One of the frail beings looks at the Time Traveller and smiles, and the Time Traveller is taken by the being’s lack of fear. After the being makes some sounds that seem to be its language, the Time Traveller realizes that they cannot communicate. All of the creatures begin to touch him to make sure he is real, and the Time Traveller feels surprised that this is not at all threatening. The beings seem friendly, and, besides, they are so frail that he knows he could throw them off of him if he needed to.
The Time Traveller encounters the new beings cautiously, but is immediately put at ease by their apparent trust and benevolence. The Time Traveller considers them to be possible threats to himself—why wouldn’t he?—but he seems charmed by the fact that these beings have no similar fear of him. This, at first, seems like a good development for the future of mankind.
The Time Traveller unscrews the levers from his time machine but leaves the frame in the garden. He examines the beings more closely and notices that they don’t seem as interested in him as he had expected, and they have made no effort to communicate. The Time Traveller then realizes that these beings are not very smart—perhaps at the level of a five year old child—and he is sorely disappointed and surprised that mankind has not advanced in the hundreds of thousands of years since his own time. The Time Traveller gestures to indicate that he has come from the sun, and the beings begin to drape him in lovely flowers.
Since the beings showed him so much trust and kindness, the Time Traveller feels enough at ease to leave his time machine unattended—a cautionary tale about the perils of not feeling adequate fear. The Time Traveller’s quick realization of the intellectual inferiority of future humans is the first indication that all is not well in this new future. The description of the beings draping the Time Traveller with flowers is at once mocking and sweet. These beings are silly and helpless, but their kindness is apparent.
The beings lead the Time Traveller to a large building in which there are exotic flowers, fruits, and bushes, and an even larger group of the beings. The Time Traveller sits with the beings on cushions on the metal floor and feasts on the strange fruits. As he eats, the Time Traveller glances around the building and notices how dilapidated it is. The Time Traveller remarks, retrospectively, that these people were vegetarians, and cattle, sheep, pigs, and other animals had become extinct.
This passage reflects more on the changes of several hundred thousand years. The beings are humanlike but not quite human, the fruits are recognizable as fruits but still unfamiliar, and livestock is now extinct. This all points to Wells’ engagement with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which he references both directly and indirectly throughout the book. Here, Wells makes it clear to readers that this future is a direct evolution of the era in which the Time Traveller lives.
The Time Traveller decides to learn the language, and, through gestures, begins by asking the beings to name fruits. He notes that his language lessons had to be short because the beings would tire quickly. “I never met people more indolent or more easily fatigued,” he observes. Once again, the Time Traveller remarks on the surprising lack of interest that all these beings show in him.
The Time Traveller here demonstrates his signature curiosity and ambition—he wants to learn a strange language, and persists despite the reticence of his teachers. The Time Traveller’s commitment and intellect is a striking contrast to the laziness and lack of interest shown by the beings, making them again seem less than human.
The Time Traveller explores the landscape, trying to observe the details and make sense of them to determine what kind of society he has encountered. He finds some ruins, and then realizes that there are no individual houses: “the single house, and possibly even the household, had vanished,” which he takes to mean that the beings are communists. Supporting this belief, he realizes that everyone is dressed alike and even their features resemble one another, regardless of whether they are male or female.
That the Time Traveller is wandering around trying to collect observations and make sense of them reflects his scientific background, but it’s interesting that his first major observations are not about science, but about economics. The absence of households leads him to conclude that the beings are communists, which says more about the Time Traveller’s own era than it does about the future (he will later, as a good scientist should, adjust this assessment to fit new observations).
Noting the ease of the lives these beings lead, the Time Traveller remarks that it seemed only natural that distinctions between the sexes and the distinctions of individual families, which he sees as “necessities of an age of physical force,” would disappear. He reflects that these people must be the end products of the increasing ease in the Time Traveller’s own time with which people could meet their basic needs. He then remarks on how far this initial hypothesis is from the reality he later uncovered.
In Victorian England social class was paramount, so it makes sense that the Time Traveller would begin his inquiry into the new society by remarking on their lack of social hierarchy or even differentiation. The Time Traveller’s approval of the loss of class distinctions shows him to be troubled by the inequality that characterized his own era, and he is nearly willing to overlook these new beings’ stupidity and weakness when he considers that it might be a result of having solved the most pressing social problems of his time.
Reflecting on the landscape from a hilltop, the Time Traveller assembles his initial reflection on this society he has encountered. It is humanity “upon the wane,” he determines. The Time Traveller considers the paradox that, in his own time, the goal of society has been to make life easier and meet people’s needs, but that kind of security also breeds a kind of feebleness that characterizes the humanlike beings he has encountered, which he considers emblematic of the “sunset of mankind.”
Despite his excitement about the equality and ease of this society, the Time Traveller determines that this is not a species that is thriving or improving—these creatures are evidence (to the Time Traveller, at least) that humanity is withering.
The beings seem to be living an idyllic and easy life, in harmony with one another and the natural world, but the Time Traveller feels bittersweet about this society, even though it seems to be the realization of all the dreams of the Time Traveller’s own era. He reflects that entropy is the natural process of energy, and that, without struggles to sharpen human effort and intellect, it decays even to the point where there is no art. Even so, he thinks, why should there be strength and intellect when all of mankind’s problems have been solved? And then the Time Traveller retrospectively reflects that his explanation of this society was simple, and also very wrong.
The Time Traveller’s ambivalence about this idyllic and degenerate future shows his dueling values: does he prefer the kind of humanity that shares his curiosity and passion, or does he prefer a kind of humanity that is peaceful and placated? He seems to think that both cannot be true at once, positing that either humans must struggle and therefore maintain intellect, or live in peace and harmony and lose their unique capabilities. This mirrors many economic theories popular in the late nineteenth century, notably the debates over whether society was better served by free-market capitalism or a regulatory state.