The two literary works under analysis are Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis and The Time Machine by Herbert Wells. The choice is justified by the fact that these books are centered around the concept of an excursus into the human history. Basically, the very trope of time-travel in Time’s Arrow, as well as in The Time Machine is aimed at serving the purpose of unveiling the aspects of the chosen period of time to a reader. However, while Amis unpacks the history of mankind, Wells explores it.
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The manner in which the two books are presented is antonymous. The narration in Time’s Arrow is directed backwards, into the past of Tod’s being and, with that, into the past of mankind’s history. Moreover, the narration makes the storyline and storytelling resemble a movie, being rewound to its beginning with the play button pressed down. Therefore, people are used to the natural flow of events where everything has to go through a life cycle, which starts with birth, continues through being young and full of life and ends with decay and ceasing to exist. This is the rule for humans, animals, plants, even mountains since this law is universally valid. The narration, however, reverses this order and gives the reader a chance to feel what it is like to start a life from death and become stronger and younger with each day. Reversed time flow distorts the meaning of events. It distorts the logical sequence of cause-and-effect. Such a manipulation with routine sequences makes a “quirky sense” to a reader (Amis, 1991, p. 42). It induces a strong feeling that something is utterly not right. Traveling backwards in time this way is strangely unsettling and confusing. It violates the natural law and logic. However, it becomes an ideal tool of bringing the message to the reader. It is common knowledge that the Good is cognized only when it is opposed to the Bad. This contrast of the two opposites of the world’s creation is what makes people understand the difference and value the essence of either of the phenomena. Thus, the author of Time’s Arrow purposefully plays with the reader’s moral by showing serious events in reverse and, thus, playing havoc with their meaning. Consequently, the reader needs time and effort to play the protagonist’s actions “forward” in order to assess his personality based on his deeds, to turn the “white” into “black” again. Reversing the narration back to normal transforms a trip to war-struck Europe into what it really is, i.e. fleeing Europe for the USA. At this point, the protagonist becomes the antagonist. It appears that the difference between a hero and a runaway is in change of perspective and narration vector. This difference is felt so starkly, because, at first, something seems good and only then the reader reverses the narration in his mind and find out how bad each event or decision is. Such an experience changes a perspective on moral and purpose of living, as well as the continuity and sequence of life. In addition to feeling the difference between the good and the evil, the reader also understands that the natural flow of life is what makes it meaningful and true. “Time, the human dimension, which makes us everything we are” (Amis, 1991, p. 68).
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The movie allegory would be appropriate when discussing one more aspect of both stories. Whereas Time’s Arrow can be allegorically compared to the operation performed by the “rewind” button, The Time Machine is more like a “fast-forward”. The narration in Wells’ book is directed forward in time, to the future of mankind. The protagonist travels far into the future to witness the result of centuries-long human evolution. The time-travel is accelerated. Acceleration is one more of not many common features shared by the two books, other than the books’ focus on historical change. In The Time Machine, the acceleration is experienced through the changing world around the machine in which the protagonist (together with the reader) is trapped. The accelerated flow of the human history makes patterns, which would be otherwise unnoticed or would take generations to process vivid. Correspondingly, the acceleration serves the purpose of showing the dynamics and magnitude of mankind’s evolution as seen through the evolution of their creations, such as architecture and culture overall. The acceleration in Time’s Arrow is also present. The very narration seems to be compressed and focused on the major details whereas all other minor or transitory events just pass by unnoticed. The reader feels that what is described in a few pages is, in fact, a compressed illumination of the period of days or even months. Thus, the storytelling is not only directed into the past and reversed, but also accelerated. However, the acceleration in Amis’ creation is slower than that of Well’s work. Moreover, Time’s Arrow uses acceleration throughout the whole narration and for a different purpose. The purpose is not to skip and emphasize the long process of human evolution, like it is done in The Time Machine, but, on the contrary, to compress it – the whole duration of a lifetime – into one book so that the story looks like a chronicle of the century being rewound backwards and sped up.
After the purpose and peculiarities of the trope of time-travel are discussed and analyzed for both books, it would also be appropriate to proceed to the comparative and contrastive analysis of the books’ messages to the reader, i.e. the focus and aim of the storytelling.
