Perspective and The Time Machine

We’ve talked extensively in class about why Wells decided to present the vast majority of “characters” in the novel as their professions, or rather primary role in the novel, such as the time traveler. I’m interested in how this affects the way the reader and the main character experience events in the novel, such as the perception of radical change in humans when the time traveler first encounters the Eloi and the Morlocks as well as the vastly changed world he conveys to us near the close of the novel. What does it mean for us to view these events, especially the death of the sun, that we understand scientifically as a possibility? Moreover, do we really experience them from a human perspective in this novel since the main character is wearing his scientist hat throughout?

 

For me, the last chunk of this text brought up a lot of comparisons to Nightfall, and think a comparison between the two will be fruitful, especially with the similarity of the stock characters in each. In both texts, there is a hazy scientific understanding of what will happen in the future (the very near future in Nightfall) that will bring about essentially the end of society. However, in Nightfall, this end seems simultaneously inevitable, but still somehow under the scope of human control—if the humans could somehow control their panic in the face of literal darkness, society may be able to continue. However, this idea of possible change—that only exists at all if we take the text not to be determinst—does not exist at the actual end of human society in The Time Machine, but does in some form during the encountering of the Eloi and the Morlocks. Why, then, does the scientist in The Time Machine not do what he can to stop it, such as spread awareness? As mentioned in class, why travel again instead of trying to deal with the problem at hand?

 

Another curious thing about this text is that the author does at some points experience horror at the various future states of mankind; however, the types of emotions he experiences originate from very different sources. With the first future that we receive, his initial reaction is scientific curiosity and then becomes more horrified slowly when he realizes just how much society has changed and just how weak the elite that he identifies with more has become. An example of this is when he realizes why the Eloi may fear the Morlocks: “Then I thought of the Great Fear that was between the species, and for the first time, with a sudden shiver, came the clear knowledge of what the meat I had seen might be. Yet it was too horrible!” (124).  I think it’s interesting that his emotional reactions to things come from his own understanding of them instead of pure observations, and reminds me of what Gould was saying with the storytelling, which in this case seems to be working against the time traveler as he is essentially scaring himself with his imagination. On the first read, I didn’t really question the numerous hypotheses he presented because they sounded plausible. And, as Gould may suggest, they very well could be true, but they could also easily be false. How are we supposed to approach these, as readers? Why isn’t there more concrete evidence as the narrator frames it as a cautionary tale?

 

On the other hand, the time traveler’s reaction to the essential end of the world with the death of the sun doesn’t really involve conjecture because he is not extrapolating from his interactions with “people,” but instead just reacting directly to the world he sees surrounding him. It becomes much more visceral: “A horror from this darkness came on me. The cold, that smote to my marrow, and the pain I felt in breathing overcame me” (148). He uses “came” twice, as though the feeling just descended on him as a natural reaction to these phenomena. I thought it was an interesting contrast to the slow build-up of horror as he gathers more information in the earlier time. I’m curious to hear what other folks made of this difference.

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5 Responses to Perspective and The Time Machine

  1. writinginmy says:

    I think the difference between the horror he experiences in the first future and the horror he experiences in viewing the end of the world is suitable – the former builds on observations, gradual understanding, and comes from a logical progression. But the end of the world, I don’t see how that deserves a gradual progression of understanding. It’s something stunning, absolutely wondrous, and almost revelationary. And maybe he did have a sort of logical progression towards it but we have to keep in mind that we are reading a narrative that has already taken place, that the time traveler already experienced these things and is recounting them. Maybe he framed it in this way because that was what stood out the most to him.

    As for why the time traveler travels again instead of spreading awareness, we don’t know why and where he traveled to. Maybe that was key to hims spreading awareness or key to him coming to terms with and understanding all he saw. And if anything, I didn’t expect him to try to warn everyone because of the way he carried himself as a scientist (he was caught up in the wonder. Time traveling is addicting). I think your point of wondering why these people were framed as stand-ins for professions instead of human characters deserves more attention. I suppose I don’t know what you mean as “human perspective,” though? As in, do we really experience this novel through a human lens – but how would you define that lens?

  2. The notion of The Time Machine’s identification conventions mediating the way the reader experiences the novel is very intriguing. Your question of whether “we really experience [the novel’s events] from a human perspective in this novel since the main character is wearing his scientist hat throughout?” is particularly striking. I’m not sure that wearing the scientist hat necessarily diminishes the humanity of a character’s perspective, unless one regards an objective perspective as less human. Nonetheless, I think that the time traveler’s absence of emotional engagement—which I suppose is the aspect of humanity responsible for conveying a “human perspective” that you are alluding to—is very important because it allows the reader to approach the text with the same objectivity as the scientist. If this is the case then maybe we shouldn’t view any of the characters as people at all; perhaps, the “Psychologist,” “Mayor,” “Journalist,” etc. are to be viewed as the ideas that their professions allude to (Capitalists). The reader would then seem to be invited to view these “people” as merely the progenitors of the Eloi.

  3. I’m particularly interested in the last paragraph of your argument. You seem to get at the idea expressed in class of the time machine as a device. As the professor had mentioned, the time machine, as a device, allows for an extension of the time scale so that we may reflect upon the very far future. Your argument highlights this dual purpose of the time machine–to contemplate the “end of days” events of nature, accessing fears of the reader that are always present, just a little below the surface, but also to show the evolving state of Man in nature. I think that the way in which the author conveys the immediacy of the dimming sun, in contrast to the slow realization of man’s devolution, mimics the actual process of Darwinian evolution, as we discussed in lecture. Man evolves so gradually, it is impossible to fathom. However, though this actually attributes a sense of stability to mankind, there is always the possibility that the world will just be hit by a comet, or be faced with a sudden eclipse. There will be 8 minutes between the time that the sun burns out and the time when mankind realizes this has happened. There is a nerve-wracking immediacy to these larger-than-life astronomical events.

  4. fearthefin says:

    Jumping off the first question in this post, I think that as a novella, the work seems to function less as a nuanced work and more as an extended conceit for the dangers of continuing to fine-tune and advance the Industrial Revolution that was in full swing at the time of the novel’s conception.

    In this sense, the characters don’t really have to be fleshed out; each can function as a one-dimensional embodiment of a specific trait to simply further the cautionary tale. The Time Traveller is the (somewhat but not really) impartial narrator through whose eyes we are allowed to witness this story (as haroldetmaude reaffirms, both traveller and machine effectively function as a way to elongate time). The Eloi are the exaggeration of the idle rich, while the Morlocks are the example of the struggling masses. (Sidebar, but I think it’s interesting that the Morlocks are in quiet but lethal revolt throughout the work. Historically, the Industrial Age ushered in the age of unions and labor strikes, something that many feared would be the downfall of society. The Morlocks’ revolt is only speeding up a downfall in the future.) Even the men of intelligence (careers largely based on Reason or Observation) at the beginning and end of the work function primarily to foster a debate; each man speaks an opinion that coordinates to his profession.

  5. elephantusk says:

    I really enjoyed this post! You shed serious insight on the novella. I especially liked the point you made about contrasting the endings of The Time Machine and Nightfall– both have a similar sense of impending doom, but the immediacy in each text differs greatly. As far as the Time Traveller’s agency at the end of the novel is concerned, however, is another interesting point. I agree with the first comment that the notion of why the Time Traveller didn’t spread awareness didn’t bother me as much as the ambiguity of what happened to him. Did he live or die? But regardless, the ambiguity is part of what gives the narrative its elongated feel, so we must accept it.

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