The Time Machine Summary
After a dinner party, the Time Traveller argues that time travel is possible. Since the narrator calls him "the Time Traveller," and since it's impolite to argue with your host, we're going to go out on a limb and agree with him. The guests mostly don't believe the Time Traveller, though, not even after he makes a model Time Machine disappear and then shows them the full-scale machine.
The following week, the Time Traveller is a half hour late to his own dinner party. This is not only improper from an etiquette standpoint, but also pretty inexcusable if you have a Time Machine. (We're guessing his Time Machine is not so precise.) The guests are astounded at his disheveled look, so he tells them his story.
The Time Traveller has gone far, far into the future – to the year 802,701. He has no guide there, leaving him to make guesses about what's going on. His Time Machine gets stolen, so he has to stay and find it. He meets the beautiful but dumb Eloi, who are like lazy children. His first theory is that the Eloi have machines that do their work for them so they can sit around and be lazy.
He befriends one of the Eloi, a woman named Weena. In every movie adaptation of this book, the Time Traveller and Weena fall in love, but in the book it's not so romantic. We're not sure exactly what's going on between them, though (check out "Characters: Weena" for more on that).
Then the Time Traveller discovers that there are people who live underground. He goes underground and meets them: the creepy Morlocks. The Time Traveller's second theory is that the Morlocks are the helpful workers who take care of the Eloi. In this theory, the Eloi are descended from the upper class, the Morlocks are descended from the working class, and everyone is happy – although the Morlocks are disgusting. (The Time Traveller compares them to Kentucky cavefish, which we think are kind of cute, but we'll give it to him.)
Then he realizes that the Morlocks do take care of the Eloi, but they also eat them. (In case you're wondering, Eloi tastes like chicken.) The Time Traveller also learns that the Morlocks are sensitive to light and afraid of fire.
The Time Traveller examines an old museum to find a weapon to use against the Morlocks. He finds a club, which works as well in the future as it would work now. But the Morlocks attack. The Time Traveller sets a fire, which gets out of control (doh!). He loses Weena but finds his Time Machine.
He travels even farther into the future, when almost all life has died out. It's kind of a bummer, so he goes home.
And that's his story. No one believes the Time Traveller, except the narrator (sort of). The narrator goes to talk to him the next day, and the Time Traveller says he'll be back with proof. The Time Traveller goes into his lab and disappears. He never comes back.
- The novel starts out with a bunch of guys hanging out after dinner, talking about the nature of time (which is the kind of thing we often talk about after dinner – we're cool like that). They're in Richmond, Surrey (that's in England).
- At this get-together are the narrator, the Time Traveller, the Psychologist, the Medical Man, the Provincial Mayor, the Very Young Man, and Filby.
- They're chilling – drinking and sitting in ultra-comfy chairs – while the Time Traveller tells them that they don't really understand time.
- (The Time Traveller also designed those super ultra-comfy chairs. He's obviously very talented, and we're a little jealous.)
- The Time Traveller explains that time is a dimension, just like the three dimensions of space: length, width, and height. The Time Traveller argues that since time is a dimension, we should be able to move along it, into the past or the future.
- The others argue with him, but if they were right, this would be a very short book.
- The Time Traveller says it's hard to move up or down without any help. Like, you can jump, but that doesn't get you very far up. But he notes that modern people can move up or down more easily because of technology, like hot-air balloons. The Time Traveller concludes that maybe someone will invent a machine to...wait for it...travel through time!
- Everyone talks about what they would do if they could travel in time. You could explore great historical events! (And maybe screw them up.) You could go back and invest money in ventures you knew would succeed and become the richest man in the world! (This is an idea Wells played with in another novel, When the Sleeper Wakes.) But the future might not have private property. You could study Ancient Greek in Ancient Greece so you could pass your tests! But since you'd be the only modern person who really knew Ancient Greek, your teachers would fail you. (That's what "plough you for the Little-go" means – it's not as dirty as it sounds.)
- Since they don't really believe him, the Time Traveller goes to get his model of the Time Machine from his laboratory.
- Filby tries to tell a story, but no one cares.
- The Time Traveller shows them his model Time Machine, then makes it disappear.
- But some of the dinner guests still don't believe him, so he shows them the full-size Time Machine in his laboratory.
