The idea of future progress in civilisation was an important issue in Victorian society, with commentators such as Darwin and Marx coming to the forefront of society. Darwin's theory of evolution was an important topic during the time of H.G. Well's writing and can be seen in many elements of literature between 1850 and 1930. Marxist views on class and labour issues were also becoming more important during this era of the late 19th and early 20th Century. Elements of the progress of civilisation can be seen effectively in The Time Machine by H.G.Wells. It can also be seen as a crucial theme within Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. In The Time Machine, through the description of the Eloi to the discussions about class differences, we get an idea of the author's views on the progress of civilisation along with critic's ideas on what Wells is saying about civilisation. Whilst in Heart of Darkness, through the fears of "going native" to the depiction of both Africans and Europeans, we also get a view of the lack of confidence in the progress of civilisation. In this essay, I will analyse how confident the literature of this period (1850-1930) is in the progress of civilisation focusing on The Time Machine and Heart of Darkness.
Initially when the narrator lands in this new era of time, he is complimentary about his new surroundings and there seems to be a sense of optimism about the sense of progression of civilisation:
"You have never seen the like can scarcely imagine what delicate and wonderful flowers countless years of culture had created...As I went with them the memory of my confident anticipations of a profoundly grave and intellectual posterity came, with irresistible merriment, to my mind." (Wells 2005: 25-26)
However even though there does seem to be a sense of confidence expressed here, this is not the overall case. One of the main ways in which we can see The Time Machine showcasing a lack of confidence in the progress of civilisation is the fact that a lack of confidence becomes gradually more evident even just after the initial optimism:
"As I stood there in the gathering dark I thought that in this simple explanation I had mastered the problem of the world...Very simple was my explanation, and plausible enough - as most wrong theories are!" (Wells 2005: 33)
After previously commenting about the setting in which he has just arrived and complimenting it, we now get a lack of confidence in this thought. The fact that the narrator now expresses a lack of confidence in his previous compliments about civilisation in the future provides the reader with a view that literature during this period does not express a sense of confidence in the progress of civilisation.
Following on from the initial thoughts of the narrator, we can further see a lack of confidence in the progress of civilisation in the description that Wells gives us of the two races inhabiting the earth during this time period. For example, one of the first ways in which we get a less than impressive view of civilisation in 802,000 is the description about the Eloi race:
"were these creatures fools?...You see I had always anticipated that the people of the year Eight Hundred and Two Thousand odd would be incredibly in front of us in knowledge, art, everything. Then one of them suddenly asked me a question that showed him to be on the intellectual level of one of our five year old children." (Wells 2005: 25)
This childlike quality dismisses the view that the narrator had of the population of this time being more intellectual than the people of his own time. The Eloi race is depicted as childlike creatures that have lost the sense of intelligence and culture from previous time periods. Darwin's theory of evolution seemed to be pointing towards mankind progressing and seemed also to be positive in the light of how we had progressed from ape like creatures to human beings. However, instead of progression, there seems to be a sense of regression concerning civilisation in the future when reading The Time Machine. This lack of confidence is echoed by Wells' own viewpoint. He argues that "there is no guarantee in scientific knowledge of man's permanence or man's ascendancy." (Wells 2000: 12) This is further highlighted by critics such as Parrinder, who argue that, "Wells presents both the theory and the experience of zoological retrogression and human dethronement." (Parrinder 58) The thoughts expressed by Parrinder and Wells himself only serve to highlight the view further that literature during this time period did not express a sense of confidence in the progress of civilisation.
