Study Guide

The Time Machine Themes

By H.G. Wells

  • Time

    The Time Machine is so concerned with the theme of time that "time" is in the title. (And it's so concerned with time that the novel's other themes are all tied up with this one.) The time in The Time Machine isn't last week or next year – that's time on a human scale. Time in The Time Machine is on a scale that's totally beyond anything human. This is geological or even cosmic time. When the Time Traveller jumps into the future, he doesn't watch the lifespan of a person, but the lifespan of a species – or even the lifespan of a star. Thinking about time in this way involves looking at the long view – even though that long view moves people out of the spotlight.

    Questions About Time

    1. The Time Traveller says that memory is a form of time travel (1.28). Is it? Are there other ways of time traveling without machinery or magic?
    2. How do people tell time in this book? What signs are there that the Time Traveller might have spent eight days in the future?
    3. When they first discuss it, the dinner guests come up with some reasons why time travel might not be useful. Are they right? Is the Time Machine presented as a useful device?
    4. Does the novel make you think it's better to take the long view or the short-term, day-to-day view? Or is there another option?
    5. Why doesn't the Time Traveller go back in time instead of just going forward?

    Chew on This

    The Time Machine encourages the reader to see all human action as useless, because nothing lasts forever.

    According to The Time Machine, the past and future are ultimately unknowable because the person doing the observing carries with him too many ideas from the present.

  • Science

    Science in The Time Machine isn't just about making awesome machines that travel through time. (For more about awesome machines, check out "Themes: Technology and Modernization.") Rather, science is about a way of thinking. You start with an observation, come up with a theory, test that theory, and repeat as necessary until you're reasonably sure you have the right answer. (Or until your funding runs out. But since our protagonist is a gentleman-scientist, he doesn't need to worry about this.) There's a lot of science in this book, since our protagonist is a scientist, dealing with scientific things in a scientific manner. Some interesting things come up when we look closely at the science in the book. The most important being that science involves being wrong a lot. That's all part of getting closer to the truth.

    Questions About Science

    1. What role does skepticism play in science? For instance, the Medical Man is skeptical of time travel – but is his skepticism part of the scientific method (the kind that tests out a theory to see if there might be a better solution)? Or is his skepticism anti-science?
    2. What experiments does the Time Traveller carry out in the future? What sort of experiments does he talk about doing? Related to that, what sort of tools do you think he takes with him when he decides to use the Time Machine again at the end of the book?
    3. Does science help the Time Traveller do the right thing? Are there times when science seems to get in his way?
    4. Is science presented as something that makes us human in this novel? (You could compare how scientific the Eloi and the Morlocks seem in comparison to the Time Traveller.)

    Chew on This

    The Time Machine argues that science is not unemotional – it involves feelings and thoughts that aren't purely logical.

    The Time Traveller is a believable narrator precisely because he is so often wrong and willing to admit it.

  • Society and Class

    The Time Machine presents two very different settings – the 1890s and the distant future – and seems to dare us to make connections between them. When the Time Traveller jumps into the far future, he finds a society where the Eloi play all day and don't do any work. It's almost like an episode of Gossip Girl, where (almost) everyone is pretty and rich. In other words, it looks much better than the Time Traveller's own time, which is full of conflict and anxiety over the issue of class – who has to do work and who gets to profit from the work of others. (This is a big issue in the 19th century; check out "Setting" for more on this.)

    However, the future stops looking good to the Time Traveller when he realizes that the class conflict and class structure of his time have merely evolved rather than being erased. Although some aspects of social class have changed, there are many similarities that should make us sit up and take notice. (For instance, in both cases, the working class tends to be invisible or hard to find.) So while the future might look like an exaggeration of the 19th century (no one is literally eating each other in Britain in the 1890s), the novel is making a suggestion about where humans are heading.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. What is the Time Traveller's social class? Does his class affect his interpretation of the social situation of the future?
    2. What do we know from this novel about the lives of the working class in the 19th century and their descendents, the Morlocks, in the future? By comparison, what do we know about the 19th-century upper class and their descendents, the Eloi?
    3. Besides class, what other ways are societies divided up in the real world today? Are those divisions present in this book?
    4. If the Time Traveller is correct about the evolution of the Eloi and Morlocks, how did these two species come about? For instance, how did one set of people exile another set of people underground? Is there any evidence in the novel of that going on in the 1890s?

    Chew on This

    The Time Traveller spends most of his time working through the evolution of social class because that's the theme his readers would be most interested in.

