Using Fantasy to Take Back Time

Tenniel, "Alice in Wonderland"

Tenniel, “Alice in Wonderland”

I am drawing on my son’s dissertation as I plan my British Fantasy course. Toby’s exciting ideas about time machines in Victorian fiction are helping me understand why the 19th century created some of the world’s great fantasy literature.

As Toby describes the era, industrial society was imposing upon humankind a new way of seeing itself in relation to time. Whereas time was once pegged to nature—we got up with the sun and stopped working when it went down—thanks to train schedules and factory hours we increasingly we began to define ourselves in relation to machine time. In other words, our core identities were being refashioned in ways that felt inhuman and inhumane. Fantasy was one way of pushing against this new machine-imposed reality.

Here’s Toby, in a summary of his dissertation, describing how machines and time became inextricably mixed and how they even came to define how we conceptualize human development.  Reflecting this reality, the novel itself came to be seen as a kind of time machine:

            The Victorian era was a period defined by time machines. At the end of the century, HG Wells concretized the term into a science fiction device which has exploded into thousands of stories since, but, throughout most of the nineteenth century, these two words could have referred to any number of technologies and inventions which were reorganizing the temporal fabric of modern existence.

            At stake in the expanding production of clocks, railroads, and observatories was a standard lived experience, a life consistently pinned to the movement of great machines and markets that, as Marx phrased it, “converted the worker into the living appendage of the machine.” While the machine was already active as a cultural metaphor in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, perhaps most notably via the work of Descartes and Hobbes, it was not until the nineteenth century that the mass dissemination of machinery seemed to become constitutively determinant in public life.

            The question of whether technology was beginning to alter the basic conditions of human existence was repeatedly posed through yet another time machine, the novel. My project seeks to investigate the curious technology of the novel at the point and practice of its vexed relationship to time and technology. Using Wells’ Time Machine as a telos for the project, I have chosen novels that pose complex scenarios involving the integration of human narrative time into the new forms of time being researched and produced through science and industry.

            Of particular interest is the genre of the Bildungsroman (the novel of education), which, as Bakhtin describes it, depicts “the image of man in the process of becoming.” I begin my work with Frankenstein because Shelley’s novel poses the central question of whether it is possible to think of a human as a product of technology, and further attempts to detail the education and growth of such a being. 

            Education is a repeating theme of my work as the Victorian era, with its focus on producing “useful” populations, also marked the advent of universal standardized education as well as standardized testing and mandatory schooling. In mid-century novels like Kingsley’s The Water-Babies and Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, time manipulation and personification play a central role in both formulating and defying forms of standard education. Indeed, it is in this period of history that the concept of a mentally standardized subject came into being and was imagined to be achievable via particular life phases planned by ministers of government education.

I will be teaching Carroll’s Alice books and you can see why Victorian readers, chafing under the new strictures of time, would find Carroll’s nonsensical upending of time so satisfying. In the conversation at the mad tea party, for instance, we are told that time used to be more personal but has since wrested itself free of human control:

Alice sighed wearily. “I think you might do something better with the time,” she said, “than waste it in asking riddles that have no answers.”

“If you knew Time as well as I do,” said the Hatter, `”you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Alice.

“Of course you don’t!” the Hatter said, tossing his head contemptuously. “I dare say you never even spoke to Time!”

“Perhaps not,” Alice cautiously replied: “but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.”

“Ah! that accounts for it,” said the Hatter. “He won’t stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock. For instance, suppose it were nine o’clock in the morning, just time to begin lessons: you’d only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!” 

(“I only wish it was,” the March Hare said to itself in a whisper.)

“That would be grand, certainly,” said Alice thoughtfully: “but then–I shouldn’t be hungry for it, you know.”

“Not at first, perhaps,” said the Hatter: “but you could keep it to half-past one as long as you liked.”           

And further on:

“Well, I’d hardly finished the first verse,” said the Hatter, “when the Queen jumped up and bawled out, ‘He’s murdering the time! Off with his head!’”

“How dreadfully savage!” exclaimed Alice.

“And ever since that,” the Hatter went on in a mournful tone, “he won’t do a thing I ask! It’s always six o’clock now.”

Since I’m on the subject, I’ll note that John Wilmot makes a related point in his 17th century poem “Satire against Reason and Mankind” when he inveighs against intellectual abstractions (false reason) as opposed to the language of the senses (true reason):

My reason is my friend, yours is a cheat;
Hunger calls out, my reason bids me eat;
Perversely, yours your appetite does mock:
This asks for food, that answers, “What’s o’clock?”

As Toby points out, the clock was a cultural metaphor in the 17th century. But machines had become so pervasive by Lewis Carroll’s time that only through nonsense and fantasy could humans escape.

As I said in yesterday’s post, it is our urge to rebel against these constraints as we search for a deep reality that draws us to  fantasy literature.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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