# 9 = Volume 3, Part 2 = July 1976
The Time Machine and
the End of Man
As many critics have observed, H.G. Wells was preoccupied very
early with speculations on evolution, in particular the evolution of Man and the
prospects of intelligent life, whatever its origins. The Time Machine
(1895), The War of the Worlds (1898), and The First Men in the Moon
(1901) are the best known examples of his interest in such matters, but certain
of his shorter works also reflect this concern. Frequently, Wells would
recapitulate and refine his major ideas, mining old essays for new story
material or refashioning the elements of one tale in the context of another;
various scholars have explored the interpenetration of these works in some
In "The Man of the Year Million" (essay, 1893)1
and The War of the Worlds, Wells outlined one model for the ultimate
evolution of humankind. In both works, the culmination of higher intelligence is
a globular entity, brought about by the influence of steadily advancing
technology. In each case, it mainly consists of a great, bald head, supported on
large hands or equivalent appendages, with thorax vestigial or entirely absent.
The Martian is a direct analogue of the Man of the Year Million, as Wells
himself indicated by citing his own essay in the body of the novel (§2:2).2
The Selenite master-race of First Men is a kindred expression of this
vision of enlarged intellect—especially the Grand Lunar, with its enormous
cranium, diminutive face, and shriveled body. Of more special relevance to the
Martians are the malignant cephalopods of "The Sea Raiders" (1896) and
"The Extinction of Man" (essay, 1894), and as well the predatory
specimen in "The Flowering of the Strange Orchid" (1894).
At least one scholar has referred to "The Man of the Year
Million" as "another version" of The Time Machine, apparently
because the domeheads take refuge underground from the increasing rigors of a
cooling surface.3 This connection is rather tenuous, at best; by such
criteria, First Men also might be deemed a variant of The Time Machine.
In fact, the Further Vision of the latter constitutes a curious inversion of the
above essay, but scholars and critics have failed to perceive this relation.
Their failure depends on a more primary error, which is this—the notion that
Man is extinct at the climax of the novel.
That the progeny of Man is not absent from the final
moments of the Further Vision should be evident from a passage that appeared
(until recently) only in the serial version. This deleted episode is a
philosophic bridge, a key to what happens at world’s end. It introduces the
successors of Eloi and Morlock: a hopping, kangaroo-like semblance of humanity
and a monstrous, shambling centipede. According to Robert Philmus, "these
two species must have descended in the course of time from the Eloi and the
Morlocks; and again the ‘grey animal, or grey man, whichever it was’ is the
victim of the carnivorous giant insects."4
Philmus accentuates the elements of degeneration and
regression in Wells’s Darwinian conjectures; thus he asserts that The Time
Machine embodies a vision of the hominid line "irrevocably on the
downward path of devolution."5 The general validity of this
viewpoint cannot be disputed; nevertheless, the extreme construction he places
upon it leads him considerably astray. Though Wells used terms like
"retrogression," "degradation," and "degeneration"
in his essays, they were for him relative terms only. He would hardly
have portrayed Man as reverting literally into so primitive a creature;
such "devolution," I submit, is not in the Wellsian mode.
Philmus may have been encouraged in this faulty genealogy by
the Traveler’s observations of the Elysian world of the Eloi, which seems
devoid of animal life, excepting a few sparrows and butterflies (§4b/288;
§5a/292).6 Of course, this stricture need not apply to the murky
lower world, which could easily harbor all sorts of vermin. If butterflies
prosper above, in a world of flowers, then centipedes should thrive below, in a
realm of meaty table scraps and other waste. And at journey’s end, "a
thing like a huge white butterfly" makes a brief display, as a
demonstration of what has survived the English sparrow (§11/328).
The Morlocks of Millenium #803, moreover, are not a race
destined for perpetual dominance. This much is made clear by numerous facets of
their existence—their lack of light, the disrepair of much of their machinery,
their crude and inefficient method of harvesting Eloi. Although the Time
Traveler refers to the Eloi as "cattle" and supposes that they may
even be bred by the Morlocks (§7/311), the rest of the book does not show the
latter practicing much in the way of husbandry. Indeed the absence of other land
animals in the lush upper world may well be the result of earlier predations by
the Morlocks. So the best assumption is that the relationship between the two
races is unstable—that the Morlocks are depleting their latest dietary
resource, which must eventually go the way of its predecessors.
