I first read HG Well’s ‘The Time Machine’ in my early twenties, more years ago than I care to admit.
My impression of it then was that it was an intriguing but dated curiosity. Recently, reading a review of a Goodreads friend of mine, who was dismayed by the relationship between ‘The Time Traveller’ and the futuristic childish Weena, I thought that I would re-read it to see what I thought of it now.
That bit of the story did turn out to trouble me too, now, but more of that shortly.
H G Wells was, of course, a lifelong socialist, and this is reflected in his writings. He was also seemingly a supporter of the mild feminism encapsulated in ‘The New Woman’ of the late nineteenth century, one of his novels, ‘Ann Veronica’ (1909) being about aspects of female oppression in his era. I read the first few paragraphs when I was working in public libraries years ago, but for some reason which I have forgotten, stopped reading. I will have to try it again.
Anyway, he wrote ‘The Time Machine’ in 1895, at a time when he was very hard up, in broken health following a sports accident, and struggling to make ends meet through his writing. He determined on writing a commercially appealing novel, and decided to rework a theme he had approached as a student in a series called ‘The Chronic Argonauts’.
The story begins in the house of a scientific invent tor known only as ‘The Time Traveller’, who seems very comfortably off, living in a house with various servants. He has a lengthy discussion after dinner with a group of male guests on the possibility of time travel, gives them a demonstration with a practice model, and then shows them his own machine.
This discussion, of course, is founded on the scientific boundaries accepted before Einstein published his work on the theory of relativity. In keeping with his own age, Wells’s time machine is mechanical, whereas one in our age would presumably be seen as electronic if it was described at all, though I must admit I have read few modern time travel stories.
The Time Traveller then invites them back to dinner the next week. He turns up late himself, dishevelled and disturbed, shoeless, and with bleeding feet, and eager to eat meat. Then he tells them that he has travelled to the year 802,701, and relates his adventures there.
The Time Traveller himself is barely described. His ‘queer broad head’ is commented on by one of the guests who serves as the narrator, so perhaps Wells shared Conan-Doyle’s view that a large brain needs a large head. We are told he has a pale face and grey eyes.
He appears to have a playful aspect to his character, as one of the guests comments on a practical joke involving a ghost he played on them last Christmas, and that, and the determination and courage he shows when stranded in the future and the condescending tenderness he feels for Weena, is more or less all that we know about him. When recounting his experiences in the future, he describes himself as ‘no longer young’.
In this distant future, the human race has divided into two. The Eloi, who have, though indolence, deteriorated into frail, four foot, intellectually deficient fairylke creatures, who spend all their time playing. They have even forgotten how to read or write or make fire, representing the old upper class, who live above ground in a rural landscape of decayed mansions.
The former industrial working class have degenerated into the Morlocks, sloth like creatures who dread the light of day, who have been forced to live underground among the machines that still support the idle lifestyle of the leisured classes who live above.
However, these oppressed toilers underground have had a revolution which has led to another terrible society. Possessing the strength lacking in their former oppressors, they have deteriorated into cannibals. To his horror, the Time Traveller finds out that they keep the Eloi as a form of cattle to eat. For some reason, all domestic, and most wild animals have become extinct, and that is their only way to obtain meat. The Eloi themselves live on fruit.
This would not appear so far fetched to late Victorian readers: many UK factory workers of that era, slaving for long hours in appalling conditions and wretched wages, rarely saw the light of day and had virtually no leisure time.
The fruit eating Eloi seem to have lost most of their capacity for strong emotional attachments. There is little difference in appearance between either the sexes, or between adults or children. Family ties seem to have broken down, but no babies are mentioned and there seems little difference either in stature or mental development between the children and adults.
Perhaps, in writing for a Victorian audience, Wells thought it best to avoid discussion of whether general promiscuity goes on. He remarks that the Eloi spend all their time either in play, courtship or swimming in the river (the climate in Surrey, England, appears to be much warmer than in either Wells’ age or our own).
Swimming being so excellent for developing muscles, I am surprised that people who spend hours every day at it could be weak and not even be proficient swimmers, but this seems to have been Wells’ view.
When one of their number is swept away by the tide, the others make no effort to save her, giving it up as hopeless without any effort. The Time Traveller does. As a result, the woman, who has the ridiculous name of Weena, becomes devoted to him.
