The Descent of Man: H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine

Did you know that H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is a cautionary tale about the evils that will follow if we don’t start sterilizing or killing the weaker members of society?  It came as a surprise to me, though I had some vague notion that Wells had dabbled in eugenics.  His idea is that material advances will increasingly remove selection pressures that favor physical strength and mental acuity.  Given time, the lower orders will turn into the repulsive Morlocks, and the aristocracy will become the cuter but equally wimpy and moronic Eloi.  Our hero, the unnamed Time Traveler, considers both subhuman.  (If Wells had workshopped his book, someone might have suggested that he give his characters names, and maybe that he not begin a novella with a long lecture on time as the fourth dimension.)

The question how natural selection is changed in a broadly prosperous society could actually be an interesting one if it had not been made untouchable by the bright ideas of people like Wells, Galton, and their soulmates in the Third Reich.  But even more striking than the nastiness of the eugenic ideas in The Time Machine is Wells’ inability to follow through on his own logic.

Our hero, TT, is a specimen of humanity “in its prime,” a guy who can build a time machine and also enjoys cracking skulls with a crowbar, definitely the sort who in H.G.’s view should be allowed to reproduce (OK, this isn’t going to work, I need a name: let’s call him Timmy Tucker).  But in terms of survival skills, Timmy makes your average Neanderthal look like McGyver.  Here’s the situation: he’s planning an expedition to look for useful stuff, but is worried about the Morlocks, who are vicious and like to eat the Eloi, but rather slow and feeble, don’t like the day, and are terrified of fire.  Here’s how Timmy approaoches the problem:

1)       He takes along his Eloi girlfriend Weena, who is every Victorian man’s ideal woman: a wispy, helpless, dimwitted but affectionate blonde with the body of a 9-year-old and the brain of a 3-year-old.  She often has to be carried, which is super helpful.

2)      As night approaches and he is still far from his destination, he walks past several of the buildings that the Eloi use for shelter, but it never occurs to him to go into one, deciding instead to spend the night cowering on an exposed hillside.  Makes you wonder who really has the brain of a 3-year-old.

3)      The next day he reaches what turns out to be a museum, and spends the day puttering around rather pointlessly.  As the afternoon wanes, he is possessed by a new urgency.  Having found some matches and camphor, he decides to make some torches and find a defensible corner of the museum to wait out the night….er, no, of course not, he decides to start walking home in the dark.

4)      To his credit, he gathers wood for a campfire, something that would be sure to keep the Morlocks at bay, since even a match makes them cower.  But he finds that he cannot carry the firewood and also his favorite crowbar (sadly, it was not the Museum of Backpacks and Wheelbarrows).  So he stops and builds a fire…and then WALKS AWAY FROM IT, ambling into the aforementioned dark forest with his tasty and trusting Weena.  At this point, the reader is wishing she had a crowbar.

Well, I won’t give away the ending…my point is that Timmy is a walking refutation of the idea that homo victorianus represents some sort of pinnacle of evolution.  If the eugenicists were allowed to select for people like Timmy, England would soon look like the Upper-Class Twit of the Year contest.

And when it comes to choosing between Eloi and Morlocks, Timmy and Wells show their true deepest allegiances.  From their pseudo-rational official perspective, in which ‘intelligence’ is valued, it’s no contest—the Morlocks, unlike the Eloi, show some ability to plan (they try to lure Timmy into a trap).  Unlike the Eloi, they have some facility with technology, and even show an interest in the time machine.  Timmy speculates that they are using the Eloi as livestock, and controlling their breeding.

In other words, the Morlocks are not only more ‘advanced’ in the terms of eugenicists, they are the eugenicists.  Yet Timmy is overcome with the desire to smash their brains out and manages to kill quite a few of them, though not as many as he would like—they are, to him, human rats.  The Eloi may be degenerates, but they’re our degenerates, descended from the right sort of people, and must be protected.  In the end, it’s all about class.

