Summary: The following week, the Time Traveller’s guests arrive for dinner, but their host does not. Finally, well into the evening, the Traveller arrives, looking very much the worse for wear: pale, disorderly, limping, his socks stained with blood. After he cleans himself and eats, he proceeds to tell what he promises will be an incredible tale of his adventures journeying through time.
Analysis: Having established the Time Traveller’s theories in the first chapter, Wells proceeds to establish his character in the second. The Traveller is “one of those men who are too clever to be believed… [and] had more than a touch of whim among his elements” (p. 11). The (anonymous) narrator of these first two framing chapters explicitly tells us that the Traveller is not trusted by even his friends. It is certainly true that his late arrival to the dinner party in a disheveled state could be explained in any number of ways that are more sensible than time travel. Perhaps he was accosted on his way, for instance, or perhaps (as this chapter’s narrator might suspect) the Traveller is staging a hoax. (Readers will remember the reference to the “ghost [he] showed us last Christmas” at the end of Chapter 1, now acknowledged as a “trick” or practical joke, p. 11.) All of these statements and considerations position the Traveller as unreliable—and, since he narrates the bulk of the novel himself, they thus establish him as an unreliable narrator. Unreliable, that is, in the eyes of his friends. Readers have to make their own judgment about the tale the Traveller will soon spin. Wells cleverly engages readers in the task of determining how much, in the tale to follow, can be believed: “Most of it,” the Traveller warns his friends—and us—“will sound like lying. So be it! It’s true—every word of it, all the same” (p. 16). (Of course, outside the world of the novel, we know that not one word of it is true, thus layering the entire question of the narrator’s reliability in irony.) With the next chapter, Wells will turn his narrative over to the voice of the Traveller, thus replicating for readers the experience of the dinner guests, who found themselves enthralled directly by the Traveller’s account, “look[ing] only at the Time Traveller’s face” (p. 16).
Summary: The Traveller begins his tale by recounting how he “flung [himself] into futurity”—gradually at first, but then with ever more abandon, until he found himself and his Machine overturned in a garden-like environment—the “world of the remote future.” Although he does see large buildings, the dominant artificial feature in the lush setting is a white statue of a sphinx-like creature. The Traveller uprights his Machine, but before he can mount it again, a group of short, simply dressed, “beautiful and graceful” people approach.
Analysis: Although the Traveller claims he “cannot convey the peculiar sensations of time travelling” (pp. 17-18), he does lend his tale an air of verisimilitude by describing the changes he saw in initially small increments: the sudden jump of several hours on the clock face; the shifting position of his servant, Mrs. Watchett (whose name may be a pun that highlights the book’s subject: the word “Watchett” visually resembles the word for a timepiece, and phonetically sounds like the phrase “watch it,” that is, “observe it”—as the Traveller is inviting his audience to “observe” his experience through his narrative). Only having thus established the legitimacy of time travel does the Traveller describe his wild ride into the distant future. His vivid descriptions—of the rapid rising and setting of the sun, of the accelerated growth and decay of vegetation, of the seemingly instantaneous rising and falling of structures—resemble nothing so much as sequences of time-lapse photography, and have become common visual shorthand in films about time travel. They also, however, suggest the common literary theme of sic transit gloria mundi—Latin for, “Thus passes the glory of the world.” From his stable vantage point within his Machine, the Traveller notes tress “growing and changing like puffs of vapour,” and witnesses “huge buildings rise up faint and fair, and [then] pass like dreams” (p. 18). Both the natural and man-made world as we know them, then, are transitory and ultimately ephemeral. Biblically minded readers may think of such scriptures as Psalm 103:15-16: “The days of man are but as grass for he flourisheth as a flower of the field. For as soon as the wind goeth over it, it is gone and the place thereof shall know it no more.” Such biblical and classical views of the temporary nature of our existence inform much of Western literature, and Wells’ novel is no exception.
This chapter ends with representatives of future humanity approaching the Traveller and his Machine—remaining, for the moment, as enigmatic as the White Sphinx that looms over their habitat. The sphinx, of course, was an ancient monster of Greek mythology that tyrannized the population of Thebes until its riddle could be answered. Similarly, the Traveller finds himself confronted with the riddle of what humanity in the far future has made of itself: is it a society that is free, or enslaved?