God, and one that can only end in disaster. The Time Traveller’s matches are a reminder of this Promethean undercurrent to much science fiction, particularly in the nineteenth century when religion still played a more central part in the Victorians’ everyday lives. Ultimately, of course, the Time Traveller’s journey into the far future of mankind is in vain: he finds out that man will evolve into barbarism and decadence, as embodied by the Morlocks and Eloi respectively, that books and civilisation will be left to fall into ruin. Even if he could warn his Victorian contemporaries about what lies in store for man, they refuse to believe him (with the exception of the novella’s narrator). And even if something could be done to forestall man’s bleak future, the further vision which the Time Traveller experiences, involving the crab and the swollen sun, suggests that ultimately mankind will go extinct no matter what he does to prevent such a fate.
In this connection we might remark upon the Palace of Green Porcelain, clearly depicted by Wells as the remains of a science museum – as suggested by the Time Traveller’s likening of it to ‘some latter-day South Kensington’ – that region of London which houses the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, among other buildings. Tellingly, the Time Traveller remarks upon the ‘corroded metallic framework’ of the Palace, a phrase which picks up words the narrator had earlier used when confronted with the small model of the Time Machine: ‘a glittering metallic framework’. The Time Traveller’s scientific invention is thus aligned with the Palace of Green Porcelain, but what was once ‘glittering’ is now ‘corroded’: science, that beacon of scientific discovery and exploration, has fallen into decay.
The Time Machine thus sounds a bleak note about humanity’s future – but in doing so, Wells always brings his readers back to the present, to the late Victorian world of the 1890s out of which this remarkable novella arose.
There are numerous very good editions of Wells’s novella now available. Of these, the two best are The Time Machine (Norton Critical Editions), for its wealth of contextual documents included as a vast appendix, and The Time Machine (Oxford World’s Classics), for the excellent and detailed analysis of The Time Machine contained in the introduction. Of course, the true fan of Wells’s novella can always treat themselves to both – or let an aunt know what they’d like for their birthday…
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.