H. G. Wells’ Time Machine may at first not seem like a romance akin to the stories by Spenser and Mallory. After all, Wells’ work reminds us more of something we would expect to find in the current Young Adult section of the library. While its Divergent and Hunger Games style of dealing with future dystopia is interesting, what is really special about this story is the way that Wells is able to use the romantic genre to critique society and at the same time use the protagonist’s struggle to inspire hope.
The story follows the hero’s journey pattern pretty closely. The hero, the Time Traveler, departs on his journey through time. He arrives in the year 802,701 to find that civilization as we know it has completely changed. His discovery of the changed Earth represents a kind of “crossing of the threshold” as Joseph Campbell would put it. He experiences varying trials, from communicating with the Eloi (future humans), his descent into the “Underworld” (or plainly speaking, discovering and fighting his way out of the underground world of the Morlocks), and even has a temptress/ romantic interest, Weena. The story is even complete with the Time Traveler returning home, entirely changed by his journey, and then setting out again. Similarly to other works we have explored, such as The Lord of The Rings, The Fairie Queen, and Ready Player One, our romantic hero even has a moment where he is so changed by what he has experienced, that he cannot stay home and continues West. In this case, “West” is the future, which Wells represents by depicting a big, red, setting sun.
While it is very interesting that this story follows the hero’s journey and fits into the category of romance, it is also significant. Wells is able to place his story within a different kind of mythological context, the far-future, whereas stories typical of this genre take place in a mythological form of the past. When romances take place in the past, they tend to serve as a kind of contemplation of our own nostalgia for simpler times when good and evil were black and white. However, by placing this story in the future, Welles flips the genre on its head. Times are no longer simple, but far more complex, hence the dystopia. Good and evil is not as well defined. Yes, the Morlocks attempt to kill the Time Traveler, but we also know that they are the prodigies of an enslaved human race, forced to labor under the ground as a result of a system of massive economic inequality. Thus, we see the remnants of our own society within the framework of the one the Time Traveler visits. However, similarly to the epic struggles of other romantic heroes, the strife of the Time Traveler gives us hope. Unlike typical romances, there is no epic struggle of good versus evil, but the struggle to find meaning within a meaningless world, which is one that we can relate to in modern society. It is the Time Traveler’s struggle, and his ultimate decision to return, that allow us to identify with him and see heroism within ourselves.