The War of the Worlds is one of H. G. Wells’s most riveting stories. Much of its power stems from its first-person narrator. He is a learned man, a writer on scientific subjects, equipped with a precise mind and a formidable ability to describe what he sees. He begins his story calmly, rehearsing the evidence for life on Mars and explaining the investigations of his contemporaries. At the same time, he brings to his opening words a tone of foreboding, a sense of someone who has been through an ordeal—even though he does not explain what has happened to him. Instead, he re-creates events as he experienced them, enhancing the drama and suspense of the novel.
The narrator intensifies the interest of his story by releasing details about the Martians gradually. This steady but well-paced dispensing of information whets the curiosity, but it is also a realistic device, since the point of the story is that it takes the world some time to understand the ramifications of the invasion. At first, the Martians stay in their pit, a mystery until they begin to range across the country. Their heat ray is not well understood because from a distance it is obscured by the smoke of the destruction it causes. Only when the narrator gets uncomfortably close to the line of fire does he realize what sort of destructive instrument humans are confronting.
Much of the gripping narration centers on the sheer struggle to survive. As the narrator learns about the Martians’ awesome power, he must also adapt to the destruction of civilization. He never loses his intelligent and resilient manner, but he does become increasingly desperate. The curate, an irrational man, has to be killed if the narrator is to survive. The narrator shows no remorse for his act, only pity, because the insane curate had become a danger to himself and to the narrator. Also, the narrator seems to hold little tolerance for the religious point of view. Several critics have commented on Wells’s hostility toward organized religion in his other works.
If the narrator does not lose his humanity, the artilleryman nearly does. When they meet a second time, the artilleryman is guarding his ground and tells the narrator that he must look to some other part of England for food. After the artilleryman recognizes the narrator, he relaxes his guard and tries to persuade the narrator that the human race is beaten. Although he dreams of somehow outlasting the Martians—or at least coming to some sort of compromise with them—he is a defeated man who will settle for living on a level so subhuman that it appalls the narrator.
In addition to the brilliant evocation of the Martian invasion, Wells provides the first description in English literature of modern, mechanized warfare. The images of cities and countryside wiped out with weapons of mass destruction were startling and prophetic. Wells’s vision challenged the complacency of the English regarding their secure and commonsense life. His science-fiction novels heralded a century of unprecedented destruction, the displacement of whole human populations, and the use of technology as a tool of dehumanization.
Wells enhances the effectiveness of his first-person narrator by including in the novel accounts of how the Martian invasion is reported in the press. Another theme of the novel is how mass populations get their news and how a modern society copes with disruptions in communications networks and transportation. Few people actually witness the events of the novel; many more react to what they read in newspapers, which sometimes contain inaccurate reports or only partial accounts.
It is quite extraordinary the way Wells provides both the immediacy of firsthand experience and a sense of a whole society mobilizing to comprehend and to defend itself against a foreign menace. Parts of the Martian invasion that the narrator has not witnessed and that are not clarified in the newspapers are supplied by the narrator’s relating of his brother’s experiences during the invasion. His brother’s reports not only help to put the narrator’s experiences into a context and to fill in gaps but also provide another voice that the narrator must absorb and factor into his own account. Consequently, the novel captures a sense of both the immediate events and a retrospective account of them. The novel becomes both the narrator’s autobiography and an objective historical account.
The novel’s ending, although it includes the narrator’s sentimental reunion with his wife, is anything but optimistic. Wells conveys an extraordinary feeling of loss—not merely of lives and homes and institutions but also of confidence in the human spirit. It is a sobering conclusion, marking an end to the ebullience of the nineteenth century faith in science and human progress, to the idea that human beings were unlocking the secrets of nature. Wells believed, certainly, that twentieth century science and technology would make remarkable discoveries, but he was shortly to write a series of novels predicting devastating warfare as well. The War of the Worlds is a warning, probing, brooding look at humankind’s place in the universe and a counsel against smugness.