Chris Semansky Critical Essay

Arguments and Counter-arguments presented by “Time Machine”

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“The Time Machine,” first published in 1895 by H.G. Wells is a classic science fiction novella that has captivated the hearts of young readers since its publication. It has spawned numerous films and television adaptations, but the most iconic contribution this book has given to the literary world is popularizing the term ‘time machine.’

Most importantly, H.G. Wells narrative defined the science fiction genre during a time when science as establishing itself as the dominant creation of man and ambassador of technology. There were many myths and preconceived notions that were shared by readers during the 1890’s concerning technological advancement, science, and humanity, all of which Wells comments on with “Time Machine.”

There is a view among literary scholars that through the use of the title “Time Machine”, H.G. Wells not only popularized the term but normalized the concept of science of time travel, as in he made it believable. There are two sides to this concept though. In his article, “Time Machine: in search of time future and time past,” Peter Firchow describes how H.G. Wells established himself as the ‘Godfather’ of science fiction with this publication using this method of making the very extreme fictitious concept of time travel appear natural and scientifically viable.

He notes that the “relaxed “gentlemen’s clubroom” atmosphere of the frame narrative, with its pipes and slippers and cozy fire, is also designed to lull readers into suspending their natural inclination towards disbelief. It all seems so perfectly ordinary and real. In this way, Wells is able to domesticate the mostly wildly fantastic elements of his narrative–most notably the “fact” of time travel by first embedding them in familiar and mundane surroundings (p123).”

The subtle surroundings H.G. Wells sets the plot in makes the theme seamless and believable. The counter to this argument is that much of the characteristics of 19th century society actually doesn’t translate well to modern day readers making the plot actually more outlandish not less, because it is very hard for a reader to fathom this type of technology in the period in which the book is set.

Another argument has to do with how the time travel in the book is explained and how believable the concept is to the reader. Again, this is something that varies depending on the era in which the book is read. This concept that Wells simplifies the complexities of science and makes the unthinkable believable is very true, but more so for the readers during the 1890’s and not necessarily the readers of today.

Contemporary readers receive the concept of time travel in the book more as metaphor and the science is less thrilling. Wells does not use to many technical explanations for what’s happening in the book, and at moments even implies that his science may be faulty for example when the protagonists openly says, “Very simple was my explanation, and plausible enough – as many wrong theories are! (Wells, Pg. 49).”

It’s moments like these that points to Wells own personal resentment of technology na d how it presents itself as a matter of fact (Semansky, p3). At the same time while contradicting the wisdom of science, there are moments when Wells makes the science appear genuinely possible.

There are moments in the book where he takes abstract out-of-this-world ideas and explains them simply in ways that are almost reasonable and understandable. For example, when he is describing how time travel works and he is talking about the difference between dimensions, he notes that “”There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it (Wells, Pg. 3).”

Here Well’s explanation for how time travel works is seemingly believable and it takes advantage of what at the time was a common faith in science, and this faith still exists today. What is even more notable is the fact that Wells makes the reader comfortable with the outlandish concept of time travel by surrounding it with established scientific theories, such as Darwin’s concept of evolution.

The other side of viewing Well’s use of science in the book as believable and factual is the belief that his science is very comic strip and adventure book-like for modern times. As Higdon notes ,Written in a plain style (Wells once said, “I write as I walk because I want to get somewhere”) and in the fantasy traditions of Plato and Swift, The Time Machine has a young narrator who greatly admires the older, adventuresome protagonist who is known only as the Time Traveller (Higdon, p1).”

He describes the nature of time travel with poetic abstract terms and nothing finite or technical, which is what contemporary readers of Science fiction have become more accustomed to. Despite the fact that Well’s work is what sparked the genre, his use of science arguably in the book can be viewed as falling short of its intent to transcend and thrill readers beyond it’s period of publication.

Many scholars believe that the moral of the Time Machine is that with advancements in technology comes the increasing desire for mankind to self-destruct. In order for one to take this approach to the book, they have to view the Eloi people as inferior to the protagonist. In his article, “Critical Essay on The Time Machine” Chris Semansky notes that The Time Traveller’s initial response after landing in the future but prior to meeting the Eloi, underscores this thinking.

He worries: “What if cruelty had grown into a common passion? What if in this interval the race had lost its manliness, and had developed into something inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful (Semansky, p3) ?” Here we see that the protagonists equates cruelty and overwhelming power with a regression, and not evolution of mankind.

This view can be countered by the concept that a world without intellect is a less complicated and more peaceful world. Wells hints to this concept in the epilogue when the protagonists contemplates over the nature of all that he has seen and he says, “And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers – shriveled now, and brown and flat and brittle – to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man (Wells Epilogue, Pg. 147).”

