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Scholarly Editions: H.G. Wells' The Time Machine - Annotated with an Introduction

Excerpt from the Introduction

About The Time Machine

Publishing History

Although the publishing procedure of Wells’ later novels, thanks in large part to his burgeoning fame, was relatively rapid—they were written, typed and published quite quickly—The Time Machine underwent a more intensive series of drafts as Wells refined his craft. “The first of all time machines began its career” (Time Machine) as The Chronic Argonauts, a rather derivative work which was written in serial form from early April to early July of 1888 in the Royal College of Science student magazine, the Science Schools Journal. Wells later condemned The Chronic Argonauts and wrote that “I still jumbled both my prose and my story in an entirely incompetent fashion” (Experiment, 254). Although his stern criticism of the serial story was justified, the original version laid the groundwork for the later novel which was to make his reputation and ensure a sinecure for the young Wells.

Although The Chronic Argonauts became the first story to use an inventor-built machine to travel in time, the story itself was rather trite, with its ridiculously named “Dr. Moses Nebogipfel” as the mad scientist figure whose arcane work enrages the superstitious villagers who then attempt to attack him as he escapes into time. Like Hillyer in The Time Machine, The Chronic Argonauts uses a first person narrator who is merely a distancing device to report on Reverend Elijah Ulysses Cook’s abrupt return after a three weeks absence with a wild story about time travel using Nebogipfel’s machine.

Dismayed early on by the story, Wells cites his influence as being Hawthorne with his didactically moralistic stories and argued that “the prose was over-elaborate” and “the story is clumsily invented, and loaded with irrelevant sham significance” (Experiment in Autobiography, 254):

The time traveller, for example, is called Nebo-gipfel, though manifestly Mount Nebo had no business whatever in that history. There was no Promised Land ahead. And there is a lot of fuss about the hostility of a superstitious Welsh village to this Dr. Nebo-gipfel which was obviously just lifted into the tale from Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. And think of “Chronic” and “Argonauts” in the title! The ineptitude of this rococo title for a hard mathematical invention! I was over twenty-one and I still had my business to learn. I still jumbled both my prose and my story in an entirely incompetent fashion. If a young man of twenty-one were to bring me a story like the Chronic Argonauts for my advice to-day I do not think I should encourage him to go on writing. (Ibid).

Mercifully, for later fans of Wells, he was not discouraged by his story’s clumsiness, and later developed it into the famous final version of The Time Machine (1895), with the bulk of the re-visioning and new writing completed in 1894. Upon a request from William Ernest Henley for a contribution to the National Observer, Wells “resolved to do my very best for him and I dug up my peculiar treasure, my old idea of ‘time-travelling,’ from the Science Schools Journal and sent him in a couple of papers” (Ibid, 434):

He liked them and asked me to carry on the idea so as to give glimpses of the world of the future. This I was only too pleased to do, and altogether I developed the notion into seven papers between March and June. This was the second launching of the story that had begun in the Science Schools Journal as the Chronic Argonauts, but now nearly all the traces of Hawthorne[1] and English Babu[2] classicism had disappeared. (Ibid)

Before Wells could complete the series he imagined for the National Observer, it was sold, and under the new editorial direction Wells’ contract for Time Traveller papers discontinued. In his new position on the editorial board of The New Review, Henley requested that the story be written into a series. Wells immediately went to work on the text and after several drafts had The Time Machine ready for serial publication. He reports in his Experiment in Autobiography that Henley paid him a hundred pounds for the series, about ten thousand dollars, which amounted to more than his entire income from writing to that point. Before long Henley recommended the book to Heinemann, a publisher, and Wells received another fifty pounds for his first book-length fiction publication.

The similarities between the initial short story series and the final draft of The Time Machine are few but significant. The archetype of the scientist, in the form of Dr. Moses Nebogipfel, is replaced by the nameless Time Traveller, but retains the arrogant intellect implied by “his queer broad head.” The local people—much like the attendees at the Time Traveler’s table—cannot see “all round him; you always suspected some subtle reserve, some ingenuity in ambush, behind his lucid frankness” (Time Machine), although in the case of Nebogipfel that inspires them to attempt a lynching rather than garners him a show of respect.

The novel also keeps a similar narrator structure to relate and interpret the story, although in the novel he is given the name Hillyer and graced by a few other details. Hillyer has a meeting with “Richardson, the publisher” which makes him sound like a stand-in for Wells, but otherwise his personality is as bland as the nameless narrator from the earlier story. He does not have an identifiable profession and possesses no physical description or personality quirks that make him stand out as an individual. He expresses no real opinion of his own on the status of the Time Traveller’s story, although he reports the various attitudes of others. His opinions, or lack thereof, combine with the statements made by others, paradoxically, to make the science seem more legitimate for the readers. As the audience is slowly convinced, the reader, following the subject position constructed for them, follows along.

