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

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