Science Fiction Studies

#10 = Volume 3, Part 3 = November 1976

Patrick Parrinder

News from Nowhere, The Time Machine and the Break-Up of Classical Realism

Critics of SF are understandably concerned with the integrity of the genre they study. Yet it is a commonplace that major works are often the fruit of an interaction of literary genres, brought about by particular historical pressures. Novels such as Don Quixote, Madame Bovary and Ulysses may be read as symptoms of cultural upheaval, parodying and rejecting whole classes of earlier fiction. My purpose is to suggest how this principle might be applied in the field of utopia and SF. While Morris’s News from Nowhere and Wells’s The Time Machine have many generic antecedents, their historical specificity will be revealed as that of conflicting and yet related responses to the break-up of classical realism at the end of the nineteenth century.1

Patrick Brantlinger describes News from Nowhere in a recent essay2 as "a conscious anti-novel, hostile to virtually every aspect of the great tradition of Victorian fiction." In a muted sense, such a comment might seem self-evident; Morris’s book is an acknowledged masterpiece of the "romance" genre which came to the fore as a conscious reaction against realistic fiction after about 1880. Yet News from Nowhere is radically unlike the work of Rider Haggard, R.L. Stevenson or their fellow-romancers in being a near-didactic expression of left-wing political beliefs. William Morris was a Communist, so that it is interesting to consider what might have been his reaction to Engels’ letter to Margaret Harkness (1888), with its unfavorable contrast of the "point blank socialist novel" or "Tendenzroman" to the "realism" of Balzac:

That Balzac thus was compelled to go against his own class sympathies and political prejudices, that he saw the necessity of the downfall of his favourite nobles, and described them as people deserving no better fate; and that he saw the real men of the future where, for the time being, they alone were to be found—that I consider one of the greatest triumphs of Realism, and one of the grandest features in old Balzac.3

It is not clear from the wording (the letter was written in English) whether Engels saw Balzac’s far-sightedness as a logical or an accidental product of the Realist movement which in his day extended to Flaubert, Zola, Turgenev, Tolstoy and George Eliot. Engels’ disparagement of Zola in this letter has led many Marxists to endorse Balzac’s technical achievement as a realist at the expense of his successors. Yet the passage might also be read as a tribute to Balzac’s social understanding and political integrity, without reference to any of the formal doctrines of realism. What is certain is that the "triumph" Balzac secured for the Realist school was in part a personal, moral triumph, based on his ability to discard his prejudices and see the true facts. Engels’s statement seems to draw on two senses of the term "realism," both of which originated in the nineteenth century. Nor, I think, is this coincidence of literary and political valuations accidental. The fiction of Stendhal, Balzac and Flaubert in particular is characterized by the systematic unmasking of bourgeois and romantic attitudes. In their political dimension, these novelists inherit a tradition of analysis going back to Machiavelli, and which is most evident in Stendhal, who was not a professional writer but an ex-administrator and diplomat. Harry Levin defines the realism of these novelists as a critical, negational mode in which "the truth is approximated by means of a satirical technique, by unmasking cant or debunking certain misconceptions."4 There are two processes suggested here: the writer’s own rejection of cant and ideology, and his "satirical technique." Both are common to many SF novels, including The Time Machine, although in terms of representational idiom these are the opposite of "realistic" works. News from Nowhere, on the other hand, is the utopian masterpiece of a writer who in his life went against his class sympathies and joined the "real men of the future," as Balzac did by implication in his books. Morris has this in common with Engels (who distrusted him personally). Hostile critics have seen his socialist works as merely a transposition of the longings for beauty, chivalry and vanquished greatness which inform his early poetry. As literary criticism this seems to me shallow. Nor do Morris’s political activities provide evidence of poetic escapism or refusal to face the facts. It was not by courtesy that he was eventually mourned as one of the stalwarts of the socialist movement.5

On the surface, News from Nowhere (1890) was a response to a utopia by a fellow-socialist—Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, published two years earlier. Morris reviewed it in The Commonweal, the weekly paper of the Socialist League, on 22 June 1889. He was appalled by the servility of Bellamy’s vision of the corporate state, and felt that the book was politically dangerous. He also noticed the subjectivity of the utopian form, its element of self-revelation. Whatever Bellamy’s intentions, his book was the expression of a typically Philistine, middle-class outlook. News from Nowhere was intended to provide a dynamic alternative to Bellamy’s model of socialist aspiration; a dream or vision which was ideologically superior as well as creative, organic and emotionally fulfilling where Bellamy’s was industrialized, mechanistic and stereotyped. Morris was strikingly successful in these aims. The conviction and resonance of his "utopian romance" speak, however, of deeper causes than the stimulus provided by Bellamy.