The kangaroo-beast, therefore, can only be a tribe descended
from the Morlocks, now scavenging the surface in the long twilight. The irony of
the new situation is evident, and quite typical of the many ironic aspects of
the novel: the hound is now the hare, the erstwhile predator has become the
The ancestry of this pathetic creature is confirmed by its
morphology. Consider the appearance of the Morlock: "a queer little ape-like
figure," "dull white," with "flaxen hair on its head and
down its back" (§5b/299), and a "chinless" face, with
"great, lidless, pinkish-grey eyes" (§6/306). Compare that with the
Traveler’s description of the later species: "It was ... covered with a
straight greyish hair that thickened about the head into a Skye terrier’s
mane.... It had, moreover, a rounded head, with a projecting forehead and
forward-looking eyes, obscured by its lank hair" (325). The ape-like brow-ridge
is a tell-tale vestige of the Morlocks, as well as the lank hair that now
shields the creature’s eyes. The shaggy visage identifies the kangaroo-man as
a once-nocturnal animal only recently emerged from darkness. Another indicative
trait is its rabbit-like feet, which are compatible with the "queer narrow
footprints" of the Morlocks (§5a/292).
From a close inspection the Traveler surmises, the nature of
the beast: "A disagreeable apprehension flashed across my mind.... I knelt
down and seized my capture, intending to examine its teeth and other anatomical
points which might show human characteristics..." (326). He might also be
looking for the signs of yesterday’s carnivore.
This Morlock offspring is no longer extant in the climactic
scene of the Further Vision, but it is not the Last Man observed by the
Traveler. He arrives in the era of the giant land-crabs, then passes on to the
time of the great eclipse, where nothing seems to stir—at first:
I looked about me to see if any traces of animal life
remained.... But I saw nothing moving, in earth or sky or sea. The green slime
alone testified that life was not extinct.... I fancied I saw some black object
flopping about...but it became motionless as I looked at it, and I judged that
my eye had been deceived, and that the black object was merely a rock.
A nearby planet encroaches on the bloated sun; the eclipse
progresses, becomes total, and then the shadow of heaven recedes:
I shivered, and a deadly nausea seized me.... I felt giddy
and incapable of facing the return journey. As I stood sick and confused I saw
again the moving thing upon the shoal.... It was a round thing, the size of a
football perhaps...and tentacles trailed down from it; it seemed black against
the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about. Then I felt
I was fainting. But a terrible dread of lying helpless in that remote and
awful twilight sustained me while I clambered into the saddle. (§11/329-30)
The kangaroo-men hop about on elongated feet; the men of the
year million hop about on great soft hands; the thing on the shoal hops about on
a trailing mass of tentacles. This similarity in modes of locomotion is hardly a
literary accident. In contrast, the Sea-Raiders never hop, but creep along at a
steady pace when traversing solid ground.
In general form the Last Creature resembles a large
cephalopod. Is it a primitive survivor from the ocean deeps, like Haploteuthis
in "The Sea Raiders," or is it a being like the Martians, the hypertrophic end-product of intelligent life? Most of the evidence points to the
latter—a highly specialized and atrophied edition of genus Homo. Note
particularly the size of the creature; it is about "the size of a
football"—which is to say, about the size of a human head.
The Time Traveler contracts a "terrible dread of lying
helpless" in the dying world soon after he becomes fully aware of the thing
on the shoal. There seems to be a special revulsion attached to this monster,
even though it can hardly pose a real threat to the Traveler. Before it
commands his attention, he feels "incapable of facing the return
journey"; afterward, the "dread of lying helpless" in its
presence impels him to turn back forthwith. Consciously, the Traveler does not
perceive the human ancestry of this apocalyptic organism, but apparently the
unconscious realization of its true nature makes him flee the final wasteland.
Not the oppressive conditions, nor the extinction of Man, nor even the
approaching oblivion triggers his retreat; rather, he recoils from the
knowledge, however submerged, of what Man has become.
And what has Man become? Certainly not the inflated intellect
of a Martian, nor that of a Sea-Raider, despite the somatic affinities. In one
important respect, the Last Man differs greatly from these other fantastic
creations: it is a being without a face. Even Haploteuthis has a
definite, mock-human visage—"a grotesque suggestion of a face." To
be sure, the super-minds in the Wellsian canon—the million-year domeheads, the
Martians, the Grand Lunar—all suffer from facial attrition, yet certain
features, especially the eyes, always remain. Not so with the fitful creature on
the beach; the swollen surface of its body seems utterly blank, devoid of
perceptual apparatus, and its aimless, reflexive actions indicate that it is
virtually mindless. In the end, then, Man has become little more than a giant
All these transmuted beings emphasize two primary functions of
life: ingestion and cerebration. The intelligent Sea-Raiders, for example, come
to earth in search of a better feed. Both the Martians and the domeheads have
actually surrendered their alimentary canals to cortical advances, and the
Martians, like the man-eating squids, also come to Earth for new sustenance. The
mindless tropism of the Strange Orchid impels it to siphon off human blood,
whereas the Martians strive for the same end with a ruthless deliberation.
