‘The Time Machine’: An Everlasting Matter of Time

March 18, 2021 Updated: March 19, 2021

In writing “The Time Machine” 125 years ago, Herbert George Wells not only invented the catchphrase “time machine,” but he also invented a time machine of imagination, for its pages whisk the time-bound reader beyond the constraints of the numerical continuum of space and experience, leaping into a bizarre future that is both beautiful and brutal in its features. “The Time Machine” is both science fiction and social fiction, and as time has shown, the impossible dreams of science tend to come true, as do the impossible nightmares of society.

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A portrait photo of English writer Herbert George Wells, circa 1918. (PD-US)

It is hard to tell if “The Time Machine” is ahead of its time or behind it. It is probably both, for time and one’s position in it, according to the story and its theory, is relative. That time is a flimsy thing, however, is not terribly surprising. That there is such a thing as time at all, this rolling measure of change, is the larger shock, especially as it is infinite by definition but finite by design. But the most important thing about time is not what we can do with it, but rather what we must do in it—before it runs out.

‘The Time Machine’

The novella is largely a story within a story, detailing the firsthand account of a gentleman known only as the Time Traveler after he returns from his time machine’s maiden voyage to the year A.D. 802,701. The first thing he finds in this distant epoch is not a high-tech megalopolis buzzing and blazing with futuristic wonders, but rather a silent, solitary figure of antiquity.

Lifting itself above birch trees and rhododendrons is a gigantic white marble sphinx, set on a mighty bronze pedestal. This is the image, the great irony, that meets the Time Traveler when he comes to find out what has happened to the world of men—and it is a foreboding figure.

The sphinx is a mythical symbol of the blind genius of man and his inevitable degradation, hearkening back to the Oedipus cycle, when that tragic hero came to Thebes to seek his fortune, overthrew the sphinx and her riddles about the decay of man, only to seal his doom. The sphinx had the last laugh as Oedipus gouged out his eyes in horror and fled weeping to the wilds. As errors of enlightenment show time and again, man’s fall is all a matter of time. The key to the future has always been in the past.

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Oedipus, representing the genius of humankind, may have defeated the sphinx temporarily, but in a sense, the monster triumphed. “Oedipus and the Sphinx,” 1826, by Gustave Moreau. Bequest of William H. Herriman, 1920. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Time Traveler discovers that after 800,000 years, the world is peopled with two classes, or tribes, of evolved humanoids: the beautiful but brainless Eloi (a name resembling Elohim, a Hebrew word for God) and the crafty and cunning Morlocks (a name resembling Moloch’s, a Canaanite idol associated with child sacrifice).

The Inversion of Society

As a sociological thought experiment, “The Time Machine” exhibits a deep angst about the shaky middle ground of socialism, the political philosophy that Wells himself was devoted to. In his story, the effects of industrialization are carried out to an unfathomable extremity, and the imagined result is an ominously fathomable reversal: the eventual and perhaps inevitable corruption of the soft aristocracy and the underground supremacy of the hardy underworld laborers.

The manmade balance between the privileged and the underprivileged devolved, given time, into an environmental, symbiotic tyranny, with the Morlocks breeding and slaughtering the cattlelike Eloi for food, in a strange animalistic perversion of human civilization. The inversion of the powerful and the debasement of the weak in their rise to their own primal power is both fascinating and disturbing.

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One of the many editions of H.G. Wells’s famous novel. (Penguin Books Australia)

But most disturbing of all is that the future is marked by the loss of any clear intelligence, because intelligence is no longer needed in a world so perfected by systems; it returns gradually to a natural state.

“It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have a huge variety of needs and dangers.”

“The Time Machine” is yet another of Wells’s works, like “The War of the Worlds,” that point at, and even pry at, the fragility of society—a fact that stares us all in the face as we cower in masks and succumb to pandemic pandemonium. Indeed, the works and ways and wars of man follow a type of mathematical trajectory, like time itself, leading to inescapable ends once their causes have been set in motion.

