The Early Frame and Science Fiction
H.G. Wells focuses invariably on what matters most to him in a story: the story itself. That is, Wells is concerned with the effect of a story on the reader. He is an eminent progenitor of science fiction, but his work makes clear that the human element — the Time Traveller as opposed to the Time Machine, the narrator’s reaction to portended doom, the closing moments of hope — is the driving force that reinvents science as literature. On this, Wells does not equivocate:
In all this type of story the living interest lies in their non – fantastic elements and not in the invention itself. They are appeals for human sympathy quite as much as any ‘sympathetic’ novel, and the fantastic element, the strange property or the strange world, is used only to throw up and intensify our natural reactions of wonder, fear or perplexity. (Wells 154)
What natural reaction, however, does Wells seek to evoke? And how does science fiction spark this particular reaction? Clearly he intends to produce an emotional response, but The Time Machine begins in a vastly different atmosphere from that in which it ends. It begins by immediately placing the reader in the action, though the action seems as dull as a fireside chat. It is crucial to note, however, that Wells uses unnamed or abstractly named characters because these “gaps” in the content are intended to be filled by the reader. When the Time Traveller speaks, he speaks on the page to “the Psychologist” (Well 5) or “the Provincial Mayor” (Wells 6), yet the form of direct address to “you,” an audience — from an expert in the field to those who understand nothing of that field — is meant precisely to ignite wonder in the reader.
“You must follow me carefully. I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted . . .
“I do not mean to ask you to accept anything without reasonable ground for it. You will soon admit as much as I need from you. You know of course that a mathematical line, a line of thickness nil, has no real existence. They taught you that? Neither has a mathematical plane. These things are mere abstractions.”
“That is all right,” said the Psychologist.
“Nor, having only length, breadth, and thickness, can a cube have a real existence.”
“There I object,” said Filby. “Of course a solid body may exist. All real things — ”
“So most people think. But wait a moment. Can an instantaneous cube exist?”
“Don’t follow you,” said Filby.
“Can a cube that does not last for any time at all, have a real existence?” (Wells 5)
If H.G. Wells is not the first to question the notion of time and existence, he is one of the first to put the question into a story that illuminates the possibility of an answer. In a broad way, The Time Machine fulfills and shapes the form of science fiction, of the fantastic, as a means of posing possible answers and giving meaning to those answers. The beginning of the novel begs the question to which the Time Traveller has the answer, and without the “living interest” of the fiction this question could as easily be challenged in an essay. Wells’ choice of form is deliberate. The Time Traveller goes on to demonstrate that he can indeed travel through the fourth dimension, but rather than develop the intricacies of time travel, Wells focuses on the dire possibilities the Time Traveller has introduced.
A Further Gap: The Time Traveller as a Void
I think that at that time none of us quite believed in the Time Machine. The fact is, the Time Traveller was one of those men who are too clever to be believed: you never felt that you saw all round him; you always suspected some subtle reserve, some ingenuity in ambush, behind his lucid frankness. Had Filby shown the model and explained the matter in the Time Traveller's words, we should have shown him far less scepticism. For we should have perceived his motives: a pork butcher could understand Filby. But the Time Traveller had more than a touch of whim among his elements, and we distrusted him. Things that would have made the fame of a less clever man seemed tricks in his hands. It is a mistake to do things too easily. The serious people who took him seriously never felt quite sure of his deportment: they were somehow aware that trusting their reputations for judgment with him was like furnishing a nursery with eggshell china. (Wells 12)
This passage exemplifies — perhaps more than any other in the novel — the notion that form not only frames content, but introduces its own. The narrator supplies information that, though ostensibly a brief description of the Time Traveller’s character, in fact reveals the central aspect of the novel: when the narrator divulges that the Time Traveller “had more than a touch of whim among his elements” and that no one could perceive the Time Traveller’s motives, he reveals that the Time Traveller is not meant to be understood. While not relegated completely to the status of a symbol, the Time Traveller nevertheless becomes a representation of an idea, though the nihilistic character he embodies does not emerge until the epilogue. Impossibly intelligent, mysterious, and possessing indecipherable motives, the Time Traveller is what Wells calls the “impossible hypothesis” (Wells 154). That is, he is part of the fantastic element of the work, his inner workings as mysterious as the components of the Time Machine. This passage establishes the frame narrator as the grounding, non – fantastic element — his narrative will later act in contraposition with the Time Traveller, for while the latter reveals facts, the former reveals what those facts mean for humanity. But if Wells were searching for this aspect of humanity, why make the main character of a work impenetrable?