Which, come to think of it, is surprising—you’d expect it to be all about race, and at some level it surely is.  Wells has purged his future world of everybody but the (white) English, but his visceral revulsion for the Morlocks undoubtedly feeds on his intense racism; he believed, for example, that children of white men and black women were ugly and sickly and seldom lived long.  Perhaps predatory dark people were too scary to write about, and perhaps the sickly ultra-whiteness of the Morlocks is somehow a transformation of race, as Toni Morrison, I think, claims  uncanny  whiteness often is in 19th-century American fiction.

[I found good stuff on Wells and eugenics here:]


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12 Responses to The Descent of Man: H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine

  1. Megan Kasten says:

    And to think….my naive interpretation (which may or may not have been encouraged by a middle school teacher – I can’t remember that far back) was that he was making a commentary on our own prejudices. In my mind, the Eloi represented livestock (the big brown eyes of docile cows), and the Morlocks were farmers (the future version of us), and it was only our own proclivity to prefer visual beauty that caused us to root for the Eloi (and by extension, the self-absorbed narrator). Aw man, sometimes the truth sucks!

    • Roy says:

      I dunno, there is clearly a part of Wells that is sabotaging his eugenical propaganda. Your teacher’s interpetation is coherent enough, it all depends on whether you think Wells is sophisticated enough to be distancing himself from Timmy. I’m not sure I can give him that much credit.

      • Megan Kasten says:

        In retrospect, I have to begrudgingly agree with you. I don’t see the logic in deliberately sabotaging his own position, so it must have been inadvertent irony. Drat. I have no choice but to like him less now.

  2. Ann Foxen says:

    Get ready to hear from all the incensed three-year-olds, who will surely be offended by your suggestion that they don’t have more sense than Tucker Carlson (oh, wait, it was TT something): that they wouldn’t choose to come in out of the dark, or that they would wander into the nighttime forest, that they would not use their time in a museum purposefully, or that they would waste their time on friends who always wanted to be carried (that’s so one-year-old).

    Poor HG. It must be awful to write something that has all the world atwitter, only to have it sound supremely embarrassing a century later.

    • Megan Kasten says:

      Pfft. How many three-year-olds read Roy’s blog? Please. You’re no demographer.

    • Roy says:

      Oh, and when he leaves the campfire he’s just set, of course he starts a forest fire, which he ends up fleeing. Sheesh….maybe Wells really did mean for us to think he was a dork.

  3. Megan Kasten says:

    At least a 3-year-old would know to stop, drop, and roll.

  4. John says:

    This interpretation only works if you link Wells to eugenics; and Wells’ position on eugenics is neither so simple-minded as the writer implies, nor was it ever one of unconditional support. So all the above really amounts to is a very selective reading of Wells’ biography combined with a re-description of the text to make it seem foolish and absurd. The idea seems to be that because eugenics is morally suspect, then the novel must be a foolish one; but of course, that mixes up two different categories, and is as well an unreasonable argument, being essentially an emotional one that is as well ad hominem. It’s easy to make a tale look foolish; harder is to actually make an argument about what’s going on in the story.

    • Roy White says:

      Your reference to me in the 3rd person as “the writer” makes me think that you are misunderstanding the context. This is a blog, not the letters section of PMLA. I didn’t start out with the intent of doing a hatchet job on Wells and then resort to ‘biography’ as evidence that the novel is deficient. I came to the novel with high hopes, found it frustrating and lame in its social theorizing and, more importantly, its representation of humans and their actions, and went in search of some explanation that would help me understand why a smart guy like Wells would write such a silly book.
      Eugenics was (is?) an offense not merely against morality but against science. It was self-serving nujobbery even before the Nazis came along, So I’m glad to hear that Wells’ support was not unqualified, but it seems to me quite reasonable to mention that the author of a work of sociological fiction was inclined toward fraudulent sociological fads.

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