The final argument one that Wells directly put on its heels is the belief that the future will be more technologically advanced. This is a view that the book negates throughout. The Time Traveler, committed to Victorian belief in progress, had expected to find “wonderful advances upon our rudimentary civilization.” Instead, he found a strangely attenuated world inhabited by the Eloi, who resemble diminutive human beings and strike him as being “consumptive,” “indolent,” “easily fatigued”—in short, a disillusioning disappointment.

In sum “Time Machine” was a milestone in literary history because it single handedly ushered in the science fiction genre during a time when science was establishing itself as a testament to man’s supremacy over nature, and Western culture had blind faith in all the contemporary scientific developments.

Wells originated what now has become a tradition within the genre to question the benefit of science for humanity. When the main character travels to the end of existence to see that man has become extinct by his own reliance on technological advancement, it has a very dark and eerie effect on the reader.

Where the book fall short is that its popularity has made it so iconic that for contemporary readers the plot is predictable and doesn’t have the same captivating and thrilling effect it probably had when first read by readers in the 1890’s. In essence Well’s success desensitized following generations to his literary methods.

Work Cited

Firchow, Peter. “H. G. Wells’s Time Machine: in search of time future and time past.” The Midwest Quarterly 45.2 (2004): 123+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 7 May 2010.

H. G.Wells – Stephen Arata – W.W. Norton – New York – 2009

Higdon, David Leon. “The Time Machine: Overview.” Reference Guide to English Literature. Ed. D. L. Kirkpatrick. 2nd ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1991. Literature Resource Center. Web. 7 May 2010.

Semansky, Chris. “Critical Essay on The Time Machine.” Novels for Students. Ed. David A. Galens. Vol. 17. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 7 May 2010.

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White, Jacquelyn W. Taking Sides. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. Dubuque: McGraw-Hills Company, 2007. 1-396.

Author: Russell Ransom

in The Time Machine

Arguments and Counter-arguments presented by “Time Machine”

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Julie Simmons

Emily Dickinson grew up in New England in the late 1800s. The nineteenth century was a difficult time period for the people of America. There was an abundance of war, epidemic, and death. Because her house was located beside a graveyard, Dickinson saw many of the elaborate funeral processions as they passed (Murray). Because of these experiences, death became very real to her, and it made a large impression on her life. Conrad Aikin, one of the many critics of Dickinson’s work, believes that: "Death and the problem of life after death obsessed her" (15). She had a very peculiar idea about eternity that was unlike any of the traditional Christian ideas of that time period. Dickinson’s strong feelings about death are expressed through hundreds of poems where she maximizes and characterizes many qualities of death. However, "Because I could not stop for Death" is one that receives a great deal of critical attention and causes a great deal of interest. In this poem, Dickinson uses personification and metaphors to develop the idea of death, which is a suitor arriving, and to reveal how doubtful the speaker is about the indefinite event of eternity. Through this poem, Dickinson allows the reader to see her feelings about death. She feels that no one can know for sure what will take place after death, and she believes the idea of eternity is unknown.

In "Because I could not stop for Death," the poet personifies death, making him a real person with human characteristics. For this reason, many consider this poem one of her greatest works. Chris Semansky has written a great deal about modern and postmodern literature. In the article "An Overview of ‘Because I could not stop for Death,’" he speaks about Thomas Johnson's feelings relating to the poem: "‘Because I could not stop for Death’ is a superlative achievement where death becomes the greatest character in literature" (Semansky). Personification is a type of figurative language one uses to give abstract ideas human-like characteristics. Dickinson uses personification in this poem because it allows the reader to understand death in a more intimate way. Death became so real to her and to her contemporaries because of the time in which she lived. Through her life experiences, the poet became intimate with death. Because of all the disease and epidemics in her lifetime, many of her loved ones passed away. These deaths were very "intense breaks in her life" (Murray). Some critics suggest that the death of her cousin was the inspiration for this poem (Semansky). In any event, death had a large impact on Dickinson's life. This impact explains why she writes so descriptively about it. In this poem, death is personified as a gentleman caller taking the lady out for a carriage ride. This personification gives the reader a better image of the writer’s idea of the coming of death.

