The Time Traveller and Weena leave the museum just before sunset, and the Time Traveller vows to walk as far as he can through the night and then sleep by the safety of a fire so that he can retrieve his time machine in the morning. However, as they reach the thick wood, the Time Traveller feels a sense of doom and exhaustion. Not understanding this to be a warning, he continues on into the darkness.
Once again, the Time Traveller does not know when to listen to his fear. When he ignores his fear in controlled circumstances—when he is alert and purposefully taking a risk in order to learn—it tends to pay off, but when he ignores his fear out of stubbornness or stupidity, it leads him astray.
Throughout the walk, the Time Traveller has been gathering sticks as tinder for the fire he and Weena will sleep by. As they walk through the woods, though, he feels the Morlocks close by and realizes that he cannot strike a match to keep them at bay without abandoning the wood. He puts down the wood and then decides that, in order to scare the Morlocks, he will light it on fire. The Time Traveller remarks that, at the time, he had no idea how foolish this plan was: they were in a forest that had not for a long time burned all of its natural kindling, so it was ripe for a fire.
Fire is another example of a “technology” that takes on both positive and negative roles depending on context. Light is the Time Traveller’s only weapon against the Morlocks, and light (via fire) brings knowledge through illumination— symbolically as well as literally. However, in this situation the fire turns dangerous. No technology is inherently good or bad—it all depends on how it is used.
For a while, the fire lights the Time Traveller’s walk and he and Weena have no need for matches. He is dimly aware of the fire spreading, but is not concerned. Finally, they reach an area that is dark enough for the Morlocks to appear, and when he feels them tugging at him he puts Weena down in order to strike a match. He struggles with the Morlocks, but they retreat once the match is lit, and in its light the Time Traveller sees that Weena has fainted. Picking her up, he realizes that he no longer knows which direction he should go.
Throughout this section, many of the reliable delineations between what is good or bad, safe or unsafe, break down. Light and fire now mean both safety and danger, as does the surface of the earth—in the darkness of the woods, the Morlocks are even more at home than the Time Traveller and Weena. When darkness and light are seen as metaphors for the conscious and unconscious mind, this passage comes to resonate with the momentum in the book towards complicating the view of human nature. The Time Traveller must realize that human society cannot evolve to favor only the traits he likes.
The Time Traveller decides to camp where he is for the night, since in the morning light he will have a better idea of which way to go. He gathers kindling, realizing just how dry this forest is, and lights a fire while watching the Morlocks’ eyes dotting the darkness. He figures he has an hour before he needs to replenish the fire, so he sits down and accidentally falls asleep.
The Time Traveller has made a series of bad decisions that could have been corrected if he had listened to his reasonable fears of the Morlocks and thought more deeply about the dangers of the forest. The Time Traveller, though generally rational and thoughtful, is not immune from folly.
Though it seemed only a moment since he closed his eyes, when the Time Traveller awakens everything is dark and the Morlocks are grabbing him. His match box is gone, and he panics, fearing death. Struggling with the Morlocks, he finds the iron bar and begins bashing them, killing the “human rats” and feeling strangely exulted and free.
Throughout the book, the Time Traveller praises the innovation, strength, and intellect that the necessity of coping with danger and fear produces. This passage makes undeniable the flip side of this: fear and danger also produce violence—even a love of violence—and can undermine those very qualities that the Time Traveller values.
The Morlocks retreat from the Time Traveller and are chattering nervously. Suddenly, the Time Traveller becomes aware that the darkness is becoming lighter and the Morlocks are fleeing. It is the fire that the Time Traveller started hours before, but it is now raging through the forest. The Time Traveller looks for Weena so he can flee with her, but she is gone, so he flees alone holding his iron bar.
The Time Traveller’s mistake in starting the fire has now come back to bite him; while he thought that the fire would be controllable and would lead him to safety, the natural conditions of the forest led to a different outcome. This echoes the ways in which the social conditions of Victorian England led to an outcome (the divergence and decay of the human species) that was different from what the Victorian era desired. It shows that it’s very hard to control the future and predict the ways a set of conditions will evolve.
Finally the Time Traveller emerges from the woods, and on the bare hillside he sees Morlocks running around in a blind panic. He strikes several of them before deciding to leave them in their helplessness. He sits on the hillside watching them, hoping he is having a nightmare, until day breaks.
As the danger from the Morlocks decreases, the Time Traveller finds himself able to stop being violent towards them. This suggests that the Time Traveller becomes more human in the absence of fear, a direct contradiction of the Time Traveller’s own idea that fear is essential to basic human traits. The Time Traveller isn’t deluded—it’s just that humans are full of contradictions.
The Time Traveller searches for Weena, but he cannot find her. He determines that she has died in the fire, and he is heartbroken but also relieved that she died without the Morlocks eating her. Exhausted and overwhelmed, he begins to walk back towards the Sphinx. As he walks, he discovers a few loose matches in his pocket that must have fallen out when the Morlocks took the box.
The fire saves the Time Traveller, but kills Weena—the fire has become emblematic of both progress/safety and danger/destruction, another example of the contradictions of technology. Weena’s death is also an example of the ways in which progress and discovery exact their price. There is always risk inherent to progress.