Throughout The Time Machine, Wells shatters several common assumptions of human thought (for example, the belief in the inevitable progress of the species, the notion that technology will make human life better, and the insistence that people are at the center of the universe and will endure forever). However, two aspects of humanity whose value Wells does not question are the experience of fear and the ability to feel kindness. These qualities are roughly symbolized by the Eloi, who are peaceful and kind, and the Morlocks, who are strong and capable because of the hardship and fear with which they live.
For Wells, a large part of what makes humans special is their intelligence, ambition, and creativity, but Wells rejects the notion that these are qualities inherent to humankind. He writes, “It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble.” Since the Eloi live in a world without the motivating forces of adversity and fear (except for the threat of the Morlocks, before which the Eloi are helpless), the Eloi have become less than human. Conversely, the Morlocks (the descendants of the British poor) live in difficult conditions and are fearful of one another due to the practice of cannibalism. As such, the Morlocks are a much more capable (though less moral) species than the Eloi. This is a direct challenge to the kind of utopian thinking that would consider a world without struggle to be the ultimate achievement of humankind. If struggle and fear are part of what makes us human, then living in a utopia would, paradoxically, rob human beings of their defining characteristics. An ideal world for Wells, then, is one in which humans must work, strive, and take risks, but not to the point that they become depraved like the Morlocks.
Wells presents kindness as a characteristic even more definitive of human beings than fear. Indeed, the endurance of kindness is, perhaps, the only redemptive aspect to an otherwise bleak book. Wells writes in the epilogue (referring to the Time Traveller’s Eloi friend Weena’s kindness), that the narrator was comforted to know that in the future “even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.” This is a fitting ending for the book, as kindness is at the heart of the Time Traveller’s own mission. His trip into the future is not for the purposes of gaining power or wealth (which one could easily imagine as an alternate storyline), but rather for obtaining knowledge. Once the Time Traveller realizes the dark truth of the future, he returns to his own time in order to raise the alarm to the people who might have the power to effect meaningful change. This, itself, is an act of kindness and empathy on behalf of all people, and it embodies Wells’ idea that kindness is the quality that redeems humanity from its depravities.
It’s worth noting, too, that Wells wrote The Time Machine at a moment when Freud’s ideas of the subconscious were becoming widespread, and part of the eeriness of the world of 802,701 is its evocation of the human psyche. Above ground, which can be seen as a parallel to the conscious mind, the Eloi are kind and fun-loving and they live in harmony with one another. Underground, which parallels the subconscious, the Morlocks are depraved and cannibalistic. The structure of the world 802,701 (in which the Eloi and Morlocks are in conflict with one another but also interdependent) suggests that the kindness of the Eloi and the fear and depravity of the Morlocks are inseparable in the human psyche, which is another way of talking about the complexities of human nature.
Fear and Kindness ThemeTracker
Fear and Kindness Quotes in The Time Machine
What might appear when that hazy curtain was altogether withdrawn? What might not have happened to men? What if cruelty had grown into a common passion? What if in this interval the race had lost its manliness, and had developed into something inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful? I might seem some old-world savage animal, only the more dreadful and disgusting for our common likeness—a foul creature to be incontinently slain.
Seeing the ease and security in which these people were living, I felt this close resemblance between the sexes was after all what one would expect; for the strength of a man and the softness of a woman, the institution of the family, and the differentiation of occupations are mere militant necessities of an age of physical force…
For, by merely seeming fond of me, and showing in her weak, futile way that she cared for me, the little doll of a creature presently gave my return to the neighborhood of the White Sphinx almost the feeling of coming home.
But gradually the truth dawned on me: that Man had not remained one species, but had differentiated into two distinct animals: that my graceful children of the Upper-world were not the sole descendants of our generation, but that this bleached, obscene, nocturnal Thing, which had flashed before me, was also heir to all the ages.
The nemesis of the delicate ones was creeping on apace. Ages ago, thousands of generations ago, man had thrust his brother man out of the ease and the sunshine. And now that brother was coming back—changed! Already the Eloi had begun to learn one old lesson anew. They were becoming reacquainted with Fear.
Still, however helpless the little people in the presence of their mysterious Fear, I was differently constituted. I came out of this age of ours, this ripe prime of the human race, when Fear does not paralyse and mystery has lost its terrors.
Then I tried to preserve myself from the horror that was coming upon me by regarding it as a rigorous punishment of human selfishness. Man had been content to live in ease and delight upon the labours of his fellow-man, had taken Necessity as his watchword and excuse, and in the fullness of time Necessity had come home to him. I even tried a Carlyle-like scorn of this wretched aristocracy in decay. But this attitude of mind was impossible. However great their intellectual degradation, the Eloi had kept too much of the human form not to claim my sympathy, and to make me perforce a sharer in their degradation and their Fear.
I saw an inscription in some unknown character. I thought, rather foolishly, that Weena might help me to interpret this, but I only learned that the bare idea of writing had never entered her head. She always seemed to me, I fancy, more human than she was, perhaps because her affection was so human.
I understood now what the beauty of the Over-world people covered. Very pleasant was their day, as pleasant as the day of the cattle in the field. Like the cattle, they knew of no enemies and provided against no needs. And their end was the same.
It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers. So, as I see it, the Upper-world man had drifted towards his feeble prettiness, and the Under-world to mere mechanical industry.
Or did he go forward, into one of the nearer ages, in which men are still men, but with the riddles of our own time answered and its wearisome problems solved? Into the manhood of the race: for I, for my own part, cannot think that these latter days of weak experiment, fragmentary theory, and mutual discord are indeed man’s culminating time!
And I have before me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers—shriveled now, and brown and flat and brittle—to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.