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

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Author: David J. Lake
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,613 words

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[(essay date March 1979) In the following essay, Lake considers Wells's use of imagery 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....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420049512