News from Nowhere is constructed around two basic images or topoi: the miraculous translation of the narrator into a better future (contrasted with the long historical struggle to build that future, as described in the chapter "How the Change Came"), and the journey up the Thames, which becomes a richly nostalgic passage towards an uncomplicated happiness—a happiness which proves to be a mirage, and which author and reader can only aspire to in the measure in which they take up the burden of the present. Only the first of these topoi is paralleled in Bellamy. The second points in a quite different direction. News from Nowhere is a dream taking place within a frame of mundane political life—the meeting at which "there were six persons present, and consequently six sections of the party were represented, four of which had strong but divergent Anarchist opinions" (§1). The dream is only potentially a symbol of reality, since there is no pseudoscientific "necessity" that things will evolve in this way. The frame occasions a gentle didacticism (in dreams begin responsibilities), but also a degree of self-consciousness about the narrative art. "Guest," the narrator, is both a third person ("our friend") and Morris himself; the change from third-to first-person narration is made at the end of the opening chapter. Morris’s subtitle, furthermore, refers to the story as a "Utopian Romance." Many objections which have been made to the book reflect the reader’s discomfiture when asked to seriously imagine a world in which enjoyment and leisure are not paid for in the coin of other people’s oppression and suffering. It could be argued that Morris should not have attempted it—any more than Milton in Paradise Lost should have attempted the task of justifying the ways of God to men. Morris, however, held a view of the relation of art to politics which emphatically endorsed the project of imagining Nowhere.

One of his guises is that of a self-proclaimed escapist: "Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time,/Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?" News from Nowhere stands apart from these lines from The Earthly Paradise (1868-70), as well as from the majority of Morris’s prose romances. Together with A Dream of John Ball (1888) it was addressed to a socialist audience and serialized in The Commonweal. News from Nowhere retains some of the coloration of John Ball’s medieval setting, but, for a Victorian, radical medievalism could serve as an "estranging," subversive technique. Two of the major diagnoses of industrial civilization, Carlyle’s Past and Present and Ruskin’s essay "The Nature of Gothic," bear witness to the power of such medievalist imagination. Morris’s own influential lectures on art derive from "The Nature of Gothic," and are strenuous attempts to "set the crooked straight" even at the cost of violent revolution and the destruction of the hierarchical and predominantly "literary" art of the bourgeoisie.6 It is easy to find gaps between his theory of culture and his practice in literature and the decorative arts.7 Nonetheless, his attack on middle-class art finds important expression in News from Nowhere, which is an attempt to reawaken those aspirations in the working class which have been deadened and stultified under capitalism. Genuine art for Morris does more than merely reflect an impoverished life back to the reader: "It is the province of art to set the true ideal of a full and reasonable life before [the worker], a life to which the perception and creation of beauty, the enjoyment of real pleasure that is, shall be felt to be as necessary to man as his daily bread."8 News from Nowhere, however deficient in political science, is a moving and convincing picture of a community of individuals living full and reasonable lives. The "enjoyment of real pleasure" begins when the narrator wakes on a sunny summer morning, steps out of his Thames-side house and meets the boat-man who, refusing payment, takes him for a leisurely trip on the river.

Morris’s attack on the shoddiness of Victorian design and the separation of high art from popular art was pressed home in his lectures. In News from Nowhere he turns his attention to another product of the same ethos—the Victorian novel. Guest’s girlfriend, Ellen, tells him that there is "something loathsome" about nineteenth-century novelists.