Dickinson gives Death many characteristics that help to shape our image of him. The line "He kindly stopped for me" in the first stanza, immediately gives a male gender (2). This male image gives the reader the traditional idea of the gentleman caller. This line also reveals a kind quality of death. The kind quality is important throughout this poem because it allows the speaker to feel more comfortable on this indefinite ride. The speaker also tells of Death’s civility. One can draw from these characteristics an image of a polite and courteous man driving the carriage. These warm-hearted qualities give the reader a calm, inquisitive look at death. The poet looks at death this way because of her traditional religious background. This background gives the speaker a peaceful idea of eternity that relates to the biblical idea of Heaven. However, this genteel driver elicits the terror of death. This driver "is made ironically to serve the end of immortality" (Tate 84). Even though the driver appears to have many appealing characteristics, his purpose is still to reveal the unknown destination of eternity for the lady. Though Death’s face value reveals only a gentleman, "we can accept little at face value in Dickinson" (Abbott). Death’s qualities become more majestic and quite mysterious as the journey continues. The poet personifies death and brings to view a collection of many different qualities of death in this poem. Dickinson wants the reader to become aware of the undetermined feelings of death that she is contemplating.

The kind and caring qualities that we see in Death lead one to believe that Death, the suitor, also represents a lover. As he arrives in the carriage, he is courting her and wanting her to come along. In the line "And I put away my labor and leisure too," it is clear to see that the speaker stops what she is doing to join Death (7). The gentleman caller taking the young lady of the house for a ride was common courtship in the nineteenth century. Courtship was something of importance in Dickinson’s day. Here she is guiding the reader to an idea that she has never experienced herself but knew a great deal about because of her brother’s courtship experiences. The poet feels that the only courtship she will experience will be that of Death’s. In this way, she again reveals her relationship with death to us. We see that Dickinson gives death these personality traits to allow the reader to see her uneasiness about this subject. Because this poem is the beginning of the speaker’s courtship, the idea of a first date could also cause some of the speaker’s uneasy feelings. Some critics say that this idea of a lover is merely a common idea for many romantic poets (Tate 22). However, this personification of death is not merely because Dickinson is a romantic poet. It is common in her poetry because of her very adamant attitude about the eternal situation.

Dickinson is also known for her use of metaphorical language throughout her poetry. When speaking of death, she uses metaphors frequently to describe the unimaginable event. A metaphor is a comparison of two things, but there is no exactness in meaning. Moreover, the poet’s thoughts and feelings about death are not very exact and quite unsure. "Death is not merely metaphorical for Dickinson; it is the greatest subject of her work" (Faulkner 923). Dickinson’s strange and unsure feelings help to explain her use of metaphors in this poem. Many critics have their own interpretations of Dickinson’s poems. Richard Sewall speaks about her by saying: "Dickinson lived her life metaphorically in ways that call for interpretation" (qtd. in Eberwien 29). She uses metaphors in "Because I could not stop for Death" because she is attempting to compare something that is unfamiliar to something familiar. She is comparing for the reader something she has actually had to something she has not (Murray). Through the children playing, the grain fields, the house, and the horses’ heads, the poet gives us an exceptional description of an uncertain experience in this poem.

Through this metaphorical journey, Death is revealing to the speaker her options about eternity. The first option is quite peaceful. In the line "As we pass the school, where children strove," the writer is using the children’s activities in the schoolyard to characterize a certain type of eternity (9). This eternity would be a haven of happiness that is full of laughter and smiles. It is easy to see how the speaker receives this image from young children because they are so full of these happy qualities. Likewise, the "gazing grain" in the same stanza also reiterates a sense of tranquility about eternity. The grain does this because the sight of open fields of grain blowing in the wind is very peaceful. The metaphor is that eternity is being compared to the delight of small children and to the peacefulness of grain fields. These same scenes today would again give the feeling of peace, happiness, and tranquility. Moreover, the third stanza is allowing the speaker to see the stages of her life. This part in the poem has a dual meaning. Howard Faulkner criticizes Dickinson’s work when he states: "The third stanza brings the customary metaphor of life as a journey and the convention of one’s life passing before her as she dies" (924). Not only are these scenes options for eternity, but they are also scenes of the speaker’s life. Through these images, the speaker is starting to realize what she is leaving behind. The first image the speaker sees helps to calm her uncertainty about this journey with death because of the peaceful characteristics that are revealed.

The next metaphor begins in the fourth stanza of the speaker’s journey. In the line "The dews grew quivering and chill," the poet allows the reader to begin to feel the cold chill of an empty eternity (14). The carriage or chariot, as some may call it, takes a very dreary turn. The air and the idea of eternity are becoming very cold and even lonely. This coldness is another eternal option for the speaker. "Her clothing, frilly and light" allows the cold chill to cut right through the speaker (Faulkner 924). The words "quivering and chill" are comparing an unexpected coldness to a certain eternity without any comfort or contentment. The speaker is becoming fearful. Robert Wiesbuch, a writer about Dickinson’s work, says that now we see the poem along with the speaker become more doubtful in its trust of immortality (214). In the third stanza, the speaker feels quite content with a type of peaceful eternity. However, now that the speaker takes another look, she is confronted with a type of very unpleasant eternity. Her skepticism is now turning into fear. "This response suggests not only the literal coldness that comes from not dressing appropriately for the occasion, but also the emotional coldness that occurs when approaching one’s own death" (Semansky). This turn in the road causes the speaker and even the reader to become more unsure and doubtful about the events of eternity.

