Partial Derivatives: Popular Misinterpretations of H. G. Wells's The Time Machine
The Time Machine is the story of a journey, both temporal and intellectual; and, since few of its readers have shared H. G. Wells's intelligence and vision, most of them unsurprisingly have never completed the journey. To be sure, they finished reading the novel, but mentally they stopped at an early stage, accepting an interpretation of the story that is later contradicted in the text; and the stopping points chosen by various readers, as evidenced in contemporary commentaries and adaptations, can be related to the circumstances of their distinctive eras. Further, while prediction is always uncertain, I can guess where the next generation of interpreters are most likely to stop reading the novel.
Since I am sometimes discomfited by the glib generalizations of social historians, I will begin by placing all of mine on the table. For purpose of argument, let us divide the history of North America and Western Europe since publication of The Time Machine into three, roughly equal periods. The time from 1895 to 1930 might be called the Era of Scientific Optimism: All sorts of new technological marvels--electrical devices, radio, automobiles, aircraft--had suddenly appeared, large numbers of amateur inventors following the example of Thomas Alva Edison were exploring the possibilities created by these innovations, and prospects for future improvements in all areas of life seemed unlimited. Then, the Great Depression of 1929, and collapse of the world economy, apparently eliminated all chances for quick and easy solutions, scientific or otherwise, to fundamental problems, so that people were forced to return to the attributes of their ancestors: hard work, violence directed at enemies, and constant vigilance against possible threats. Call the period from 1930 to 1965 the Era of Struggle; and having inculcated these qualities, people of that time endured the hardships of the Depression, overcame the armies of Germany and Japan, and maintained a nervous attentiveness towards the perceived Communist threat of the 1950s. Finally, in the mid-1960s, a generaion came of age who had never had to work hard or struggle, and who saw no