The Time Machine: Communist Utopia/Capitalist Dystopia

H. G. Wells wrote The Time Machine in 1895 during the Industrial Revolution of late Victorian England. England at the time had a capitalist economy based on rich people making their money off the backs of poor factory workers. Wells was a socialist.  The Time Machine starts off as a deceptive communist utopia that is ultimately revealed to be an exaggerated future vision of capitalist dystopia.

At the time of his writing, industrialist capitalism had been going on for many years.  According to Hoppen, “By 1850 Britain had become the workshop of the world.  Manual power lay at the heart of the production process, assisted often only by the simplest of mechanical equipment.  Human beings were cheaper to install than steam engines and much more adaptable to their behavior than a self-acting steam or press” (59).

At the same time, critiques of capitalism were being written such as by Karl Marx, whose ideas most likely influenced Wells.  According to Bowles, “Marx argued that capitalism was based on the exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class.  Although it might appear that the buyers and sellers of labor met “equally” in the marketplace and entered “freely” into contracts with each other for mutual gain, this masked the reality of the capitalist system.  The capitalists had a monopoly of the means of production (firms) where workers had only their capacity to work to sell.  This was the basis of capitalist production: capitalists who owned firms hired workers who owned only their labor, and the former sought to use the labor that they had to make a profit for themselves” (63).

Wells, himself a socialist, wrote what seems at first to be a simple time-travel story.  In The Time Machine the reader is introduced to the man who is only ever named as “The Time Traveler” in the frame story where the narrator and other sundry guests are invited to dinner at the Time Traveler’s house in (contemporary to Wells) England.  The Time Traveler announces to his guests that he has built a working time machine in miniature which he then demonstrates to his guests.  It disappears from space into time unknown.  This, he announces is only a prelude to him finishing the full size time machine which he intends to use and report back to his guests, at another dinner next week.

The next week, after he has come back, bedraggled from his travels, the real story starts as he recounts to his guests when he went in time.  The meat of Wells’ story takes place in the year 802, 701 AD.

As he recounts, when The Time Traveler had stopped his machine, he had arrived so far into the future that most traces of British civilization had disappeared.  The earth was filled with “ruinous splendor” (Wells 24).  Humankind had evolved to become smaller, weaker, and with fewer distinctions between the sexes.  There were no longer family units; instead, the people who call themselves the Eloi lived 100 together in communes, large palaces that have tables and cushions.   The Eloi only ate fruit, and as the Time Traveler discovered quickly when he tried to explain how he got there, they had the intellect and attention spans of Victorian children (21).

This, at the time, appeared to The Time Traveler to be a communist utopia.  According to the themes of this course, in this utopia, the ideal form of government was that none was needed.  There were no quarrels because the Eloi were simple minded people without any ambitions or complex wants that couldn’t be fulfilled.  There was no technology in this society, the Eloi lived simply and spent their days talking, eating, sleeping, dancing, playing, and flirting.  No technology beyond the manufacture of their clothing was needed.  As The Time Traveler discovered later, this was the first hint that all was not what it seemed.  The relationship between the Eloi and the natural world was one of harmony with nature.  The Eloi picked fruit from the trees to eat and picked flowers with which they used to decorate themselves but didn’t cultivate the naturally occurring gardens.  In this future, nature had reclaimed the land, but while the buildings were in disarray there were no weeds or poisonous berries that the Eloi had to take care of.  The Time Traveler also never came across any old or infirm Eloi, he assumed they had eradicated disease some time ago, but this was also a clue…

Shortly after the Time Traveler arrived, his time machine was stolen.  The Eloi had not taken it.  When he tried to ask them what had happened to it, they didn’t even understand his questions but simply laughed at him (31). When he goes back to look for it, he thinks he spies a white animal out of the corner of his eye…

The bulk of the novel is spent with The Time Traveler investigating what happened to his time machine, the true nature of human civilization in this future, and a minor romantic subplot after he rescues an Eloi woman named Weena from drowning.

He quickly learns that the reason the Eloi sleep in communes indoors is because they are very, very afraid of the dark.  They have good reason for this, as The Time Traveler discovers when investigating underground ventilation shafts and discovers that the white animals he’s been spying are creatures named Morlocks who have taken his time machine.

The Time Traveler as he chases after the Morlocks in an attempt to get his machine back without being killed comes up with a theory for these two species, the Eloi and the Morlocks.  He notices that the Morlocks, which are furry ape-like creatures with large greyish-red eyes that reflect light in order to see in the dark, live entirely underground, and have some intelligence in order to maintain machinery and their ventilation shafts (39).