- They still don't totally believe him. This is fair, since he's played tricks on them before, like showing them a fake ghost last Christmas. (Today we associate ghost stories with Halloween, but in Wells's day ghost stories were a part of Christmas in Britain.)
- The narrator remarks that the Time Traveller is too clever (unlike Filby) for people to entirely trust him.
- The narrator meets the Medical Man at the Linnaean Society in the city. The Medical Man thinks the Time Machine thing was a trick, but he can't figure out how the Time Traveller did it.
- The narrator goes back the following week for the Time Traveller's weekly dinner party.
- The Time Traveller isn't there, but there are a bunch of people waiting for him: the Medical Man, the Psychologist, the Editor, the Journalist, and the Silent Man. The Time Traveller has left a note telling them to start dinner without him.
- The Editor is happy to start dinner without their host.
- The Time Traveller appears in the middle of dinner, looking like hell. (Or, as they would say back then, "He was in an amazing plight" [2.7].) His clothes are dirty, he has a half-healed cut on his chin, and he's limping.
- The others are curious, but he refuses to tell his story until he cleans himself and eats some meat. He really wants meat. How much? When he gets some he exclaims, "What a treat it is to stick a fork into meat again!" (2.14).
- The Journalist and the Editor make jokes about how the future must have no way to clean clothes, ha ha ha. The Journalist tries to tell a story, but no one cares.
- After eating his meat, the Time Traveller leads everyone into the smoking room and begins to tell his story. But first, he makes them promise that they won't interrupt him.
- Everyone listens – for ten chapters.
- The Time Traveller begins his story, which will last until Chapter 12. Here's how it goes:
- He finishes his machine in the morning and travels a few hours into the future as an experiment. He feels dizzy, but it works.
- He decides to go farther. He travels faster and sees the world in fast-forward, like a time-lapse video. (Keep in mind, Wells wrote this around the time when movies were first being made and no one had yet done any time-lapse photography. For an example of modern time-lapse video, check out this US Geological Survey video of four weeks in Alaska.)
- The Time Traveller sees several things happen quickly. His housekeeper, Mrs. Watchett, zooms across his laboratory. Day and night speed by, one after the other, "like the flapping of a black wing" (3.3).
- He can't really describe his sensations, but he feels kind of sick, as if he were on a switchback (when a railroad track or road zigs and zags).
- He sees the landscape change. (We don't really like the two movie versions of this book – see "Best of the Web" for more on what we think of them – but we kind of like the scenes where he's traveling far into the future and sees the landscape "melting and flowing" [3.4].)
- The Time Traveller is excited and nervous about what the future will be like.
- Then he realizes that if there's something else in the same space as him when he stops, there may be an explosion, because two objects can't occupy the same space at the same time. We think this is something that maybe he should've thought about before.
- He stops anyway, and suddenly that the Time Machine turns over on its side.
- He's in the future, sitting in a hailstorm.
- Again, he can't really describe his sensations.
- He sees a statue of a sphinx made of white marble on a bronze pedestal. (A sphinx looks like this, but the Time Traveller notes that this one has wings out to the sides.)
- He worries about what he might find in the future and lifts the Time Machine off its side, just in case he needs to make a quick getaway. But as soon as he's ready to leave, he stops worrying.
- That's when the people of the future show up. They seem short and frail to the Time Traveller, but also graceful and beautiful.
- The little people of the future have sweet voices, but the Time Traveller can't understand their language.
- They touch him with their soft hands, but he's not worried. He realizes that he could beat them up if he had to.
- Just to be safe, he takes the levers off the Time Machine so no one else can take it for a joyride.
- He tries to tell the people that he traveled through time by pointing at the sun. One of them asks through gestures if the Time Traveller came from the sun in the storm.
- The Time Traveller thinks he might be dealing with fools. He compares the little people to five-year-old children for thinking that he fell from the sky.
- But he says yes, and they cover him with flowers, which are like the people: beautiful and delicate.
- The Time Traveller goes with the people to their home, a big grey stone building that's falling apart in spots.
- There are tables full of fruit, which they eat. The Time Traveller tells us that these people only eat fruit. There are no horses, cows, sheep, or dogs. (This explains why the Time Traveller was so eager to eat meat in Chapter 2.)
