The Time Traveller (we never know his name, indeed the only names we are given throughout are of "Filby, an argumentative person with red hair" (p 1) and Weena, the TT's love interest of the future) discusses theories of time travel with sceptical friends, including the narrator. Inviting them to dinner he arrives late and very dishevelled; he changes and insists on eating (a brilliant bit of making the reader wait just when the tension is at its height) before telling his story.
He says he travelled forwards in time to the year 802,701. Here he met the Eloi, delicate descendants of mankind who play in the meadows and live an incurious, fruit eating life. Soon he discovers that underground dwell the Morlocks, pale, with large red eyes that can see in the dark. The Morlocks prey on the Eloi, indeed it may be that the Eloi are kept like cattle for the Morlocks to eat. The TT theorises that the Eloi descended from the aristocrats and the Morlocks from the working classes, driven underground. But the Morlocks have stolen the Time Machine and the TT has to recapture it. In the battle to do so Weena dies.
Presumably this is an allegory of the afterlife (literally after the Time Traveller has lived, at least on Earth). The Eloi are the dwellers in the Edenic Elysian fields of heaven; the Morlocks are the devils in their subterranean hell.
The TT, reunited with his Machine, travels forwards to a future when tidal drag has stopped the rotation of the earth, when the sun is swelling into a red giant, and when the seashore is populated by giant crabs and octopuses. Then he returns to the present.
But they don't believe him. The next day, in an attempt to secure proof of what he has seen, the TT sets off again. He never returns.
Wells writers a simple straightforward story to illustrate his theories of social Darwinism: that we shall evolve to reflect the way we are. He achieves suspension of disbelief by having one central unlikelihood (time travel) bolstered by a great deal of mundane realism, such as the dinner party guests and the manufacture of the machine and the buildings in the world of the Eloi.
A classic frame structure: the bulk of the story is the Time Traveller's account of his adventure but it is both topped and tailed by the unknown narrator.
Is this in the Gothic tradition? According to Aguirre (2008; p 2) Gothic literature abounds in liminality, as does science fiction. Perhaps the perceived incoherence between science and fiction predisposes one towards liminality. Wisker (2007; p 412) describes both thresholds: "doorsteps or windows through which you do or do not invite the ghost or vampire” and zones: “the liminal spaces of existence, hovering between being and unbeing, dead and undead." (AGUIRRE, M., 2008. Geometries of Terror: Numinous Spaces in Gothic, Horror and Science Fiction. Gothic Studies, 10(2), pp. 1. WISKER, G., 2007. Crossing Liminal Spaces: Teaching the Postcolonial Gothic. Pedagogy, 7(3), pp. 401-425.) This suggests that the Gothic element is the crossing of the threshold between the everyday mundane world and the world of dreams and nightmares. It isn't really about the tunnels (though that is a clear element in Gothic literature, for example in The Monk by Matthew Lewis, the Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, (A Sicilian Romance by Anne Radcliffe). The crossing of the threshold is, of course, a necessary structural element in much science fiction: what is the TARDIS of Doctor Who but a Time Machine (and don't forget all those endless corridors!)?
Aguirre also says (pp 2 - 3) that "Gothic can be said to postulate two zones: on the one hand, the human domain of rationality and intelligible events; on the other hand, the world of the sublime, terrifying, chaotic Numinous which transcends human reason (but which may not be supernatural). These are separated by some manner of threshold and plots invariably involve movement from one side to the other - a movement which, most often, is presented as a transgression, a violation of boundaries." (Aguirre 2008; p 2-3) No violation as such in the Time Machine (although the Time Traveller does pay for the Travel with his life) but the cotrast between the everyday world of eating dinner and the Time Traveller's adventure world is phenomenal.
Aguirre also claims (p 5) that narrative forms of Gothic literature often involve a labyrinth (provided by the underground passages of the Eloi) and a tale within a tale. Looks a pretty convincing case for placing this book within the tradition of Gothic literature.
- "night followed day like the flapping of a black wing." (p 11)
- "That is the drift of the current in spite of the eddies." (p 19)
- "certain tendencies and desires, once necessary to survival, are a constant source of failure." (p 20)
- "That has ever been the fate of energy in security: it takes to art and to eroticism, and then come langour and decay." (p 20)
- "We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity" (p 21)
- "the devil begotten of fear and blind anger was ill curbed." (p 24)
- "The Eloi, like the Carolingian kings, had decayed to a mere beautiful futility." (p 36)
- "intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. ... There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change." (p 49)
- "The Time Traveller vanished three years ago. And, as everyone knows now, he has never returned." (p 58; final sentences apart from the Epilogue).
A very short classic. Easy to read. October 2017; 58 pages
Also reviewed on this blog:
- A History of Mr Polly: a very different fiction!
- Love and Mr Lewisham; a great non-sci-fi story about the impracticalities of young love
- Kipps: a serio-comic novel about a Holy Innocent in the wrong stratum of society
- Tono-Bungay: a largely autobiographical novel
- The War of the Worlds: Classic sci-fi: the Martians invade