By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
Nineteenth century was an incredibly fertile time for philosophical and technological changes. There was significant progress toward a more equitable society through the end of chattel-based slavery and a growing women’s movement. Something else happened in the same century that’s crucial to the trajectory of utopian literature—the birth of science fiction.
But at the same time, the final decades of the century saw an enormous income inequality, the inequality that prompted Edward Bellamy to write Looking Backward and that propelled that novel to such prominence among social and political activists. Are there echoes of this inequality in H.G. Wells’s science fiction, The Time Machine?
This is a transcript from the video series
Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Eloi and the Morlocks in The Time Machine
The Time Traveler in Wells’s work is the main character. He has built a time machine that allows him to travel back and forth in time. The Time Traveler is a scientist, and uses the scientific method and tells his story with all the hypotheses.
The Time Traveler explains that when he first arrives in the future, he finds a society of beings called the Eloi—small, elegant humans who appear to live a happy, egalitarian lifestyle in which they do very little labor. He initially imagines they are alone in their utopian communities, and that their general lack of curiosity about him and his machine results from the comfort of their well-balanced, relatively static life.
Eventually, though, he learns that the Eloi are not alone in their world. They live above ground, as you would expect. But beneath ground lives another fully developed society, the Morlocks.
They are much bigger than the Eloi, with atavistic qualities, looking almost like apes. They cannot withstand light, which means that they come out only at night, which makes them a little bit frightening. And beneath ground they have machinery, tons of machinery, just like the new subways of London, critics have noted. And all that machinery, all that energy and labor beneath the surface—it makes possible the passive, enlightened lifestyle of the Eloi.
Learn more about the origins of utopia.
The Leisure Class and the Working Class
The Eloi, the leisure class, subjugate the Morlocks, the working class. This hypothesis fits into turn-of-the-century thinking quite nicely. In fact, we could see it as another version of what Bellamy might have written had the good people of Looking Backward not taken steps to create an egalitarian society.
If the leisure class tends to reproduce within its own bounds—through formal eugenics or through the simple reality that the wealthy tend to interact with other wealthy people—and the working class tends to do the same, will two groups of quite distinct beings emerge from the common ancestry of humans?
And would this be a kind of less natural selection than what Darwin talks about, something more in line with Francis Galton’s eugenics? Or does the novel provide a lengthy disagreement with Herbert Spencer’s developmental hypothesis, which argues that evolution always moves in the direction from simple to complex?
Scholars have found evidence in Wells’s novel to support all of these readings.
Is There a Conflict in The Time Machine?
As the Time Traveler explores underground trying to figure out how to get his time machine, which the Morlocks have appropriated, he questions his second hypothesis, realizing that the Eloi certainly don’t act like masters, and the Morlocks, except for their day-blindness, certainly don’t act like slaves, which brings him to the hypothesis: the Eloi and Morlocks are in conflict with one another, and perhaps on the brink of a war.
But science is full of hypotheses, accurate and not, and it isn’t until quite late in the story that the Time Traveler realizes what is actually going on.
The Symbiotic Relationship in The Time Machine
The Morlocks and the Eloi live in a symbiotic relationship, but it isn’t one of master and slave; it’s one of consumer and consumed. It is the Morlocks who control the Eloi, basically treating them as cattle, fattening them up so they can eventually devour them.
It’s a really interesting take on utopia, or euchronia, isn’t it? When you put a scientist in a utopia, instead of, say, a sailor or a sheep farmer or a wealthy industrialist, will that character have a more nuanced view of the utopia, perhaps a more skeptical view? Will that character just naturally keep looking underneath his initial hypotheses in order to discover the costs of what might seem like utopian life?
Learn more about Samuel Butler and utopian technologies.
The Dystopian Undertones in Utopia
The Time Machine reminds us of Ursula Le Guin’s brilliant meta-utopian story The Ones who Walk away from Omelas. She definitely had Wells’s novel in mind when she wrote the fictional analysis through the utopian genre. In her short story, the people of Omelas are able to live in their utopian society only because of a suffering child, which suggests that what looks like utopia may in fact be dystopia, which encourages readers to seek out the hidden costs of happiness in their own societies. Are those costs too high?
Whimsically, we could see the Time Traveler’s hypotheses as a similar kind of metacritical commentary on the development of utopian literature, where, at first, utopia is located on an island in what is basically isolation from other societies.
But then we realize that there is a cost to the highly functioning society, like the slaves of Thomas More’s Utopia or the sacrifice of technology in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon. And then, eventually, we realize that the people we think are living in a utopia may actually be living in a dystopia. It’s a new kind of dualism, isn’t it?
The contradiction of utopia in this context is no longer that the perfect place is no place. It’s the concern that the perfect place is someplace, maybe our place, but it’s an illusion undergirded by peril that pushes it into the realm of the nightmarish, of what we might call the dystopian.
Common Questions about the Hypotheses in The Time Machine
In The Time Machine, the Morlocks and the Eloi live in a symbiotic relationship, but it isn’t one of master and slave; it’s one of consumer and consumed.
In The Time Machine, the Morlocks are much bigger than the Eloi, with atavistic qualities, and look almost like apes. They cannot withstand light, which means that they come out only at night.
In The Time Machine, the Eloi are the small, elegant humans who appear to live a happy, egalitarian lifestyle in which they do very little labor.