H. G. Wells is one of those rare authors that you encounter where the more you read by him the more you want to read. I read The Time Machine for the first time a few weeks ago and I was not disappointed … in the writing quality. The racism kind of bummed me out.
The premise of the novel is an unnamed main character, the Time Traveler, relates his tale to a group of riveted gents, one of which tells us the story through recollection. The Time Traveler has, indeed, traveled forward in time to a period after mankind split into two species: the peaceful Eloi and the carnivorous Morlocks. He describes the Morlocks more like cannibals, but the fact of the matter is that the Eloi are like cattle, and the Morlocks don’t consume one another. While sentient, the Eloi do not feel empathy, and almost let Weena drown before the Time Traveler saves her. Weena dies anyway because of the Time Traveler’s actions (or inaction), don’t worry though, he doesn’t blame himself. She is small, innocent, and childlike, and the Time Traveler loves her in this oddly distant, distinctly 1800s way (the novel was published in 1895). Finally the Time Traveler leaves to travel into the future and describes the “sunset” of life on Earth in some of the most disturbing (and intentionally hellish) language I have ever read – it’s stunning actually. He then goes back to his own time, relates his tale, and leaves, never to return again.
Now on to the racism. When asking the gents to imagine the gap between himself and the Eloi/Morlocks in Chapter 5 the Time Traveler says: “Then, think how narrow the gap between a negro and a white man of our own times, and how wide the interval between myself and these of the Golden Age!” Okay well at least he said that the gap is narrow and he seems to be the “negro” in the metaphor. “Conceive the tale of London which a negro, fresh from Central Africa, would take back to his tribe!” Oh no. The phrase “fresh negro” just smacks of the slave trade doesn’t it? These are the only two times that the Time Traveler asks us to examine race, and I think it says more about him than it does about Wells (perhaps unintentionally). The Time Traveler has a hard time identifying with either the lazy Eloi or the bloodthirsty Morlocks, but settles on the Eloi because they aren’t trying to eat him (solid choice). Still, as much as he is horrified by it, the Morlocks are the inheritors of his legacy, which is shown through their connection to his time machine. The Traveler’s machine is his driving force and life’s work, the Morlocks smartly abduct it immediately, and even use it as bait when they try to trap him. What he notices after his escape is that they have meticulously cleaned and oiled the machine, lovingly trying to figure out how it works (a time traveling Morlock is certainly an awful idea) because they, too, revere mechanics. Additionally, while skin color isn’t discussed often, the Morlocks are white. White hair, pink and gray eyes, every description of them is dripping with whiteness. I think this is expressing a horror about race that the Time Traveler, or Wells, is trying to suppress (much like in Poe’s Pym). When the whites take over, the world becomes a blood-drenched hell scape.
It’s a theory anyway.
As desperately as I want to teach this novella, I am not sure that I can get students to understand the reading of race that I outlined above. Students want to see themselves in texts, and if the “fresh negro” is the closest person to you in a book, you will rightfully hate that f-ing book. I realized too late with Gatsby that the reason they hated it was because I didn’t handle the racism properly. They saw Tom as someone who had everything they wanted: wealth, status, power, and the ability to act on his whims with impunity. He had what they wanted and they (incorrectly) looked up to him, so when he waxed poetic about the “colored empires” they turned on him and the entire novel.
Still, I have a lot of faith in my Literature in the Media students, so I might give this text a go this year. It is brilliant and the supplementary resources would be some of the most exciting (I am extremely interested in time).
Since I’ve officially derailed I would love to hear any thoughts you have! Discuss …