    Even though The Time Machine tells a story about working-class oppression, it makes us identify more with the upper class: the Time Traveller and the Eloi.

  • Change

    Besides clocks and the position of the sun, change may be the best way to measure time. (In fact, since we can use clocks and the position of the sun to tell time only because they change, we could say that change is the only way to measure time.) When things change, we know that time has passed. Since The Time Machine tells a story about a great deal of time passing (who doesn't want to visit the year 802,701?), there's also a great deal of change in the story – change to the environment (the future is hotter…until the sun starts dying), change to social structure, change to the species. Everything changes in The Time Machine, except maybe Time itself and the other forces of nature – those seem to be pretty constant.

    Questions About Change

    1. What has changed between the Time Traveller's time and the Eloi/Morlock future? Are there certain patterns? (For an example, flowers have changed in the future, but there are still flowers.)
    2. The Time Traveller makes a few comments about how the future seems to have played out certain tendencies that were going on in his time. Where does he make those connections?
    3. If The Time Machine presents the world as constantly changing, what happens with the Eloi and the Morlocks after the Time Traveller leaves? Could the Eloi – now hunted by the Morlocks – start to regain the strength that they've lost?
    4. Are there any aspects of the world that don't seem to change in this novel?

    Chew on This

    While The Time Machine shows that everything is temporary, the moral is that it's still important to make choices and act.

  • Technology and Modernization

    Wells didn't invent the idea of time travel. Just to take one example, it's central to Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. But Wells did (more or less) invent the idea of a machine for time travel (which is one bit of technology we'd give up our DVR for). Interestingly, although technology is really important in this novel, the Time Traveller doesn't really describe the technology he sees in the future. This isn't a catalog of cool new gadgets. What he describes most is the effect this technology has had on people. Wells wants to show us not technology for its own sake, but how humans adapt to using that technology and how we're changed by it. (This includes when society loses technologies, like fire or writing, neither of which the Eloi have retained.)

    Questions About Technology and Modernization

    1. Is technology in The Time Machine always useful? If not, is there some way to tell the useful technology from the harmful? (Or to keep useful technology from having bad consequences?)
    2. The Time Traveller argues that civilized men are changed by their access to technology. Is this shown to be true or false in the novel? For instance, how does the Time Traveller act when he doesn't have technology around?
    3. Besides the Time Machine, what other technology can be found in the novel? How does it affect the way people live and think?
    4. What can you tell from looking at some ordinary bit of technology in the novel, like shoes? (It may seem silly, but try it: How do the Time Traveller's shoes compare to the Eloi's sandals and the Morlocks' shoelessness?)

    Chew on This

    In The Time Machine, people try to control natural forces with technology, but those forces can never be fully controlled.

    While the Time Traveller seems unprepared for his trip into the future, he has the most important modern technology of all: the scientific method.

  • Passivity

    There's a lot of passivity in The Time Machine, from people lounging in their awesome chairs all day, to entire societies giving up when the monsters come to get them, to the world no longer spinning. The most obvious example of passivity is the laziness and weakness of the Eloi, who can't keep up with the Time Traveller. Similarly, there's the laziness of the 19th-century dinner guests. Maybe they work hard during the day, but what we see is mostly people sitting around after dinner, drinking and talking. Third, we could also talk about passivity on the cosmic scale. When the Time Traveller visits the very distant future, it seems that the universe has lost energy and slowed down.

    Questions About Passivity

    1. Who is more passive, the Eloi, the Morlocks, or the 19th-century humans? In what ways are these different groups passive?
    2. Passivity seems like a negative trait in this novel, but is action always the right choice? A useful passage to think about is when the Time Traveller examines the Palace of Green Porcelain.
    3. Is Weena as passive as the other Eloi?
    4. We've identified a few different ways to be passive. One could be lazy or paralyzed with fear, and neither case involves much movement. Are there other ways to be passive in this novel?

    Chew on This

    The Time Machine makes two contradictory predictions about the universe: 1) everything will slow down and stop; 2) everything will continue to change.

    While the Time Traveller has bad things to say about passivity, the novel shows that action doesn't always pay off.

  • Fear

    Generally speaking, we don't like being afraid (except for Halloween, scary movies, and roller coaster rides). But fear can be useful: for example, when it tells us to get out of the way when a falling boulder is about to smash us. This seems to be the position that The Time Machine takes on fear: it's a good motivator, and sometimes you need to be motivated. So in some ways, The Time Machine celebrates fear.

