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The Time Machine | Discussion Questions 11 - 20

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In The Time Machine, does H.G. Wells imply that a vegetarian diet is better than a carnivorous one?

Because the Eloi, who eat only fruits and vegetables, are peaceful, loving, and generally happy, and the Morlocks, who eat meat (namely Eloi) are savage and warlike, the reader might think that H.G. Wells is making an explicit statement in favor of a vegetarian diet. However, the Time Traveller makes it clear more than once that the Eloi are a weak, lost, decadent society. Unchallenged, they have become unintelligent, lackluster, and ineffective. While the vegetarian Eloi, unlike the Morlocks, cause no harm to others, their diet cannot be seen as contributing to their success or failure as a group. The preference for a vegetarian diet also creates a contrast with the Morlocks, who consume not only flesh but the flesh of a fellow species.

When the Time Traveller uses the word communism in Chapter 4 of The Time Machine, is he using it to condemn or approve the Elois' method of social organization?

The Time Traveller uses the word communism just once, when he first lands in the future and sees no individual houses but just large "palace-like buildings." Here, he discovers the Eloi eat and sleep together. However, while they may live communally, to be true communists they would have to share ownership of all property and work "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need," according to a phrase popularized by Karl Marx, a leading communist thinker. There is no description of the Elois' use of property. They have no apparent government or leaders, and they do not work. Because the Time Traveller does not admit to any political leaning one way or another, readers must conclude that he neither approves nor disapproves of their lifestyle politically. He is simply using the word communism as a descriptor.

In Chapter 4 of The Time Machine, what is the significance of the White Sphinx's smile?

A mythical beast combining features of several real creatures—lion, human, eagle—the Sphinx is an ancient fantastical creature. In Egyptian mythology the Sphinx, particularly the Great Sphinx of Giza, was believed to represent a lion god who sat at the entrance of the underworld. It was thus a figure of ominous power. In ancient Greek mythology, a famous Sphinx guarded the city of Thebes. If a person guessed its riddle—What has one voice but is four-, two-, and three-legged?—he survived. If he did not, he was strangled. (The answer is Man, as an infant, adult, and elder with a cane.) All in all, then, the White Sphinx is an ominous presence. His outspread wings, usually folded, suggest an unusual alertness as well. Originally, sphinxes were not shown with a smile. The smile of the White Sphinx is the so-called archaic smile from 6th-century BCE Greek art. It is believed to have originated in an effort to give a sense of life to inanimate marble statues, but because of its restraint, neither broad nor full, it has always had an enigmatic, Mona Lisa–like effect, as if the smiler were hiding a secret. This is the case with the White Sphinx which is, of course, covering up the fact that the Eloi–Morlock society is grim and cruel. Thus, it is an age-old sign of warning to the Time Traveller, who can sense it but not fully understand it.

In Chapters 4 and 5 of The Time Machine, the Time Traveller refers to being "puzzled." Why does Wells use this verb to develop larger themes?

Entering the abode of the Eloi, the Time Traveller is confused by the fruits and blooms he sees everywhere: "At first I was puzzled by all these strange fruits, and by the strange flowers I saw, but later I began to perceive their import." Another "thing puzzled me," he notes later, "and I was led to make a further remark, which puzzled me still more: that aged and infirm among this people there were none." The first of these issues is easy to resolve: the fruits at which the Time Traveller is looking are the staple food of the Eloi, while the flowers represent their childlike, playful nature. However, the fact that the Time Traveller does not see either old people, burial places, or crematoria points to the larger themes of class struggle and utopia and dystopia. No Eloi grow old because they are eaten by Morlocks before they can age out of their society.

How is the African visitor to London in Chapter 5 of The Time Machine similar to the Time Traveller?

