Literature

A Summary and Analysis of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds is one of H. G. Wells’s early scientific romances: books which helped to lay the groundwork for modern science fiction. One adaptation was supposedly mistaken for a real news broadcast reporting an actual invasion, although we will come to that later on. The War of the Worlds is probably Wells’s most famous and influential novel, so a few words of analysis are called for to explain precisely why it has become, in some ways, his most defining work.

The War of the Worlds was serialised in Pearson’s Magazine in 1897, before being published in book form the following year. Before we get to the textual analysis, here’s a brief plot summary.

The War of the Worlds: plot summary

The Martians invade England, seeking to colonise Earth, as Mars has become inhospitable. They arrive in cylinders on a common in Surrey. The novel’s narrator is nearby, writing a paper on morality, and gets to see a Martian emerging from the cylinder, about the size of a bear and possessing a ‘tentacular appendage’. The Martians attack a group of men who approach them, destroying them with a heat ray. Civilisation soon starts to fall apart as panic spreads among the English populace. Man-made guns prove useless against the Martians’ superior weapons.

Interspersed within the narrator’s own story is a second narrative, detailed within a letter the narrator’s brother sends to him and which the narrator relates to us. His brother lives in central London and his letter outlines the shift in the capital as people realise their weapons are useless against the Martians. People start fleeing London when the Martians start using black smoke – a form of chemical warfare – against the city’s inhabitants.

The narrator’s brother reports how he fled to the Essex coast, where he witnessed a sea battle between the British navy and the Martians. Even the navy’s ironclads (warships) are roundly defeated in a tense battle at the Thames estuary.

We return to the narrator’s own story. He has fled to Leatherhead to find his wife, but on the way more Martians arrive in their cylinders, and he has to take refuge in an abandoned house, where he shelters with a crazed curate. While he’s there, he studies the Martians, undetected, close-up, and learns that they communicate via telepathy and a series of mysterious whistling sounds. He is also appalled to discover that the Martians feed on human blood. Both the curate and another man become sacrificial victims of the Martians’ bloodlust, and the narrator himself barely escapes.

He then meets an artilleryman who plans to raise a superhuman army against the Martian invaders, though he soon realises the man is all talk and his plans will come to nothing. In the end, it is the humble bacterium that proves the Martians’ undoing: such microbes were unknown to them back on Mars, and their immune systems prove incapable of defending them against their tiny parasitical invaders. The Martians perish, and the survivors begin to rebuild society as things return to normal.

The War of the Worlds: analysis

The War of the Worlds is, like all of H. G. Wells’s early scientific romances, a work of imaginative literature which immediately lends itself to multiple interpretations on various levels. Like his first novella, The Time Machine (1895), which can be read as a commentary on everything from the ‘Two Nations’ of a class-riven Victorian Britain to an exploration of Darwinian evolution and even a riff upon the popular imperial romance, The War of the Worlds is both a superlative example of the ‘invasion’ narrative of the late nineteenth century and a commentary on imperialism.

The War of the Worlds was not the first example of the tale of foreign invasion: George Chesney’s 1871 novella The Battle of Dorking, whose first edition sold 80,000 copies, was clearly an influence on Wells. In Chesney’s tale, the Germans attack Britain and defeat them at sleepy Dorking, not too far from where Wells’s Martians land in leafy Surrey. Wells’s innovation was to take this popular form and add a science-fiction element: what if a completely different species from another planet invaded Britain? For then, as Brian Aldiss points out in his excellent introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel, The War of the Worlds, there could be no hope of truce or communication between the two ‘worlds’ at war.

Wells uses this novel idea to explore attitudes to colonisation and imperialism, and 1897, the year the novel was serialised, was a timely year to do this. It was the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and there was much debate about the British Empire. In his poem for that occasion, ‘Recessional’, Rudyard Kipling had sounded a warning note:

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Britain’s ‘pomp’ and greatness are no more: like Nineveh and Tyre, ancient civilisations of the past, it will die away to nothing.

In The War of the Worlds, then, Wells turns the tables and gives Britain a flavour of what it would be like if Victorian Britain was the colonised, rather than the coloniser. The scenes involving Londoners fleeing the capital in fear and panic are rightly praised and are among the best writing Wells ever produced; they are more powerful now after such scenes became commonplace during the two World Wars as people fled war-torn homelands in search of refuge, and such scenes remain part of the news to this day.

Nevertheless, it’s worth bearing in mind that what the Martians bring is even more nihilistic than imperialist lust for power and riches: they are bent on the entire extermination of the native peoples, with the exception of the bare minimum they need to keep alive so they can indulge their strange blood-drinking habits. In some ways, Wells’s novel remains so relevant to us now less for its colonial inversion (though that is still important) than for its anticipation of the Blitz of the Second World War, during which the Germans sought wholesale destruction of cities such as London, or even the nuclear threat of the Cold War, where the object was to wipe out the entire population of the enemy land. And ‘population’, especially fears of overpopulation, is another theme which Wells’s novel touches upon.

It’s also worth reflecting on what Aldiss calls the ‘lesson in humility’ that Wells provides in The War of the Worlds. Up until the final ‘act’ of the novel, we cannot be sure whether humanity will triumph, and although the Martians are defeated, it is not thanks to man’s ingenuity or superior strength but thanks to a freak of nature, whereby terrestrial bacteria prove fatal to the Martians. If they had had superior immune systems or Wells’s Mars was full of microbes, those Martian tentacles would have spread throughout all of England – and, doubtless, beyond – in a grotesque extra-terrestrial version of empire-building.

The continued relevant of The War of the Worlds can be attested by the fact that Wells’s novel is constantly being adapted for radio, film, and television. In 2019 alone, there were two television adaptations (by Fox and the BBC). Curiously, the most famous adaptation of all, Orson Welles’s 1938 radio broadcast in the United States, is also the most misunderstood, and contrary to popular belief there was no widespread panic among Americans who thought Welles’s adaptation was a news broadcast. But the very fact that such a myth took hold is a testament to both the power of Wells’s original novel and to its continual relevance to our own times. Fear of invasion and the collapse of civilisation as we know it are constant themes from one generation to the next.

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