    However, while fear sometimes helps the Time Traveller, it sometimes trips him up. For instance, when his Time Machine disappears, rather than look at the issue calmly and think about what's best to do, the Time Traveller runs around and yells at the Eloi (which almost never helps). So fear in The Time Machine can help or it can hurt. In this sense, fear is a lot like fire or other tools: useful in some situations, but dangerous when it gets out of control.

    Questions About Fear

    1. What do the various characters fear?
    2. How does fear relate to the other emotions the Time Traveller feels, like awe? How does fear relate to passivity?
    3. When does fear help the Time Traveller? When does it hurt him or his plan?
    4. Are there times when the Time Traveller should be more afraid than he is?

    Chew on This

    Fear is a useful emotion in The Time Machine if it can be channeled into action.

    In The Time Machine, fear is part of what makes us human, but only a small part.

  • Awe and Amazement

    The Time Machine is full of incredible things for us to be amazed at, such as: 1) the Time Traveller being late to his own dinner party (only slightly amazing); 2) the housekeeper zooming across the room or moving in reverse (more amazing); 3) the realization of how tiny human issues are compared to the scale of the universe (maybe more amazing than we need).

    But there's a flip side: the more incredible something is, the less likely it is to be true. (The etymology of "incredible" actually means "not to be believed.") This is one of the central tensions in the book: the Time Traveller has been on this amazing journey, but he can't get anyone to believe him. In fact, his experience might be so amazing that his usual vocabulary breaks down when he attempts to describe it.

    Questions About Awe and Amazement

    1. What happens when the characters feel awe? What actions do they take?
    2. Compare the dinner guests' reactions to the disappearance of the model Time Machine and the ragged appearance of the Time Traveller. Are the dinner guests awed in both cases? How do their reactions differ?
    3. Do the Eloi or the Morlocks experience awe? If so, what does that tell us about those characters? Is awe an integral part of being human?

    Chew on This

    The Time Machine suggests that awe and amazement are not useful emotions (as opposed to fear, which may be).

    In The Time Machine, awe is the only feeling that is connected to science; therefore it's one of the more useful emotions.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Did you ever discuss in school whether humans were animals? We imagine Wells would say, "of course humans are animals – but a special kind." In The Time Machine, there is a fairly steady tension between these positions: either humans are just another part of the natural world (just another animal), or they're special.

    There are arguments for each of these positions in this book: for instance, humans evolve like other species, but they can also direct evolution (see 4.25). This is a serious issue for the Time Traveller, who witnesses both increasing human control over nature and nature's continued control over humanity. That is, people may make new technology that changes the environment (Humans 1, Nature 0) – but then they evolve in reaction to that changed environment (Human 1, Nature 2). So humans might be special, but not that special.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. According to the Time Traveller, how do people control the natural world?
    2. When the Time Traveller discusses time travel in the first chapter, he says we use technology to overcome nature. For example, the hot-air balloon helps us overcome the natural force of gravity. Is technology competing with nature? Are they opposed?
    3. What sort of natural instincts does the Time Traveller exhibit? Are his instincts helpful to him? Does he ever succeed in ignoring them?

    Chew on This

    While humans can harness the forces of nature for small projects in The Time Machine, the major forces always remain outside human control.

    The Time Machine shows that natural instincts will always trump education and training. Even though the Time Traveller is a scientist, he reacts to the Eloi and the Morlocks instinctively.

  • Community

    Most people don't think much about community in The Time Machine. After all, it's more the story of a species than a community, right? While this is the story of a species (and social classes within that species), it's also the story of community. It's about finding people to share feelings with and a place you can call home. We may overlook this because, in many ways, the Time Traveller is a man without a community: whether he's in the 1890s or in the far future, he's surrounded by people who don't really understand him. This doesn't mean he's totally alone or has no community, though. For instance, in the future, he starts to feel at home because of Weena and seems to absorb the Eloi's feelings. So we find community even when we don't expect it.

    Questions About Community

    1. What different communities are represented in this novel? Which community seems most stable and happy to you?
    2. The Time Traveller says he has absorbed some of the feelings of the Eloi. Does that mean he has become a part of their community? Is it necessary for people to share feelings in order to form a community?
    3. Evolution is a big theme in this novel, on the species level. Do communities also evolve?
    4. Although the dinner guests mostly don't believe the Time Traveller's story, they listen very closely to him and less closely to Filby (see Chapter 1). Which is more important to a community in this novel: listening to others or believing them? Is it even possible to separate the two?

    Chew on This

    The Time Traveller is able to do and see the things he does because he doesn't fit into any particular community. His outsider perspective allows him to see the possibilities of time travel.