His final theory, after coming up with several wrong ones over the course of the novel, is that the Eloi and the Morlocks are both descendants of Victorian humankind.  The Eloi are the descendants of the ruling elite, the bourgeois capitalists that own the factories in England.  The Morlocks are the descendants of the poor factory workers who, having to work to survive, kept getting exiled out of the sunlight by the bourgeois until they had no choice but to live underground and adapt to the darkness.  The ended up living in pitch blackness for so long that their bodies adapted until they no longer resembled normal humans.

Throughout all this, the proletariat-Morlocks kept taking care of the aristocrats-Eloi until it became habit.  Eventually the Eloi, having everything they need provided for, no longer had any wants.  In consequence, their brains and physiques became stunted from lack of stimulation.  They stopped eating meat, and the Morlocks, who still required the nutrients that only meat could provide, started taking care of the Eloi as if they were cattle… and eating them as such as well (48, 52).  No wonder the Eloi were terrified of them!

And so we come to the dystopian aspect of our story.  Like the communist utopia flipped on its head, this dystopia deals also with the course themes.  A capitalist economy is not ideal; it creates a class system with an income disparity and a severe inequality.  The workers depend on their bosses for their livelihood but because poor people are a dime a dozen, and thoroughly disposable, the elites need not care for their quality of living one bit.

Capitalist production was characterized by a central antagonism: the interests of workers and capitalists were diametrically opposed.  It was in the interests of the workers to work as little as possible, and it was in the interests of the capitalists to extract as much effort as possible from workers while paying them as little as possible (Bowles 63).

When the [workers] broke down, the master did not have to pay them for repairs; when they made a mistake he could fire them; when there was no work for them to do he could give them the sack (Samuel 58).

Wells’ story served as a cautionary tale to the capitalists: if you don’t stop now, if you don’t provide welfare for your poor and get rid of this class system- this is your future.

To finish summarizing the story, The Time Traveler, with the help of Weena, though she unfortunately died in the struggle, eventually confronted the Morlocks and took back his stolen time machine.  Exhausted, he got on and travelled even farther into the future when there were no more buildings, no more human or human-like creatures, and eventually the Earth was dead.  At that point, demoralized, he went back home to Victorian England, arriving only a few hours after he left even though he had lived eight days on his travels.  He finishes telling his story, and it seems nobody believes him even though he still has strange flowers in his pocket that Weena had given him.

The narrator is intrigued and goes back to see The Time Traveler one more time only to see him get back into his machine and disappear again into time unknown.  In an epilogue, the narrator mentions that it has been three years since The Time Traveler disappeared and they have not seen him since.

In conclusion, Wells was a socialist who wrote an entertaining science fiction story to comment on the inequality present in his contemporary Victorian England caused by capitalism.  It explored what might happen if history stayed on its present course as a warning that it might be changed.  It also, in the beginning, provided a vision of a communist utopia that society might model itself on if it so wished.

Works Cited

Bowles, Paul. A Short History of Big Idea: Capitalism.  Great Britain: Pearson Longman                             2007.  Print.

Hoppen, K. Theodore. The Mid-Victorian Generation 1846-1886. Oxford: Clarendon Press,                      1998. Print.

Samuel, R.  “Workshop of the World: Steam Power and Hand Technology in Mid-Victorian                     Britain.” History Workshop Journal 3 (1977): 58. Print.

 Wells, H. G. Dover Thrift Editons: The Time Machine.  New York: Dover Publications          Inc, 1995. Print.


2 thoughts on “The Time Machine: Communist Utopia/Capitalist Dystopia

  1. As I read through the summary you provided I am sitting here stunned. The reason I am stunned is not because of the strangeness of the story or the events that take place. At this point we have read about so many different utopias and dystopias that it all seems to be normal to me. What amazes me is that I read this book as a young child in about the fifth or sixth grade and I have no recollection of the story being quite like this or meaning so much. I remember liking the story but not really much more. Now that I read your summary I feel like there was so much I missed and didn’t get out of it. I actually feel like that with a lot of the works we read that I was already familiar with. I think because of the professors and the classes contribution and the discussions we have had I can see and understand so much more about the literature and films we have read and watched. I look at the world now as one big place filled with utopian and dystopian themes and ideas for us to analyze. Reading this summary actually made me understand my new view on things just that much more by being able to compare and contrast what I felt and thought then to now. Thanks so much!!

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