Some of them, indeed, do here and there show some feeling for those whom the history-books call "poor," and of the misery of whose lives we have some inkling; but presently they give it up, and towards the end of the story we must be contented to see the hero and heroine living happily in an island of bliss on other people’s troubles; and that after a long series of sham troubles (or mostly sham) of their own making, illustrated by dreary introspective nonsense about their feelings and aspirations, and all the rest of it; while the world must even then have gone on its way, and dug and sewed and baked and carpentered round about these useless—animals. [§22]

Morris introduced his poem The Earthly Paradise as the tale of an "isle of bliss" amid the "beating of the steely sea"; but the "hero and heroine" evoked by Ellen are also clearly from Dickens. (The "dreary introspective nonsense" might be George Eliot’s.) Guest is seen by the Nowherians as an emissary from the land of Dickens (§19). Both Morris and Bellamy shared the general belief that future generations would understand the Victorian period through Dickens’s works. In Looking Backward, Dr Leete is the spokesman for a more bourgeois posterity:

Judged by our standard, he [Dickens] overtops all the writers of his age, not because his literary genius was highest, but because his great heart beat for the poor, because he made the cause of the victims of society his own, and devoted his pen to exposing its cruelties and shams. No man of his time did so much as he to turn men’s minds to the wrong and wretchedness of the old order of things, and open their eyes to the necessity of the great change that was coming, although he himself did not clearly foresee it. [§13]

Not only Morris would have found this "Philistine." But Morris’s Ellen and Bellamy’s Dr Leete are on opposite sides in the ideological debate about Dickens’s value, which continues to this day. One of the earliest critics to register Dickens’s ambiguity was Ruskin, who denounced Bleak House as an expression of the corruption of industrial society, while praising Hard Times for its harshly truthful picture of the same society.10 Morris, too, was divided in his response. When asked to list the world’s hundred best books, he came up with 54 names which included Dickens as the foremost contemporary novelist. The list was dominated by the "folk bibles"—traditional epics, folktales and fairy tales—which he drew upon in his romances.11 Dickens’s humour and fantasy appealed to the hearty, extrovert side of Morris stressed by his non-socialist friends and biographers.12 Yet he also reprinted the "Podsnap" chapter of Our Mutual Friend in The Commonweal,13 and inveighed against Podsnappery and the "counting-house on the top of a cinder-heap" in his essay "How I Became a Socialist." It is the world of the counting-house on the cinder-heap—the world of Our Mutual Friend—whose negation Morris set out to present in News from Nowhere.

Not only do the words "our friend" identify Guest on the opening page, but one of the earliest characters Morris introduces is Henry Johnson, nicknamed Boffin or the "Golden Dustman" in honour of a Dickensian forebear. Mr. Boffin in Our Mutual Friend is a legacy-holder earnestly acquiring some culture at the hands of the unscrupulous Silas Wegg; Morris’s Golden Dustman really is both a cultured man and a dustman, and is leading a "full and reasonable life." He has a Dickensian eccentricity, quite frequent among the Nowherians and a token of the individuality their society fosters. This character, I would suggest, is strategically placed to insinuate the wider relation of Morris’s "Utopian Romance" to nineteenth-century fiction.

The tone of News from Nowhere is set by Guest’s initial outing on the Thames. Going to bed in mid-winter, he wakes to his boat-trip on an early morning in high summer. The water is clear, not muddy, and the bridge beneath which he rows is not of iron construction but a medieval creation resembling the Ponte Vecchio or the twelfth-century London Bridge. The boatman lacks the stigmata of the "working man" and looks amazed when Guest offers him money. This boat-trip is a negative counterpart to the opening chapter of Our Mutual Friend, in which Gaffer Hexam, a predatory Thames waterman, and his daughter Lizzie are disclosed rowing on the river at dusk on an autumn evening. Southwark and London Bridges, made of iron and stone respectively, tower above them. The water is slimy and oozy, the boat is caked with mud and the two people are looking for the floating corpses of suicides which provide a regular, indeed a nightly, source of livelihood. Dickens created no more horrifying image of city life. His scavengers inaugurate a tale of murderousness, conspiracy and bitter class-jealousy. Morris’s utopian waterman, by contrast, guides his Guest through a classless world in which creativity and a calm Epicureanism flourish.

