Science Fiction Studies

# 17 = Volume 6, Part 1 = March 1979


David J. Lake

The White Sphinx and the Whitened Lemur: Images of Death in The Time Machine

There is widespread agreement that The Time Machine is H.G. Wells' finest scientific romance; many critics would go further and call it the best of all his fictions. A sample remark is that of V.S. Pritchett in The Living Novel: "Without question The Time Machine is the best piece of writing. It will take its place among the great stories of our language. Like all excellent works it has meanings within its meaning. . . ."1 Pritchett here indicates a main reason for The Time Machine's greatness: its richness of suggestion, Bernard Bergonzi, in one of the most detailed studies so far of the novel, has emphasized its mythic quality.2 Certainly the vision of a future decadent world polarized between the paradisal Eloi and the demonic Morlocks has the quality of great myth, and like myth is multivalent: the sociological interpretation is obvious (and indicated by Wells in the text), and beyond that there is an easy underground shaft to Freud as it were. But the notion of "myth" is not enough to explain the excellence of The Time Machine. Myths can always be handled badly or superficially; but in fact Wells has given his myth a nearly perfect embodiment. It is the details of his writing that count. In particular, I submit that a large part of the excellence of The Time Machine derives from its systematic imagery. And the images are largely organized in a system of colors.3               

Bergonzi (p. 217, note 43) has drawn attention to the White Sphinx which dominates the Time Traveller's first impression of the future world - and not incidentally adorned the cover of the first British edition in 1895. But Bergonzi's interpretation of this as a typical fin-de-siecle motif is insufficient. I would like now to examine two questions: first, why a sphinx; and second, why a white one?                

The answer to the first question must be fairly obvious in outline; but even here we have richness of suggestion. In Wells’ earlier National Observer version of the story,4 the main features of the scene are already there: the white marble sphinx beside a silver birch tree in a hailstorm, the sphinx's sightless but watching eyes, its faint smile, its spread wings. In the final version (chap. 3:27),5 Wells has added the detail: "It was greatly weather-worn, and that imparted an unpleasant suggestion of disease". Later (chap. 5:44) Wells combines the whiteness with the dilapidation in the adjective "leprous”.                

This Sphinx really does dominate the story; and not just the Time Traveller's first impression either. It strikes the first really sinister note, suggesting the decay of the future world, and also a mysterious threat to the hero. Its wings are spread, not folded, to suggest a flying bird of prey; as we see from the development of that idea soon after the initial description: "I felt naked in a strange world. I felt as perhaps a bird may feel in the clear air, knowing the hawk wings above and will swoop" (chap. 3:28). And the swoop duly takes place, when the Morlocks drag the time machine into the pedestal of the sphinx. Thus the symbol is also an efficient cause in the story; which is an excellent way to use symbols, and not only in SF.6 We can focus the sphinx symbol a little more clearly if we recall the most famous sphinx of mythology, the one which confronted Oedipus. The answer to that sphinx's riddle was simply Man - the creature who goes on four legs in infancy, stands firm on two legs in manhood, and totters three-legged on a staff in old age. And precisely the rise and fall of Man is the subject, or a main subject, of The Time Machine. I submit therefore that this leprous, crumbling sphinx represents the "three-legged" stage, the decay of Man in the future world. Its whiteness is the whiteness not only of leprosy but also of bone, its sightless eyes are those of a human skull. It stands for immediate decay and the menace of imminent death.                

It is really astonishing to notice how often the color white appears in the text. The sphinx is hardly ever mentioned without being called "white," even though there are no other sphinxes about. And there are many other white things. Already in that first future scene we have the white sphinx, the silver birch tree, the white hailstones. The birch might suggest a rather colder climate than is presented for the year 802,701; and the hailstones are in a sense the first hostile move against the hero, and foreshadow the "white flakes" of snow in the end-of-the-world Further Vision (chap. 11:108).7 Then again there is the whiteness of the Eloi: "white limbs" (chap. 4:33), suggesting once more decadence. There are several instances of over-lush white flowers. But above all, there is the whiteness of the Morlocks.                

Of course the Morlocks' pallor is explained scientifically as due to their underground habitat (chap 5:62 ). But as in the case of the sphinx, their color is insisted upon again and again. For instance, here is the first view of them: "The moon was setting, and the dying moonlight and the first pallor of dawn were mingled in a ghastly half-light. The bushes were inky black, the ground a sombre grey, the sky colorless and cheerless. And up the hill I thought I could see ghosts. Three several times, as I scanned the slope, I saw white figures. Twice I fancied I saw a solitary white, ape-like creature.... "(chap. 5:57).                

