Study Guide

The Time Machine Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By H.G. Wells

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Fire

You probably noticed that there's a lot of fire in this book. Some of it is really hard to miss, like the first fire the Time Traveller starts, which gets out of control and burns down the forest (9.2). (Smokey the Bear is not going to be happy.) There are several smaller fires that are important in the story, too, like when the Time Traveller uses his matches to escape the Morlocks (6.11). These are examples of fire playing a really central role in the plot.

There are other fires that might be easier to miss. For instance, the Time Traveller uses his matches to amuse the Eloi and distract Weena from an upsetting topic (5.35, 5.41). We even find fire in 1890s London. When the Time Traveller demonstrates his model time machine, for instance, he places it in front of the fireplace so that everyone in the room can see it clearly (1.53). There's also the time when the Time Traveller lights his pipe using a spill (a long, thin piece of wood or rolled paper) – bad for his health, but good for proving how important fire is in the novel (1.62).

There are also times when the absence of fire is important: for instance, when the Time Traveller and Weena lie down to rest in the forest by a bonfire and wake up to discover that it has gone out and the Morlocks are attacking (9.9).

So why does fire play such an important role in the novel? For one thing, as the Time Traveller observes: "what a rare thing flame must be in the absence of man" (9.3). In other words, it's people who make fire. Our use of tools is one thing that sets us apart from other animals, and fire is one of our most important (and maybe oldest) tools.

However, that doesn't mean that fire is always our friend. Fire can be useful (for fighting off the Morlocks and seeing things at night), but it can also be misused. And fire can become dangerous, as we see when it burns down the forest and probably kills Weena.

So perhaps fire symbolizes technology in the novel. Like any technology, fire can be used or misused, and it can have unintended consequences. Technology makes our lives better, but – if you believe the premise of the novel – it can make humans lazy and ultimate lead to their demise.

The White Sphinx

The White Sphinx is the first thing the Time Traveller sees in the future, and it's also the key to getting him out of the future (since that's where the Morlocks hide his Time Machine). So the White Sphinx seems pretty important. How important? So important that we've decided to give you two totally different theories about it.

Theory #1 says that the White Sphinx is important because of its mythological meaning. If you remember your Greek mythology, the Sphinx...well, there are several versions, but the important thing to keep in mind is that the Sphinx asked a riddle and ate people who failed to answer it correctly. So the first thing the Time Traveller sees upon arriving in the future is the statue of the White Sphinx. Soon his Time Machine disappears into the Sphinx, which kind of sets up a riddle that the Time Traveller has to solve: what the heck is going on? Not only that, but if he doesn't figure out the riddle, there's a chance the Morlocks will eat him. In other words, the Sphinx might be there to indicate to the reader that the Time Traveller has to solve the riddle or die.

Now here's another interesting connection: in most versions of the myth, the Sphinx's riddle is something like, "What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?" Think about it for a second before we give you the answer....

Give up? The answer is Man. You crawl as a baby, walk on two legs as an adult, and use a cane (or walking stick) when you get old. (Although maybe that last part should involve a motorized wheelchair these days. Ah, technology!) So check this out: every once in a while the Time Traveller will say something like, "It seemed to me that I had happened upon humanity upon the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind" (4.24). It seems like there's something of a connection between the riddle of the Sphinx (about the aging of man) and the Time Traveller observing (in fast-forward) the aging of the human race.

OK, on to Theory #2, which is that the Sphinx is an important symbol because many people in Wells's time (roughly speaking) used "Sphinx" to refer to the sort of class division that, in The Time Machine, leads to the Eloi-Morlock split. Here's an example:

In Edward Bellamy's novel Looking Backward (1888), a Bostonian goes forward in time to the year 2000 and finds a utopia, or perfect society. This is one of the books Wells is probably thinking of when he has the Time Traveller talk about utopian books. (Check out the "Allusions" section for more.) Interested in how they created this utopia, the Bostonian asks his hosts, "what solution, if any, have you found for the labor question? It was the Sphinx's riddle of the nineteenth century, and when I dropped out the Sphinx was threatening to devour society, because the answer was not forthcoming."

So that's one example of someone using "Sphinx" to indicate that the problem of class seemed unsolvable to many people in the 19th century. There are others, like Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present, which has a chapter called "The Sphinx."

Do you think these two theories about what the Sphinx represents are compatible? Can they both be helpful in understanding the book?

The White Flowers

While telling his story, the narrator shows his audience the two white flowers – "not unlike very large white mallows" (7.6) – that Weena stuffed in his pockets. When he finishes his story, his dinner guests consider these flowers as evidence: they're weird flowers, so they could be proof that he actually did time travel. But in the Epilogue, the unnamed narrator decides to treat the flowers as symbols. He asks himself what these flowers mean, and this is the answer he comes up with:

And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers – shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle – to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man. (Epilogue.1)

So for the narrator, the flowers are symbols of good things. He may be wrong, though, so let's ask the question he seems to be asking himself: What do these flowers represent?

Well, to begin with, let's note that these aren't the first flowers to appear in the book. When the Eloi first see the Time Traveller, they put a necklace of flowers on him, which makes the future sound kind of like Hawaii (4.6). Then they start giving him more and more flowers. Weena also gives him flowers after he saves her from drowning (5.23). So the narrator seems justified in his belief that the flowers are connected with nice things: friendship, welcome, tenderness, and beauty.

That kind of sounds like the Eloi themselves, doesn't it? The Time Traveller mentions that the flowers are "delicate," like the Eloi (4.6). But in the future, "delicate" has a downside – things that are delicate are also weak. Now, there are some differences between people and flowers – for example, flowers are purposefully bred by people, as the Time Traveller notes: "We improve our favourite plants and animals [...] gradually by selective breeding" (4.25). This is, for the Time Traveller, "the subjugation of Nature" (4.25). In other words: Humans 1, Nature 0.

People, on the other hand, are not purposefully bred toward some end. But in both cases, the end result is the same. In the future, we have flowers and people who are both delicate and beautiful, sweet but weak. With that in mind, it looks more like Nature is beating the Human team.

So there are a few things those flowers could represent: (1) the kindness that survives in the future; (2) the weakness that survives in the future; (3) the fact that people are subject to nature's laws.

For more on this, check out the use of other images of nature, like the word "garden." For instance, in 4.22, the Time Traveller calls the world a "waste garden." What does this mean?