The War of the Worlds Themes

Themes

Ambiguity
One reason that the invasion against the Earth is so successful is that the humans do not know what to make of it. The first Martian craft to arrive lies in the crater made by its arrival, seeming to be powerless. There is a noise from within, but that stops, leading astronomers to believe that the creatures inside have perished. When the Martians emerge from the cylinder, they are weak, gelatinous organisms, and their inability to move very freely in Earth’s thick atmosphere leads scientists to believe that they do not pose much of a threat. These assumptions are based on what little information can be gleaned from the spacecraft’s behavior. The Martians seem to pose no threat, until they swiftly begin their destructive attacks.

Even after the Martians prove hostile, the people of London do not see the danger facing them because the news is so sketchy. While people are being cut down by Heat-Rays just twenty miles away, Londoners go about their daily business. The novel seems to be making the point that, given an ambiguous situation, people will prefer to believe that all things are going to remain as they were. The view of the Martians that the narrator gets from his secluded house on the end of a Martian crater, where he watches them drain the blood from humans and throw away their bodies, is vastly different from the early assumption that they were disabled. Action is forestalled for crucial days by uncertainty about what these very strange visitors want or are capable of.

Victory and Defeat
Once the humans in this novel realize that the Martians can and will destroy them, they see the entire adventure in terms of victory and defeat. Early on, a party of scientists approaches the Martian cylinder with a white flag, to signify a willingness to live in peace, but that peace party is incinerated by the Martians. After that, the reports about the invasion are all sweetened with false hope because an artillery shell manages to destroy one of the Martian pods. The fact that they can be destroyed indicates to the hopeful that they will be, although no similar victories...

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The War of the Worlds Themes

The principal theme of The War of the Worlds is evolution. The Martians are what humanity could become. They are superintellects with bodies that have shrunken with disuse. Inside their terrible war-machines, they are fearsome masters of technology. They blast whole towns out of existence; indeed, they destroy and kill sometimes without purpose — just for the joy of exercising nearly invincible power. Outside of their machines, they are pathetic and nearly helpless.

The destruction of the Martians by microbes has seemed too easy to some readers. The Martians were "scattered about . . . some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, . . . slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared." To Wells, whenever humanity gained something when evolving it also lost something; here, the Martians had gained great intellects but lost the robust bodies that they would have had in their evolutionary past. With their advanced technology came contempt for nature; with that contempt came ignorance. The infections surprised them and they were reduced to crying "ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla" as dogs ran them down. Wells was a cautionary visionary in an era when Western civilization reveled in its technological conquest of nature. Much of the novel's effect upon the imagination of readers has been its direct contradiction of the assumption that all technological progress makes life better. The Martians saw themselves as so superior to nature that they were not bound by rules of morality and ethical behavior. Their contempt for other living beings brought about their own destruction. So too, by implication, may humanity's arrogance lead to contempt for ethics and humanity's own destruction by the forces of nature.