This passage is a rich example of Wells' excellent handling of colour symbolism. White and its shades are here associated with setting, dying, ghastliness and cheerlessness. The setting moon — later in the story, the waning moon — perfectly combines the ideas of whiteness and of death, since the moon looks whitish and is a dead planet. Grey is a variant of white which is also from time to time applied to the Morlocks: it is "colourless and cheerless", suggesting an absence of the colors of life. And here the greyish-whiteness of the Morlocks is attached to the idea of ghosts. The following paragraph expands on the "ghost" idea. So at their first appearance, the Morlocks are associated with death, and the uncanny whiteness of things which were once alive but are so no longer. Then again we have, near the beginning of the next chapter:

I felt a peculiar shrinking from these pallid bodies. They were just the half-bleached colour of the worms and things one sees preserved in spirit in a zoological museum. And they were filthily cold to the touch. Probably my shrinking was largely due to the sympathetic influence of the Eloi, whose disgust of the Morlocks I now began to appreciate. (chap. 6:66)

Of course, the disgust felt by the Eloi turns out to be the horror of death. We notice also in this passage that the Morlocks are "filthily cold" and compared to dead biological specimens. One important meaning of the Morlocks, I submit, is simply Death itself. Their name alone suggests that: the first syllable is surely from mors, the Latin for "death." And Wells was a fairly good Latin scholar, quoting (for instance) from Horace's Odes, Book 1, repeatedly in the first two chapters of Love and Mr. Lewisham.8 It is the corpse that is filthily cold and pallid (pallida Mors in Horace's famous Ode 1.4) and that, like the Morlocks, stinks. The danger of the Morlocks is that they may lock one into rigor-mortis, or into the underworld-grave.                

I do not mean at all to deny that the Morlocks also carry other suggestions: the working classes, dangerous animals,9 and so forth. The suggestion of ape, or degenerate ape-man, is particularly strong. But why should apes be cold to the touch? There is no scientific justification for that, so the force behind it must be symbolic; and not of apehood. (Of course it might suggest a sub-mammalian class of animals; but this suggestion, being essentially privative, does not exclude the worse negation.) And in the paragraph next after the one just quoted, there is a striking phrase which combines the "ape" and the "death" suggestions. Here the Traveller anticipates in the waning moon "the appearances of these unpleasant creatures from below, these whitened Lemurs. . . ." (chap. 6:66).                

"Lemur" here is a beautiful pun. Biologically, it signifies a pro-simian, a lower primate which goes on all fours. But it also and originally in Latin signified a ghost. Here, then, the word suggests sub-apes and ghosts at once. And why the curious adjective whitened? Could this not be an echo of Matthew 23:27 — “whited sepulchers" in the King James Version? It is probably not the only echo of that gospel in the story, for there is also "abominable desolation" in "The Further Vision" (chap. 11: 107), which recalls the words "abomination of desolation" in Matthew 24:15. If I am right about the biblical associations, then both words of the phrase "whitened Lemurs" carry overtones of death and the grave. This is in addition to the "ape" motif, and blends perfectly with it. For the post-human ape and the post-human ghost are equally ex-men; the “simian" stoop of the Morlocks is also the stoop of Oedipus' "three-legged" old man dropping into the grave, The death-motif of the Morlocks also blends well with the demonic motif noted by Bergonzi (p. 53). The phrase "damned souls" (chap. 9:99) combines both suggestions.                

The deathly associations of the Morlocks explain most of their horror. What is being repressed, what erupts from the well-shafts under the waning moon, is the fear of personal and racial death. The Time Traveller reacts by these things with an emotion which is quite excessive if it merely embodies the fear of dangerous animals or the descendants of the proletariat. Time and again it is made clear that his emotion is not merely fear but also horror and hatred. This rises to a climax towards the end of his stay in that world, when he feels a positive longing to kill Morlocks. He comments: "Very inhuman, you may think, to want to go killing one's own descendants! But it was impossible, somehow, to feel any humanity in the things" (chap. 8:86-87). No indeed: the Time Traveller does not regard the Morlocks as human, because he has subconsciously equated them with the great and last Enemy; they are symbolically that white cold death which will eventually overwhelm the Earth and every descendant of mankind.                

This, indeed, is the most fundamental theme of the whole story: death, and the vain attempt to transcend death. The Time Traveller must remain nameless, because he is not a particular individual, he is all of us. We are all time travellers, but as things are, our voyages can seldom stretch further than seventy or eighty years. The most glorious thing, the exhilaration about a Time Machine is that it enables the Traveller (who is Man) to transcend his own lifetime. Yet in Wells’ romance the whole endeavor is shown to be ultimately vain. At the end of things waits the inevitable cold death. And meanwhile, the Morlocks are the hated harbingers.

