Class in The Time Machine

Dr Matthew Taunton reveals how The Time Machine reflects H G Wells’s fascination with class division, the effects of capitalism and the evolution of the human race.
H G Wells was a committed socialist and also a scientist with an active interest in evolution. His literary visions of the future were frequently shaped by both of these concerns. In The Time Machine (1895), Wells’s protagonist travels into the distant future - the year 802,701 - to discover that the human race has evolved into two distinct species, the ‘Eloi’ who live on the surface and the ‘Morlocks’ who live underground. The Time Traveller’s initial observations suggest a utopian society: his first encounter is with the Eloi, who are beautiful but useless, living in plenty and liberated entirely from work. ‘Communism’ is his initial diagnosis, as he observes that the houses and cottages that were familiar features of the Victorian countryside have disappeared to be replaced by ‘palaces’ for communal living.

The pastoral idyll in which the Eloi live resembles in several respects the utopian society depicted by the 19th-century English socialist William Morris in his utopian romance News from Nowhere (1890), where money is abolished, work is pure pleasure, and every member of society lives in plenitude.[1] The palaces also recall the phalanstères proposed by the 19th-century French socialist Charles Fourier[2]: utopian communities of 500-2000 inhabitants would allow for the dissolution of the individual family unit, so that marriage could be abolished and children mutually reared.

However, while at first glance the Eloi seem to inhabit a classless society, when the troglodytic Morlocks come into view—savage brutes who live underground and seem to perform the mindless drudgery necessary to keep society functioning—the Time Traveller awakens to another possibility. Has the social separation between rich and poor become so extreme that the two groups have evolved into separate species?

Reflections of the present

John Partington has written that ‘the Time Traveller’s analyses of the future society are simple extrapolations from his own time’.[3] Indeed, Wells makes it clear that the future he depicts is intended as a comment on the tendencies that he had diagnosed in late-19th-century capitalism. The Time Traveller suggests that ‘the exclusive tendency of richer people … and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor’ was to blame for this diverging of the human species along class lines, combining the influential analyses of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx, both of whom Wells had read. It is only a matter of time, Wells’s novel seems to suggest, before the working class becomes a distinct species and is driven out of sight and underground. This fear is explicitly linked to an analysis of Wells’s contemporary society: ‘Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth?’ (ch. 5)

Class hatred

The Eloi live in constant fear of the Morlocks, and the Time Traveller himself is disgusted by their appearance and habits. Despite his attempts to present the narrative from the perspective of scientific detachment, his description of his first sight of a Morlock is filled with instinctive hatred: ‘I saw a small, white, moving creature, with large bright eyes which regarded me steadfastly as it retreated. It made me shudder. It was so like a human spider!’ (ch. 5) This is perhaps an enhanced, futuristic version of the hatred and fear with which the suburban lower middle classes often saw the proletariat, partly because they lived in constant fear of destitution (as C F G Masterman argued in The Condition of England (1909)). Wells was the son of a Bromley shopkeeper and when his family fell on hard times, his mother took on a job as a servant at Uppark, a stately home in West Sussex. For the Wells family the veneer of middle-class respectability was all too thin, and the abyss beckoned. Indeed, Darko Suvin suggests that the Time Traveller’s contempt for the Morlocks ‘flows from the social consciousness of Wells himself’, that the novel’s tendency to sympathise with the Eloi derives from Wells’s own class prejudices and fears of the proletariat.[4] But there is at least a question to be asked about how far the Time Traveller’s somewhat limited perspective should be identified with Wells’s own views.

Either way, within the novel itself, the ‘Great Fear’ that the Eloi have for the Morlocks is entirely justified (ch. 7). As the Time Traveller discovers, the Morlocks live by eating the Eloi, catching their distant upper-class cousins by night and cannibalising them. As he says, ‘These Eloi were mere fatted cattle, which the ant-like Morlocks preserved and preyed upon—probably saw to the breeding of’ (ch. 7). At this point a very different sense of continuity with the tendencies of the Victorian period begins to emerge. The Time Traveller concludes, in fact, that ‘the old order was … in part reversed’ (ch. 7): the dystopian future that Wells imagines is not capitalism itself, but a monstrous inversion of capitalism—a socialism gone wrong, where the cannibalistic proletariat prey on the effete aristocracy. The ‘communism’ that the Time Traveller first saw on his arrival is the communism not of the phalanstère but of the pigsty.

The novel’s depiction of class ends up, then, not as a utopian exploration of future possibilities for the abolition of class in the terms that Fourier and Morris had imagined it. Instead, it is an example of ‘anti-utopian realism’, suggesting that the bitter class conflicts of the Victorian age were bound to deepen and even to take on a biological character as humanity is divided into two species.[5] Worse still—especially given Wells’s own political commitments—the various progressive attempts to overcome class antagonism, advocated by Marx, Fourier and Morris, have failed or been perverted. This profoundly pessimistic vision of the future, then, expresses not only Wells’s horror at the realities of 19th-century class relations, but also his fears about what utopian socialism and communism were offering in their place.

Footnotes

[1] Patrick Parrinder, Shadows of the Future: H.G. Wells, Science Fiction and Prophecy (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995), pp.43-4.

[2] H G Wells, The Time Machine (London: Pan Books, 1953), p.35.; Charles Fourier, The Theory of the Four Movements translated by Ian Patterson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.117.

[3] John S. Partington, ‘The Time Machine and A Modern Utopia: the Static and Kinetic Utopias of the Early H.G. Wells’, Utopian Studies, 13.1, (2002), 57-68 (p.58). 

[4] Darko Suvin, ‘Introduction’ in H.G. Wells and Modern Science Fiction ed. by Darko Suvin and Robert M. Philmus (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1977), p.24.

[5] Parrinder, p.45.

  • Matthew Taunton
  • Matthew Taunton is a lecturer in literature at the University of East Anglia, specialising in literature and culture from the late Victorian period to the present. He is the author of Fictions of the City: Class, Culture and Mass Housing in London and Paris (Palgrave, 2009) and chapters and articles on various aspects of 19th and 20th century literature and culture. He is a major contributor to the Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism, and is currently working on a book about British literary responses to the Russian Revolution.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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