The Impact of Time Travel Stories on Readers
Reading Through Time
Time travel fiction has often been a genre that fascinates and enlightens readers probably due to the fact that being able to change the past and know the future is something that has not been done in reality. Time travel is a subject in literature that takes a reader through a personal journey into the past and/or future to show how they are intertwined and impact the present.
Past events are restructured in the present (Wittenberg). The past always repeats itself in extreme and subtle ways. For example, many years ago America kept black slaves as free labor workers. Now, even though we do not call them slaves anymore, America still has many racial biases and discrimination issues. In this way, the past is inserting itself into the present and carrying on into the future. One particular example of this is the story A Christmas Carol.
In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is a mean old man with no Christmas Spirit and, as a result, he is visited by three ghosts: Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future. Christmas Past comes to show him all of the Christmases that made him hate the holiday so much in the present. He reminisces, through the ghost, on the Christmas’s he spent alone before and after his sister died and then the Christmas that his girlfriend broke off their engagement (Dickens). This shows how his past is a central force in his present personality. Many readers will relate to this time travel story as it shows a person who went through something in the past and it shaped who they are in the present. Everyone has experienced that in some way or another.
Scrooge is then made to experience his present after seeing his past so that he can make the connection between the two and maybe, along the way, learn how to fix the way he is living his life. This also gives him and the reader a chance to see how others, who may not be as
fortunate as we are, can sometimes be more grateful for the little they do have than those who
have everything they think they wanted and still be unhappy. Time travel stories open the eyes of the reader to see all aspects of life and how it can and should be changed.
Finally, Scrooge is shown his future if he does not change (Dickens). Many of us can remember parts of our past but glimpsing the future to see how our choices could affect the rest of our lives is something that many people would trade their left arm to do. Part of the reason time travel stories are so fascinating and real to many readers may be because of the chance to see into the future. A Christmas Carol shows how taking another glimpse at the past affects the present attitude and can change a “should have been” into a possibility (Wittenberg).
Another good example of how time travel stories engage the readers through experience
is Kindred by Octavia Butler. Kindred is a novel that is set in the 1900s with an African American woman named Dana who is sent back in time to alter events that will ultimately save her future self. Butler connects the past and present by sending Dana back in time where African Americans are still treated as slaves. The memories of someone who experienced slavery is nothing compared to someone actually experiencing it at the time (Hampton). Dana, in the present, is married to a white man so she is even more frightened and confused when she is sent to a part of the past where white men beat and attempt to rape her. Octavia Butler uses time travel to show the past as a “present reality” through Dana’s eyes (Hampton). Dana is not in control of when and where she time travels so the reader connects to her as a passenger of a new
Dana does not remember a past that she was not born in so her adventure is centered on what she learns from her ancestors. As she goes back in time to witness slavery first hand, her present self is starting to understand slavery better in her time. Dana, uncontrollably, goes back
in time multiple times so that she can save her ancestors in the past and, in consequence,
preserve herself and her family in the future (Hampton).
Time travel, in the novel Kindred, is a way of crossing boundaries. “The conceit of Kindred is that Dana sees how the bonds of the past become the very means to freedom from her legacy in the present; not only is the past necessary to the present/future, but the present/future becomes the very way or means by which the past acquires its meaning in Dana’s life” (Hampton). Meaning that without the past happening the way it did and Dana learning to understand the past as it intertwines with the present, then Dana’s whole existence as a free African American female would not have the same significance it does now. This, as well, helps the reader connect to Dana through time travel. As Dana is transported back through time, the reader experiences how the past and present exist within each other and that memory is the key component of time travel. Dana’s great-grandfather, Rufus, inadvertently sends Dana through time to him every time his life is in danger so that she can save him and return to her own time. Rufus’ mind is what brings her to the past so Dana’s memories are altering with the past and that is how she is allowed to exist in the present as well (Hampton). Because Rufus is the central force of her time travel to the past then he must be a key figure in her present. “Dana’s method of traveling through time and space can therefore be interpreted as rethinking the past and the present” (Hampton).
What these books and articles have in common in accordance to The Time Machine by H.G. Wells is that they use time travel as a central focus, not so much to change the past, as to understand how the past is intertwined into the present and, by extension, the future. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooges misery in the present stemmed from the misery of his past Christmas’ and would have carried so far into the future that no one would have been to his funeral if he had not chosen to change his attitude. In Kindred, Dana’s adventure to the past gave her a better understanding of her freedom and privileges in the future. Finally, in The Time Machine, the time traveler’s adventure into the future shows him that his assumptions of the way things should be are not always right and the past always comes back around, in some way, to repeat itself in the future. The time traveler feels as though society will be more evolved in the future and his arrogance gets him into a lot of trouble. This causes him to go back to his own time, share his story, and leave again to perhaps help change the future for the better (Wells).
The one difference among these stories, though, is that in the first two there is no time machine. The time travel method, while physical, is a mental process that is interpreted as rethinking past mistakes and choices rather than having a machine take you into the future. Having time travel without the machine seems more relatable to readers because time machines have not been invented. The reader can connect more with the time traveler of the story if they are simply being back in time through their own means. It is the same as looking back through history and your own life.
There are many other time travel stories such as The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, and Time and Again by Jack Finney that use time travel as a central focus that continues to fascinate readers. Why is that? Is it perhaps because we have yet to physically travel back or forward in time and experience this ourselves? Or is it that we love to experience the past through a point of view other than our own and a history book’s?
Butler, Octavia. Kindred. Boston: Beacon Press, 1979. Print
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. New York: Global Classics, 2014. Print.
Hampton, Gregory. “Kindred: History, Revision, And (Re)Memory of Bodies.” Obsidian III
6/7.2/1 (2005): 105-117. Humanities International Complete. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.