- He tries to learn the language, but the people aren't good teachers. They're lazy.
- The Time Traveller goes for a walk up a hill to see what the world is like in the year 802,701. He is soon alone because the little people are too weak and lazy to walk that far.
- On his walk, he sees a ruin, which he promises will feature in a later adventure. He also notices a well. When he looks down the well, he can't see any water, but he does hear some giant machinery underground.
- He hasn't seen any individual houses, so he thinks the people live communally in the big buildings.
- Then the Time Traveller notices that the men and women look the same in the future.
- This makes sense to him, because he thinks sexual difference is a response to adversity. Since these people live in comfort, there's no reason for them to be very masculine or feminine.
- He sits on a seat near the top of the hill and looks out at the world, which looks peaceful, like a garden.
- He starts to come up with a theory about how things came to be the way they are. But first, he tells us that this theory is mostly wrong.
- His theory is that strength and smarts are only useful when you have to deal with hardship and danger. When everything is fine, there's no reason to be strong. The safer life is, the less strength you need. The people of the future have made things so safe with technology that they've become weak and stupid.
- The Time Traveller notes that there are processes in action in his own time (the 1890s) that point to this very outcome.
- Then he repeats that his theory is wrong. This won't be the last time he admits to being wrong, which is one reason we kind of like the Time Traveller. (See "Characters: The Time Traveller" and "Narrator Point of View" for more on this.)
- Night falls. The Time Traveller on the hill looks for the White Sphinx so he'll know how to get back.
- He can't see the Time Machine, which freaks him out. He runs to the Sphinx, but can't find the Machine anywhere.
- On his run, he startles a white animal that he thinks is a deer.
- He goes to the big grey building and startles the little people. He demands to know where his Time Machine is. At the same time, he knows they couldn't have taken it. He reminds us that they're too weak (just in case we missed it the first billion times he said it).
- After freaking out for most of the night, the Time Traveller feels better the next morning. He finds evidence that the Time Machine has been moved into the pedestal of the White Sphinx.
- He can't figure out how to open the pedestal, and the little people all act weird about the Sphinx. But since he knows where it is, he's calmer and decides to explore.
- Also, he tries to be nice to the little people, which involves amusing them with matches.
- He experiments with the wells, which seem to be sucking air down into them. He thinks this might be part of the sanitation system. But he reveals to us that he's wrong about that.
- He also tells us that it's not entirely his fault that he's wrong. See, in other books about time travel, there's always someone from the future to help the traveler understand. (He calls this person a "cicerone," which means "guide.") But he's all alone, so he has lots of questions and no one to ask.
- For example, where are the cemeteries? Also, the little people don't have machinery and they don't work, so where does their stuff come from?
- The Time Traveller saves a little person from drowning when none of the other little people try. (In case you haven't heard, they can be lazy and weak.) The Time Traveller befriends this little person, whose name is Weena.
- Weena hangs around the Time Traveller, and he learns from her that the little people are afraid of the dark.
- Then the Time Traveller tells us that he had a weird experience that morning. First, he was awoken early by a dream that something soft and gross was touching him. Then when he left the grey stone house, he thought he saw some ghost-like figures carrying something.
- Another day, the Time Traveller explores the ruin he mentioned in Chapter 4, and he accidentally startles some white Thing. The Thing runs off down a well, which has handles for climbing.
- Although the Time Traveller hasn't gotten a good look at the white Thing, he realizes that there are two different species of humans in the future. There are the graceful but dumb child-like people who live aboveground, and there are the horrible monster-like people who live underground.
- He thinks this split is a continuation of processes that are going on in his own day. For instance, someone who worked on the subway in London all day might not see the sun very much. After thousands of years of evolution, maybe the underground worker would become suited to living underground permanently.
- Finally, he gives these two groups of people their names: the aboveground people are the Eloi; the belowground people are Morlocks. (For more on them and their names, see "Characters.")
- The Time Traveller theorizes that the Eloi are the descendents of aristocrats and the Morlocks are the descendents of the working class. He thinks they get along, but he still has questions. If the Eloi and Morlocks get along, then why did the Morlocks take his Time Machine? And why does Weena cry when he asks her about the Morlocks?