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British author H.G. Wells and American actor, director, and producer Orson Welles following the radio dramatization of Wells’s book “The War of the Worlds.” (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Moreover, as a fallen being, man tends to fall and so does his civilization. Even the rising of empires seems only, in retrospect, a preparation for those inevitable falls that trace the course of human history like a downward spiral. Time is like a clock, a great wheel that turns and returns; and man is like the Greek villain Ixion, crucified on that wheel of never-ending torment. For every advance, for every miracle of science, for every political perfection, man only stands to fall further.

There is no heaven on earth, and there is no golden age—there is only revolution. Though man eradicates hunger, disease, and everything that causes strife, he only opens himself up to new calamities, new weaknesses, and a new shade of the curse that is his for all time. Chimerical communist utopias only make way and give purpose to capitalist dystopias, the Scylla and Charybdis of civilization, and even the natural state is one born of insurgency and pain despite man’s efforts to achieve convenience, control, and calm.

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“Odysseus Between Scylla and Charybdis,” an engraving of Odysseus looking down in terror at the whirlpool Charybdis, with Scylla as a sea monster writhing around rocks at left. After a watercolor by Fuseli, the illustration was for Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s “Odyssey.” 1806. The British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

H.G. Wells’s “The Time Machine” reminds us that nothing can escape the tyranny of time, for nothing can stand independently on this earth forever, though man longs for the mysterious meaningfulness of everlasting life. G.K. Chesterton commented on this cruel paradox in “The Everlasting Man”:

“Mr. H.G. Wells has confessed to being a prophet; and in this matter he was a prophet at his own expense. It is curious that his first fairy-tale was a complete answer to his last book of history. “The Time Machine” destroyed in advance all comfortable conclusions founded on the mere relativity of time. In that sublime nightmare the hero saw trees shoot up like green rockets, and vegetation spread visibly like a green conflagration, or the sun shoot across the sky from east to west with the swiftness of a meteor. Yet in his sense these things were quite as natural when they went swiftly; and in our sense they are quite as supernatural when they go slowly. The ultimate question is why they go at all; and anybody who really understands that question will know that it always has been and always will be a religious question; or at any rate a philosophical or metaphysical question. And most certainly he will not think the question answered by some substitution of gradual for abrupt change; or, in other words by a merely relative question of the same story being spun out or rattled rapidly through, as can be done with any story at a cinema by turning a handle.”

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English author Gilbert Keith Chesterton. (Keystone/Getty Images)

“We all have our time machines, don’t we?” H.G. Wells remarked. “Those that take us back are memories … And those that carry us forward, are dreams.” Even if our dreams are different than Wells’s, we all dream for redemption as we look back with regret. Wells was plagued with dark and anxious dreams, and the salvation he dreamed up in “The Time Machine” was more of a damnation.

The only redemption we can discover is not through levers, cylinders, and cogged wheels of brass and iron that sped the Time Traveler across the edifice of time, but through faith in things timeless. It is in this, in the fullness of time, that lies a strange and secret peace, for the magnitude and magnanimousness of eternity somehow gives extension to our ephemeral existence. Time, as Aeschylus said, brings all things to pass.

Gazing at the stars that stood, sparkled, and swirled in unfamiliar arrangement in the skies ages and ages hence, the Time Traveler said, “Looking at these stars suddenly dwarfed my own troubles and all the gravities of terrestrial life.”

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“Looking at these stars suddenly dwarfed my own troubles and all the gravities of terrestrial life,” says H.G. Wells’s Time Traveler.

But what he, and perhaps Mr. Wells the secularist, missed is the point that it is not by traveling through time, like a soothsayer or a scientist, that we are enlightened, but by traveling beyond time into unchanging timelessness where deities laugh with the stars, indeed—but not with the laugh of the sphinx.

And to travel beyond time, one does not require a time machine, but only time management. In the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”

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Mother Teresa in 1979. (STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)

Sean Fitzpatrick serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a boarding school in Elmhurst, Pa., where he teaches humanities. His writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, and the Imaginative Conservative.