The War of the Worlds Summary

The War of the Worlds is a novel by H.G. Wells in which Martians invade England. The Martians are worm-like creatures who intend to use Earth as a feeding ground, and the Earthlings are powerless to stop them.

  • Martians arrive in London, quickly taking control of the city. These Martians are hideous, worm-like monsters that intend to feed on humans.

  • Despite their best efforts, the humans are unable to fend off the Martians and aliens soon overrun the planet.

  • The Martians aren't prepared for Earth's bacteria, however. Their nervous systems are destroyed, and they die not from a human assault, but from illness.

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1040

Although scientists have speculated about intelligent life on Mars, it comes as a complete surprise to England when Martians land, having been shot to Earth in flaming cylinders. At first the projectiles are mistaken for shooting stars or meteors. Then Ogilvy, the first to discover one of the cylinders that has landed, realizes that it is hollow; as it cools, he can hear something inside unscrewing the cylinder’s top. Ogilvy informs a local journalist, Henderson, and soon a crowd, including the narrator, gathers around the cylinder. The narrator suspects the object has come from Mars, but he does not think that it contains a living being. He and the crowd are shocked when grayish tentacles emerge from the cylinder. The crowd flees as the huge creature appears; it is the size of a bear, with a sheen like wet leather, two large, dark eyes, and a lipless mouth, heaving and pulsating. Just before the narrator runs away he catches sight of the monster’s large inhuman eyes and fungoid mass, which he finds disgusting and terrifying.

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The humans decide to send a deputation (including Ogilvy and Henderson) to parlay with the Martians, since it seems that the Martians are intelligent even if human beings find them repulsive. The deputation, however, is wiped out in a blinding flash of fire and smoke, which the narrator later learns was the Martians’ heat ray. People panic; the narrator is stunned by the swiftness of the destruction.

The Martians begin to terrorize the cities and the countryside, dealing a silent and quick death to anyone in their way. For the first time it occurs to the narrator that the Martians mean to rule Earth, although he assures his wife that it seems unlikely that they will prevail, given that Earth’s gravitational pull on their bodies is three times that of Mars. Returning home, the narrator regains some of his confidence.

In London, the news from Woking seems so incredible that it is deemed a ruse. Even at Woking junction, where the trains still run, the Martian invasion is treated as a rumor and a curiosity, not a cause for evacuation. The narrator can hear the Martians hammering and stirring, making some sort of preparations. A company of soldiers is dispatched to form a cordon around the pit where the Martians’ cylinders landed. The Martians stay in the pit, but then the narrator, at home, sees one of his chimneys crack, and he realizes the power of the heat ray. He sends his terrified wife away to the town of Leatherhead. Out on the road, the narrator meets people escaping from the area of the pit. The Martians have set fire to everything within range of their heat ray.

The narrator then gets his first full view of a walking Martian or Martian machine of glittery metal, swinging its long, flexible tentacles. It has come out of the third of the ten Martian cylinders that landed on Earth. On the road the narrator encounters an artilleryman, the only survivor of an artillery clash with the Martians, who describes his fallen comrades as burnt meat. The destruction wrought by the Martians has been indiscriminate and universal, unprecedented in the history of warfare on Earth. The artilleryman decides to try to get to London to join the horse artillery there; the narrator opts to return to Leatherhead. The third cylinder blocks their way, however. Although the artillery does destroy one Martian, it proves ineffective against the heat ray, which obliterates everything in its path. The narrator just misses being killed as the foot of a Martian machine comes within yards of his head.

The narrator then realizes that the Martians are methodically destroying the country. Every twenty-four hours, another cylinder arrives to strengthen and consolidate their power. Although England sends all of its heavy guns and warships against the Martians, this firepower is destroyed as soon as it comes within range of the heat ray.

Unable to return to Leatherhead, the narrator takes refuge in a house occupied by a curate who is devastated and depressed by the invasion, believing it to be a sign of God’s judgment. Soon it becomes clear to the narrator that the curate has gone insane. Talking to himself, refusing to listen to the narrator’s pleas that they must ration their food and make no noise, the curate puts both his own life and the narrator’s life in jeopardy. Martian tentacles have already invaded the house and have just missed detecting the narrator’s presence. When the curate announces that he is going out to preach the word of God that sanctions this destruction of the world, the desperate narrator feels he has no choice but to kill the curate to keep him from exposing them both; he bashes the curate in the head with the back of a meat cleaver.

After more than two weeks, his food supply exhausted, the ravenous narrator decides to leave the house and take his chances on the streets, where he once again encounters the artilleryman. It now seems clear to the artilleryman that there is no way of defeating the Martians. He plans an underground life; he will live in the city’s sewers and try to find ways to accommodate himself to the Martian rulers. The narrator rebels against the idea of such a subhuman existence, but he also thinks that the rule of human beings on Earth is over. Humans have become merely food for Martians, who feed by injecting themselves with human blood.

To the narrator’s astonishment, however, he soon comes across the rotting bodies of Martians, and it suddenly occurs to him that they have been destroyed by the lowliest of life-forms: bacteria. Mars does not have the bacteria found on Earth, and so the Martians have no immunity to these tiny organisms, which the human body has learned to tolerate over thousands of years. The narrator sees the destruction of the Martians as only a reprieve for humankind, however. Although he has been incredibly fortunate in that he has survived and has been able to reunite with his wife, he now lives with a sense of insecurity, no longer certain of Earth’s invulnerability.

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