- The Time Traveller feels bad about making Weena cry, so he uses his matches to amuse her. (Raise your hand if you think it's a bad idea to use matches to amuse people aboveground when you've just discovered a species of people living underground.)
- The Time Traveller knows that he should investigate the Morlocks, but he doesn't want to because they're disgusting. They are, he says, "filthily cold" (6.1). We're not entirely sure what that means, but it sure sounds gross.
- He avoids going underground by exploring the surface. He sees a large building far off that looks like it's made of green porcelain and decides to go explore it.
- But then he realizes that he's just putting off the inevitable: he needs to go down a well and see how the Morlocks live.
- Weena gets upset when she realizes what he's doing, but he does it anyway.
- It's a hard climb down, but he finds a tunnel branching off from the well. He hears some machines.
- He rests a moment, then feels some Morlock's soft hands touching him, which jolts him. He lights a match to see the Morlock better, but it runs away.
- He follows the tunnel and finds a cavern full of machinery. He also smells blood, but that doesn't worry him. There's a table with some meat on it. He wonders where the Morlocks got the meat.
- The Time Traveller reflects on how poorly equipped he is, since he only brought some matches. He only has a few matches left after entertaining the Eloi with them. (Note: if you ever build a time travel device, bring a camera. And lots of matches. And maybe a change of clothes, just to be safe.)
- The Morlocks come to examine him, but he's disgusted by them. The Time Traveller yells at them, but they keep coming. Then the Morlocks start grabbing at him.
- So the Time Traveller starts fending them off. He manages to escape back up the well. He sees Weena and some other Eloi and passes out.
- The Time Traveller feels worse – before, he just had to deal with the simplicity of the Eloi, but now he has to deal with the Morlocks, who he thinks of as "inhuman and malign" (7.1). Also, he's afraid of the dark and the new moon.
- Theory time! The Time Traveller first thought that the Eloi were kept in idiotic comfort by machines. Then he thought the Eloi were the masters of the Morlocks. Now he thinks the Morlocks are in charge in some way. This leads to one of our favorite lines of the book:
- "Ages ago, thousands of generations ago, man had thrust his brother man out of the ease and the sunshine. And now that brother was coming back – changed!" (7.2).
- Suddenly, the Time Traveller finds himself thinking about the meat he saw underground. But he doesn't know why he's thinking about it. (If you know, don't tell him – he's got to figure this one out for himself.)
- Unlike the Eloi, who just freeze up when they're scared, the Time Traveller wants to do something about his fear. He needs weapons and a secure place to hide from the Morlocks.
- So he takes Weena and starts walking to the Palace of Green Porcelain, the building he saw in Chapter 6.
- He's going to walk even though the comfortable old shoes he started out with are falling apart. (Note: if you decide to go time traveling, wear comfortable, sturdy shoes.)
- Weena stuffs his pockets with flowers on their walk. Two of these will travel back with him to the present day. He shows the flowers to his dinner guests in the smoking room and the narrator remarks that they are "not unlike very large white mallows" (7.6.). We prefer to think of them as Flowers of the Future!
- The Time Traveller and Weena continue on their way, but the palace is too far, there's a scary dark forest ahead of them, and his feet hurt. So they stop for the night on a hill.
- Afraid of a potential attack, the Time Traveller stays up all night and stargazes. He notices that the constellations have changed since his time. He thinks about the cosmic scale of things.
- Against that scale, he realizes that human concerns are pretty small and human history pretty easy to wipe out.
- Then he suddenly realizes that Morlocks eat Eloi, which doesn't really improve his mood.
- Luckily no Morlocks attack that night. In the morning, he throws away his shoes and they start up again for the Palace of Green Porcelain.
- On the way, the Time Traveller tries to consider the Morlock-Eloi ecology in a scientific way. But it's too disgusting for him and he has too much sympathy for the Eloi, especially Weena.
- So he again thinks about what he needs to protect himself: a safe place, a weapon, and some way to get into the Sphinx to get the Time Machine back.
- He also decides to take Weena back home with him to the present. (Not that that would cause any problems or anything.)
- The Time Traveller and Weena reach the Palace of Green Porcelain, which is falling apart. It's also actually made of green porcelain, which might surprise you if you were getting used to the Time Traveller being wrong.