Two further Dickensian parallels centre upon the setting of the river. The Houses of Parliament in News from Nowhere have been turned into the Dung Market, a storage place for manure. Dickens scrupulously avoids the explicitly excremental, but in Hard Times he calls Parliament the "national cinder-heap," and a reference to the sinister dust-heaps of Our Mutual Friend may also be detected both here and in "How I Became a Socialist." It seems the Nowherians have put the home of windbags and scavengers to its proper purpose. In the second half of News from Nowhere, Guest journeys up-river with a party of friends; this, again, perhaps recalls the furtive and murderous journey of Bradley Headstone along the same route. Headstone tracks down Eugene Wrayburn, his rival for the love of Lizzie Hexam. Guest’s love for Ellen, by contrast, flourishes among friends who are free from sexual jealousy. Yet jealousy has not disappeared altogether, for at Mapledurham the travelers hear of a quarrel in which a jilted lover attacked his rival with an axe (§24). Shortly afterwards, we meet the Obstinate Refusers, whose abstention from the haymaking is likened to that of Dickensian characters refusing to celebrate Christmas. Even in the high summer of Nowhere, the dark shadow of Dickens is occasionally present, preparing for the black cloud at the end of the book under which Guest returns to the nineteenth century.

News from Nowhere has a series of deliberate echoes of Dickens’s work, and especially of Our Mutual Friend. Such echoes sharpen the reader’s sense of a miraculous translation into the future. In chapters 17 and 18 the miracle is "explained" by Hammond’s narrative of the political genesis of Nowhere—a narrative which recalls the historiographical aims of novelists such as Scott, Disraeli and George Eliot. These elements of future history and Dickensian pastiche show Morris subsuming and rejecting the tradition of Victorian fiction and historiography. The same process guides his depiction of the kinds of individual and social relationships which constitute the ideal of a "full and reasonable life." Raymond Williams has defined the achievement of classical realism in terms of the balance it maintains between social and personal existence: "It offers a valuing of a whole way of life, a society that is larger than any of the individuals composing it, and at the same time valuing creations of human beings who, while belonging to and affected by and helping to define this way of life, are also, in their own terms, absolute ends in themselves. Neither element, neither the society nor the individual, is there as a priority."14 SF and utopian fiction are notorious for their failure to maintain such a balance. But the achievement that Williams celebrates should be regarded, in my view, not as an artistic unity so much as a coalition of divergent interests. Coalitions are produced by the pressures of history; by the same pressures they fall apart. In mid-Victorian fiction, the individual life is repeatedly defined and valued in terms of its antithesis to the crowd, or mass society. The happiness of Dickens’s Little Dorrit and Clennam is finally engulfed by the noise of the streets; characters like George Eliot’s Lydgate and Gwendolen Harleth are proud individuals struggling to keep apart from the mass, while their creator sets out to record the "whisper in the roar of hurrying existence."15 The looming threat of society in these novels is weighed against the possibility of spiritual growth. George Eliot portrays the mental struggles of characters who are, in the worldly sense, failures. She cannot portray them achieving social success commensurate with their gifts, so that even at her greatest her social range remains determinedly "provincial" and she can define her characters’ limitations with the finality of an obituarist. She cannot show the source of change, only its effects and the way it is resisted. Dickens’s despair at the irreducible face of society led him in his later works to fantasize it, portraying it as throttled by monstrous institutions and presided over by spirits and demons. His heroes and heroines are safe from the monstrous tentacles only in their "island of bliss." One reason why Dickens’s domestic scenes are so overloaded with sentimental significance is that here his thwarted utopian instincts were forced to seek outlet. The house as a miniature paradise offsets the hell of a society.

It should not be surprising that a novelist such as Dickens possessed elements of a fantastic and utopian vision.16 They are distorted and disjointed elements, whereas Morris in News from Nowhere takes similar elements and reunites them in a pure and uncomplex whole. Several of his individual characters display a Dickensian eccentricity, and they all have the instant capacity for mutual recognition and trust which Dickens’s good characters show. Yet this mutual trust is all-embracing; it no longer defines who you are, since it extends to everybody, even the most casual acquaintances (Hammond, the social philosopher of Nowhere, explains that there are no longer any criminal classes, since crimes are not the work of fugitive outcasts but the "errors of friends" [§12]). Guest’s sense of estrangement in Nowhere is most vivid in the early scenes where he is shown round London. Not only has the city become a garden suburb and the crowds thinned out, but the people he meets are instinctively friendly, responding immediately to a stranger’s glance. They are the antithesis of Dickens’s crowds of the "noisy and the eager and the arrogant and the forward and the vain," which "fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar."17 The friendly crowd is such a paradox that Morris’s imagination ultimately fails him slightly, so that he relapses into Wardour Street fustian:

