Wells’s Idiot Time Traveler, Too Smart For His Own Good, Is A Symbol For Self-Destructive Progress

I had read The Time Machine by H.G. Wells years and years ago, but way back then I did not find it even nearly so rewarding as I found it now that I’m older. Part of my enjoyment, I think, is due to Ursula K. Le Guin’s new (2002) introduction, where she remarks on “the Time Traveler’s amazing improvidence” (xiv). “Reading as a child, I didn’t notice,” she says, echoing exactly my own relationship with the book as well, “but I find it strange now that he sets off into the future without a notebook; without provisions of any kind; without even putting on outdoor shoes” (xiv). What an idiot! With this in mind, this time, I chose to read the book with special attention to how curiously inept the Time Traveler is.

[This paragraph contains spoilers and is not essential to this essay.] The first thing he does in the future is stop the time machine too short, sending himself flying off and smashing his stupid face. Then he meets some Eloi, whom he immediately believes—apparently without a second or even a first thought at all—to be harmless creatures. Then, after surviving less than a day in the year 802,701, he loses the big, heavy, very hard-to-lose time machine, his only way back to his normal present time. He accidentally incites a frenzy among the Eloi as he looks for it, panicked. He grossly underestimates the distances he must travel to arm himself for the search, and then, once finally inside the Green Palace museum, he walks obliviously through darker and darker rooms, going underground toward Morlock territory somehow without noticing it. On his way back from this excursion, he starts a forest fire by accident and then, incredibly, falls asleep in the blazing forest. Weena, the only companion he manages to make in this future time, dies in this blaze, and it’s all his fault. After all this, one might expect him to have learned his lesson about underestimating his troubles, but no! He knowingly walks into a Morlock trap, self-assured that he has working matches to fend them off, and the matches do not work. He hadn’t tested them. He barely escapes to his normal present time. Then, having learned almost nothing, he goes time traveling again, and he gets himself stranded, apparently, and probably killed.

What glaring idiocy! Surely, I think, it must have been a thoughtful decision on the part of H. G. Wells to make his Time Traveler so completely devoid of common sense. Why did he do it? My theory is this: Every bone-headed mistake that the Time Traveler makes underscores the theme of modern man as over-confident in his mastery of the world and self-destructive in his obsessive pursuit of “progress.”

So the question is raised: What is progress? To the Time Traveler, the answer is unquestionably technological advancement. (Probably, most inventors would agree.) He is a characteristically industrious man, and so his role in the story is as a symbol for the whole industrial impulse of humanity. “Had I been a literary man,” he says on page 64, commenting on the ruins of a library that he found, “I might, perhaps, have moralized upon the futility of all ambition. But as it was, the thing that struck me with keenest force was the enormous waste of labour to which this sombre wilderness of rotting paper testified.”  Herein he reveals his fatal flaw.  He fails to even consider the moral implications of his discoveries.  He’s too busy thinking.  He’s like Gulliver, who, despite his incredible travels, never learns anything of use, because he’s too wrapped up in trying to keep a travelogue.  Wells even confesses a love for Jonathan Swift in his preface to the Time Machine, in fact (xxi).

The reason for the Time Traveler’s stupendous learning disability is that his head is over-filled with high-brow Victorian assumptions which crowd out all his common sense.  A full dedication to upward mobility, an overemphasis on the nobility of the dominant class, and a pervasive Anglo-centrism are three big parts of the Victorian attitude which he brings with him into the year 802,701.  Although he carries himself around at his fancy dinner party like he is one of the sophisticated, the noble, the beneficent, the enlightened, he still intends to carry Weena back to the nineteenth century whether she wants to come or not, just like the pillaging conquistadors had captured Native Americans hundreds of years before.  The blatant inhumanity of this action hardly seems to trouble him at all.

At one point, the Time Traveler laments, “I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been. It had committed suicide” (73).  What a beautifully artful throwback to the previous, shocking statement he made earlier, at the beginning of his tale: “I suppose a suicide who holds a pistol to his skull feels much the same wonder at what will come next as I felt then [as I prepared to activate the time machine]” (17). He, being so single-minded, becomes the cause of his own destruction. Likewise, the human race is the cause of its own decline as well. By the year 802,701, we will have mastered Nature, but sunk into idiotic complacency as a result.  The Time Traveler’s abandonment of his own common sense is the first symptom of this twisted recession.

The Morlocks, on the other hand—the descendants of the working class, of the non-intellectuals—will have retained some spark of intelligence, and will have triumphed as the smarter and stronger of the two divergent races. This turns the Victorian paradigm of savagery versus civility on its ear.

Speaking of savagery, the Time Traveler openly admits, “I longed very much to kill a Morlock or so,” and he does engage them with violence on several occasions (63). Yet, the narrator (the other narrator, the one who is not the Time Traveler) still makes the claim, at the end of the story, that “a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man” (86).  How blind can we be?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *