Unraveled: The Imperfections of H.G. Welles’ Future
The future is the greatest unknown. People plan for it and worry about it, but there is no way to be in it. We are confined to the present moment. H. G. Wells, however, delves into the idea of jumping beyond the present in his novel, The Time Machine. His character, known only as the Time Traveler, travels to the year Eight Hundred and Two Thousand and spends eight days there. When he first arrives he has lofty expectations, but as the eight days progress Wells begins to unravel the apparently perfect world, revealing it to be very unlike what was anticipated. Rather, it is a world riddled with imperfections of increasing size, from cracked tables to rifts in society.
To begin, the Time Traveler’s moment of arrival in the future has been the core of his yearning. He has dedicated years of his present life to getting to a time where he believes all the present day troubles will be set right. Yet when he first arrives he is gripped with a fear and a sense of alienation, and almost returns to his own time. For an instant of fear he nearly gives up knowing the future world.
Despite arriving in the middle of a storm and his first fears, he regains his courage and curiosity. He does not change the dials and levers that would take him back. The curtain of rain parts and for one delicate, fleeting moment, he sees perfection. The planet is the same, but the world is changed. The people coming towards him wear ornate robes. The air is warm. There is beauty. Light. Wonder.
Yet the moment is brief and as it fades the perfection of it also fades, falling from his imagination—the only place in which it had dwelt. By his own confession, his “first theories of a…decadent humanity did not long endure.” The people he meets are beautiful, to be sure, but they are not intelligent in any way. He had dreamed of great advancements in knowledge, art, and society, and in one second all those dreams come to an abrupt end. The Time Traveler struggles not to lose them altogether. He seeks to learn the language, but quickly discovers that the people are easily fatigued and lack interest.
Once the Time Traveler becomes acquainted with the reality of the people, H. G. Wells looses no time in chipping away the perfection of the place as well. During a feast of fruit, the traveler notices that the corners of the marble tables are cracked. The stained-glass windows are shattered. Their curtains, torn. Despite these discrepancies, the Time Traveler still says “the general effect was extremely rich and extravagant.” He is so taken with the apparent sublimity of the world that these small signs of imperfection are lost on him.
So long as he believes this future to be beautiful and at peace, he does not think of the time he has abandoned. He does not think of it until his access to it is suddenly taken. On the evening of his first day he returns to the lawn where he had left his precious time machine and finds the yard to be empty. Panic fills him: “At once, like a lash across the face, came the possibility of losing my own age, of being left helpless in this strange new world.” The loss of the machine is one of the earliest places where the reader is given serious cause to doubt the perfection of the world. There is no place for thievery and loss in a flawless society.
As the hours and days pass and he continues to learn about and live in the future, the mysteries slowly build. The people always sleep as communities in large buildings. No one goes outside after the sun has set or before it has risen again. One morning, when the Time Traveler rises early, he sees what seem to be misshapen ghosts vanishing over the crest of a hill. Later that same day he encounters a creature, gorilla like and shy of the light. Each of these discoveries and encounters degrades the idea of a utopia a little more. Here, a view of an imperfect world begins to be realized.
The traveler also starts to find wells scattered around the land. They extend down into a darkness that throbs of machinery and whenever he approaches one of them, the people shrink away in fear. The Time Traveler is surprised to find fear in a world where he thought all troubles were removed. During the first few days, he discovers that there are only two sources of it, the wells and darkness.
He wants to know—needs to know—what it is that lies in the darkness. He wants to know because he has begun to put the pieces together and doubts his theories. And, like the little people around him, a seed of fear for what he will find in the dark begins to grow. Still, he presses on. He is desperate to find his time machine and the answer, he believes, is down a well.
When he finally descends, he already knows what the creatures look like that he will find, and he understands now why the people above, the Eloi, shrink away from the creatures below, the Morlock. They are ugly and lovers of dark. The dark world below, the Time Traveler finds, is indeed filled with machines, as well as the stench of meat and pawing hands that seek to keep him from returning to the light. With the full realization of this world, the greatest imperfection of all is brought to light. The Time Traveler comes upon this revelation while mulling over his fearful discoveries.
The Morlocks were once men; men who had been thrust down into darkness, oppression and toil. Their labor has enabled the Eloi to live the capricious life they live. The truth strikes him with terrible clarity. “Ages ago, thousands of generations ago, man had thrust his brother man out of the ease and the sunshine. Now that brother was coming back—changed!” The superb world he enjoys is not perfect. The Eloi have forgotten even the memory of intelligence and the greatness of man, and the Morlock, so long enslaved to the machines, have become beings of terror. The rift between the two species is wide, and filled with great fear. The idea of perfection is false. The society has simply buried its grievances and crimes far from the light of day. Literally.
The Time Traveler has stumbled upon the time when those who had been cast down are returning, becoming the hunters, rather then the slaves, of those who subjugated them. Those who have lived in luxury have become the prey and are learning anew the meaning of fear. The source of their fear is not the wells or the dark, it is the Morlock. This is the truth of the year Eight Hundred and Two Thousand. The Morlock are the ones who took the time machine, and they use it as bait to lure and trap the traveler, for he, in coming to the Eloi, has also become prey.
When the Time Traveler first laid eyes on this future world, he had no inkling of the darkness that lay beneath it. Never, in all his dreams, had he imagined such truth as he found. The journey from his ideals to reality is fraught with blemishes and mysteries. The truths he with which he leaves the future are quite opposite of the fantasies with which he arrived.
At one point the Time Traveler says, “In some of these visions of Utopias and coming times which I have read, there is a vast amount of detail about building, and social arrangements, and so forth. But while such details are easy enough to obtain when the whole world is contained in one’s imagination, they are all together inaccessible to a real traveler amid such realities as I found here.” Though he never realizes it, those two sentences sum up the entirety of his journey, and offer, perhaps, the greatest counsel to the reader.
With those two sentences and in light of his tale, H. G. Wells reminds the reader that the future is a vast ignorance, and that while we may fantasize all we wish, the coming days will still present us with things we never anticipated. The Time Traveler sought the future for years, but once he found it his deepest desire was to escape it. We often long for the ideal days of the future when things will be better. While we must have hope, we must also remember that the future will bring with it its own set of unknowns and fears.
By Irene Grace