- The Palace reminds the Time Traveller of a museum, probably because it was a museum. The lobby has part of a dinosaur skeleton and there are glass cases full of stuff on display. It sounds pretty much like any museum we might find today. The Time Traveller calls it a "latter-day South Kensington" (8.4). (South Kensington is an area in London where the major museums are.)
- The Time Traveller and Weena explore the museum, looking for tools to help them against the Morlocks.
- In the minerals section, the Time Traveller looks for the ingredients to make gunpowder, but he can't find any.
- He also looks for clues about how this whole situation came about. Unfortunately, the section on natural history is mostly empty, all the displays rotted away, so he can't figure out how people tamed nature.
- In a dark part of the museum, he's reminded of the Morlocks. To protect himself, he pulls off a piece of metal from one of the machines on display to use as a mace. (He describes the piece of metal as looking like a lever from a signal box, which would look something like this. Also, when he says "mace," this is what he means. It's basically a club.)
- Now that he has a weapon, he wants to go kill some Morlocks. But he doesn't want to leave Weena alone.
- They find a falling-down library, where the Time Traveller can't find his own works.
- In the chemistry wing, he finds a box of matches and some flammable camphor. He does a little dance to celebrate finding the matches (8.10). (We might've done a celebratory dance after traveling into the future, but that's just us.)
- He also finds the weapons section, but the guns are all rusted and he thinks his impromptu mace will work better than any sword when he tries to open the Sphinx.
- There's also a room full of statues and idols, and the Time Traveller does what we all want to do: he carves his name into an idol.
- He finds dynamite, but it doesn't work.
- The Time Traveller and Weena take a rest in the museum courtyard.
- The Time Traveller and Weena start to travel back. On the way through the forest, the Time Traveller collects firewood so he can build a fire when they stop for the night.
- They don't get as far as he expected, and he needs a hand free in case he needs to chase off the Morlocks with a match. (Remember, he's also carrying that mace in one hand.)
- So he decides to light the firewood and leave the fire behind. This is a big no-no in the forest, especially in the future, where there's no Smokey the Bear.
- The Time Traveller says he learned later that lighting the fire was a big mistake.
- Weena is totally amazed by the fire, though, and wants to play with it. The Time Traveller has to carry her away from it. Then, when they're in the dark, he has to carry her because she's afraid of the dark. So he still has no hand free.
- So when the Morlocks do come to attack them, the Time Traveller has to put Weena down to light a match. She seems to faint or totally freeze up. He scares the Morlocks off, but he's gotten himself turned around and isn't sure which way to go. The nearly catatonic Weena is no help, so they're lost in the forest.
- The Time Traveller decides to build a big campfire where they are and camp for the night. He notes that the wood here is really dry, since it hasn't rained since he came to the future.
- As if lighting a fire in a dry forest wasn't already a bad idea, the Time Traveller decides to take a nap. (We like campfires and we like naps – but we don't like mixing the two.)
- He wakes up to discover that his fire is out, his box of matches is missing, and Morlocks are all around them.
- So he starts beating them with his metal club, which he finds very fun and exciting.
- Then the Morlocks start running away. Not from the Time Traveller and his club, but from the forest fire that his first fire caused.
- The Time Traveller can't find Weena and also runs away from the fire. But the fire encircles the Time Traveller, who ends up in a clearing with the Morlocks, penned in by a burning ring of fire. (Not to be confused with Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire.")
- The fire disorients the Morlocks, so they don't attack the Time Traveller. He stops hitting them, except when some of them come too close.
- There's no trace of Weena. The Time Traveller gets a little frenzied again: he thinks this is a nightmare and demands that God let him wake up. You know, the usual stuff.
- The Morlocks slip away as dawn comes. The Time Traveller feels alone now that Weena is gone, but he consoles himself: at least Weena wasn't eaten. This is a weird consolation, but the Time Traveller is kind of a weird guy.
- Then he realizes that he has some loose matches in his pockets, so things aren't all bad.
- The Time Traveller returns to the seat on the hill. He looks down on the Eloi, who don't realize that they are like cattle.
- He gets sad about the passing of human intelligence, calling it suicide: people were smart enough to make the world a more comfortable place – but as the world got more comfortable, people became less smart.
