In this essay, I will explore the question: to what extent H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine reflects and relates to degeneration theory? I try to argue that, despite there are many examples of degeneration concept all over the story, Wells in the Time Machine is not a degeneration theorist. I attempt to show that Wells, as a pioneer of dystopian science fiction, only uses the rhetoric of degeneration theory to transmit his own message to his contemporary and future audience. The time Machine is Wells’s warning about the consequences of socio-economic situation of his own time in the nineteenth century, and is his response to the widespread fin de siecle literature of the end of century that civilisation leads to decadence.
I will start with a close observation throughout the Time Machine to identify the elements of degeneration in the story. Then I will argue that despite the Manichaean elements in the Time Machine, Wells doesn’t give any suggestion to isolate or destroy the evil. He rather tries to demonstrate that, the evil consequences of the future are inside ourselves in our own time. At the end, by using Freudian terminology, I attempt to show that Wells’s solution for the future evil is to face with it and analyse it, as the Time Traveller does so, and he finally overcomes the evil with the power of knowledge.
Future as a nightmare
The Time Machine, the very first novel by H. G. Wells, written in 1895, at the turning point of the nineteenth century, is a detailed ‘blueprint’ of degeneration theory (Pick, 1989). Although I suppose that the audience of this essay is familiar with the storyline of Wells’s work, to identify the degeneration ideas in the Time Machin, in this section I will bring up the related parts of the story as well as the historical background that critics consider was inspired Wells’s imagination.
The story, as Hillegas (1974) observes correctly, begins in the ‘solid, upper-middle class atmosphere’ of the Time Travellers home in Richmond, which is extremely in contrast with his later adventures in the distant future. It shows that we are about to face the entire world of contradictions, dichotomies and paradoxes trough the story. It also shows the departure point of Wells’s is a social criticism in reaction to the socio-economic situation of Britain in the late nineteenth century. I will extend these two notions later in this paper.
The Time Traveller in the remote future of the year 802701 meets the human like small creatures, called the Eloi, who live in an extreme welfare with plenty of food and other material resources seems don’t have any concern in their lives other than eating, playing and love making. As the Time Traveller puts it “the whole earth had become a garden”, (Wells, 1985, p.17) which has a clear connotation with Eden. (McLean, 2009) So at the very first encounter we might think that Wells tries to sketch a perfect utopia in the future of mankind that he calls it ‘the golden age’, very soon though we realise the future that the protagonist has landed in about 800 thousand years later is a corrupted paradise for the very low intelligence, atavistic human like Eloi. In this sense the Time Machine is a ‘anti-utopian’ fiction (Hillegaas, 1974), that begins to adopt a dystopian narrative when the Time Traveller finds out about the other inhabitants live in the dark side of the future world.
Discovering the Morlocks, as under-world creatures living in the darkness of underground tunnels, plays an important role for Wells to make his social interpretations of the widening class division and “social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer” in the Victorian nineteenth century. (Wells, 1985, p.82) The Time Traveller’s reference to the pernicious condition of the East-End workers in the present time London, shows how Wells’s social criticism is a product of the 1890’s, the years of increasing socialist protests. (Hillegas, 1974) Yet another twist in the story is to come, when the Time Traveller finds about ‘the great fear’ of the Morlocks among the Eloi which is incompatible with his assumption of the socially suppressed situation of the under-world residents. The real nightmare of the future is that the carnivorous Morlocks live on the flesh of the vegetarian Eloi. This horror depiction of the future, could be considered as Wells’s scientific criticism under the influence of post Darwinians of late nineteenth century who had the wrong assumption that evolution means inevitable progress.
Wells was a former student of T. H. Huxley, a leading biologist promoted the evolution theory after Darwin known as ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’, who brought the idea of ‘cosmic pessimism’ to biology. As a loyal student, Wells sent a copy of the Time Machine to Huxley with a letter noted that “the central idea of degeneration following security was the outcome of a certain amount of biological study.” (McLean, 2009, p.25) While the discussion about and against progress was the characteristic of the fin de siècle thinkers of the late nineteenth century, the Time Machine is written as a warning about the inevitable consequences of present. The Time Traveller has brought back this message from the future that “the great triumph of humanity took different shape.” (Wells, 1895, p.84) In the next section, I will show that how Wells’s depiction of the future is degenerate.
Time Degenerates the Future
Degeneration ideas of nineteenth century was made under the influence of great spatial displacements after war, famine, epidemics and the encounter of European anthropologist with the ‘other’ inhabitants from the other parts of the world. (Pick, 1989) Parallelly the Time Machine provides us another kind of displacement, temporal this turn, to show how degeneration could be reconstructed. (McLean, 2009) The time machine creates the scene for a unique thought experiment for Wells to show how ‘devolutionary potentials’ of evolution theory along with the class division of Victorian present, could lead to a degenerate future for humanity.
