Study Guide

The Time Machine Passivity

By H.G. Wells

Passivity

Chapter 1

Our chairs, being his patents, embraced and caressed us rather than submitted to be sat upon, and there was that luxurious after-dinner atmosphere when thought runs gracefully free of the trammels of precision. And he put it to us in this way [...] as we sat and lazily admired his earnestness over this new paradox (as we thought it) and his fecundity. (1.1)

This all sounds like the 1890s intellectual version of being a couch potato: sitting around after dinner, "lazily" listening to someone else talk. (And those chairs sound awfully comfy. Can't you just picture these guys in Barcaloungers?) This all sounds pretty passive, although we should note that some of the guests do get pretty involved in the argument. This opening sets the tone, though, and the argument mostly shows that the Time Traveller's guests haven't done their homework and don't want to do any heavy thinking.

Chapter 2

The Journalist, too, would not believe at any price, and joined the Editor in the easy work of heaping ridicule on the whole thing. (2.12)

We here at Shmoop like heaping ridicule on things, but we have to admit that making fun of something is often easier than understanding it. (The best is if you can do both at the same time.) So here, as elsewhere, the Journalist and the Editor show themselves to be lazy – they'd rather make bad jokes than work to understand what's going on.

Chapter 4

What, unless biological science is a mass of errors, is the cause of human intelligence and vigour? Hardship and freedom: conditions under which the active, strong, and subtle survive and the weaker go to the wall. . . (4.28)

According to the Time Traveller, the Eloi have become dumb and lazy because they can survive that way. Natural selection no longer weeds out the passive; unlike in the past, you can survive perfectly well without being smart or active.

I never met people more indolent or more easily fatigued. (4.13)

The Time Traveller comes out and says that the Eloi are lazy and weak, which is something his story shows in several other ways. (For instance, they can't keep up with him when he walks far [4.21].)

Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is strength, would become weakness. (4.30)

Passivity is actually a better trait to have than its opposite according to this theory. While we often think of laziness as a bad thing, it seems there's an argument to be made here that laziness isn't good or bad; rather it either fits the environment or it doesn't. Maybe the 1890s couch potatoes have a fine thing going on there – they certainly seem to fit their environment comfortably.

Chapter 5

At last, hot and tired, I sat down to watch the place. But I was too restless to watch long; I am too Occidental for a long vigil. (5.13)

In Wells's time, the stereotype of the East (the Orient) was that it was slower paced; people could just sit and meditate for hours. By contrast, the people of the West (the Occident) were thought to be more active and restless. So whereas the Time Traveller thinks of the Eloi as lazy, he sees himself as belonging to a group of people who aren't. (We would point out that his Western friends in the 1890s seem like pretty passive guys.)

Chapter 10

I understood now what all the beauty of the Over-world people covered. Very pleasant was their day, as pleasant as the day of the cattle in the field. Like the cattle, they knew of no enemies and provided against no needs. And their end was the same. (10.1)

Passivity is often thought of as a negative emotion, and sometimes an animal one. (Cows are passive. Sheep are passive. Maybe chickens are passive?) The Time Traveller's comparison of the Eloi to animals reminds us that their passiveness makes them less than human. But aren't some of the dinner guests pretty passive too? What is Wells saying about the future of the elite?

Chapter 11

It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, [...] and it was hopping fitfully about. (11.12)

While the novel presents several examples of passivity, there are some hints that maybe there's more activity than the Time Traveller sees. For instance, on the apparently "desolate beach" at the end, the Time Traveller does notice that there's something still living and moving. This may be a lot less life than there was, but it's life nonetheless.

At last, some time before I stopped, the sun, red and very large, halted motionless upon the horizon, a vast dome glowing with a dull heat, and now and then suffering a momentary extinction. [...] The earth had come to rest with one face to the sun, even as in our own time the moon faces the earth. (11.2)

Passivity isn't just a personal or a cultural issue in the future; it's also a cosmic one. Here the earth has slowed down in its rotation and eventually stopped turning. Presumably, if he went far enough into the future, the Time Traveller would come to an utterly still, cold universe, where all the stars had died. So, passivity, at its extreme, seems related to death.

Chapter 12
The Dinner Guests

The Editor stood up with a sigh. "What a pity it is you're not a writer of stories!" he said.

[...]

"I'm hanged if it isn't a quarter to one," said the Journalist. "How shall we get home?" (12.16)

After hearing the Time Traveller's story, the Editor and the Journalist are the first to reject it and the first to bring everyone's attention back to their day-to-day concerns. It's certainly easier to deal with the problem of getting home than the future of the human species. This is mental passivity – these two would rather take the easy way out and avoid any serious, difficult thinking.