The Time Machine
by H.G. Wells
Analysis: Plot Analysis
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.
The Time Traveller says that he's been to the future and has a story to tell about what he found. (Chapters 1 and 2)
A couple of guys sit around while one of them tells a story. This is a classic opening. (If you've read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness or Henry James's Turn of the Screw, you'll recognize this kind of opening.) If someone has a story to tell, we listen. If he claims to have visited the future, we probably listen a little more closely.
The Time Traveller tries to understand the Eloi, who are beautiful but frail. He also tries to understand the future world, which looks like a paradise but doesn't quite make sense. (Chapters 3 and 4)
In many ways, we think the main conflict of this novel is between the Time Traveller and confusion. He wanders into a strange future; will he be able to understand it or remain confused by it? At first the Time Traveller's impressions of the future may seem like the beginning of a potential conflict. Although the Time Traveller is anxious about what he'll find in the future, his initial impression is one of beauty and ease. Later, though he begins to see that while the world is beautiful, it's also ruinous; the Eloi are beautiful, but weak and dumb. So here begins the mystery: What has happened to the human species?
The Time Machine goes missing. Oh, and there's an entire other species of post-humans living underground, the Morlocks. (Chapters 5 and 6)
This has happened to all of us at one point or another, right? The Time Traveller thought he would understand the future if only he understood the Eloi. But suddenly he learns there's a whole other world underground. Not only that, the Morlocks stole his Time Machine, so he's stuck here unless he deals with them. What was a vacation with the Eloi becomes a prison with the Morlocks. As far as complications go, this one is quite a doozy.
The Time Traveller descends into the Morlock cavern (Chapter 6). He realizes the true nature of the relationship between the Eloi and the Morlocks. He decides to take Weena back to the past with him (Chapter 7).
In the Conflict stage, the Time Traveller thought the Eloi were helped by mechanical tools. In the Complication stage, he thought the Eloi and the Morlocks had retained their master-servant relationship. But after examining the Morlocks' underground lair and thinking about it, the Time Traveller realizes that the Morlocks care for the Eloi the way people in his time care for cows: so that they can eat them later. While the Time Traveller tries to look at this issue calmly, he's bothered by it enough to decide to take Weena home with him. In other words, the Time Traveller finally answers the question of what happened to the human species – and it's not a pleasant answer.
Now that he's decided to fight the Morlocks, will the Time Traveller win? And is the Eloi-Morlock relationship the only future we have to look forward to? (Chapter 9)
In some ways, The Time Machine is not as suspenseful and exciting as it could be. For instance, the second chapter features the Time Traveller after he's survived his adventures in the future. So we don't have to worry about whether he's going to survive to return. We may still be in suspense over other questions, though. Will he save Weena? Will he become less civilized after all that fighting?
Now that we know the real relationship between the Eloi and the Morlocks – which is, well, pretty gross – we may also wonder whether there's any way to avoid that ending. The Time Traveller notes that the Eloi-Morlock version of the future is the outcome of processes that started in his own time. Now that we see how things could end up, couldn't we change them?
Going 30 million years into the future, the Time Traveller sees a desolate beach (Chapter 11). Returning to his time, he finds that people aren't really interested in the long view (Chapter 12).
While we would have traveled back to our own time after the adventure with the Morlocks, the Time Traveller keeps going forward to see the end of life on Earth. Well, there is that black rock thing, so maybe life does go on. The Time Traveller has successfully escaped from the Morlocks, but this vision of the end of the world puts things into a different perspective.
In the Suspense stage, we asked if there was some way to avoid the Eloi-Morlock version of the future. Here we see two answers to that question. First, whether humans do manage to avoid that particular future or not doesn't really matter in the long run: humanity is still doomed eventually. Second, the Time Traveller's listeners don't believe him, so they can't learn from his story. They'll go on as before, which probably will lead to the Eloi-Morlock version of the future.
After the Time Traveller disappears, the narrator considers the possible meanings of the Time Traveller's story. (Chapters 12 and Epilogue)
We have some theories about the Time Traveller's disappearance, but here the narrator runs through some options. Instead of answering the question of what happened to the Time Traveller, the narrator is really more interested in what it all means. He gives us two possible positions: the pessimistic view of the Time Traveller, where human advancement is doomed, and the optimistic view he himself holds, where – even when people are horrible cannibals eating other people like cattle – there's still the possibility of "tenderness." Which option do you prefer?