The ultimate survivor of The Time Machine is not a
great brain; as with a polyp, therefore, all that is left is a great ravening
stomach. (For this, too, its size is appropriate.) Here, in counterpoint to the
Martian terror, is the Wellsian image of ultimate horror.
And so we confront a symbolic paradox: the same emblem
represents both the zenith and the nadir of mentality; the opposition of head
and stomach, of mind and body, is fused in this one corporeal form. In Wells’s
iconography, it stands for the ultimate degeneration, whether of body or mind.
He disapproved less, we may suppose, of the absolute intellect, reserving his
greatest dread for the other, the mindless all-devouring. Yet there can be
little doubt that, despite sardonic ambiguities, as in "The Man of the Year
Million" and The First Men in the Moon, he truly preferred neither;
his best wish was that Man should master himself without ever losing the essence
of humanity. To this end Wells devoted most of his long and active life, even
unto Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945), where a faint hope still
lingers that some ultra-human entity will arise to survive the impending decline
of Homo sapiens. This was Wells’s last desperate hope, and a very
feeble one it was; nevertheless, near the end of his life, amid sickness and
depression, that glimmer remained. As the nameless narrator of The Time
Machine insists, when faced with the inevitable disintegration of Man:
"If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so"
1. First published in The Pall Mall Gazette, Nov 9,
1893, this essay, with title changed to "Of a Book Unwritten," appears
in Certain Personal Matters (UK 1897), as does the other essay mentioned
in this paragraph, "The Extinction of Man."
2. Another avatar appears in "The Plattner Story,"
against a setting remarkably suggestive of the Further Vision. Plattner, who is
blown through a fourth spatial dimension, finds himself on a barren
landscape of dark red shadows, backed by a green sky-glow. He
watches the rise of a giant green sun, which reveals a deep cleft nearby. A
multitude of bulbous creatures float upward, like so many bubbles, from this
chasm. These are the "Watchers of the Living," literally the souls of
the dead: "they were indeed limbless; and they had the appearance of human
heads beneath which a tadpole-like body swung" (para. 26). Significantly,
Wells had referred to his Men of the Year Million as "human tadpoles."
In many respects, this realm of the afterlife is a striking
reversal of The Time Machine’s terminal wasteland, yet quite
recognizably akin to it.
3. Gordon S. Haight, "H.G. Welles ‘The Man of the Year
Million’," Nineteenth-Century Fiction 12(1958):323-26.
4. Robert M. Philmus, Into the Unknown (US 1970), pp 70-71.
5. Ibid., p. 75.
6. §7/311 = Chapter 7 in the standard form of the text (i.e.,
as published in the Atlantic Edition, the Complete Short Stories, and
almost all editions since 1924), or Page 311 of Three Prophetic Novels of H.G.
Wells (Dover Publications, 1960). The chapterings of the standard and Dover
forms (with "a" and "b" added for convenience) collate as
follows: la = 1; lb = 2; 2 = 3; 3 = 4; 4a = 5; 4b = 6; 5a = 7; 5b = 8; 6 = 9; 7
= 10; 8 = 11; 9 = 12; 10 = 13; 11 = 14; 12a = 15; 12b = 16; Epilogue = Epilogue.
The deleted passage, pages 325-27 of the Dover text, would appear between the
first and second paragraphs of Chapter 11 in the standard text.
The Time Machine (1895), The War
of the Worlds (1898), and The First Men in the Moon (1901) are the
best-known examples of Wells’s speculations on evolution, but some of his
shorter works also reflect this concern. Robert Philmus has referred to
"The Man of the Year Million" (essay, 1893) as "another
version" of The Time Machine; and analogous to the Martians in War
of the Worlds are the malignant cephalopods of "The Sea Raiders"
(1896) and "The Extinction of Man" (essay, 1894), as well as the
predatory specimen described in "The Flowering of the Strange Orchid"
(1894). Wells’s vision of evolution was often expressed via a paradoxical
emphasis on two primary functions of life: ingestion and cerebration. The
ultimate survivor of The Time Machine is not a great brain but a ravening
stomach—the Wellsian image of ultimate horror. Wells disapproved less, we may
suppose, of the absolute intellect, reserving his greatest dread for the other,
the mindless all-devouring. Yet there can be little doubt that he truly
preferred neither, hoping (however faintly) for an ultimate balance between body
and mind: his best wish was that human beings should master themselves without
losing the essence of humanity. That evolution seemed unlikely to produce any
such result led to his preoccupation late in his life with the idea that some
ultra-human entity might arise from the impending decline of Homo sapiens.