The Time Traveller's horror and hatred of them erupts most obviously during the fight and fire in the woods (chap. 9). When the Morlocks are blinded and dying in the fire, he makes the strange comment: "And now I was to see the most weird and horrible thing, I think, of all that I beheld in that future age" (chap. 9:97). This is surprising. Why is this scene more horrible than that in the Underworld, for instance? But it is so to the Traveller: later on he is persuaded that he is dreaming a nightmare, and screams and prays and even bites himself in a passionate desire to awake (chap. 9:98). Moreover, by this time it is fairly clear that Weena has died of sheer terror. It would seem, therefore, that this scene of the "thirty or forty Morlocks" blundering about the fires incarnates their essential horror until the horror is unbearable. It is, we may say, Hell and Death brought to the surface; and it is here that the Morlocks are called "damned souls".                

It is now necessary to explore the story's color symbolism a little further. Darko Suvin has persuasively outlined the essential polarity of red, black, and green.10 In this fight-and-fire scene the predominant colour is red: naturally enough, the fire produces a "red sky", and makes the foliage a "red canopy". It is, I believe, reasonable to regard red in The Time Machine as another color connected with death, subsidiary to white but important enough at times. We have the red of the first sunset in the future, where the association with racial death is explicit: "The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind" (chap. 4:39). Red is the color of dying heat, as incandescence drops towards invisibility. This, probably, is why the brightest star in the future sky is a red one (chap. 7:79) - all the stars are on the wane. Above all we see this in the last sunset of the Further Vision, where the earth has ceased rotating, and the sun, fixed symbolically (without astronomical necessity) in the west, is a "huge red-hot dome", and makes the ocean "all bloody under the eternal sunset" (chap. 11; 107-108). In this end-of-the-world scene the main colors are red (sun, rocks, ocean), white (snow, ice), and black (a monster, and the final eclipse). These are all colors of death. And all these colors are present in the fire scene in the wood: "But at last, above the subsiding red of the fire, above the streaming masses of black smoke and the whitening and blackening tree stumps, and the diminishing numbers of these dim creatures, came the white light of the day" (chap.9:98).                

Red is the color not only of ending (sunset), and hell (fire), but also of blood. The Traveller sees red meat in the Underworld (chap. 6:70) — a dismembered Eloi corpse. And inevitably the Morlocks have greyish-red eyes (chap. 5/60). Where white and grey are deadly by negation, red functions as a positive menace.                

Green, as noted by Suvin, is usually a life colour; but in the "Further Vision" I think it sometimes carries a different suggestion. Thus we have the "poisonous looking green" of the lichens (chap. 11: 107), also "livid green" (108), where the association with paleness suggests that green also is here becoming a "deadly" color — as it is almost throughout "The Plattner Story". Purple is also, used occasionally; I think with  a suggestion of over-ripe decadence. The; first sunset is "purple and crimson” (chap, 439). Some of the Eloi. wear purple (chap. 3:29) or purple, and white (chap. 4:3.1) tunics. And the first flowers the Traveller sees in the future are rhododendrons, and, "I noticed that their mauve and purple blossoms were dropping in a shower under the beating of the hailstones" (chap. 3:2.6). If the purple, flowers can symbolize the decadent Eloi, then here we have a first hint of them "dropping" under the violent onslaught of the Morlqcks. That initial downpour may be associated with the Morlocks by a simile describing its end;. "The grey downpour was, swept aside and vanished like the trailing garments of a ghost" (chap. 3 -28). Both grey and ghost, as we have seen, have associations with the Morlocks. Thus the various colours of the first scene hint at, the coming drama before the actors appear, like the overture to an opera.                

But from the beginning to the end of the story, it is above all the color white which recurs, and I think always carrying suggestions of decadence or death. Immediately after the Traveller's arrival, in the area near the sphinx he sees "strange white flowers, measuring a foot perhaps across the spread of the waxen petals" (chap. 4:32). And the very last image in the Epilogue is that of Weena's white flowers ("not unlike very large white mallows" chap. 7:76), her last gift to the Traveller. They are "shrivelled now," but they provide a touching funeral wreath for the human race.                