Therewith he drew rein and jumped down, and I followed. A very handsome woman, splendidly clad in figured silk, was slowly passing by, looking into the windows as she went. To her quoth Dick: "Maiden, would you kindly hold our horse while we go in for a little?" She nodded to us with a kind smile, and fell to patting the horse with her pretty hand. "What a beautiful creature!" said I to Dick as we entered. "What, old Greylocks?" said he, with a sly grin. "No, no," said I; "Goldylocks,—the lady." [§6]

Morris here is feeling his way toward the authentically childlike view of sexual relationships which emerges during the journey up-river. Guest begins to enjoy a gathering fulfillment, movingly portrayed but also clearly regressive. Annie at Hammersmith is a mother-figure, Ellen a mixture of sister and childhood sweetheart. Guest, though past his prime of life, feels a recovery of vigour which is, in the event, illusory; his fate is not to be rejuvenated in Nowhere but to return to the nineteenth century, strengthened only in his longing for change. Though he shares his companions’ journey to the haymaking, his exclusion from the feast to celebrate their arrival is another inverted Dickensian symbol.18 The return to the present is doubly upsetting to the "happy ending" convention (seen for example in Bellamy); for it is not a nightmare but a stoical affirmation of political responsibility. Guest’s last moments in Nowhere show him rediscovering the forgotten experience of alienation and anonymity.

Dickens and George Eliot were moralists in their fiction and supporters of social and educational reform outside it. Morris worked to improve Victorian taste while coming to believe that there were no "moral" or "reformist" solutions to the social crisis. It was the perspective of the labour movement and the revolutionary "river of fire"19 which enabled him to reassemble the distorted affirmation of a Dickens novel into a clear, utopian vision. His vision draws strength from its fidelity to socialist ideals and to Morris’s own emotional needs. But Morris, for all his narrative self-consciousness, can only register and not transcend what is ultimately an aesthetic impasse. His book is News from Nowhere, or An Epoch of Rest; it shows not only the redemption of man’s suffering past but his enjoyment of Arcadian quietism. In Nowhere pleasure may be had "without an afterthought of the injustice and miserable toil which made my leisure" (§20). Morris omits to describe how in economic terms leisure is produced, and how in political terms a society built by the mass labour movement has dispersed into peaceful anarchism. He stakes everything on the mood of "second childhood":

"Second childhood," said I in a low voice, and then blushed at my double rudeness, and hoped that he hadn’t heard. But he had, and turned to me smiling, and said: "Yes, why not? And for my part, I hope it may last long; and that the world’s next period of wise and unhappy manhood, if that should happen, will speedily lead us to a third childhood: if indeed this age be not our third. Meantime, my friend, you must know that we are too happy, both individually and collectively to trouble ourselves about what is to come hereafter." [§16]

It is true that the passage hints at further labours of social construction lying in store for man. Morris, however, prefers not to contemplate them. One is forced to conclude that in News from Nowhere the ideal of the perfection of labour is developed as an alternative to the dynamism of Western society. We are left with the irresolvable ambiguity of the Morrisian utopia, which peoples an exemplary socialist society with characters who are, in the strict sense in which Walter Pater had used the term, decadents.20

H.G. Wells first listened to Morris at socialist meetings at Hammersmith in the 1880s. Even for a penniless South Kensington science student, attending such meetings was an act of social defiance. But, as he later recalled, he soon forgot his "idea of a council of war, and...was being vastly entertained by a comedy of picturesque personalities."21 He saw Morris as trapped in the role of poet and aesthete, yet in A Modem Utopia (1905) he readily acknowledged the attractiveness of a Morrisian earthly paradise:

Were we free to have our untrammeled desire, I suppose we should follow Morris to his Nowhere, we should change the nature of man and the nature of things together; we should make the whole race wise, tolerant, noble, perfect—wave our hands to a splendid anarchy, every man doing as it pleases him, and none pleased to do evil, in a world as good in its essential nature, as ripe and sunny, as the world before the Fall.22

Wells, in effect, accuses Morris of lacking intellectual "realism." His response to this appears to far less advantage in A Modem Utopia, however, than it does in his dystopian works beginning with The Time Machine (1895). A Modern Utopia is an over-ambitious piece of system-building, reflecting its author’s eclectic search for a "new aristocracy" or administrative elite; The Time Machine is a mordantly critical examination of concepts of evolution and progress and the future state, with particular reference to News from Nowhere.

