The Time Machine | Study Guide

H. G. Wells

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The Time Machine | Chapter 1 | Summary



As the book opens, an unnamed Narrator describes an after-dinner conversation among several men: the Time Traveller, who is also the host; a man named Filby, the Psychologist, a Very Young Man, the Medical Man, and the Provincial Mayor. The setting is a well-appointed suburban English house of the late 19th century in the London suburb of Richmond.

The Time Traveller explains that people can actually move around in time. For instance, people mentally travel through time by thinking back to a prior moment. If they can travel through space by going up in a balloon, for instance, why should they not someday be able to speed up or stop along "the Time-Dimension?" The men are skeptical. The Time Traveller calmly replies that he has "experimental verification"—actual proof, in other words. He shuffles off down a corridor to his laboratory, returning shortly with an unusual object. It is metallic, about the size of a "small clock." Placing it on a small table, he pulls up a chair and sits down before it. He explains that it is just a model for a larger time machine. It has a saddle, where a human being might sit, and two levers. One, he explains, is for traveling into the future. The other "reverses the motion." He asks the Psychologist to trigger it. The object spins, fades, and in an "eddy of faintly glittering brass and ivory," disappears.

The Medical Man asks the Time Traveller if he "seriously believes" that the little machine has really traveled through time. The Time Traveller says he does. He asks if the men would like to see the larger machine. They do, so he leads them down the hall to his laboratory. There they see the full-sized time machine, with parts "of nickel, parts of ivory, parts [that] had certainly been filed or sawn out of rock crystal." The Time Traveller announces, "I intend to explore Time. Is that plain? I was never more serious in my life." The group doesn't know what to make of what they have seen and heard. A skeptical Filby winks at the Narrator.


There are three typical narrative structures in fiction works: linear, circular, and frame. In the linear, a character progresses from one point to another, as in Romeo and Juliet, in which two teenagers fall in love, marry, and die. In the circular mode, a character may move along but in the end returns to where he started, as in The Lord of the Rings, where Frodo travels to many places and through many adventures but ultimately returns to Bag End. The Time Machine is an example of the frame narrative in which one story acts as a setting for another, like a frame holding a picture or a nesting doll inside another doll. The Narrator tells the story of two dinners and a meeting with his friend called the Time Traveller, in which the Time Traveler tells the story of his journey, which turns out, of course, to be to the important narrative.

The after-dinner story is almost a cliché of 19th-century English literature, particularly if the subject is going to be hard to believe. The darkness of evening or night lends a special tone of mystery and possibility that the harsh reality of broad daylight would not support. So, when the Time Traveller begins expressing his theories of time and space, the reader is already disarmed. His discussion, in any case, is only crudely "scientific." Wells has him express his theories just to have the reader consider the possibility of time travel. The little time machine serves a similar function. The reader can believe a toy can disappear. So it is less of a stretch to believe the full-sized machine that the reader encounters later might also work.

It is also significant that only one of the guests has an actual name, because the guests are supposed to represent various types of intellectual inquiry that could be expected to be relevant to the idea of time travel. There are two scientists, the Medical Man and the Psychologist, one to address biological, the other, mental, issues. The Very Young Man represents innocent, or innovative, youth. The Provincial Mayor, a government official, is there because much of the book deals with social issues. So in short, Wells gathers symbolic representatives from a variety of points of view in society and shows the reader the Time Traveller dazzling all of them with his theories and machines. This is all solid groundwork to get the reader to believe the fantastical story that he is about to tell. Symbolically, of course, they also represent the rational, questioning parts of people's brains that tell them they cannot travel through time. But because the gentlemen don't object all that much, the reader's own credulity is free to build.

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