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Free Study Guide for The Time Machine by H. G. Wells-Book Summary

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Major Themes

The Time Machine has two major themes. The first, that capitalism is dangerous, and harmful to the workers, is evident from the connection, made outright by the Time Traveller, between the Morlocks and late 19 th century laborers and the Eloi and the London aristocracy. Though the aristocrats may be in control at the turn of the 20 th century, as long as their power rests on the mistreatment of other human beings, and on the distancing of the worker from the product of their labor, that power is uncertain. The upset in the established hierarchy did not come not from a revolutionary overthrow, but through gradual changes made over an expanse of time, but the effect is the same, for in the waning days of humanity, there is no seclusion from the predatory nature of the former workers.

This provides the basis for the second, more important theme, which questions the assumption that most people held at the end of the 19 th century (and continue to hold today) that humankind will continue to progress, and that improvements in society and culture are a given thing. Though Wells’s story on some levels might be considered optimistic, in his realistic portrayal of what might be possible to do with science, it is extremely pessimistic, offering a warning of the unfettered and unthinking trust in “progress,” scientific and otherwise.

Minor Themes

On a more cheerful note, a minor theme can be found in what Wells seems to be saying about human emotion: one of the only things that will survive throughout time is sympathy and emotion, as seen in the relationship between Weena and The Time Traveller. The Time Traveller becomes attached to Weena because she seems the most human of the Eloi for the reason that she clearly feels affection for the Time Traveller. In this way, she demonstrates a kind of sympathy for him and the position in which he finds himself.


The mood is serious, but not entirely dark or pessimistic, and is often lightened by jokes the Time Traveller makes for his own benefit as well as his listeners’. The story is enhanced with realistic detail, balancing the fantastic content of the story, with the detail of the way it is related.


Much of Wells’s social consciousness most likely resulted from his childhood and early adult life. Born in Bromley, Kent on September 21, 1866, Wells was the son of a shopkeeper and former domestic servant. In 1880, his father’s store had financial difficulties, forcing Wells’s mother to get a job on a nearby estate, and Wells to become the apprentice to a draper, like his brothers before him. As an avid reader since boyhood--a result of an accident in which he broke his hip--and not keen on the idea of working as a draper for the rest of his life, Wells hated the job, and managed to secure a post for himself as a teacher/pupil at the Midhurst Grammar School in 1883. Soon after, he began attending the Normal School of Science in London.

There he learned biology with T.H. Huxley, perhaps feeding the interest which would manifest itself in his science fiction novels. In 1887, he left the school without a degree, and taught until receiving a B.Sc. in Zoology in 1890. He began his career as a writer in 1893, while working as a teacher in a correspondence college, but his first success was his first novel, The Time Machine, published in 1895. He quickly followed with three more of his best-known works: The Island of Dr. Moreau in 1896, The Invisible Man in 1897 and The War of the Worlds in 1898.

Each of the first four novels he wrote deal with fantastic storylines involving scientific processes, or new scientific understanding. It is because of these novels that H.G. Wells is considered one of, if not the, father of science fiction. In The Time Machine, the protagonist is able to travel hundreds of thousands, and even millions of years into the future. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, a scientist transforms animals into humanlike creatures. In The Invisible Man, a scientist attempts to gain superhuman powers through his science, and in The War of the Worlds, Martians attack the earth. Two lesser known novels, The First Men on the Moon, published in 1901, and The War in the Air, published in 1908, contribute to Wells’s reputation for prophecy, as he imagines space flight and air combat, respectively.

Though Wells might be known best for predicting much of what came to be, as in these cases and the splitting of the atom (The World Set Free, 1914), he attempted to not only express the potentials for science, but seriously consider the future mankind, based on the way the present society conducts itself. This is particularly true for The Time Machine, in which Wells’s origins in a lower class family--which though not laborers, was far from the aristocracy--possibly serve as the starting point for his social critique of the wealthy citizens of London. Wells would remain active in the political scene, running for Parliament (somewhat against his will) twice, and would continue to attack Victorian society, publishing several pamphlets on this subject throughout his life.

H.G. Wells went on to write hundreds of books, short stories and essays, until he died in London on August 18, 1946.


Though most of The Time Machine takes place in the future, where the London of Wells’s time has been gone for a very long time, Wells’s story speaks volumes about the society in which he lived and wrote. The city, in many ways, was at the center of the world, most especially in trade and industrial progress. Both goods produced in the city and those shipped from around the world, especially the colonies, circulated in the city and its harbor and out to all points, creating a great amount of wealth. New transportation allowed the millions of residents to spread further out from the city center, as London expanded its geography as well as its wealth. At the same time, the empirical project was beginning to falter, and more questions were beginning to be asked about the value and morality of maintaining it.

Although wealthy in many ways, Victorian London was not a paradise, most especially for the members of the lowest classes, who labored in terrible conditions. There was social unrest at the beginning of the century, followed by a time of higher wages and more prosperity, but even in these times, many labored on the underground railroad, which was completed in 1865--which the Time Traveller specifically mentions as the beginning of the Morlocks--and after that in similar conditions in factories all around London.

Wells was very interested in the concerns of the lower classes, and the inequality of English society. In 1903, he joined the Fabian Society, a socialist group, which grew out of the Fellowship of New Life, founded in 1883. The group became better known in 1889 when they published Fabian Essays. The Fabians held beliefs similar to Marxism in that they recognized the mistreatment of the worker, and the inequalities exacerbated by capitalism, but instead of supporting the theory that revolutionary end must and should be the result of capitalism, they believed that social reforms, and the alteration of present political structures would bring about a gradual amelioration of the social system. These beliefs clearly pervade The Time Machine, as the effects of capitalism become expressly clear at a distance of hundreds of thousands of years.

Also at this time, Darwin’s theories were becoming accepted as the norm in the scientific community, and Wells’s position as a Darwinist can clearly be seen in his application of evolutionary biology to the evolutionary social theory practiced by the Fabians. Thus, just as the social system has gradually changed over the thousands of years, the biology of humans has changed concurrently, in a kind of reciprocal relationship. The Morlocks and Eloi gradually developed their physical characteristics as a result of the gradually changing social system.

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