The Time Machine | Study Guide

H. G. Wells

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The Time Machine | Chapter 3 | Summary



The Time Traveller explains how he finished building his time machine at 10 o'clock that morning. Climbing in, he shoved a lever forward. The laboratory went dark. Suddenly it is night, then day, then night, then day again, in a series of rapid changes. The laboratory disappeared in a blur. The feeling of time traveling was "excessively unpleasant." As he continued to gain velocity, the passing nights and days became a single gray smear.

The lurching and swaying of the machine terrified him. It only added his to fear of stopping, but, contrarily, it also determined him to stop—now! As he hauled back on the second lever, the machine crashed. Looking around, he found himself on a little lawn. He noticed a tall statue nearby. Carved from white stone, it was a crouching sphinx, a mythical figure with the head of a man, the body of a lion, and the wings of an eagle. The dials on his machine tell him the year was 802,701.

He then tells the guests what he experienced. He sees huge buildings on a nearby hillside. They are ornate, "with intricate parapets and tall columns." For some reason he is suddenly very scared. He feels alone and vulnerable, "naked in a strange world." He compares himself to a bird in the air that knows a hawk is watching him from above, preparing to strike and kill him. He looks around and sees "a group of figures" wearing "rich soft robes," staring at him from a nearby building. Then he hears voices. Turning, he sees a man approaching. Only about four feet high, he is bareheaded, wearing a purple tunic with a leather belt and footwear like sandals. To the Time Traveller he seems beautiful and delicate, like a child.


Chapter 3 has two separate sections: the journey, or flight, of the time machine and its arrival at a different point in time. Wells makes the journey uncomfortable, even threatening, to add a convincingly greater sense of believability. The lurching of the machine contributes to the feeling of reality. The author also introduces the images of light and dark as the rapid exchange of night and day, and the references to the sun and moon makes the reader see the progress of the Time Traveller in time. Mystery and clarity rapidly switch places. What is comforting or scary? Good or bad? Both sides are here.

There is some ominous foreshadowing as solid bits of Earth lose their shape and firmness. Earth becomes liquid. Large buildings made of stone and steel are suddenly as insubstantial as dreams. The Time Traveller admits to a sense of foreboding as well as great curiosity. So far, no one in the book has talked about what another time might be like, only whether or not it is possible to get there. What if it is worse than the present? Much worse, in fact? For the first time, unpleasantness surfaces in the story. This fear is also present where and when he lands. The Time Traveller finds a lot of similarities to where he came from. There are grass, flowers, a blue sky, and warm air. These things are all pleasant and comforting. However, there is also a strange statue, the White Sphinx. This is an important symbol and a triple mystery.

The creature, like time travel, is a fantasy. There is no living earthly creature with the body of a lion, the head of a man, and the wings of an eagle. The White Sphinx symbolizes the strangeness and impossibility of the whole experience. Yet both the travel and the creature are real. The White Sphinx is also a triple mystery. First, what is it doing there? What does it mean? Second, why are its wings outstretched when usually sphinxes are shown with their wings folded? Third, the sphinx was associated with a riddle, a mystery, an enigma. Both ancient Greece and Egypt featured sphinxes. The famous Greek sphinx guarded the entrance to the city of Thebes. To pass, travelers had to answer the question, "What creature is both four, two, and three-legged?" The wrong answer meant strangulation and death. Only the great Oedipus answered correctly, "Man," crawling as a child, walking as an adult, and using a cane as an old man. Of course, the theme of the question and answer is all about time. The White Sphinx also bears a strange grin, the so-called archaic smile of ancient Greek statues, its function and meaning unknown to this day.

Ultimately, the presence of the White Sphinx means there is more to this land where the time machine has landed than meets the eye. With its deadly associations, the Sphinx is a clear warning. The apparently delightful little people that soon crowd around the Time Traveller are not the whole story. They are like children in height, dress, and behavior, but their presence is difficult to interpret. They may be characterized by innocence and simplicity; they may be characterized by immaturity and weakness.

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Questions for Chapter 3

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