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In a distorted, although highly effective manner, Time’s Arrow leads the reader back through the history of the 20th century, through its major evils like wars and regimes. Perhaps, the greatest evil shown is Nazism. In the reversed reality of Time’s Arrow, where killing looks like bringing people back to life, ghettoes of Auschwitz seem to be the places where fire and gas work like magic that revitalizes and breathes life into corpses of mortified people, “The overwhelming majority of the women, the children and the elderly we process with gas and fire. The men, of course, as is right, walk a different path to recovery. Arbeit Macht Frei, says the sign on the gate” (Amis, 1991, p. 122). In the book’s reality, the word “process” is meant as some miracle-of-an-action, a cure. After being “processed” this way, dead people seem to wake up to life. The cure for men is more elaborate. Whereas men have to work their way out of death in accordance with the motto on the concentration camp gateway, “Work sets you free”. At least, this is how the narrator experiences the events. In Amis’s (1991) book, it is mentioned:
…babies and children at the base of the pile, then the women and the elderly and then the men. It was my stubborn belief that it would be better the other way round, because the little ones surely risked injury under the press of naked weight. But it worked…There was usually a long wait while the gas was invisibly introduced by the ventilation grilles… I always felt a gorgeous relief at the moment of the first stirring. (p. 120)
In reality, everything was far less miraculous and far more horrifying. The corrected entropy shows the reader a sadder picture of children, women and elderly people being put into gas chambers and crematories to be murdered, once and forever. The reader can also see men working themselves to death in drudgery. There are no miracles, but the horrors of life and death. Indeed, in the actual human history of the Holocaust, gas and fire were used to kill. According to the Nazi’s vision, gas and fire were purifying agents in the holy mission of extermination of the unworthy and “unclean” races. The Nazi’s philosophy was twisted. They celebrated the cult of death like the cult of life. Thus, the reversed vision presented in the book reflects the Nazi’s true, although morally perverted, vision of what is right and what is wrong. In the book’s entropy, the rollback to a more innocent times of the protagonist’s youth and childhood, as well as to mankind’s youth, was the force, which could “dismantle and disperse the ghettoes where the light was always failing and where the children all looked so old and full of knowledge” (Amis, 1991, p. 140). In real life, however, it was the movement forward through time and maturing of mankind, which allowed people to overcome Nazism and ended the sad and tragic story of anti-Semitism and genocide.
The aim of The Time Machine is not to unveil the inhumane, shameful past of mankind, like Time’s Arrow does it, but to show people their hypothetical future. The author puts his character forward in history where the reader, as well as the Time Traveler, would expect to see cars floating in the air, or skyscrapers higher and more magnificent than the existing ones, or the world with no wars or diseases. However, when the protagonist appears in the distant future, he gets disappointed. Instead of ultra-modern architecture, he sees ruins of the old buildings. Instead of an advanced civilization, he meets the humans of the future who look pretty much like those of the past, with their rites, fruit-eating and dancing. Ironically, the Traveler utters, “Too perfect triumph of man” (Wells, 1895, p. 54). The future of man is the world of feeble humanoids with relatively low intellect. “What … is the cause of human intelligence and vigour? Hardship and freedom: conditions under which the active, strong, and subtle survive and the weaker go to the wall” (Wells, 1895, p. 50). Future’s conditions of life are, on the contrary, oriented at the “weaker”, and promote the survival of mankind exactly in this form, with all the softness and feebleness, physical slightness and lack of intelligence. “The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind… strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness” (Wells, 1895, p. 48). The fictional reality of the book makes the reader consider the possibility of contemporary civilization reaching the apogees of its glory and falling into decay someday. To a certain extent, however, Well’s future civilization is utopian. It was the world where “there were no signs of struggle, neither social nor economical struggle” (Wells, 1895, p. 49). The excursus into the future shows that peaceful existence of people, with no wars or inter-class tension, is possible, but its price is rather ambiguous.
As if balancing the “positive” branch of human evolution, the race of Morlocks represents the “negative” scenario of humanity’s future. These two races coexist in the literary reality, but, in fact, they can be regarded as two possible variants of mankind’s evolution awaiting for people of the contemporary epoch. The book suggests, “What if cruelty had grown into a common passion? What if … the [human] race had lost its manliness and had developed into something inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful?” (Wells, 1895, pp. 32-33). Interestingly, the latter phrase can be applied not only to Morlocks, but also to Nazis. Thus, if Time’s Arrow shows the reader the actual past, which cannot be repaired, The Time Machine shows the possible future in which evil still exists in its usual form, but under a different name.
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As can be seen, Time’s Arrow and The Time Machine, when read together and in the order mentioned in this sentence, make an unforgettable impression on the reader by creating a reality, which extends both into the reader’s actual past and possible future. One book reminds about the history of the past century, highlighting its errors and terrors, and the second one is an insight into a hypothesized future based on the traits of evolution demonstrated by our contemporaries and their ancestors. Experiencing these two books would feel as if the reader looks back, at first, and then turns his head in the opposite direction and looks forward in time. The reader will see the evolution of man toward sinless infantry of mankind with all the fruit-eating and worshipping of nature, which resembles the “evolution” of Tod toward his childhood in Time’s Arrow narration. The reader will also see the devolution of people into cruel, inhumanely and aggressively primeval Morlocks, an alternate version of mankind’s future. Ironically and tragically enough, the future seems to stubbornly repeat the patterns of the past – the Eloi resemble mankind on the stage of gathering and primeval cult of nature, and the Morlocks resemble the Nazis in their inhumane treatment of the “lower” races of people. Perhaps, the reader needs to use this precious literary revelation on historical change as a lesson, which will help to build a better “nowadays” in real life.