The next stop for the speaker is a house. The house here has multiple meanings. The house represents the speaker’s life. As the house appears to be sinking, the speaker’s life is also sinking and becoming closer to the ground in a very literal way. Dickinson compared many of her ideas to biblical ideas. The Bible makes reference to the body returning to the ground dust unto dust. This metaphor is comparing the house, which is almost completely in the ground, to the speaker’s life, which is almost at an end. There is a passage in the Bible that discusses "many mansions" that are "in my Father’s house." This suggestion gives us an idea that the house represents another aspect of death’s finality (Murray). Along with the image of death, this metaphor of the house gives us an image of the grave. The grave is also a representation of the finality of death. During Dickinson’s lifetime, many people were buried in burial vaults. These vaults were built with a roof and stone walls. Because of their structural design, these vaults resembled houses. There would be earth and sod all around these structures. The earth and sod all around gave the appearance of the "swelling of the ground" (18). Metaphorically, through the house, Dickinson reveals an image of the end of life.

One other metaphor that contributes to the many doubts and feelings of the speaker is that of the horses’ heads. The horses’ heads are being compared to the direction of eternity. The lines "I first surmised the horses’ heads were toward eternity," allow one to question if their direction will be immortality or merely mortality (23-24). The horses’ heads are a synecdoche to the whole. The heads are referring to the whole group of horses that are pulling the carriage. However, they are not just a synecdoche. They are also representing the fact that the speaker cannot see past them to see the vision of death (Cameron 156). The speaker is quite intrigued about their next destination. She is watching the horses’ heads to see which direction they will choose. The speaker is very uncertain about the way the horses will lead her ride toward eternity. After she has seen her options of eternity, she is very sure she does not get to choose. The poet is very unsure about who will make this final decision or if there is anyone to make it. We see she feels that death is an experience that no one can foretell. Through her poem, Dickinson reveals much doubt. Robert Weisbuch states it best when he speaks of Dickinson: "My emphasis here is that Dickinson suddenly, midpoem, has her thought change, pulls in the reins on her faith, and introduces a realistic doubt: and we are right there as this occurs" (214). The poet’s metaphors allow the reader to be as skeptical as the speaker. The audience is also wondering what direction in eternity the horses will take.

In conclusion, it is obvious to see Dickinson’s closeness and intimacy with death through this poem. We see from the literary elements of personification and metaphorical language a wonderful contemporary, yet somehow traditional, image of death. Allen Tate describes the poem as "a typical theme of Christianity and in its final resolution, without making any final statements about it" (Tate 22). Moreover, the story is quite beautiful in a mysterious way. We see death as kind yet very frightening. Through the metaphors in the poem, one begins to wonder about her own immortality. "We might take immortality at face value, but immortality is not a person; it is each individual’s concept of the ‘unending existence’" (Abbott 143). Dickinson leaves the poem’s story line untied so that we might arrange it to our own image of eternal existence. Because of the life of Emily Dickinson, we are allowed to see a masterpiece of an eternal idea as Death arrives for the lady. Her feelings and experiences expressed in this poem allow one to see a very brilliant yet always questioning mind. The personification and metaphors lead the reader to experience an uneasy feeling about mortality and immortality. Tate says it best when he states: "If the word ‘great’ means any thing in poetry, this poem is one of the greatest in the English language" (Tate 84).

Works Cited

           Abbott, Collamer M. "Dickinson’s ‘Because I could not stop for Death.’" Explicator
                 48 (Spring 2000): 140-144.

           Aikin, Conrad. "Emily Dickinson." Sewall 14-15.

           Cameron, Sharon. "Dickinson’s Fascicles." Grabher et al. 156-157.

           Dickinson, Emily. "Because I could not stop for Death." Meyer 948.

           Eberwien, William. "Dickinson’s Local, Global and Cosmic Perspectives." Grabher et
                al. 29.

           Faulkner, Howard. "Emily Dickinson." Critical Surveys of Poetry: English Language Series.
                Ed. Frank Magill. 2nd ed. 2 Vols. New Jersey: Salem P, 1992. 2: 923-925.

           Grabher, Gudrun, et al. The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst: U of Massachusetts
                P, 1998.

           Meyer, Michael, ed. The Bedford Introduction to Literature: Reading, Thinking, Writing.
                Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.

           Murray, Barbara. Personal Interview. 21 Mar. 2001.

           Semansky, Chris. "An Overview of ‘Because I could not stop for Death.’" Poetry for
GaleNet, 1997. March 2001.

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