As said, the description given of the Eloi in Time Machine adds further ammunition to the idea that there is not much hope in the progress of civilisation. This lack of hope is further intensified when we look at the idea of class divisions evident within the novel. Class and labour issues were an important issue during the time in which The Time Machine was being written, and this was especially true concerning the works of Karl Marx. Class issues had increasingly been becoming a key issue in Victorian society. We can even see the importance of class issues in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, with Pip wanting to increase his social standing throughout the novel. In his letter to F Lasalle, Marx commented that Darwin's theory had helped him in his basis for class struggle in history. As critics such as Stableford have said, many have seen the divisions between the Eloi and Morlocks as an example of the class divisions within Victorian society at the time. (Stableford, 58) In The Time Machine, it is clear to see this class struggle still being evident in this future era of the human race:
"Proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and Labourer, was the key to the whole position." (Wells, 2005: 48)
It is clear from this quote that the narrator has seen no further progression from the period (19th Century) he has come from to this new era of the human race. This point is emphasised further when he compares what he is seeing to what is happening in contemporary London at the time:
"There is a tendency to utilize underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilization; there is the Metropolitan Railway in London...it had gone deeper and deeper into larger and ever larger underground...Even now, doe not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth?...So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves...and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour. (Wells, 2005: 48)
Here, it is evident to see that civilisation has not improved since the narrator's time. Instead of a new Utopia that he thought he had reached, the opposite is seen and the gap between the upper and lower classes has actually widened since the nineteenth century. This also seems to serve as a warning to the author's own society, and this view is expressed by Parrinder and Philmus who comment that Wells was warning "his contemporaries of the destructiveness of that could be unleashed by modern civilisation." (Parrinder & Philmus 226) In relation to class issues, this could be Wells highlighting to contemporaries that the class problem in Victorian society is something that needs to be tackled in order to progress civilisation. This argument adds further support to the idea that the literature between 1850-1930 did not have confidence in the progress of civilisation.
The description about the setting and the surrounding area where the narrator arrives also tends to give a sense of a lack of progression in civilisation. We are told by the narrator that some of the palaces he had visited "were mere living places, great dining halls & apartments." (Wells, 2005: 41). Also we are told that there were no shops or workshops. The setting in which he describes seems to focus on the degeneration of society and the fact that this world in the 802,000s is essentially filled with ruins of past eras: "I found the Palace of Green Porcelain...deserted and falling into ruin. Only ragged vestiges of glass remained in its windows, and great sheets of the green facing had fallen away from the corroded metallic framework." (Wells 2005: 64) The image of buildings in ruin and the absence of any commerce (due to the fact there are no shops or workshops) gives further precedence to the idea that instead of giving a vote of confidence to progression in civilisation, literature during this time period seems to point towards a regression in civilisation.
However, it isn't just in The Time Machine that the idea of the progression (or degeneration) of civilisation is evident. In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness the idea of civilisation and whether it can progress or inevitably regress is confronted. One of the main ways in which we see this fear of lack of progression becoming clear in Conrad's novel is through the fear of "going native". "Going native" in the novel is the fear of becoming like the native African race. For example, in the beginning of the novel, when Marlow criticises Fresleven, Marlow seems to possess a critical tone towards the fact that Fresleven had emerged himself into African culture:
"He had been a couple of years out already out there in the noble cause, you known, and he probably felt the need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way." (Conrad 109)
The tone evident here in the sentence by Marlow is heavily critical of the way that Fresleven had emerged himself in the culture by scuffling over some hens. However, it is through Kurtz that we can see the criticism of "going native". Marlow comments on how "the original Kurtz" was someone who's "sympathies were in the right place." (Conrad 154) Furthermore, Marlow tells us about how at the end of a report, there is a handwritten postscript saying: "Exterminate all the brutes." (Conrad 155) There seems to be a warning in Conrad's text of "going native" and that it involves a backward way of thinking. As Brantlinger comments, "For Conrad the ultimate atrocity is not some form of tribal savagery, but Kurtz's regression...he has gone native...he betrays the ideals of the civilisation he is supposedly importing." There seems to be an argument here that no matter how civilised a being you are, there is still a chance that they will regress and become as "savage" as what they perceive the local population to be. Therefore, it is clear to see that, again, Conrad does not possess a sense of confidence in the progress of human life, and in turn, his work suggests also that literature during this time period did not possess confidence in the idea of the progress of civilisation.