It is a superficial defect of The Time Machine that there is a logical hiatus between the Eloi-Motlock world and the “Further Vision" of the ultimate cold death. The decadence of the Eloi is due to human choice in our own civilization, and perhaps it need not be so; whereas the ultimate doom is the effect of thermodynamics, and inevitable no matter how wisely we manage our affairs. There is also a hiatus in the story line between the two parts of the Traveller's adventure: in the first, and main part he is menaced by the Morlocks, in the second by various monsters11 and the final cold. I Would claim that the logical and structural gap is  bridged by symbolic identification: the Morlocks are the ghostly harbingers of the End. And because the End is brought on by blind, sub-human forces, the Morlocks have to be blind (in daylight) and sub-human too — in defiance of extrapolative logic. For if the Eloi are made decadent by a too easy life why should the subterranean workers be made decadent by a hard one? Would not their grim conditions in fact lead to selection for intelligence, for survival of the cunningest? And their blindness in daylight could only have arisen after a breakdown of their former electric lighting — but no such breakdown could have occurred if they had remained intelligent. But none of this matters much, because Wells is motivated not by scientific but poetic logic. And in the greater kinds of science fiction, poetry counts for much more than science.                

As a matter of fact, apart from the lack of light in the Underworld there is very little evidence for a breakdown in Morlock society in the final text of The Time Machine. In the National Observer version of 1894 several of the underworld machines were described as "disused and broken down";12 but in the final text the whole scene is much vaguer, more poetic, and full of the usual colour imagery (chap. 6:70). It is notable that all the ghostly and deathly hints about the Morlocks in this scene and elsewhere, apart from their name, seem to have been developed by Wells after the National Observer version.13 This must be a case of inspired revision. In the final version, too, there is much less argument as to how the Morlocks might have lost their intelligence, and much more poetic suggestion. And this, I believe, is why The Time Machine is great: because it uses the techniques of poetry. In this novel, imagery is used as Shakespeare uses it. The "running images" in The Time Machine are as consistent and persistent as those in Hamlet or Macbeth.                

Moreover, whiteness and silvery moonlight symbolize death not only in The Time Machine but also in a great many other of Wells's works of the 1890's and 1900's. They are prominent images in the deadly ending of the fantasy novel The Sea Lady (1902) and in the fable-story "The Beautiful Suit" (1909). They likewise figure notably in passages in The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) and Tono-Bungay (1909). Moreau himself is frequently described as "white-haired": we first meet him as an unnamed "massive white-haired man" (chap. 5) a couple of pages after Prendick has had bad dreams and seen the "ghostly faint white beam" of a waning moon in his cabin (chap. 4). Other significances may attach to Moreau: he may be looked upon, for example, as the God of Evolution; but since Death is the great instrument of Evolution, it may be that the first syllable of his name, like the first syllable of "Morlock," derives from mors (or the French mort). And so at last we have the description of Moreau lying dead under the moon: "...his massive face, calm even after his terrible death, and with the hard eyes open, staring at the dead white moon above" (chap. 19). In the next sentence, the narrator watches "that ghastly pile of silvery light and ominous shadows." The effects of deadly radio-active "quap" in Tono-Bungay constantly include whitening. Thus we hear of "white dead mangroves," "bone-white dead trees," "dirty shingle and mud, bleached and scarred." Every man at the nearby station dies of the white disease "like a leper” (11114). And the gleam of this quap is like "diluted moonshine" (III.iv.4).                

There is not much moonlight in The First Men in the Moon (1901), principally because for much of the novel we are on the moon itself. The whiteness of snow, however, is associated with death in one extremely powerful scene. Cavor and Bedford arrive on the moon in what looks like a drift of snow; but they soon realize that most of this is frozen air. They witness the morning "resurrection of the frozen air" (chap. 7). Much later, when Bedford is trying to escape through the lunar evening, we have some of the best writing in the book:

And as I stood there, stupid and perplexed ... something very, very soft and light and chill touched my hand for a moment and ceased to be, and then a thing, a little white speck drifted athwart a shadow. It was a tiny snowflake, the first snowflake, the herald of the night.


Over me, about me, closing in on me, embracing me ever nearer, was the Eternal, that which was before the beginning and that which triumphs over the end; that enormous void in which all light and life is but the thin and vanishing splendor of a falling star, the cold, the stillness, the silence - the infinite and final Night of space. (chap. 18)

Before he escapes,  the whiteness is upon Bedford himself. "The frost gathered on my lips, icicles hung from my moustache and beard, I was white with the freezing atmosphere" (chap. 18).