While Guest wakes up in Hammersmith, the Time Traveler climbs down from his machine in the year 802,701 A.D. at a spot about three miles away, in what was formerly Richmond. The gay, brightly-dressed people, the verdant park landscape and the bathing in the river are strongly reminiscent of Morris. The Eloi live in palace-like communal buildings, and are lacking in personal or sexual differentiation. On the evening of his arrival, the Time Traveler walks up to a hilltop and surveys the green landscape, murmuring "Communism" to himself (§6). The reference is to Morris rather than to Marx (whose work and ideas Wells never knew well). Wells has already begun his merciless examination of the "second childhood" which Morris blithely accepted in Nowhere.

From the moment of landing we are aware of tension in the Time Traveler’s responses. He arrives in a thunderstorm near a sinister colossus, the White Sphinx, and soon he is in a frenzy of fear. The hospitality of the Eloi, who shower him with garlands and fruit, does not cure his anxiety. Unlike most previous travelers in utopia, he is possessed of a human pride, suspicion and highly-strung sensitivity which he cannot get rid of. He reacts with irritability when asked if he has come from the sun in a thunderstorm: "It let loose the judgment I had suspended upon their clothes, their frail light limbs and fragile features. A flow of disappointment rushed across my mind. For a moment I felt that I had built the Time Machine in vain" (§5). When they teach him their language, it is he who feels like a "schoolmaster amidst children," and soon he has the Eloi permanently labelled as a class of five-year-olds.

The apparent premise of The Time Machine is one of scientific anticipation, the imaginative working-out of the laws of evolution and thermodynamics, with a dash of Marxism added. Critics sometimes stress the primacy of the didactic surface in such writing.23 But The Time Machine is not exhausted once we have paraphrased its explicit message. Like News from Nowhere, it is a notably self-conscious work. Wells’s story-telling frame is more elaborate than Morris’s, and Robert M. Philmus has drawn attention to the studied ambiguity Wells puts in the Time Traveller’s mouth: "Take it as a lie—or a prophecy. Say I dreamed it in the workshop" (§16).24 One of his hero’s ways of authenticating his story is to expose the fabrications of utopian writers. A "real traveller," he protests, has no access to the "vast amount of detail about building, and social arrangements, and so forth" found in utopian versions (§8). He has "no convenient cicerone in the pattern of the Utopian books" (§8). He has to work everything out for himself by a process of conjecture and refutation—a crucial feature of The Time Machine which does much to convey the sense of intellectual realism and authenticity. The visit to the Palace of Green Porcelain parallels Guest’s visit to the British Museum, but instead of a Hammond authoritatively placed to expound "How the Change Came," the Time Traveller must rely on habits of observation and reasoning which his creator acquired at the Normal School of Science.

In The Time Machine Wells uses a hallowed device of realistic fiction—the demonstration of superior authenticity over some other class of fictions—in a "romance" context. His aim is, in Levin’s words, to "unmask cant" and debunk misconceptions. The truths he affirms are both of a scientific (or Huxleyan) and a more traditional sort. The world of Eloi and Morlocks is revealed first as devolutionary and then as one of predator and prey, of homo homini lupus. This must have a political, not merely a biological significance. No society, Wells is saying, can escape the brutish aspects of human nature defined by classical bourgeois rationalists such as Machiavelli and Hobbes. A society that claims to have abolished these aspects may turn out to be harbouring predatoriness in a peculiarly horrible form. This must become apparent once we can see the whole society. In Morris’s Nowhere, part of the economic structure is suppressed; there is no way of knowing what it would have been like. In The Time Machine it is only necessary to put the Eloi and Morlocks in the picture together—whether they are linked by a class relationship, or a species relationship, or some evolutionary combination of the two—to destroy the mirage of utopian communism. The Dickensian society of scavengers cannot be so lightly dismissed.

In contrast to Morris’s mellow Arcadianism, The Time Machine is an aggressive book, moving through fear and melodrama to the heights of poetic vision. The story began as a philosophical dialogue and emerged from successive revisions as a gripping adventure-tale which is also a mine of poetic symbolism. To read through the various versions is to trace Wells’s personal discovery of the "scientific romance."25 The Time Machine in its final form avoids certain limitations of both the Victorian realist novel and the political utopia. An offshoot of Wells’s use of fantasy to explore man’s temporal horizons is that he portrays human nature as at once more exalted and more degraded than the conventional realist estimate.

