The Time Machine | Study Guide

H. G. Wells

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The Time Machine | Chapter 4 | Summary

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Summary

Soon, a group of about 8 to 10 "exquisite creatures" similar to the man surround the Time Traveller. They are uniformly small, with curly hair; large, mild eyes; and thin red lips. He tries to communicate. He points to himself, then the machine, then the sun. One of the little people makes a sound like thunder. The Time Traveller realizes the little person thinks the Time Traveller has come from the sun in a storm, and that the little person has the mental capacity of only about a five-year-old. The Time Traveller is disappointed, expecting that a civilization of the future would be far more intellectually advanced.

One of them puts a chain of flowers around his neck. The others run around laughing and gathering flowers to throw on him. They lead him to the nearby building. Entering through a tall arch decorated with what looks like "old Phoenician decorations," he notices that the building is dilapidated. In a long hall, tables are laden with fruits he does not recognize, although some look like raspberries or oranges. About 200 are dining there. Eating his fill, he reflects that the people seem frail, easily fatigued, and remarkably uncurious about him. Noticing that there are no small houses, just the large buildings, he decides that the group living arrangement means that the society must be communist.

Relaxing outside, he looks over verdant, unspoiled gardens, but there is no sign of human life. He speculates that what he is seeing is the result of "one triumph of a united humanity over Nature." There are no biting bugs, no contagious diseases, no signs of work or struggle, no wars, not even dangerous wild animals. But as the sun sets, he wonders if he isn't seeing "the sunset of mankind" as well. Once, he recalls, humankind had been "strong, energetic, and intelligent," but now there are only these small, weak, unintelligent people. After eons of struggle under "the new conditions of perfect comfort and security," there is only "languor and decay." Humans remain strong only with challenges, he concludes: "We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity."

Analysis

In 1516, Sir Thomas More, writing in Latin, described in the book Utopia an imaginary island with a perfect society. Since then, the name has come to stand for any pleasant, advanced society. However, the concept also has an opposite, a dystopia, a society that is dysfunctional, lawless, poor, unpleasant, and cruel. In Chapter 4, the Time Traveller begins to wonder just which kind of society he has stumbled into, for while the small people are pleasant and peaceful, they seem to have little energy, initiative, curiosity, ambition, or even intelligence.

Their huge buildings are in disrepair, and there are no signs of construction, implying that the structures were built by a previous people and the present beings do not have the capacity to either rebuild or improve them. As human beings have sought greater comfort, ease in daily living, more and better food, and even extinguished war, they have also made themselves less strong and less resourceful. Perhaps eventually they will just slide quietly into extinction, unable to fend, think, or act for themselves any longer.

Wells is satirizing that people's inclination to always look for greater leisure, advantages, possessions, and wealth suggests that, in an example of situational irony, they may not, in the long term, be improving their species as much as weakening it. Society has not moved forward but has reversed course. Another example of situational irony is that the Time Traveller has automatically assumed that "future" would mean "better." Wells suggests that this is not necessarily so. People must be careful what they wish for, and pay closer attention to the course of their society.

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