HG Wells The Time Machine and the Issue of Race

We can all agree on the classics, right? The classics are great pieces of literature that show us the true nature of the human condition. The classics are classics because their content stand the test of time. Right? Well, actually it’s not that easy.

Many of the classic literary works of our canon were written during time periods when the ethics, morals and values differed from ours. For example, the sexism of classic literature has been discussed on numerous occasions. But what about race?

Over at Book Riot, Amanda Nelson analyzed the issue of racism in classic literature, using the example of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Nelson points out that Gone with the Wind is a novel which portrays slavery as a non-problematic institution and the KKK as an organization valiantly defending the values of the South, something that is rarely mentioned when discussing the novel.

Nelson’s post falls in line with the thoughts I’ve had since I read the science fiction classic The Time Machine by HG Wells (1866–1946). The Time Machine (1895) is a story about a man simply called The Time Traveler, who has built a time machine. He arrives back from an adventure where he has visited the far future just in time to sit down and tell his friends about it over dinner at his house.

HG Wells (1890)
Source: Fredrick Hollyer/Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science

The Time Traveler tells his friends that he visited a future where a peaceful, docile people, called the Eloi, lived above ground, and a brutish, carniverous people, called the Morlocks, lived under ground. The Eloi lived in fear of the Morlocks who after dark would arrive on the surface to capture Eloi individuals, bring them down and devour them.

In his foreword to the Signet Classic edition of The Time Machine, Greg Bear chooses to interpret the relationship between the Eloi and the Morlocks as an expression of the Victorian class struggle:

For Victorian England, the picture of humanity divided into the diminutive, weak, and sun-dwelling Eloi and those technological dwellers in underground darkness, the Morlocks, must have seemed particularly grotesque— mirroring as it did the tottering class system: quite literally, Upstairs and Downstairs. (p. viii)

In one way, I agree with Bear that the relationship between the Eloi and the Morlocks can be interpreted as a class struggle. The idea of the time was that if the working classes are not kept in check they will rise to devour the middle and upper classes. Wells himself touches upon this theme when he lets The Time Traveler say out loud to himself that the future world he sees looks like Communism (p. 32).

Upstairs Downstairs (BBC, 1971–1975)

However, the way Wells describes the two groups makes it evident that the relationship between them is just as much about race, as it is about class. When The Time Traveler for the first time meets an Eloi, he describes the individual as follows.

He was a slight creature—perhaps four feet high […]. He struck me as being a very beautiful and graceful creature, but indescribably frail. His flushed face reminded me of the more beautiful kind of consumptive—that hectic beauty of which we used to hear so much. (p. 25)

Meanwhile, the Morlocks are described as dull-white monsters with greyish-red eyes that either runs on all fours or with their forearms very low. The Time Traveler describes them as something between a monkey and a human spider (p. 53) and later refers to the first Morlock he spotted as a Lemur (p. 54).

Just as well as the relationship between Eloi and Morlocks can be described as a class struggle, the relationship can also be described as the fear of the inferior creature rising to take revenge on the superior creature, an idea that is ingrained in racism as an ideology as well as in slavery as an institution. Whether we’re discussing class warfare or racial warfare, the only thing that prevents it from happening according to this way of thinking is the strength of the resolute white man. What Wells lets The Time Traveler see in the future is what will happen if that strength wavers.

So what do we do with The Time Machine? Do we throw it to the side because it is archaic and racist? No, I don’t think so. The Time Machine was first published in 1895, when Imperialism was at its peak. India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire and the agreement at Fashoda between France and Great Britian where the two nations divided Africa between them was only three years in the future.

In my opinion, The Time Machine by HG Wells can be called a classic for two reasons. First, the book is a groundbreaking work of science fiction that  in the twenty-first century still appeals to readers of the genre. Second, it is a document of the frame of mind of the Victorian Age at its height. It provides us with an opportunity to try and understand the world view of the citizens of the British Empire, a worldview that still to this day shapes the world we live in.