The first encounter of the Time Traveller with the degenerate future is the Eloi, small sized, child minded, genderless, atavistic humans who only eat, play and reproduce. The Eloi have lost their human intelligence, because they had everything needed in a ‘perfect comfort’ condition, so as Wells puts it when ‘Mother Necessity’ has gone “there was no force to select the most fit.” (Wells, 1985, p.31; Hillegas, 1974) The main source for Wells to develop his idea of degeneration was the vision of Ray Lankester that ‘security and prosperity’ leads the mankind to degeneration. (Parrinder, 2001; Lankester, 1880) It also echoes Max Nordau’s concept of degeneration as he related the decedent society of the late nineteenth century to a ‘hysterical’ backlash to the ‘fashionable’ culture. (Nordau, 1895)
The idea of the degeneration of a great civilization becomes highlighted by the Time Traveller’s comment in the museum of green porcelain palace when he noticed he “stood among the ruins of some latter-day South Kensington.” (Wells, 1895, p.108) He also interprets the Eloi, “like the Carolingian kings, had decayed to a mere beautiful futility.” (Wells, 1895, p.97) These are clear references to Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, an important work of degeneration theory as a main historiographical inspiration for Wells to announce the doom of humanity following by nineteenth century industrialism. (Parrinder, 2001)
Degeneration becomes more obvious when the Time Traveller meets the Morlocks, monstrous descendants of humans, who live in the dark underground world. The Time Traveller describes them as the “frail creatures who had forgotten their high ancestry.” (Wells, 1895, p.103) Throughout the story the Morlocks are called as ‘human spiders’, ‘little beasts’, ‘worms’, ‘human rats’, ‘whitened lemurs’, ‘new vermin’, and ‘unpleasant creatures from bellow’. This negative sentiment against them turns out as a kind of repulsion, when the Time Traveller finds out the meat he witnessed the Morlocks were eating was of the Eloi. The protagonist started to loath the underground creatures thinking that there is ‘something inhuman and malign’ in them.
Therefore, considering the Morlocks as non-human creatures has serious consequences for the notion of degeneration. It opens to a series of contrasts, contradictions and dichotomies associated with the story of the Time Machine. The obvious contrast is the dark underworld of the carnivorous Morlocks against the light upper world of the vegetarian Eloi. However, there are more dichotomies to if we step back from the Morlock and the Eloi duality, such as past vs. future, progression vs. regression, evolution vs. devolution, civilization vs. barbarism, intelligent vs. atavism, etc. These are strong signs of Manicheism in the Time Machine that can play an important role in degeneration theory by separating the good part from the evil elements of the world. Wells, however, does not use above-mentioned Manichean dichotomies to proceed with a degeneration project of isolating the evil from the entire world. In the rest of this paper, I will argue that Wells uses the idea of degeneration merely as a rhetorical tool to make warnings about the probable dark future.
Future evil stems in present
In his return from the remote future, the Time Traveller starts his story with a request. He wants to narrate his adventures without any interruptions and asks his guests to agree with this crucial condition. This is an important point in reading the Time Machine. (Crossley, 2001) We, as audience, can jump in every second to question the plausibility of those events, but the Time Traveller dis-arms us at the very beginning by saying that he knows we don’t believe him. This echo Wells himself, asks us to listen to his narrative with patience, because he has something more than those strange events to tell; he has an important project than mere retelling the story of the adventures of his ‘Victorian Sindbad’ in the year 802701. (Crossley, 2001) Wells has a big project by picturing the surreal future, he “create structure that make us rethink” about the present. (Huntington, 1982, p.60)
Accordingly, I argue that Wells’s project is even beyond the depicting of a degenerate future, where human descendants eat each other without any intelligent capacity to make sense of their horrible condition. He uses degenerate images of future just to show that wrong actions in the present of humanity will lead us to a nightmare like the picture that the Time Traveller has brought from the future. The Morlocks and the Eloi are degenerates not because of their own fault, or any intrinsic evil inside them; they are degraded “proceeding from the problems of our own age.” (Well, 1985, p.82)
Wells try to show that evil is among us, in our own time and our own society. This leads to a kind of prophecy when he criticizes the Victorian inequalities: “In the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour.” (Wells, 1985, p.83) So for Wells degenerate future is rooted in the corrupted but good-looking present.