Wells does not provide the reader with a character to emulate or adore because the work, as a whole, is not intended to demonstrate character. Rather, the reader’s focus should have wider scope. What is most important in the novel (structurally) is the interplay between frame and framed. There are essentially two main characters in The Time Machine, though the reader hears much of one voice and almost nothing of the other. The Time Traveller, despite occupying the majority of the work, illuminates little of himself that resonates with the reader. Much as the eight hundred thousand years of the future are too distant to connect to the present, the Time Traveller himself is too intelligent, too unreadable. The frame narrator cannot provide the hidden dimension — his purpose is to connect to the reader in the way that the Time Traveller cannot. The narrator interprets the framed narrative and responds with the very humanity so lacking in the Time Traveller. His lack of complete understanding (he has not seen the future with his own eyes) mirrors the ignorance of the reader. Yet the narrator is not meant to understand; he is meant to express his emotion. In this way, The Time Machine strives for a new “natural reaction” that has the power to resonate.
Epilogue: “Into the Manhood of the Race . . .”
One cannot choose but wonder. Will he ever return? It may be that he swept back into the past, and fell among the blood — drinking, hairy savages of the Age of Unpolished Stone; into the abysses of the Cretaceous Sea; or among the grotesque saurians, the huge reptilian brutes of the Jurassic times. He may even now — if I may use the phrase — be wandering on some plesiosaurus — haunted Oolitic coral reef, or beside the lonely saline seas of the Triassic Age. Or did he go forward, into one of the nearer ages, in which men are still men, but with the riddles of our own time answered and its wearisome problems solved? Into the manhood of the race: for I, for my own part, cannot think that these latter days of weak experiment, fragmentary theory, and mutual discord are indeed man's culminating time! I say, for my own part. He, I know — for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made — thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end. If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so. But to me the future is still black and blank — is a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places by the memory of his story. And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers — shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle — to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man. (Wells 71)
The epilogue leaves the reader with something far more than a bleak, barren vision of the future. Indeed, it uses the power of the dark view of the Time Traveller’s narrative to fuel its own purpose: closing with a sense of the human element. Acting despite the sure knowledge of the end of mankind, the narrator ends on a note of “gratitude and a mutual tenderness” — the frame counters the framed. Earlier the narrator intimates the unreadable motivations of the Time Traveller; here, he reveals that the seemingly impenetrable man “saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping . . . ” The dichotomy between the two characters is ever more prevalent, and the purpose emphatically clear. The narrator’s optimism rebuffs the Time Traveller’s nihilism. The Time Traveller never believed in humanity, his own theory proven when he travels into the future. But his reasons for his beliefs and his current thoughts are mysteries. He remains indecipherable. The narrator is the only opportunity for insight; the form — the frame — provides a way to interpret the Time Traveller’s story: a dark warning, but also a sense of purpose against what the Time Traveller views as futility.
The epilogue is steeped in ignorance and possibility. The Time Traveller is gone and the narrator is left with the worn remnants of an unbelievable story with an unbearable ending. What comes next even Wells does not know, for the possibilities are deliberately inexhaustible. Yet the story’s crucial aspect remains intact: the “living interest” (Wells 154) that is the dynamic relationship between frame and framed. The form of The Time Machine communicates more than the characters and dialogue. The possibilities of interpretation, however, are limitless. Perhaps the predicted doom can change? Or, in a darker world, perhaps the Time Traveller is right to believe in futility: perhaps the narrator — out of denial, out of fear, out of his “appeals for human sympathy” (Wells 154) — views humanity’s extinction as the unthinkable, “impossible hypothesis” (Wells 155).