Imagining the future liberates Wells’s hero from individual moral constraints; the story reveals a devolved, simian species which engages the Time Traveler in a ruthless, no-holds-barred struggle. The scenario of the future is a repository for symbolism of various kinds. The towers and shafts of the story are recognizably Freudian, while the names of the Eloi and Morlocks allude to Miltonic angels and devils. The Time Traveler himself is a variant of the nineteenth-century romantic hero. Like Frankenstein, he is a modern Prometheus. The identification is sealed in the Palace of Green Porcelain episode, where he steals a matchbox from the museum of earlier humanity, whose massive architectural remains might be those of Titans. But there is no longer a fit recipient for the gift of fire, and the Time Traveler’s matches are only lit in self-defense. We see him travel to the end of the world, alone, clasped to his machine on the sea-shore. When he fails to return from his second journey we might imagine him as condemned to perpetual time-traveling, as Prometheus was condemned to perpetual torture.

There are few unqualified heroes in Victorian realistic fiction (this is a question of generic conventions, not of power of characterization). The zenith of the realist’s art appears in characters such as Lydgate, Dorothea, Pip and Clennam, all of whom are shown as failures, and not often very dignified failures. They are people circumscribed and hemmed in by bourgeois existence. Intensity of consciousness alone distinguishes theirs from the average life of the ordinary member of their social class. As against this, Wells offers an epic adventurer who (like Morris’s knights and saga-heroes) is close to the supermen of popular romance. His hero is guilty of sexual mawkishness and indulges in Byronic outbursts of temperament. But what distinguishes him from the run-of-the-mill fantasy hero is the epic and public nature of his mission. As Time Traveler he takes up the major cognitive challenge of the Darwinist age. He boasts of coming "out of this age of ours, this ripe prime of the human race, when Fear does not paralyze and mystery has lost its terrors" (§10). The retreat of superstition before the skeptical, scientific attitude dictated that the exploit of a modern Prometheus or Faust should be told in a scaled-down, "romance" form. Nonetheless, the Time Traveler shares the pride of the scientists, inventors and explorers of the nineteenth century, and not the weakness or archaism of its literary heroes.

There is a dark side to his pride. The scene where he surveys the burning Morlocks shows Wells failing to distance his hero sufficiently. The Time Traveler is not ashamed of his cruel detachment from the species he studies, nor does he regret having unleashed his superior "firepower." His only remorse is for Weena, the one creature he responded to as "human," and Wells hints that her death provides justification for the slaughter of the Morlocks. This rationalization is a clear example of imperialist psychology; but Wells was both critic and product of the imperialist ethos. Morris, who was so sharp about Bellamy, would surely have spotted his vulnerability here. It is not merely the emotions of scientific curiosity which are satisfied by the portrayal of a Hobbesian, dehumanized world.

News from Nowhere and The Time Machine are based on a fusion of propaganda and dream. Their complexity is due in part to the generic interactions which I have traced. Morris turns from the degraded world of Dickens to create its negative image in a Nowhere of mutual trust and mutual fulfillment. Wells writes a visionary satire on the utopian idea which reintroduces the romantic hero as explorer and prophet of a menacing future. Both writers were responding to the break-up of the coalition of interests in mid-Victorian fiction, and their use of fantasy conventions asserted the place of visions and expectations in the understanding of contemporary reality. Schematically, we may see Wells’s SF novel as a product of the warring poles of realism and utopianism, as represented by Dickens and Morris. More generally, I would suggest that to study the aetiology of works such as News from Nowhere and The Time Machine is to ask oneself fundamental questions about the nature and functions of literary "realism."


1. I use "realism" in a broadly Lukacsian sense, to denote the major representational idiom of 19th-century fiction. See e.g. Georg Lukács, Studies in European Realism (US 1964). I also argue that "realism" in literature cannot ultimately be separated from the modern non-literary senses of the term. No sooner is a convention of literary realism established than the inherently dynamic "realistic outlook" starts to turn against that convention.

2. Patrick Brantlinger, "News from Nowhere: Morris’s Socialist Anti-Novel," Victorian Studies 19(1975):35ff. This article examines Morris’s aesthetic in greater depth than was possible here, with conclusions that are close to my own.

3. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, On Literature and Art, ed. Lee Baxandall and Stefan Morawski (US 1974), p 117.