The time machine itself is a mechanical construct in both texts, rather than a Rip Van Winkle type of sleep, such as that of the hero of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000–1887 (1888). In many former tellings of such fantastic tales—and oddly Wells returns to this in his later utopian works—the protagonists are transported by almost magical means, but with the scientific revolution in full force, the reading public of the time was surrounded by scientific marvels and more than ready for a clever scientist who could accomplish what other authors had relegated to magic or the gods.[3]

Subsequent drafts of The Chronic Argonauts extended the initial voyage which is merely related in a few lines at the beginning of Rev. Cook’s story. Instead of disappearing into the ether of Cook’s inability to tell the rest of the story, in a second edit Cook comes back with the tale of the people of the far future. This allows Wells to examine contemporaneous class structures in the society of the distant future. He also writes of an attempt at a revolt that would not see light again until When the Sleeper Awakes (1910). In a still later edit, Cook and Nebogipfel are missing, the ruling classes reign by hypnotism, and it is one of the priests of this future world who turns against his fellows in order to start an abortive revolution.

As it was typically published, the final version of The Time Machine did not include a section from the eleventh chapter of the serial published in New Review (May 1895). Wells later had this deleted from the final copy of the book because he felt as though Henley’s enthusiasm for an illustration of “the ultimate degeneracy” of humanity did not suit what he was trying to do with the project.[4] This portion of the story was published separately and was subsequently referred to as “The Grey Man”.

The deleted text recounts an incident immediately after the Traveller’s escape from the Morlocks. He finds himself in the distant future of an unrecognisable Earth, populated with furry, hopping herbivores resembling small kangaroos. He stuns one with a rock, and realizes upon examination that it resembles humans too closely not to be the descendants of humans by way of either the Eloi, or more likely, the Morlocks.

I have included the deleted portion in this version of the novel, although I indicate the restored portion so that a reader may distinguish “The Grey Man” from the version that Wells initially envisioned.

Overview of the Novel

As a novella, or short novel, The Time Machine is what Wells called a scientific romance, or what we might refer to now as speculative fiction. Because of its brevity, Wells is not allowed much time for character development, but rather transports a relatively stable character to another time in order to track his reactions and therefore, our own. Both the Time Traveler and Weena, as the two principal characters in the main portion of the story, change little as the narrative progresses. The Time Traveller returns to his laboratory just as assured as he is at the first dinner where he discusses travel in the fourth dimension (although he now seems more concerned about the opinions of others), and Weena, although she is meagrely represented by the Time Traveller, seems to move from love to fear to death.

The novel employs a frame narrative, in that the story is told by Hillyer, a figure who does little to distinguish himself from any other character in the novel. As a retrospective narrator, Hillyer is charged with telling the story of the Time Traveller’s voyage, as it was related to him some three years earlier. Although initially the reader has the impression that the story takes place in the present of Hillyer’s experience, by the end of the novel we discover that the Time Traveller has been missing for three years and that is when the narrator chooses to return to the story.

Hillyer exists to relate and interpret the adventures of the Time Traveller and to inform the reader that he never returns. Hillyer’s influence is also felt on a few occasions in the text when the Time Traveller’s story is interrupted with an editorial intrusion which both reminds the reader of the circumstances of its delivery and adds to its perceived veracity. With Hillyer as the narrator, and thus the subject position we automatically assume, his scepticism becomes ours, with the corollary that when he is convinced, so are we.



[1] Although here Wells claims to be thinking of The Scarlet Letter, Bergonzi claims that “the mass hysteria of the villagers and the legacy of murder seem to owe more to the opening pages of The House of the Seven Gables” (30-1).

[2] The “regional varieties of English were considered ‘sub-standard’ and were often characterized as Babu English or Cheechee English, or simply labeled Indian or Ceylon English in a derogatory sense” (Kachru, Braj B. “English in South Asia.” Advances in the study of societal multilingualism 9 (1978): 477).

[3] In the late nineteenth century scientific experimentation took to the industrial stage. Charles Parsons developed the steam turbine in 1884, and a year later Karl Benz built a gasoline-powered car. Nikola Tesla patented the alternating current (AC) electric induction motor in 1888, and Joseph and Louis Lumiere invented movie projectors and opened the first movie theater in the 1890s; at the same time German engineer Rudolf Diesel developed his diesel engine. In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays and the electric bicycle is invented by Ogden Bolton.

[4] “In a letter of 1 April 1895 Henley wrote: ‘Our printers led me a dance last month which ended in the clapping on, against my will, of an extra chapter. Consequently, this last instalment is a little short: it runs in fact to less than nine pages. Have you any more ideas? I should be glad to have a little more for my last; and it may be that you would not be sorry either. Of course, it would be tommy-rot to write in for the sake of lengthening out; but I confess that, as it seems to me, at this point—with all time before you—you might very well give your fancy play, &, at the same time, oblige your editor. The Traveller’s stoppings might, for instance, begin some period earlier than they do, & he might even tell us about the last man & his female & the ultimate degeneracy of which they are the proof and the sign. Or—but you are a better hand at it than I! I will add (I) that I honestly believe that to amplify in some such sense will be to magnify the effect of the story; & (2) that I can give you a clear week for the work’” (Henley in Bergonzi, Bernard. “The Publication of The Time Machine 1894-5.” The Review of English Studies 11.41 (1960): 42-51).

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