In the Time Machine, Wells tries to show that by getting close to evil, analyse it by knowledge we could solve the problem. So, he takes pathological approach, as like as Freudian analysis to find the symptoms within one’s own self. In the next section, I will examine the Time Traveller’s encounter with the future as a form of therapy to cure the evil as a repressed matter. This helps to the main argument that Wells does not use degeneration ideas to isolate the evil, instead he uses his scientific approach to solve it by knowledge.
Future as part of human unconscious
The Time traveller’s first real trouble in the future happens when he loses his Time Machine. At the same time, he finds out there is a dark side in the shiny realm of the Eloi, where the shadow-like Morlocks inhibit. The Time Traveller realises that beneath his feet is habitat of a ‘new race’, and he can only recover the Time Machine “by boldly penetrating these underground mysteries.” (Wells, 1985, p.87) This can be read as Wells’s first move to unfold the unknown matter, hidden at the heart of his protagonist’s world.
The other mysterious phenomenon for the Time Traveller is the unknown fear of darkness among the Eloi, which puzzles him because he thought that fear has been disappeared in the ‘social paradise’ of the Eloi. The protagonist observes the Eloi as ‘fearless enough in the daylight,’ but they dreaded the dark, the shadows and the black things. In attempt to analyse the source of such a fear, Wells makes the present wrongdoing of mankind bold again, lets the Time Traveller to dig down to the thousands of generations ago to his own time when “man had thrust his brother man out of the ease and the sunshine. And now that brother was coming back – changed!” (Wells, 1985, p.98) This ‘brother’ who comes back as a nightmare for humans of the future, is a repressed part of our present society that will not remained ignored forever.
So, we can read the Morlocks as a repressed unconscious part of human mind, generating fear and anxiety. I want to take this reading one step further to identify a Freudian correspondence in the relations of different agents of the Time Machine. Mapping with the Freud’s structural model of the psyche, the time traveller could be read as ‘the ego’ -a missing part of the future world- who mediates between ‘the id’ and ‘the super-ego’, embodied respectively in the Eloi and the Morlocks.
To make this analogy clearer, I will take a close look to the both degenerate remnants of humanity, as well as Wells’s ambassador to the future. The Eloi are child minded, playful creatures who ‘lose easily their interest in things’. Their fear and dependence to the Morlock makes them so like ‘the id’. On the other hand, the Morlocks are associated with the dark mysterious part of human’s future, the creatures with their ‘eyes adapted to the darkness’, as source of power, aggression and the ‘forgotten fear’ could be plausible match for ‘the super-ego’. Finally, as the Time Traveller states that he can overcome the great fear with his human rationality, as for him “fear does not paralyse, and mystery has lost its terrors,” (Wells, 1985, p.98) he takes the role of ‘the ego’ in the Freudian triad. In this analogy, the role of the Time Traveller as ‘the ego’ is the key part of my argument in the current paper.
The Time Traveller as ‘the ego’ of the human psyche throughout the history, is the only voice of the reason who serves Wells’s rejection of degeneration theory. He follows the Freudian approach to dig, know and analyse the unknown sides of the human to deal with the evil. So, visiting the Eloi and the Morlocks in the future, is similarly important as discovering the id and the super-ego within ourselves. Wells tries to make this important point that, without knowing the evil implications of our present we cannot prevent the degenerate future. In the same way as psychoanalysis encourages us to go deep down into our psyche to find the cause of our troubles, Wells also send us deep in time to face with our horrors, so we might wake up early enough to avoid the horror of the future. In the next section I will show how Wells’s protagonist uses knowledge to compete against the devolution.
Knowledge to beat degeneration
Wells as a former student of Huxley was “a supreme rationalist and believer in science and the scientific method.” (Hillegas, 1974, p.14) Knowledge for Wells is the only way to solve the mysteries of the human life. His profound dedication to science could be read in The Time Machine, when the Time Traveller discovers the cannibalistic nature of the Morlocks. After this big discovery his first reaction instead of mere repulsion is to find the evolutionary explanations for such a biological turn in the history of mankind. Wells puts his words in the mouse of his protagonist: “I tried to look at the thing in a scientific spirit.” (Wells, 1985, p.105)
In addition to this obvious reference to science, knowledge is present in the whole story with the symbol of fire. The unique method of Time Traveller to confront the Morlocks is his match box he brought from the present. Light as a symbol of reason and knowledge is the heritage the Enlightenment tradition to solve the problems that nineteenth century has created. This is the main point that separates Wells from his contemporary degeneration theorists, while they thought that the problem with the evil cannot solve with reason, Wells keeps his faith in rationality.