Wells uses the African character to suggest ignorance. The Time Traveller mentions people of color when he is speaking about "visions of Utopias" in Chapter 5 to make the point that he could not hope to understand all the workings of a future civilization. He says he can only guess at the function of the strange circular wells he comes across. In his inability to understand the infrastructure, he compares himself to "a negro [sic], fresh from central Africa" who, visiting London for the first time, would encounter railroads, telephones, and telegraphs and have difficulty both understanding them and explaining them to others, as the Time Traveller is trying to do to his dinner guests. Furthermore, he and the African would have only a narrow gap separating their abilities to comprehend what they were seeing for the first time.

How does The Time Machine deal with issues of sexuality among the Eloi?

When the Time Traveller first encounters the Eloi, he notes a "close resemblance of the sexes." He remarks, "In all the differences of texture and bearing that now mark off the sexes from each other, these people of the future were alike." In Chapter 4, he also surmises that in this land (as far as he can tell) "where violence comes but rarely and off-spring are secure, there is less necessity—indeed there is no necessity—for an efficient family, and the specialization of the sexes with reference to their children's needs disappears." In short, the Eloi display somewhat androgynous features, which the Time Traveller sees as based on parenting styles. In this future society, traditional differentiations between masculinity and femininity are portrayed as irrelevant.

Why might Wells have chosen to call his novel The Time Machine and not The Time Traveller?

The time machine is only a vehicle for the visits in the story, so the book does not particularly hinge on the machine itself, its construction, or its mechanics. Rather, it is about what the Time Traveller discovers when he journeys. To modern readers, The Time Traveller could be seen as better touching on the work's human and social concerns. However, Wells was the first writer to explore the concept of time travel via a machine, and he coined the phrase time machine. His vision predated Einstein's theory of relativity, which posited a time–space continuum and provides a basis for possible time travel, by 10 years. His focus on the machine that made the time traveller's journeys possible was eye-opening to his readership.

Although The Time Machine is traditionally identified as science fiction, could a case be made for viewing it as a horror story?

Horror literature can include monsters of all sorts, including humans )such as Mr. Hyde of Stevenson's novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and supernatural creatures. It is suspense-driven and is meant to incite fear in the reader. The Time Machine can be said to qualify on these counts. The Eloi and Morlocks are like nothing presently alive on earth but "aliens" from time. There is plenty of suspense in wondering whether or not the Time Traveller will retrieve his machine and escape the Morlocks. Readers are likely to be fearful as they vicariously accompany the Time Traveller on, among other things, his descent into the dark, Morlock-filled subterranean tunnels.

What qualities make the Time Traveller a sympathetic, if flawed, character in The Time Machine?

The Time Traveller is a sympathetic character but a flawed one. He is the protagonist, so the reader is predisposed to be sympathetic toward him. He is clearly an intelligent man, as he explains the relationship between space and time while his dinner guests listen attentively. He is also an innovator and an inventor who has conceived and built a time machine—or rather, two (one large and one small). He is adventurous and brave as he sets off for a destination no one has ever visited before—the future—in a vehicle no one has ever driven before. He rescues and takes care of Weena. In short, he has many admirable qualities. On the other hand, he can panic easily, as when he discovers his time machine is missing. Attacking the Morlocks during the wildfire, he bludgeons one to death with an iron bar and cripples others as they are retreating. Readers might wonder if his violence is necessary and why, as an advanced scientist and highly capable man, he doesn't stay to help the Eloi. He is sympathetic, but not wholly.

What important errors does the Time Traveller make in The Time Machine that cause him problems?

The Time Traveller, while obviously a tremendously intelligent and creative inventor, nonetheless makes a number of critical mistakes, some of which nearly cost him his life. He does not advance gradually into the future, but thrusts himself so far forward he lands in a dangerous land. He fails to realize the threat of the Morlocks who steal his machine, and to recognize the weakness of the Eloi. He fails to bring a weapon with him on his journey for protection, or even a surplus of matches to light a number of fires. He does not secure his machine when he lands, so he loses it. He fails to bring a camera the first time, so he cannot record what he sees as evidence for people back home. Finally, he has to leave in such a hurry he can retrieve just two flowers as specimens to prove where he has been.

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