Peter Firchow’s H.G. Wells’s Time Machine: In Search of Time Future and Time Past
The beginning of Firchow’s essay is entirely celebratory in nature. He praises Wells for his innovativeness and names The Time Machine as the progenitor of all time-travelling fiction and media. He claims that Wells’s innovations were as much literary as they were scientific. In comparison to the other time-travelling literature of the period, Wells stands alone in his narrative approach to time travel. Firchow cites the examples of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Firchow claims that previous authors, “do not bother to treat the actual journey in any realistic detail. On the contrary, they seem almost embarrassed by it, viewing time travel as more of an obstacle to be gotten over than as an integral part of their narratives. Firchow also claims that Wells was appealing to an audience with a craving to visit strange, exotic places, often under the threat of danger. This was a national zeitgeist that emerged with the close of British exploration and imperialism. Firchow also claims that the novel heavily influenced Joseph Conrad, who read the book at a young and impressionable age, into the writing of his famous exploration into the Congo, Heart of Darkness. Firchow also praises Wells for his use of normalcy in the setting of this fantastic journey. Having the story told in the clubroom leads readers towards their natural inclination towards the suspension of disbelief. Firchow also mentions Wells’ “deliberate, self-imposed constraint that distinguishes the scientific fantasy as developed and practiced by Wells from other sorts of fantasy. His aim is not so much to astound his readers with strange fictions as it is to work out logically and coherently how life would differ, given a single significant change.” Firchow credits Wells with the creation of the original concept of “novum” a term that we have worked a great deal with in class. What Firchow seems to gloss over is that The Time Machine is a novel that seems to contain two novums. There is first and foremost the introduction of the time machine as well as the splintering of the human race into two separate species, one light-dwelling, and one dark. Though throughout this essay, Firchow brings to light the many contributions Wells’s novel has made to literature, story-telling, and science fiction, it seems that he has spent so much time heaping the source material with laudations that he has left little room for true critical analysis.
Firchow, Peter, “H.G. Wells’s Time Machine: In Search of Time Future and Time Past.” The Midwest Quarterly. Copyright 2004 Pittsburg State University
Frank Scafellas’s The White Sphinx and “The Time Machine”
In Frank Scafella’s examination of The Time Machine, he focuses mostly on the looming white Sphinx building perched on a brass pedestal, central in the land of the Eloi. Scafella is firstly quick to point out the references to the Sphinx’s role in Greek Mythology. The story of Oedipus involves the titular character being questioned by a Sphinx on his way to Thebes. The Sphinx poses a riddle to Oedipus, asking, “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?” Oedipus is the first to solve this riddle, answering “man.” Solving the Sphinx’s riddle allows Oedipus to continue on his journey, and the riddle therefore holds contextual significance. Similarly, the Time Traveler is postured by the white Sphinx he encounters in 802,701 A.D. Scafella says that the Sphinx is asking a question regarding the nature of man, specifically, “Why is it the subjugation of Nature to human needs has led to atrophy of knowledge and intellect?” When not fending off Morlocks, the Traveler spends most of his time trying to answer this riddle.
Scafella continues his argument, saying that the Sphinx is “a statue, a symbol, a work of art,” along with the Sphinx being “a symbol of science.” Scafella plays with the ideas of an Eloi world created and overseen by the works of science and its symbols (the Sphinx), yet lacking any evidence of routine usage of scientific properties or abilities. The Eloi are living under the wings of the Sphinx but not having to answer any of its riddles.
I am very drawn to the article’s arguments. The Sphinx is one of the most mysterious aspects of the novel, grinning on its pedestal. Scafella does a fantastic job of aligning our view of the creature with the view of the Time Traveller, situated with Francis Bacon’s arguments. I am left wondering about Wells’ intentions with the white Sphinx; I wonder how much of Scafella’s argument was authorial intention.
Frank Scafella. “The White Sphinx and “The Time Machine” Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Nov., 1981), pp. 255-265. Web. 28 Oct. 2014. Published by: SF-TH Inc JSTOR.
Matthew Beaumont’s Red Sphinx: Mechanics of the Uncanny in ‘The Time Machine’
Matthew Beaumont’s piece Red Sphinx: Mechanics of the Uncanny in ‘The Time Machine’ explores the idea that the “estrangement effect generated by science fiction can be especially unsettling” by suggesting that not only are things going to be different at some distant future time, but that there already exists something that is different. In Beaumont’s words, “they are already different” (Beaumont, 230). Beaumont explores a couple different theories of the uncanny including Sigmund Freud’s popular explanation. By studying these works and applying it to Wells’s book The Time Machine, we begin to make sense of the eerie aspects of the novella in terms of its descriptions of Capitalist culture as well as the sense that Communism is impending—especially following the publishing of Marx’s Communist Manifesto.
Beaumont’s arguments are extensive, so I am going to focus on the first section of his work which discusses the modes of estrangement that H.G. Wells appears to be using in The Time Machine, specifically how it is uncanny that the future is already happening and that the world as we know it is “already mutating” and that “the agent of estrangement is not external to the present, but internal to it” (Beaumont, 230). What Beaumont is quoting here is Freud’s idea of defamiliarization, which means in essence that the year 802,701AD in The Time Machine is uncanny and creepy because it is familiar, but unfamiliar at the same time. Building on this argument, Beaumont goes on to say that things are eerie, uncanny, and unsettling when the reader is unsure of what is wrong, but is aware that something unfamiliar, or unheimlich, exists.
In terms of the plot of The Time Machine, Beaumont argues that “communism is a parasitic presence within capitalism” and that H.G. Wells has demonstrated this by showing that a communistic society has developed out of the bourgeois (who become the sickly-looking Eloi, which is creepy in and of itself) and the proletariat (the ape-like Morlocks) have been forced underground, driven there by inescapable capitalistic forces that allow the communistic society above-ground to thrive. Beaumont calls this phenomenon a “vision of a collapsing bourgeois society pregnant with an embryonic proletarian . . . political imaginary” (Beaumont, 233). Basically, the uncanny in the future world of H.G. Well’s The Time Machine is that this future is already present in our society—that is, communism has already taken root within capitalist society, and this future is impossible to avoid. In other words, “[communism’s] future fattens on the present” and “capitalist society is inhabited by the ‘real possibility’ of the communist future” (Beaumont, 233).
In summary, a major part of Beaumont’s argument and thesis focuses on Sigmund Freud’s popularly accepted theories on the uncanny and what makes things uncanny. He states that Freud underscores the uncanny as something that “emphasizes the obtrusion of the unconscious into conscious existence” and “denotes the sinister reappearance of the repressed past . . . in the present” (Beaumont, 230). Using this working definition of the uncanny, Beaumont argues that H.G. Wells seems to highlight that capitalism will be its own undoing. He states “the specter of communism is intrinsic to the contemporary class system” (Beaumont, 232). So, in the end, H.G. Wells uses this concept and feeling of the uncanny to his advantage within the story, and “[renders] the reader’s relation to history itself uncanny” Beaumont, 233). Basically, the novel is uncanny because everything that happens is familiar but is not denoted as such. H.G. Wells does not state specifically that the Eloi represent communism and the Morlocks represent failed capitalism within The Time Machine. Instead, he shows it, and relies on the reader to be conscious enough of what they know is real to become aware of the uncanny, or the known within the unknown.
Beaumont, Matthew. “Red Sphinx: Mechanics of the Uncanny in “The Time Machine”” Science Fiction Studies 33.2 (2006): 230-50. JSTOR. Web. 28 Oct. 2014. .