A Brief Explanation of the British Empire

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

HG Wells The Time Machine (Signet Classic, 2002)
Encyclopedia Britannica United Kingdom Late Victorian Britain
Book Riot Amanda Nelson Let’s Talk About Racism in the Classics

This post is featured at Suvudu Universe.

The Noble Prize for Literature Explained to the Non-Swede

Today, Alice Munro was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature. Munro is an exception to the criteria set up by Swedish comedy team Helt Apropå for an author to be eligible for the prize. According to this group of comedians an author can only be eligible for the prize if no one has heard of you, no one has read any of your work and no one knows how to pronounce your name properly. All kidding aside, the Nobel Prize for Literature is arguably the greatest literary prize in the world. But how many of you know why the prize is awarded and by whom?

The Nobel Prize for Literature is one of several prizes carrying the name of Nobel. The name Nobel comes from the founder of the prizes, Alfred Nobel (1833–1896), who made his fortune from the invention of dynamite. At age 9, Alfred moved with his mother and brothers to join his father who did business in Russia. Consequently, Alfred received his early schooling in St. Petersburg. Although his brother Ludvig, and for a time his brother Robert as well, stayed in Russia and developed a successful business in the Baku oil industry, Alfred returned to Sweden after their father’s business had gone bankrupt. In Sweden, he developed his invention that would eventually become dynamite.

Alfred Nobel
Source: Gösta Florman, Kungliga Biblioteket/The Royal Library

Alfred Nobel never married and he never had children. When he died in San Remo in Italy in 1896, he was a very wealthy man. In his last will and testament, Nobel decided to leave most of his fortune to a prize that would be awarded every year for physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. The Nobel Prize for Economics was founded in 1969 by the Swedish Central Bank, Riksbanken.

When it was made public, Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament proved to be quite controversial. One of the critics was King Oscar II (1872–1907), who was unhappy because the prize was open to people of all nationalities and not reserved for Swedes only. Another point of contention was the fact that the Nobel Peace Prize was to be awarded in Oslo. Between 1814 and 1905, Sweden and Norway were joined in a union. The union of the two countries was controversial and by placing the ceremony of the  Peace Prize in Oslo, Alfred Nobel took a public and ever-lasting stand in its favor.

The first Nobel Prizes were awarded on December 10, 1901. December 10 is the date of Alfred Nobel’s death.

Nobel Prize Ceremony, Stockholm (1938)
Source: Karl Sandels

In his will, Alfred Nobel states who should award the prizes. In the case of literature he chose Svenska Akademien, or the Swedish Academy. Svenska Akademien was one of several academies founded by King Gustav III (1771–1792). Modeled after the French academies of the Enlightenment era, the purpose of these academies was to promote knowledge.

Svenska Akademien was founded in 1786 and has eighteen members. The members are elected for life by the Academy itself. A Secretary is appointed to supervise day-to-day activities and to communicate with the outside world. It is the Secretary who makes the announcement of who has been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Currently, historian Peter Englund is the Academy’s Secretary. Englund is most famous for his best-selling book Poltava (1988), chronicling the Swedish army’s crushing defeat by the Russians in 1709 at the Battle of Poltava in the Ukraine.

Peter Englund at the announcement of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature
Source: Frankie Fouganthin

Once Svenska Akademien has reached a decision, the files are closed to the public for 50 years. Therefore, the discussions surrounding the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature and the true reason why Alice Munro was awarded this year’s prize will be made available in 2063.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Nationalencyklopedien Alfred Nobel
Nationalencyklopedien Nobelpris
Nationalencyklopedien Svenska Akademien

Images of Alfred Nobel,  Nobel Prize Ceremony and Peter Englund have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Ernest Hemingway Ate Dolphin

Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) is considered by many as one of the greatest American writers. His novels on World War I, the Spanish Civil War, bullfighting and big game hunting has helped to solidify a view of Hemingway as a man’s man who killed what he ate. A hamburger recipe, supposedly of Hemingway’s favorite, has circulated the internet and foodies and literary scholars alike have vowed to try it out in honor of this great writer. However, Hemingway not only ate cows with great delight, he also ate dolphin. Would you eat dolphin in his honor?