Closely linked to the idea in the novel that Africa may "turn" civilised people into "savages" is the view expressed early on the story about Western civilisations when Marlow starts talking about London: "And this also...has been one of the dark places of the earth." (Conrad 105) This view is further expressed by Marlow when describing how a young Roman would feel when first entering London:
"But darkness was here yesterday...Imagine him here - the very end of the world...and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery...He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable." (Conrad 106)
There seems to be a clear view expressed here that not all Western civilisations have been "civilised" nations for their existence. An example is made of London here in the fact that it wasn't until the Romans that civilisation entered into the mainstream thought in London. This point is further echoed by Eagleton who adds that "the message of Heart of Darkness is that Western civilisation is it as base as barbarous as African society." (Eagleton 135) When we look at the above examples it is clear that this view can be applied to Conrad's novel. There seems to be no hope in any particular race being classed as "civilised" and this idea is further echoed by the actions of the Europeans in Africa. The barbaric nature of the Europeans and their selfish motives only seem to add to the view that no one particular race can be classed as "civilised." Therefore, again, it can be argued that there is a lack of confidence in the progress of civilisation in literature during this period and this is seen clearly in Conrad's idea that (as Eagleton commented) Western civilisations are essentially as barbaric and uncivilised as the African countries in which they want to promote civilisation.
The description of the African population in Heart of Darkness does not offer much hope to the reader wanting to have some vote of confidence of the progress of civilisation. Commentators such as Achebe have accused the book of racism. For example, Achebe comments:
"Conrad is a 'bloody racist'...'Africa as a setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril." (Achebe, 788)
Just like the Morlocks in The Time Machine, Achebe argues here that the African race is represented as people devoid of all human traits. For example, when the steamer is attacked we can get a clear idea of Africans being depicted as barbaric: "Catch 'im...Give 'im to us...Eat 'im." (Conrad, 144) Here the Africans in the novel are presented as cannibalistic and therefore a regression of what a normal civilised society would be like. These inhuman qualities are made even clearer by the narrator's description of the African people he is passing on the steamer:
"The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us - who could tell...wandering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be." (Conrad, 139)
The fact that the African people in this scene are described as "prehistoric" and also the added point that "sane men" would be appalled at these antics again gives us a view of a people who have regressed from normal civilised society. Therefore, this depiction of the African race in Heart of Darkness does not express a high level of confidence in the progress of civilisation, since it seems as though we are still stuck in a time that not all of society has "civilised", and this subsequently gives the view that literature during this time did not have confidence in the progress of civilisation.
However, The Time Machine and Heart of Darkness cannot be written off as texts which show no hope in the progress of civilisation whatsoever. In The Time Machine, there does exist some hope in the progress of civilisation. The fact that a member of the human race would be able to build a time machine is something that shows a sense of hope. The idea of man being able to build and manage a piece of technology like this demonstrates that man can be intellectual and we do have the power to change our world and improve our knowledge of either the future or past. Also, the fact that the Morlocks still had a sense of knowledge and interest in technology also promotes a sense of confidence in the idea of the progress of civilisation and even in the year 802,700, there would still be an interest in technology. Also, the narrator makes a point that the human race had ultimately reached the sense of a Utopia. Surely this shows some confidence in the progress of civilisation since the world had now reached a perfection?
In Heart of Darkness, it can be argued that there is also a sense of hope. Even though there is a criticism that London was, like Africa in the novel, once "uncivilised", the fact that (in the novel and real life) it has now reached a high point in civilisation and is regarded as a civilised society expresses a sense of hope that a place can go from being classed as "savage" to be regarded as "civilised". This shows that civilisation can progress and therefore literature during this period does express some confidence in the idea of the progress of civilisation.
In conclusion, it is clear to see that literature during the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, particularly The Time Machine and Heart of Darkness did not express a sense of confidence in the progress of civilisation. As seen, from the lack of confidence initially in the novel to the description about the Eloi and their childlike qualities, there is no confidence expressed. This is emphasised further by the divisions evident in society between the rich and poor and the description of this future world surrounded by ruins of past eras. Also, in Heart of Darkness, there is an evident lack of confidence in the progress of civilisation with the criticism of "going native", the argument that western civilisations are just as uncivilised and savage as African nations and the barbaric images of an African race that seem to have regressed from a civilised race. All of these joint together seem to point towards a lack of confidence in civilisation's progress. As mentioned previously, there does remain some hope but, to summarize, it can be argued that the literature during the late 19th century to the early 20th century is not wholly confident in the idea of the progress of civilisation.