Re-reading H.G. Wells' The Time Machine | Accurate Append

Re-reading H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine

As most people know, H.G. Wells was a utopian socialist. And, in many ways, we can legitimately call Wells’s famous novel, The Time Machine, a kind of late-steampunk, socialist fable—late steampunk because it depicts advanced technology arising from the limits and material context of mid-period industrial revolution and the early use of electricity. (For justifications for using early electricity in steampunk, see this post and also this one).  

But what makes The Time Machine explicitly socialist, apart from the known beliefs and aspirations of the author? In fact, its political undertones and overall theoretical approach may be what makes the novel most interesting. Wells writes about material transformation not just from the perspective of Jacobin reformism and high-minded utopianism. Rather, The Time Machine reveals not just socialist sentiment but Marxist analysis and it utilizes base-superstructure Marxist dialectical materialism to explain the evolution of two races—Eloi and Morlocks—in the year 802,701 AD. 

In the novel, the Time Traveler encounters the Eloi—fruit-eating, childlike with short attention spans, communal and mimicking the mannerisms of the upper class of Wells’s time. They’re depicted as very weak, both in strength and constitution. Later on in the novel, the Time Traveler encounters the Morlocks, who are stronger and smarter than the Eloi, but who manifest as outcasts and monsters. The Time Traveler decides that the Morlocks have served the Eloi as, the Marxist would say, the proletariat serves the bourgeoisie. But the upper class became so weak from its dependence on the workers that the upper class was eventually rendered inert and nearly helpless. Thus, thanks to the fruit-bearing trees abundantly growing wild (flora and fauna have overtaken the inert civilization), the Eloi can still eat without much effort, but they are also subject to being eaten—by the Morlocks. 

And the Morlocks do, literally, eat the rich. Accordingly, their bodies and society have formed out of their material conditions.

A great post on the Shadows of Light blog, a site devoted to utopian and dystopian fiction, describes these material antagonisms. Wells paints the Eloi as descendents of the English factory owners of his time, while the Morlocks

are the descendants of the poor factory workers who, having to work to survive, kept getting exiled out of the sunlight by the bourgeois until they had no choice but to live underground and adapt to the darkness. They ended up living in pitch blackness for so long that their bodies adapted until they no longer resembled normal humans.

The Eloi were physically transformed too—weakened from lack of need or stimulation, in many ways embodying Frederick Douglass’s (dialectical materialist) observation that “if there is no struggle there is no progress.” The Eloi don’t eat meat, but the Morlocks need to, because they’re actually doing work. So they eat the Eloi. And because they eat them, and given that the Eloi have lost any ability to exert influence over their circumstances, the relationship between the Morlock and the Eloi has transformed into something like ranchers (Morlocks) and cattle (Eloi). 

There is a transcendence here that manifests one of the principles of change found in Dialectical Materialism as a theory: the transformation of quantity into quality. Granted, this wasn’t a Leninist minority-driven revolution or a classic majority-driven revolution. There’s probably no conflict point where the proletariat had to overcome bourgeois hegemony through battle and bloodshed. Instead, the Morlocks gradually gained control over the Eloi by allowing (and in some way engineering) the culmination of the material and labor relationship already there. But whether sudden and apocalyptic, or gradual with countless slices and cuts into the micropolitical and cultural fabric over time, dialectical transformation involves some kind of violent disruption. Such violence is the only possible way to break from the violence embedded in existing oppressive structures in the first place. 

Finally, and notably, consider that the Eloi don’t know they’ve been overthrown. It is definitely time to reread this multilayered and fascinating work, with an eye to its socialist undertones. 

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