Study Guide

The Time Machine Time

By H.G. Wells

Time

Chapter 1
The Time Traveller

"Scientific people [...] know very well that Time is only a kind of Space." (1.18)

This is the Time Traveller's central argument and the basis for his Time Machine. It's also an example of how we have to re-think time and look at it from a scientific perspective. When the Time Traveller speaks about "time," he's not talking about the day-to-day version that people experience but about a scientific conception of time.

Chapter 2

"I say," said the Editor hilariously, "these chaps here say you have been travelling into the middle of next week! Tell us all about little Rosebery, will you?" (2.13)

There's some argument over who Rosebery is. Whoever it is, we can see that the Time Traveller's perspective on what's important isn't shared by your average Londoner, who is focused more on the day-to-day stuff that doesn't matter in the long run.

Chapter 7

Looking at these stars suddenly dwarfed my own troubles and all the gravities of terrestrial life. I thought of their unfathomable distance, and the slow inevitable drift of their movements out of the unknown past into the unknown future. (7.12)

This quote seems to reinforce the previous one: gosh, aren't we humans small potatoes. But in the previous quote, the Time Traveller noted the similarities that remained, whereas here he seems to be saying that past and future are unknown. That the future is unknown seems like a peculiar thought for someone who has invented a Time Machine. Or is he saying that the future will always remain unknown even with the Time Machine? As in, the future will simply be too complex and weird for people to understand?

All the old constellations had gone from the sky, however: that slow movement which is imperceptible in a hundred human lifetimes, had long since rearranged them in unfamiliar groupings. But the Milky Way, it seemed to me, was still the same tattered streamer of star-dust as of yore. (7.11)

Although the Time Traveller sees these changes, he realizes that they go beyond the personal perspective of time. (The Time Traveller may be pretty great, but he doesn't have "a hundred human lifetimes" saved up.) And yet, while this cosmic view goes beyond the personal, the Time Traveller also notes that some things haven't changed, like the Milky Way. Or perhaps that is merely wishful thinking, as he qualifies it with "it seemed to me."

Chapter 8

In another place was a vast array of idols – Polynesian, Mexican, Grecian, Phoenician, every country on earth I should think. And here, yielding to an irresistible impulse, I wrote my name upon the nose of a steatite [soapstone] monster from South America that particularly took my fancy. (8.12)

After thinking about the futility of personal ambition, the Time Traveller seems to give in to that very impulse: he wants to leave some sign that he was there. This is another example of him acting less like a scientist and more like a normal (flawed) human being. Taking the long view is hard!

The brown and charted rags that hung from the sides of it, I presently recognized as the decaying vestiges of books. They had long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print had left them. [...] Had I been a literary man I might, perhaps, have moralized upon the futility of all ambition. (8.9)

The "futility of all ambition" is an old theme in literature – check out Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" for a famous example – but here the Time Traveller somewhat turns that idea on its head by showing that all of literature might be futile in the long run. There's further irony here: Wells is writing a novel whose protagonist realizes that literature doesn't matter in the end.

Chapter 10

But that perfect state had lacked one thing even for mechanical perfection – absolute permanency. Apparently as time went on, the feeding of the Under-world, however it was effected, had become disjointed. (10.4)

As <em>The Time Machine</em> notes in a number of ways, "absolute permanency" is harder than it looks. While the system that fed the Morlocks probably looked like a permanent solution to people at the time, the Time Traveller, taking the long view, can see that things keep changing.

Chapter 11

So I travelled, stopping ever and again, in great strides of a thousand years or more, drawn on by the mystery of the earth's fate, watching with a strange fascination the sun grow larger and duller in the westward sky, and the life of the old earth ebb away. (11.8)

The Time Machine makes it easier for the Time Traveller to take the long view of time. (It helps that he's no longer distracted by monsters trying to eat him.) When he was with Weena on the hillside in Chapter 7, the long view was about the stars changing position, which is cool and all, but it doesn't really change most people's lives. But the realization that life on earth will end should hit you where you live, literally. So we could say that the Editor may not be interested in the long view of time, but the long view of time is interested in him.

Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives – all that was over. (11.11)

The Time Traveller could be wrong, but this is his final word on the fate of man: everything the 19th-century British person would recognize is gone. Notice how this line compares the cosmic perspective of the desolate beach with the personal perspective of "our lives." Instead of talking about stars moving or the earth dying, the Time Traveller wants us to get the idea of what this cosmic view really means for us: silence.

Epilogue

But to me the future is still black and blank – is a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places by the memory of his story. (Epilogue.1)

The unnamed narrator concludes with this remark about the lesson of the Time Traveller's story, which isn't very much of a lesson at all, but which might be a helpful reminder to us that there's a lot out there that remains unknown. Though the Time Traveller has seen some pretty significant things, there might be much more that he missed. Or maybe – just maybe – taking the long view isn't always that helpful when you have to live in the here and now.