- He thinks that only a huge variety of needs and dangers keep people smart and strong. Without the dangers, the Eloi drifted toward "feeble prettiness" and the Morlocks drifted toward "mere mechanical industry" (10.4).
- This would be a fine system if it were stable. But clearly the Morlocks ran out of food, and so they turned to the obvious replacement: the Eloi. This is the Time Traveller's final theory on this issue.
- The Time Traveller takes another nap, then goes to open the Sphinx and get his Time Machine.
- When he gets to the Sphinx, though, the doors are open.
- The Time Traveller throws away his club. He suspects a trap, but he thinks he can deal with the Morlocks since he has matches.
- But when the Morlocks try to trap him, he discovers that his matches will only light on the box, which was stolen in the last chapter.
- Still, the Time Traveller manages to fight the Morlocks off while he reattaches the levers.
- And then: time travel!
- Now, if we had just gone through an adventure like that, we'd probably be ready to go back home – if only to get some more matches. But the Time Traveller decides to go even farther forward in time.
- He's traveling fast and the days are a blur, but then the days start to become more distinct because the earth is slowing down. The sun is also becoming giant and red, which astronomers call...a red giant.
- The Time Traveller stops on a beach. The air is thinner, the sea moves slowly, and the only life he sees at first is some green lichen.
- But then he see some sort of butterfly creature and some sort of crab.
- And then he notices that there's another crab creature right behind him. They're all around him – and they're coming for him.
- He no longer relies on matches, but instead jumps farther into the future.
- He jumps several times – a hundred years here, a thousand years there – and sees the world slowly ending.
- In one last image, he sees an almost lifeless world, totally 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).
- There is one thing that looks like a black rock, but it seems to be moving toward him.
- Finally, he takes our advice and goes back home.
- Traveling back in time, the Time Traveller sees things in reverse and slows down when he sees his laboratory. In Chapter 3 he saw his housekeeper zoom across the room, and now he sees her walk backwards across the room.
- For a flash, he sees someone named Hillyer. It's unclear who Hillyer is, though we suspect that's the narrator's name.
- When he stops, the Time Traveller thinks it might all have been a dream, except now the Time Machine is in a different place (because the Morlocks moved it in the future).
- The Time Traveller hears his guests eating and comes in to say hello. And, boy, does he want meat.
- The Time Traveller ends his story by bringing it full circle: "I washed, and dined, and now I am telling you the story" (12.5).
- He asks them how they like the story, since he sees that they don't believe him. He admits that he hardly believes it himself.
- The Editor clearly doesn't believe him, and the Journalist asks where they can get a cab at this late hour.
- But the Medical Man notes that the flowers are mysterious.
- The Time Traveller has a sudden freak-out and decides he needs to see his Time Machine, or else he'll think the whole thing was a dream.
- So everyone goes to the laboratory and sees the Time Machine. It certainly looks a little worn, and the Time Traveller is calmed down.
- The Medical Man says the Time Traveller is just overworked. The Editor tells the narrator he thinks it's all a clever lie.
- But the narrator is unsure: "The story was so fantastic and incredible, the telling so credible and sober" (12.25).
- So the narrator comes back to visit the next day. But the Time Traveller isn't in the laboratory. The narrator touches the Time Machine briefly and thinks about how he wasn't supposed to meddle with things when he was a child.
- The Time Traveller shows up and claims that he really does travel through time and he's going to bring proof. (This time, he has a camera.) He tells the narrator to wait for him. (Probably in one of those ultra-comfy chairs.)
- But the narrator remembers that he has an appointment. When he comes back, the Time Machine and the Time Traveller are gone.
- The narrator waits, but the Time Traveller never comes back.
- The narrator wonders where the Time Traveller is. He could be in the past with the dinosaurs, or in the future, when the problems of class war are solved and real progress has been made. But the Time Traveller never believed in progress; he always expected disaster.
- But, the narrator says, even if we know that progress is impossible and disaster is waiting for us, "we must live as though it were not so" (Epilogue.1).
- The narrator keeps the two flowers that Weena gave the Time Traveller. The flowers remind him that when everything else has gone, "gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man" (Epilogue.1).