Most notably of all, both The Invisible Man (1897) and "The Cone" (1895) are thoroughly permeated with "whiteness=death" symbolism.14 The death-symbolism of the colors black, red, and white pervades Wells's short story, reaching a climax on pp. 302-03 in the Atlantic Edition text. Here the wisps of steam in the moonlight are called "an instant succession of ghosts coming up from the black and red eddies, a white uprising Horrocks, a grim engineer (and, as his name suggests, a proto-Morlock) murders the poet Raut (a proto Eloi); in his last moments Raut sees his murderer as a "gesticulating figure...bright and white in the moonlight" (I, 305). Above all, Horrocks himself says that the vapor of the furnace is "white as death" — a striking phrase which Raut repeats to himself (I, 303).                

If my analysis above is a true one, then the success of The Time Machine has implications for all science fiction that aspires to greatness. Outstanding achievement would seem to depend not only of peculiar generic virtues, but also and even more on the virtues of good mythical and symbolic fiction outside the SF genre: in particular on the handling of imagery.


1. The Living Novel (UK 1946), pp. 119-20.                

2. The Early H.G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances (UK 1961), pp. 42, 45.                

3. This has already been noted briefly by various critics, e.g. Darko Suvin, "A Grammar of Form and a Criticism of Fact: The Time Machine as a Structural Model for Science Fiction," in D. Suvin and R.M. Philmus, eds., H.G. Wells and Modern Science Fiction (US 1977), pp 91, 101. See also the long discussion of Wells's color symbolism in Wolfgang Schepelmann, Die englische Utopie in Uebergang: von Bulwer-Lytton bis H.G. Wells (Wien, 1975), pp. 218-73, passim, and the briefer references on red and white in the cosmological imagination (including The Time Machine) in Hélène Tuzet, Le Cosmos et l’imagination (Paris, 1965), p. 449ff. et passim.                

4. Reprinted in Robert M. Philmus and David Y. Hughes, eds., H. G. Wells: Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction (US 1975), pp.57-90. Hereafter cited as Early Writings.               

5. The Time Machine appeared in its substantially final form in the Heinemann edition of 1895; the present standard text (with minor verbal revisions, deleted headings, and altered chaptering) is that of the Atlantic Edition, 1924. I give references to chapter and page of this edition. Thus, chap. 3:27 means Chapter 3, page 27 of the Atlantic Edition, Vol. I.                

6. For instance, the poisoned skull in The Revenger's Tragedy (1607) is both a symbol of death and a murder weapon.

7. This was noted by Jack Williamson, H.G. Wells: Critic of Progress (US 1973), p. 50                

8. Lewisham translates Odes I.19 and I.14 in these two chapters. See also Wells' Experiment in Autobiography (1934; UK 1966), I, 139-41 for his early acquaintance with Latin. "Morlock" may, however, partly derive from English words such as "mortal."                

9. Alex Eisenstein, in "Origins of Some Major Physical Motifs in The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds," Extrapolation 13, no. 2 (May 1972), 119-26, has argued (p. 123) that the Morlocks derive from Wells’s "profound early fear of wild animals in general, and specifically of the gorilla," and that "this fear-fantasy provided the essential basis for the vision of the future contained in The Time Machine." There is certainly an element of animal fear in the Morlocks, but "essential basis" seems much too strong. Moreover, the Morlocks never suggest large apes like gorillas, but always small primates, such as lemurs. The meaning of The Time Machine must be sought in the text itself, not in the early biography of the author.                

10. "A Grammar of Form . . ." loc. cit. p. 101.                

11. Eisenstein, in "The Time Machine and the End of Man," SFS 9 (July 1976), 163, makes a good case for regarding the black monster on the shoal as the last descendant of the Morlocks. If we can accept this, then there is another symbolic linkage between the parts of the story. The Morlock line is still the enemy, but with a color change from white to the more final death color, black.                

12. Early Writings, p. 83.                

13. At least, so it seems from the texts which have survived. But there may be a minor bibliographic mystery here. In the National Observer articles, there seems to be a hiatus between the instalments of April 28 and May 19, 1894, entitled "The Sunset of Mankind" and "In the Underworld" respectively; see Early Writings, pp 78-82. After the briefest reference to Morlocks on p. 78, "In the Underworld" begins: "I have already told you," said the Time Traveller, "that it was customary on the part of the delightful people of the upper world to ignore the existence of these pallid creatures of the caverns, and consequently when I descended among them I descended alone." But in fact there is no previous reference to any attitude of the upperworlders to the Morlocks; we are not even told that the Morlocks dwelt in "caverns," much less that the hero was about to descend among them. So it is possible that somehow Wells's first full-scale description of the Morlocks may be lost.                

14. "The Cone" was first published September 18, 1895, a few months after the final version of The Time Machine. Space will not permit the necessarily lengthy discussion of The Invisible Man's complex imagery.

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