Ernest Hemingway (1950). Source: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was born in Oak Park, Illinois, but spent most of his life living elsewhere. From 1927 until the mid-1950s, Hemingway lived in Key West, Florida, and on Cuba. Here he wrote the novels A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, respectively. As a child he had learned how to hunt and fish and while he lived in Florida and Cuba, fishing was one of Hemingway’s pastimes. During World War II Hemingway outfitted his fishing boat with guns and explosives and patrolled the waters off the Cuban coast looking for enemy submarines.

Hemingway’s life in Florida and Cuba lays the foundation for his Pulitzer Prize winning story, The Old Man and the Sea. The Old Man and the Sea is a story of the aging Cuban fisherman Santiago and his struggle to land a marlin.

EH 8264P
Ernest Hemingway (right) with a so-called “apple-cored” marlin, Bimini, 1935. This is probably what Santiago’s marlin looked like after the sharks go to it.
Source: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

The struggle with the fish takes Santiago far off the coast and he is forced to spend several nights in his boat with insufficient food and water. To survive Santiago fishes for dolphin. Hemingway describes the catching of a dolphin as follows:

Just before it was dark […] his small line was taken by a dolphin. [—] When the fish was at the stern, plunging and cutting from side to side in desperation, the old man leaned over the stern and lifted the burnished gold fish with its purple spots over the stern. […] it pounded the bottom of the skiff with its long flat body, its tail and its head until he clubbed it across the shining golden head until it shivered and was still. (p. 855)

The first time I read this, I did not think that much about the actual description of the animal Santiago had caught. I was more focused on the struggle. However, Hemingway clearly describes the dolphin as a golden fish. Confusing marine mammals, such as dolphins and whales, with fish is not uncommon in literature. Throughout Moby Dick, Herman Melville refers to all whales, including the White Whale himself, as fish. The Biblical story of Noah and the Whale, in fact, is a story about a man named Noah who is swallowed by a fish. Would Hemingway make such a mistake?

No, he wouldn’t. And he didn’t. Which becomes evident in the description of Santiago cleaning the dolphin he just caught:

The stars were bright now and he saw the dolphin clearly and he pushed the back of his knife into his head and drew him out from under the stern. He put one of his feet on the fish and slit him quickly from the vent up to the tip of his lower jaw. Then he put his knife down and gutted him with his right hand, scooping him clean and pulling the gills clear. (p. 858)

The give-away is the last four words: “pulling the gills clear”. Hemingway is obviously not talking about a marine mammal since they do not have gills.

What Hemingway is talking about is a fish called mahi-mahi. The local name for this fish in South Florida is “dolphin”.

Mahi-mahi caught off the coast of Costa Rica

Mahi-mahi is found in temperate, sub-tropical and tropical waters all over the world, which can explain why the fish caught by Santiago in the Mexican Gulf has a Hawaiian name. Mahi-mahi in Hawaiian means “very strong”. The mahi-mahi are attracted to the seaweed Sargassum, which can be found in plenty around the Florida Keys. Incidentally, Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea repeatedly makes references to the Sargassum seen by Santiago from his fishing boat. The mahi-mahi is distinguished by its odd shaped head and dazzling colors. Or as Santiago puts it,

The dolphin looks green of course because he is really golden (p. 855)

Santiago, forced to eat the fish raw, also states that the dolphin tastes the best when cooked. So here is a recipe on blackened mahi-mahi, which is the way I prefer to prepare my dolphin.

Blackened Mahi-Mahi (or Dolphin)
Equal measures of
paprika powder
chili powder
ground coriander
ground garlic
Mixed with
one freshly squeezed lemon
olive oil

Smear it all over the mahi-mahi fillets and sear on both sides in a skillet.

Bon appetit!

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Ernest Hemingway Four Novels (Barnes & Noble, New York, 2007)

The images of Ernest Hemingway and the mahi-mahi have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.