Study Guide

The Time Traveller in The Time Machine

By H.G. Wells

The Time Traveller

Sure, building a Time Machine is pretty impressive, but let's not forget that the Time Traveller also designed his own chair, a chair which "embraced and caressed" the sitter (1.1). We're picturing some sort of Victorian recliner. We're not entirely joking here: the Time Traveller is not just an excellent scientist; he's also a top-notch inventor.

The second thing to keep in mind about the Time Traveller is that he's not entirely trusted by his friends. All his guests agree that he is very clever, but in Britain people often say "clever" when they mean "too clever" or "smart aleck." As the unnamed narrator notes, the Time Traveller is "too clever to be believed" (2.1). He may be a scientific genius, but he's also a joker. We learn in the first chapter about a prank he played on his friends the previous Christmas involving a fake ghost. So it's not surprising that his guests don't entirely believe him when he tells them he's going to travel through time.

These two sides may seem like they're in conflict – how can the Time Traveller be a serious scientist and a joker at the same time?

Science means never having to say you're sorry.

If you check out "Themes: Science," you know we think that The Time Machine shows science to be a process that involves quite a lot of failure. If you can't admit you're wrong, you're not going to be able to adjust your theories, and you're not going to be a good scientist.

The Time Traveller looks at the lazy Eloi and theorizes that they must have machines to do all their work for them (4.27). But he doesn't find any machinery and meets the Morlocks instead. If he were a bad scientist, he might stick to his theory about the machines and ignore the new data. Since he's a good scientist (more or less), though, he adjusts the theory to fit the facts. Now, instead of the Eloi being tended by machines, he imagines them being tended by Morlocks (5.37).

To be a better scientist, the Time Traveller has to admit that he's wrong. It helps that he doesn't take himself too seriously and can laugh at himself. For example, he realizes how ironic it is that he's desperately trying to get back to the past when he's spent so many years trying to build the Time Machine to get to the future (5.14). OK, maybe that's not laugh-out-loud funny to us, but it is to him. So being a joker who can laugh at himself helps make the Time Traveller a better scientist.

So much for that scientific spirit.

The Time Traveller is largely motivated by scientific urges – he wants to discover and understand things. For instance, after he escapes from the Morlocks, he decides to travel into the future to see how the world ends. He is "drawn on by the mystery of the earth's fate" (11.8). If we were in his shoes (or, since he lost his shoes, in his bloodstained socks), we'd probably be ready to go back and relax in the 1890s after escaping the Morlocks. And we'd definitely take a day off when we got back. Not the Time Traveller: he just wants to go out and do more science.

There are times in the novel when the Time Traveller seems not so rational and scientific, though. Sometimes he is frenzied with fear. For example, check out his night with the Morlocks, surrounded by a forest fire:

For the most part of that night I was persuaded it was a nightmare. I bit myself and screamed in a passionate desire to awake. I beat the ground with my hands, and got up and sat down again, and wandered here and there, and again sat down. (9.15)

Also, what about his feelings about the Eloi and the Morlocks? While he tries to be detached and objective about this ecological state of affairs (7.14), he is clearly sympathetic to the Eloi and takes a lot of pleasure in beating up the Morlocks. How does that jibe with his scientific demeanor?

Is your housekeeper a Morlock?

The Time Machine is very much about social class – about who works for a living and who sits around smoking with his friends after a leisurely dinner. (For more on this, check out "Themes: Society and Class.") In the 1890s setting, the working classes are practically invisible. We spend most of our time with the Time Traveller and his professional friends, all of whom seem fairly well off. We hardly see or hear anything about the servants, who are definitely there behind the scenes making this life of leisure possible. In the future, this division of social class comes out in the split between the Eloi and the Morlocks.

Which brings us back to the Time Traveller's chair. While the Time Traveller doesn't seem happy about the split between the two species in the future, his lifestyle in the 1890s seems more aligned with that of the Eloi. The Eloi live in luxury and ease. When we first meet the Time Traveller and his friends, they are drinking wine after dinner, sitting in chairs designed for optimal comfort. Hmm. It's worth asking ourselves if inventions like the Time Traveller's chair lead people toward the regrettable evolutionary dead-end of the Eloi-Morlock split (or a WALL-E-like future of fat, lazy, unthinking armchair-bound humans).

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