The Time Machine | Study Guide

H. G. Wells

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The Time Machine | Chapter 12 | Summary



The Time Traveller returns, pointing out that as he approaches his laboratory in the present, he "seem[s] to see Hillyer (perhaps the Narrator) for a moment; but he passe[s] like a flash." He also notices that the machine sets down in a different place in the laboratory from which it started; it lands at the distance between where he first landed on the lawn and where the Morlocks moved the machine when they took it away. He washes, dines, and gathers his friends together to tell them his story. He does not, he says, expect them to believe him: "Take it as a lie—or a prophecy."

After a stunned silence, the Editor sarcastically remarks that it is sad the Time Traveller is not a fiction writer. The Time Traveller replies that he himself hardly believes what happened. Examining the flowers, the Medical Man notes that he has never seen anything with their biology before. Touching his forehead, the Time Traveller wonders aloud if what he experienced was only a dream. Leaping to his feet, he insists on confirming that there really is such a machine in his laboratory. The men follow him. The machine is indeed there, with bits of grass and dirt stuck to it. The Time Traveller then states unequivocally, "The story I told you was true."

The Narrator and the Editor share a cab home. The Editor thinks the story is a lie. The next morning, the Narrator, intrigued and not knowing what to think, returns to the Time Traveller's house. He finds him carrying a knapsack and a camera. He asks him point blank if he really travels through time: "Really and truly I do," the Time Traveller replies. He invites him to remain, to stay for lunch, in fact, but also to excuse him for half an hour while he leaves to travel, to gather and bring back specimens to prove it was—and is—all real.

After the Time Traveller disappears down the corridor to his laboratory, the Narrator suddenly remembers he has an appointment. He goes to the laboratory. There he sees "a ghostly, indistinct figure sitting in a whirling mass of black and brass." It is the Time Traveller and the time machine taking off. The Time Traveller never returns.


The key words in this chapter are in the Time Traveller's challenge to his listeners: to take his story as either "a lie or a prophecy." This could be Wells speaking to the reader through his character. On one level of course, the story is absolutely a lie. It is a novel, a work of fiction. On another level, he is also giving himself an out as a writer. The events are patently unbelievable. So, says the Time Traveller character, don't believe me; take the alternative explanation that the book is a prophecy.

There is a clear agenda for this novel beyond entertainment. Wells presents a bleak vision of the future in order to stimulate the reader to do something to prevent it. Clearly, the wealthy, educated upper class needs greater challenges and fewer opportunities to exploit the lower class. Just as clearly, the working class needs improvement of its living conditions and educational opportunities. To keep the two classes from diverging through millennia of evolution—both biological and social and as radically as the Eloi and the Morlocks do—changes must be made to bring the classes closer together.

Wells doesn't offer an actual vision of what an ideal society, a utopia, might look like—how, for instance, capital and labor might be shared or better balanced—although many thinkers in England and Europe at this time were gravitating toward communism (the Russian Revolution of 1917 was just a little over two decades away). Wells instead offers a grim vision of the present world gone in the wrong direction. It is a mark of his gifts as a writer that he manages to do so in the garb of an exciting story that was an instant hit with readers and continues as a classic today.

A final point that demonstrates the ambiguity of the story is the Narrator's role as witness. Critics have debated over both the veracity of his tale (recall that he is transcribing the Traveller's words) and his identity. Critic David Ketterer matter-of-factly states that "Hillyer" is none other than the Narrator. If this is the case, then it seems noteworthy that the Traveller sees the man who will eventually verify his actual story. It is as though the Traveller, in telling his story, is also acknowledging the importance of his friend the Narrator. At the same time, the ambiguity of the text can be seen in the Traveller's use of the word seem. He isn't sure he has seen "Hillyer," whoever that person might be. Another scholar, Nicholas Ruddick, points out that the name Hillyer is only mentioned once and could just as well be the Traveller's servant.

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