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When he was an old man, guess what H.G. Wells told a friend what he wanted written on his tombstone?
"G-- d--- you all: I told you so."
That's one thing to keep in mind when reading The Time Machine, which was Wells's first novel. The Time Machine is partly a warning to his contemporaries in the 1890s.
Now, if you've seen any of the movie adaptations of this book, you might think that Wells is warning us that there are monsters underneath the ground, waiting until dark to come out and get us. Sure, this is part of Wells's story, but it's not really what he wants to warn us about. He wants to warn us not to get too comfortable – that just because things are pretty good now, we shouldn't expect them to remain that way forever. It's not monsters that are going to get us – it's time.
To really understand The Time Machine, you've got to know a bit about what was going on in the world when Wells wrote it (the first version was "The Chronic Argonauts," which he wrote for a student magazine in 1888). It was a time of great change. In the 19th century, a bunch of people moved from the country to the city, industry was booming, and new technologies were rapidly changing people's lives. (Check out the Shmoop Learning Guides to the 19th century for more on that, especially the guide on technology of the Gilded Age.)
For some people, these changes were working out pretty well, and they thought things were going to keep changing for the better, and that science on their side. After all, Charles Darwin had published his On the Origin of Species in 1859, which argued (or so they thought) that species evolved to get better all the time. Some even thought that the people at the top of the social ladder were clearly better than the poor and working class because of Darwin's theory of "survival of the fittest." (By the way, this idea is called "Social Darwinism.")
Wells grew up pretty poor, but he was good at science, so he knew that the people who believed in everlasting progress and survival of the fittest didn't have any clue what they were talking about. For one thing, Darwin's theory of evolution doesn't say that species get better – it says that species become more adapted to their environment. For another thing, Darwin never even used the phrase "survival of the fittest." (Wells knew Darwin's work pretty well; he studied science with T.H. Huxley, who was a big supporter of Darwin. Huxley's nickname was – get this – "Darwin's bulldog.")
In order to show people that their ideas about "survival of the fittest" and progress weren't scientifically accurate, Wells wrote a story about a scientist traveling into the future to discover that the pampered rich have degenerated into helpless idiots and the oppressed poor have degenerated into subterranean cannibals. Things don't always get better as time goes on – they just become different.
In some ways, The Time Machine is like the opposite of a fairy tale bedtime story. Instead of calming some childish fear to put us to sleep, it's like Wells is telling his contemporaries, "you jerks should be worried," and trying to wake us up.
Let's say your teacher has just assigned The Time Machine and is discussing why it's an important book. It's an early example of science fiction. It introduced the idea of using a machine for time travel. It's never been out of print since 1895. It deals with the hot-button issues from its day, like Social Darwinism and inequality.
That's the point where you should stop your teacher. We're not living in 1890s Britain, so why should we be interested in their issues?
The answer: because their issues are still our issues.
The Time Machine is interested in issues of social inequality and justice – in how to best organize our society so that we can live with each other without oppression. In Wells's time, there was worry that the split between the "haves" and the "have-nots" was going to lead to violence. Today, well, maybe we're not so worried about violence, but people still worry about the split between the rich and the poor. From the 1890s to our own time, people still work on the question that seems central to The Time Machine: What's the best, most just way for society to be?
The Time Machine hasn't stayed in print for over 100 years just because Wells invented the idea of a machine that would move through time. Rather, it seems that Wells's book has remained in print because, even though much of the world has changed, certain issues haven't. Wells would be amazed at our iPods, but he wouldn't be surprised that some people have them and others don't.
The Classics Illustrated version of The Time Machine
Who doesn't like pictures?
Verne and Wells Comic
Though Verne and Wells might have enjoyed each other's work, they had famously different ways of approaching science in their science fiction. This is captured nicely in this comic by Kate Beaton.
The Time Machine (1960)
This has some nice visuals, but the story is less than faithful to the book. Most of the changes made seem to have more to do with the anxieties of the 1960s, like nuclear war and mental control, than the 1890s.
The Time Machine (1978), TV movie
Not exactly faithful – in one trip to the past, the Time Traveller almost gets burned as a witch – but they do add the interesting wrinkle that the future has been destroyed by one of the Time Traveller's other inventions.
The Time Machine (2002)
The time passing sequences are worth checking out, and there's one or two sort of interesting changes (the Time Traveller is traveling because the love of his life died). But generally this is the least faithful movie adaptation.
The "Lost" Part of Wells's Time Machine: The Grey Man
In an earlier version of this novel, the Time Traveller stops after escaping from the Morlocks and discovers some other weird animals. Wells eventually cut this scene, which he didn't seem to like very much.
London Map, 1897
Here's a map of London and its suburbs in 1897. You can track the Time Traveller's journey on it to see how far he goes. (You can also see how far the Thames River moves.)
Photos from How the Other Half Lives
Jacob Riis documented and photographed the lives of the poor in New York City in 1890. It's not London, but this might give you some idea of the conditions Wells is talking about when he says the working class has no access to the sky.
The Chronic Argonauts
Wells wrote an early version of The Time Machine while he was still in school. It's radically different, but the time travel idea is still there.
What the Time Traveller Might See
Time-lapse video of coastal erosion – a short version of what the Time Traveller likely saw on his trip to the future.
Trailer for The Time Machine (1960)
See how many differences you can spot between the book and the movie just from watching the trailer.
Trailer for The Time Machine (2002)
The Eloi speak English in this version, and Jeremy Irons is a Morlock leader. It doesn't make much sense.
Time Passing Sequences from The Time Machine (2002)
At least the time-passage sequences are pretty good.
The Time Machine on the Radio
Old-time radio versions of The Time Machine on the science fiction show Escape. Here are links to both the 1948 and 1950 versions (though the script is the same for both).
The Time Machine from The Time Machine (1960)
Note that this Time Machine has a seat, whereas in the book, the seat is described as a saddle. This probably means a bike seat, since biking was big at the time.
Poster for The Time Machine (1960)
Promising "Futuristic Metrocolor."
First Edition Cover of The Time Machine
The Sphinx's wings are up, not out, but isn't it interesting that they chose to put the Sphinx on the cover?