And here we get to the part of the story I found distasteful on this reading, the relationship between the ‘no longer young’ Time Traveller and this worshipping, four foot high child woman whom he carries about.
The Victorian ideal of womanhood was indeed a child woman – as for instance, the love object of the protagonist in Wilkie Colin’s ‘The Woman in White’, Laura Fairilie. Paedophilia was recognised as a perversion in Victorian times, but was little known, and for a man to be attracted to an extremely childlike girl was generally seen as normal.
One would have thought that Wells, as a supporter of women’s rights, must have been critical of such an ideal. He may be depicting it critically, though the text gives no sign of this. It may even be that in his depiction of the relationship, the intellectual discrepancy, the gap in power in the relationship between Weena and her adored Time Traveller are meant to be an ironic comment on how women might become, if the feminine ideal of the Victorian era was to be taken to its logical extreme.
It is the underlying factor of the massive difference in intellect, in emotional maturity, in size (surely the relationship could not have been consummated?) that led me to find the relationship between the protagonist and Weena unpleasant.
The first time I read this, I seem to have missed that the relationship between the two was meant to be a love affair – the idea seemed to be ridiculous, and I assumed that the fact that it is depicted that way in films was to add a romantic element lacking in the original story. In the films, Weena is shown as a full sized woman – in some, she is positively Amazonian looking.
However, on re-reading this, I do find quotes that indicate that there is, indeed, meant to be a love story between them. ‘She was exactly like a child. She wanted to be with me always. ..I thought it was mere childish affection that made her cling to me…Nor until it was too late did I understand what she was to me.’
He always refers to her as ‘little Weena’. As all her people are little – he doesn’t seem to distinguish between one or the other of the rest of them, and we don’t even know if she has any relatives – so this constant emphasis on her ‘littleness’ struck me as demeaning. As she is, like all the Eloi, illiterate, he says: ‘The bare idea of writing had never entered her head. She always seemed to me, I fancy, more human than she was, perhaps because her affection was so human.’
It seems odd to equate literacy with humanity – reading and writing are just useful skills, like making fire. I believe various studies of isolated tribes of people have shown that a culture without writing doesn’t necessarily preclude their having a capacity for abstract thought. However, this is a subject about which I know little, and is wandering from the point.
Overall, then, this time the relationship between The Time Traveller and Weena struck me as bordering on the creepy, and this did taint the novel for me. As I say above, perhaps it is intended to be an ironic comment on the ultimate ‘feminine’ helpless woman.
The Time Traveller’s machine has been stolen by the Morlocks. He strives to get it back, and to take Weena back with him to the nineteenth century (what he would do with her there doesn’t seem to cross is mind). He loses her, however, in a forest fire, and it is ambiguous whether or not she has been taken by the Morlocks or killed otherwise.
Then he fights it out with the Morlocks, using the box of matches he has found in the remains of the museum. Somehow, unlike the matches I buy to light candles, that brand haven’t stopped working in thousands of years instad of weeks or months. Well, he gains his time machine and takes off to look on other times. Finally he arrives home.
The story ends with The Time Traveller returning with some strange flowers given him by Weena, with which he will not part. His friends are still sceptical, and he goes on another journey. Perhaps he has gone back to see what became of Weena. The narrator, however, imagines him as going back to prehistoric times. We are told that after three years he has not returned.
Overall, this was an intriguing story, and a great achievement as the first novella on time travel. However, for me, the characters were drawn very sketchily. Perhaps that is in keeping with its Jules Verne adventure story aspect.
I didn’t like the Time Traveller – even apart from the Weena relationship. Of course, above all, he is something of a caricature of a dedicated man of science. He is unmarried, though ‘no longer young’, and seems to have no relationships close enough to torment him when he is kept from the nineteenth century for a week.
He is depicted as brave and resourceful, but out of touch with his emotions generally to an almost absurd extent. He comments on the beginnings of his ‘friendship’ with Weena, ‘Perhaps I had been feeling bereft’ . That is, at being separated from his own time for thousands of years, ‘perhaps’ he feels bereft after his original hysteria on finding that the Morlocks have stolen his machine. On my first reading, I seemed to get a stronger impression of the loneliness which might explain such a relationship as he had with Weena.
Perhaps it is a shame that Wells never got round to expanding on this story. He was eager to get it published, for his landlady banged on his door, asking him not to squander candles by writing into the night…