Reflections on philosophy and culture

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Wells' Time Machine

After spending some time with Alfred Jarry's time machine essay, I decided in the last week to re-read H.G. Wells' original novel - in my usual way, via audiobook.

My first exposure to The Time Machine came as a small child with Moby Books' Illustrated Classic Edition version (pictured on the right).  Mind you, this was 25 years ago or more, but if my memory serves me, they tacked on an ending that was substantially different from Wells' own - maybe because they thought that little children needed a 'happy ending' after reading about a future without human beings, in which we witness the final days of Earth.  In the Moby Books version for kids, after The Time Traveller sees the death of Earth, he meets representatives of an incredibly advanced human race whose scientific and technological knowledge have created just the utopia he had hoped to find when he first set out on his journey.

The Eloi arriving for the slaughter - from the 1978 film "The Time Machine"

Some time later, I watched the 1978 film, in which Hollywood of course added a love story between The Time Traveller and Weena, the Eloi girl he rescues from drowning.

It was only later, as a young teenager, that I read Wells' book and discovered these were substantial departures from the original story of The Time Traveller.  In the book, his relationship with Weena is much more like that of a father to a daughter.  And instead of humanity recovering from its degradation into the world of the Eloi and the Morlocks, human beings seem simply to disappear off the planet.  In fact, in a bit of text not included in most editions of the story, The Time Traveller discovers that human beings eventually evolve into non-sapient, rabbit-like creatures.

Reading the novel this time, I discovered new things that hadn't struck me as a teenager.  The Time Machine wasn't simply a literary speculation inspired by the recent discovery of evolution and the vastness of geological history.  It was also an attempt to speculate about where economic class divisions  might lead humanity.  Wells' politics are resolutely socialist here.  The evolution of human beings into two distinct species - the subterranean Morlock 'ranchers,' and their food source, the meek Eloi - originates, The Time Traveller speculates, in the class divisions between the proletariat and the bourgeosie.  The bourgoisie's stranglehold on the working classes, and their love of beauty and leisure expand so much that the working classes are sent to toil underground while their economic masters live an idle, comfortable life on the surface.  Eventually, though, this leads to a gruesome form of the revolution of the proletariat.  The subterranean working classes retain knowledge of technology, while the surface dwellers' intellects wither away from disuse.  And finally, the tables turn, and the subterraneans - now the Morlocks - begin using the surface dwellers - now the Eloi - as their primary food source.

None of this really registered with me as a young teenager: I hadn't the first clue about big normative political theories, let alone about Marx and socialism.  Neither did I detect the occasional sexual undertones of the relationship between The Time Traveller and Weena - undertones that Wells probably didn't intend, but are there nonetheless.

If you haven't read The Time Machine, it's well worth it.  It's very short, and you can't help but be impressed at how modern it still seems, dealing with themes that pop sci-fi (in film and on television) still only addresses in its best moments, 120 years after Wells' book was published.


  1. 1960 for the movie not 78

  2. Ah yes, I'm confusing it with the 1978 made-for-TV version, which I also saw when I was a kid.