The Time Machine, written in Britain in 1895, is the product of an era of great anxiety about social class and economic inequality. The industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had generated incredible wealth in Britain, but that wealth went almost entirely to the upper classes instead of being equally distributed to the lower-class workers whose labor was instrumental to industrial prosperity. Moreover, the economic writings of Karl Marx (who died just before The Time Machine was written) inspired widespread critique of the exploitation of the poor by the rich. This class anxiety of the late nineteenth century was particularly pronounced in Britain because of the rigidity of the social hierarchy there—it was very hard under any circumstances for a person to escape the conditions of the class into which they were born, which H. G. Wells, having grown up poor, knew well.
Thus, The Time Machine, though it is primarily set hundreds of thousands of years in the future, is truly a cautionary tale about the social conditions of Victorian England. This is most apparent in the differences between the Eloi and Morlocks, the two humanlike species of the year 802,701. The Eloi are the descendants of the British elite, who, through exploitation of the poor, have created living conditions so easy and idyllic that the species has actually regressed, losing the intelligence and strength that characterize present-day humans. Meanwhile the Morlocks, the descendants of the British working class, have toiled underground for so long that they’ve lost their ability to see in the daylight and have resorted to cannibalism. Wells uses the distinctions between these two species to posit that the divisions between social classes in Victorian England are so stark and harmful that they could lead the human species to split into two different species, each embodying some of the worst characteristics of humans. The fear and violence that characterizes the relationship between the Eloi and Morlocks is also meant to echo the tensions between workers and elites in Victorian Britain. Wells asks readers to consider that this relationship, if not reconciled, could evolve into something much nastier.
The very structure of the narrative of The Time Machine is also reflective of the theme of inequality. The Time Traveller recounts his journey into the future to a room full of social elites (an editor, doctor, journalist, psychologist, etc.), both because these are his friends and also because they are the people who have power to effect change in British society, and the Time Traveller expects his account to be impactful. While the Time Traveller is a respected scientist, he seems not quite at home in these circles: the others view him as an eccentric and he’s uncomfortable with servants (he “hates to have [them] waiting at dinner”). So the Time Traveller occupies a complicated class position that, perhaps, makes him uniquely suited to reflect on the class distinctions he encounters in the future. It’s also notable that, in Wells’ vision, even the Time Traveller’s movement hundreds of thousands of years in the future does not allow him to transcend his class. The Time Traveller is more at home with the Eloi than the Morlocks, just as he was socializing with elites in Victorian England. The science fiction world of 802,701 then, is a dystopian projection into the future based on inequality between Victorian social classes, but it is also simply an exaggeration for emphasis of the social conditions that were contemporary with Wells’ writing.
Inequality and Social Class ThemeTracker
Inequality and Social Class Quotes in The Time Machine
At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position.
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.
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 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!