4. Harry Levin, The Gates of Horn (US 1966), p 55.

5. The best political biography is E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (UK 1955).

6. Morris’s published lectures are reprinted in his Collected Works, ed. May Morris, vols. 22-23 (UK 1914), and some unpublished ones in The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris, ed. Eugene D. LeMire (US 1969). Three recent (but no more than introductory) selections are: William Morris: Selected Writings and Designs, ed. Asa Briggs (US-UK 1962); Political Writings of William Morris, ed. A.L. Morton (US—UK 1962); and William Morris, Selected Writings, ed. G.H. Cole (US 1961).

7. Morris took up the practice of handicrafts in 1860 and became, in effect, an extremely successful middle-class designer. His theories of the unity of design and execution were often in advance of his workshop practice. See e.g. Peter Floud, "The Inconsistencies of William Morris," The Listener 52 (1954):615ff.

8. Morris, "How I Became a Socialist" (1894).

9. See note 6.

10. Ruskin commented on Bleak House in "Fiction—Fair and Foul," published in the Nineteenth Century (1880-1), and on Hard Times in Unto This Last (1860).

11. Collected Works 22:xiii ff.

12. J.W. Mackail records somewhat fatuously that "In the moods when he was not dreaming of himself as Tristram or Sigurd, he identified himself very closely with...Joe Gargery and Mr Boffin." — The Life of William Morris (UK 1901),1:220-21. Cf. Paul Thompson, The Work of William Morris (UK 1967), p 149.

13. See E.P. Thompson (Note 5) pp 165-67. I have not managed to locate this in the files of The Commonweal.

14. Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (UK 1961), p 268.

15. George Eliot, Introduction to Felix Holt (1866).

16. The fantastic and utopian elements in Dickens are associated with his genius for satire and melodrama: with his vision of the interlocking, institutional character of social evil, and his delight in sharp and magical polarizations between the strongholds of evil and those of beauty and innocence. The elements of traditional romance in Dickens’s vision make him an exaggerated, but by no means unique case; a utopian element could, I think, be traced in every great novelist.

17. Dickens, Little Dorrit, §34.

18. Tom Middlebro argues that both river and feast are "religious symbols"—"Brief Thoughts on News from Nowhere," Journal of the William Morris Society 2(1970):8. If so, this was true for Dickens as well, and I would see him as Morris’s immediate source. The symbolism of the feast is present in all Dickens’s works and has been discussed by Angus Wilson, "Charles Dickens: A Haunting," Critical Quarterly 2(1960):107-08.

19. Morris, "The Prospects of Architecture in Civilization" in Hopes and Fears for Art (1882).

20. Pater describes the poetry of the Pleiade as "an aftermath, a wonderful later growth, the products of which have to the full the subtle and delicate sweetness which belong to a refined and comely decadence." Preface to The Renaissance (1873). The compatibility of one aspect of Pater’s and Morris’s sensibility is suggested by the former’s review of "Poems by William Morris," Westminster Review 34 (1868):300ff.

21. Saturday Review 82 (1896):413.

22. Wells, A Modern Utopia §1:1.

23. See e.g. Joanna Russ’s remarks on The Time Machine, SFS 2 (1975):114-15.

24. Robert M. Philmus, Into the Unknown (US 1970), p 73.

25. The most telling contrast is with the National Observer version (1894). For a reprint of this and an account of Wells’s revisions of The Time Machine see his Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction, ed. Robert M. Philmus and David Y. Hughes (US 1975), pp 47ff.



William Morris’s News From Nowhere and H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine are based on a fusion of propaganda and dream. Their complexity is due in part to generic interactions: Morris turns from the degraded world of Dickens to create his negative image in a Nowhere of mutual trust and mutual fulfillment. Wells writes a visionary satire on the utopian idea that reintroduces the romantic hero as explorer and prophet of a menacing future. Both writers were responding to the break-up of the coalition of interests in mid-Victorian realistic fiction, and their use of fantasy conventions asserted the place of visions and expectations in the understanding of contemporary reality. Schematically, we may see Wells’s SF novel as a product of the warring poles of realism and utopianism, as represented by Dickens and Morris. More generally, to study the etiology of works such as News From Nowhere and The Time Machine is to ask fundamental questions about the nature and functions of literary "realism."

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