Further, Wells uses fire to define the civilization in the Time Machine. (Huntington, 1982) The Time Traveller notices that in the decadence of the civilization “the art of fire-making had been forgotten on the earth,” (Wells, 1985, p.120) which he brings that art back with the power of his knowledge. Fire, also, is a symbol of technology for Wells, as Hillegas puts it ‘he is a Francis Bacon reborn’ who shows the extreme desire to take control over the nature. (Hillegas, 1974) However, by showing the disastrous consequences of the nineteenth century industrialism, Wells warns about overusing technology by the observation of the Time Traveller that the triumph of humanity “had not been simply a triumph over Nature, but a triumph over Nature and the fellow-man.” (Wells, 1985, p.84) Another sign of Wells’s concern about the industrial excess of human civilization, is the moment that the Time Traveller puts the forest in fire by overusing his resources. His pity for the burning Morlocks is a sign of moral rationality in his relation to degenerate future.
The Time Traveller escaped from the creatures of the future, not to destroy or isolate them. He comes back from future, to warn humans that it is like committing suicide if humanity continues the current social and economic arrangements of the world.
However the Time Traveller himself has been changed during his adventures in the future, adapted habits of his degenerate descendants when he says, “I am starving for a bit of meat.” (Wells, 1985, p.21) Similar signs along with psychoanalytical reading of the Time Machine demonstrates Wells’s relation to the evil. I have argued for his clearer reaction that evil can be cured by knowledge. However, I also by using the above-mentioned readings, argue that Wells in this novel believes that evil is inside ourselves, our present time and in our very own deeds. So, this also shows that Wells was not on the side of mainstream degeneration theorists of his time.
In this essay I have attempted to identify the traces of degeneration idea in The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. I have shown that Wells’s very first novel, contains clear notions of degeneration concept. However, I have argued that Well’s only used the idea of degeneration to react against the social troubles of his own time. The main reason that supported this claim is the way that the Time Traveller deals with evil. If Wells was a mere degeneration theorist, his protagonist wouldn’t face the evil to analyse it as a repressed matter of the present that project itself to the future.
So, by making an analogy to psychoanalysis concepts, I tried to show that the Time Traveller, as ‘the ego’, plays the rational part to mediate between the Morlocks and the Eloi, as the futuristic counterparts of ‘the super-ego’ and ‘the id’. However, the protagonist finally goes beyond the Freudian prescription by bringing back the reason as the Enlightenment’s solution to overcome the evil. The Time Traveller fights the evil the power of light as a symbol of knowledge. Wells in the Time Machine tries to make the point that moderate, rational use of technology would solve all problems, even the evil.
The method of Wells in using degeneration concept is more like the present-day environmentalists, who are equipped with science warning the humankind about the disastrous consequences if people continue with the current lifestyle. Wells warns his contemporary audience that without implementing any immediate social reform “the future will become the site of disturbing retrogression.” (McLean, 2009, p.22)
However, the flowers that the Time Traveller brought back from the future, shows despite his extreme pessimism, Wells still has hope for humanity. He tries to convince his audience that, no matter how dark the future might be, we as rational creatures must dare to face it, analyse it and finally might equipped with the power to fix it. His protagonist brought us back this important message from the end of the world that there is still time to save the mankind.
§ Crossley, R. (2001). Taking it as a Story. In Centenary Conference “The Time Machine: Past, P., Slusser, G. E., Parrinder, P., & Chatelain, D. (2001). H. G. Wells’s perennial Time machine: Selected essays from the Centenary Conference “The Time Machine: Past, Present, and Future”, Imperial College, London, July 26-29, 1995. Athens, GA ; London: University of Georgia Press.
§ Hillegas, M. R. 1. (1974). The future as nightmare: H.G. Wells and the anti-utopians. Carbondale : London: Southern Illinois.
§ Huntington, J. (1982). The logic of fantasy: H.G. Wells and science fiction. New York: Columbia University Press.
§ Lankester, R. (1880). Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism. London: Macmillan & Co.
§ McLean, S. (2009). The early fiction of H.G. Wells: fantasies of science. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
§ Nordau, M. (1895). Degeneration. London: William Heinemann.
§ Parrinder, P. (2001). From Rome to Richmond. In Centenary Conference “The Time Machine: Past, P., Slusser, G. E., Parrinder, P., & Chatelain, D. (2001). H. G. Wells’s perennial Time machine: Selected essays from the Centenary Conference “The Time Machine: Past, Present, and Future”, Imperial College, London, July 26-29, 1995. Athens, GA ; London: University of Georgia Press.
§ Pick, D. (1989). Faces of degeneration: A European disorder, c.1848-c.1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
§ Wells, H. G. (1985). The time machine: An invention. As published in popular edition by Williiam Heinemann LTD. (1911). London: Heinemann.