The Time Machine

By H G Wells

Life isn't Laissez-faire

Pure biological evolution is, however, only part of the picture painted by The Time Machine, and it is as much a comment on the direction of society in the late nineteenth century as it is a piece of scientific speculation. Whilst his faith in the ideology vacillated throughout his life, Wells was a socialist, (by his, even if not by others' definitions). In his Experiments in Autobiography (1934), he recalled how "we denounced individualism; we denounced laissez-faire." The ownership of the land and industrial capital was to be "vested in the community... what we saw as in a vision was a world without a scramble for possession and without the motive of proprietary advantage crippling and vitiating every creative and intellectual effort." To all the problems of society under capitalism, "socialism was proclaimed as a completed panacea."

Laissez-faire, (to 'lets things alone'), was essentially the economic policy of non-intervention by government in individual or industrial monetary affairs, and was strongly supported by those, such as Herbert Spencer, who were willing to see the weakest go to the wall in the interest of what they saw as social and economic progress. In The Man Versus the State (1873), Spencer defended this position, and attacked all forms of state interference as impinging upon individual freedom. Essentially, it was the economic and social 'survival of the fittest', and it found succour in the climate of Imperial arrogance cultivated in Victorian Britain. This may seem ironic given that Imperialism is the ultimate in State-intervention, but 'the survival of the fittest' was easily stretched by those who saw advantage in doing so to fit whole nations, eventually giving rise to ideas of the Master Race and ultimately the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

But all this was not even a nightmare in 1895, and Wells presents 802,701 AD as a direct descendent of a world where laissez-faire has been given free rein within a context of the application of Darwinian ideas to society. The "conditions under which the active, strong, and subtle survive and the weaker go to the wall" that the Time Traveller speaks about are those which have led to the separation of the Eloi from the Morlocks - "the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer". But Wells' vision has a twist: at first the ancestors of the Eloi were the stronger, the 'fittest', able to subjugate the 'weaker' members of society, but by 802,701 the process is reversing: "now the brother was coming back - changed." In actual fact the 'weaker' of the 1890s were by and large the working classes who were not biologically weaker at all, merely socially deprived. But, Social Darwinism argued, these people were in socially deprived conditions because they were biologically weaker. And it is not a sentiment that has entirely died. In 1994, two Harvard academics published a book, The Bell Curve, which stated that economic differences were significantly due to biological differences. In America, the socially deprived sections of society tend to be largely black, and those 1990s arguments at times bore a frightening resemblance to the 'scientific racism' of the late nineteenth century.

But by 802,701 man has become more than separated into different races, he has become separated into two species. John Lawton writes that the origin of the word 'Morlock' 'is obvious in the biblical 'Moloch'.' Moloch is an Old Testament deity associated with the enemies of Israel and therefore malevolence. Philip Hamin identifies the Eloi as drawing their name from the Hebrew text of Christ's questioning of God from the cross - 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?' ('My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?') The meanings of the names are double-edged. On one hand, 'Eloi' is the true God, and Moloch a lesser, pagan enemy, just as the Eloi had began life as "the favoured aristocracy" and the Morlocks as "their mechanical servants." However, the Eloi have forsaken their glorious ancestry as Lords of the earth for an existence of decadent indolence: "I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been. It had committed suicide." And the worship of Moloch was associated with not only human sacrifice (a link to the 'cannibalism' of the Eloi by the Morlocks), but also with ordeals and initiation by fire. The laws given to Moses by God expressly forbade the Jews to do what was done in Egypt and Canaan: 'You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Moloch, and so profane the name of your God.' (Leviticus, 18,21) Whilst by 802,701 "the art of fire-making had been forgotten on the earth", when the Time Traveller lights a fire in the forest, the Morlocks are bewildered by the light and "Thrice I saw Morlocks put their heads down in a kind of agony and rush into the flames." Burnt offerings to the legacy of laissez- faire.

The Time Machine's objection to laissez-faire often seems one with a basis in fear. The evolutionary- framed allegorical message is that unless the working classes are freed from their shackles (or at least have their shackles more comfortably fitted), they will eventually turn on their oppressors. This was an important motivator in middle-class top-down reformist socialism as exemplified by the likes of the Fabian society: the introduction of reforms was as important to head off revolutionary sentiment as it was to improve the welfare of the working classes. A distinctly conservative form of socialism, no doubt, but preferable to many of the time than communism. The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had been published in 1848, ten years before The Origin of Species. The introduction begins with the words, "A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of communism," a deliberate provocation towards the powers of capitalism. The figures of the Morlocks are spectre-like, pallid ghost creatures that, when they do reveal themselves, disgust and frighten the Time Traveller. Even if, as the critic Samuel Hynes writes, 'the best representation of [the lower classes] is not... realistic: it is Wells's description of the Morlocks,' it is hardly a flattering portrait. (For more on this see Sample Questions).

It is, however, a mistake to assume that the views of the Time Traveller are exactly those of Wells. We know from the Epilogue that the story's Narrator remains more optimistic than the Time Traveller about the future. And though Wells was no communist, he does allow the Time Traveller to entertain the notion of communism favourably. When discussing the potential uses of a time machine, the Very Young man remarks, "Just think! One might invest all one's money, leave it to accumulate, and hurry ahead." To which the Time Traveller replies, "To discover a society erected on a strictly communistic basis." And when he does arrive in the future, he finds that all living is communal: "there were no small houses to be seen. Apparently, the single house, and possibly even the household, had vanished... 'Communism,' I said to myself."