illustration of a large alien vehicle, a tripod, attacking a city with lasers

The War of the Worlds

by H. G. Wells

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The Scientific Romances

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The War of the Worlds is the archetype of all B-Grade films which present giant creatures from another world who invade the earth armed with death-ray guns. The imagery of the novel is so vivid that it is no wonder film scenarists have always thought of outer-space invasions in Wellsian terms. Moreover, one grasps from this novel the essential technique of all of Wells’s scientific romances, Dr. Moreau excepted: the pinning of strange events to an everyday locale. The attraction of The Invisible Man lay in placing the astounding dilemma of Griffin within the slow village life of Iping. In The War of the Worlds, the narrator sees the effects of the Martian invasion on a village in Woking, a place familiar to Wells because he once retreated there to convalesce from illness. Wells wrote in his autobiography of bicycling about the district and “marking down suitable places and people for destruction by my Martians.” However, unless one counts Wells’s characteristic chiding of the clergy in the sketch of a curate whose corner on salvation barely tides him over the invasion period, there is no evidence that Wells was writing autobiographically or even thought of his Woking villagers as individuals.

Combined with a faultless adherence to downto- earth physical details is a sense of time; the chronology of invasion is attributable about equally to a boy’s imaginative grasp of war games and to a man’s foreboding vision of terrestrial resistance turned to panic:

About three o’clock there began the thud of a gun at measured intervals from Chertsey to Addlestone. I learnt that the smouldering pine-wood into which the second cylinder had fallen was being shelled in the hope of destroying that object before it opened. It was only about five, however, that a field gun reached Chobham for use against the first body of Martians.

About six in the evening, as I sat at tea with my wife in the summer-house talking vigorously about the battle that was lowering upon us, I heard a muffled detonation from the common, and immediately after a gust of firing. Close on the heels of that came a violent rattling crash, quite close to us, that shook the ground; and, starting out upon the lawn, I saw the tops of the trees about the Oriental College burst into smoky red flame, and the tower of the little church beside it slide down the ruin. The pinnacle of the mosque had vanished, and the roof-line of the college itself looked as if a hundred-ton gun had been at work upon it. One of our chimneys cracked as if a shot had hit it, flew, and a piece of it came clattering down the tiles and made a heap of broken red fragments upon the flowerbed by my study window.

I and my wife stood amazed. Then I realized that the crest of Mayberry Hill must be within range of the Martians’ Heat-Ray now that the college was cleared out of the way.

This extraordinary grasp of moment-to-moment detail made the novel easy prey for Orson Welles when in 1938 he converted it into the script which panicked a national radio audience. Welles changed the setting from a British district to Grover Mill, New Jersey. That he drew from Wells the essential imagery of the invasion can be seen by a comparison of the novel’s description of the Martian emerging from the space-cylinder with that of the radio script. In The War of the Worlds, Wells writes:

A big greyish rounded bulk, the size, perhaps, of a bear, was rising slowly and painfully...

(This entire section contains 1786 words.)

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out of the cylinder. As it bulged up and caught the light, it glistened like wet leather.

Two large dark-coloured eyes were regarding me steadfastly. The mass that framed them, the head of the thing, it was rounded, and had, one might say, a face. There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered and panted, and dropped saliva. The whole creature heaved and pulsated convulsively. A lank tentacular appendage gripped the edge of the cylinder, another swayed in the air.

In the scenario, the announcer gasps: “Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a grey snake. Now it’s another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. . . . The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate. . . .”

Wells, apostle of the possible, registers himself in The War of the Worlds as the arch-enemy of the smug heralders of a new-century utopia in which the Union Jack would always prevail. “With infinite complacency,” he writes in the opening paragraph of this novel about the routing of civilization, “men went to and fro over the globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter.” Even as they luxuriate in a mental inertia of “all’s well,” keener intelligences from Mars covet the earth and lay plans to conquer it.

The same cautionary message, told in fable, is sounded in the previous romances: Man has no right to take control of the cosmic process for granted. Wells warns the reader to look at what happened to Mars—not only more distant from life’s beginning but nearer its end. The conditions on Mars became increasingly uncongenial to higher life, Wells speculated, citing dropping temperature, thinning atmosphere, water drying up. Eventually, the planet was forced to search space for some buffer to cosmic annihilation. Once again Wells reinforces his convictions by presenting a picture of the expiring planet of war as a preview of earth’s fate: an earth moving in Huxleyan inexorability along the declining parabola of evolution.

Wells, in effect, gives the reader a step-by-step report on how a breakup of metropolitan society would come about. Whereas The Time Machine and the yet-to-come First Men in the Moon are conceived poetically—that is, the myths of time travel and of moon visitation are rendered in such a way as to suspend the demands of verisimilitude—in The War of the Worlds the myth-poeic mood is exchanged for the methods of documentary realism. The Martian invasion is treated as an event of contemporary history.

It is not necessary to review the invasion in detail. Suffice it to say that the Martians are octopuslike creatures who are as far above mankind in intellect and command of machinery as humans are above animals. The Martians stride over the earth in machines of impregnable armor and devastate town and country with searchlights projecting rays more destructive than those of radium. They feed on human blood, and they force humanity, if it is not to perish or become as docile as the Eloi, to seek subterranean refuge. In the robot-like calculations of the Martians, Wells again underscores Huxley: evolution may produce creatures with superior brains, but it will not inevitably lead to a millennium.

In one of Wells’s best passages of dramatic sociological speculation, a courageous artilleryman speaks of what life will be like for the survivors: “The tame ones [of us] will go like all tame beasts. . . . The risk is that we who keep well will go savage—degenerate into a sort of big, savage rat. . . . You see, how I mean to live is underground. I’ve been thinking about the drains. . . . Then there’s cellars, vaults, stores, from which bolting passages may be made to the drains. And the railway tunnels and subways. Eh? You begin to see? And we form a band—able-bodied, clean-minded men. We’re not going to pick any rubbish that drifts in. Weaklings go out again.” The artilleryman’s formula is suggestive of the fallout fears of a more modern day which Wells did not quite live to see. In The War of the Worlds, the worldlings are relieved of the necessity of putting survival conditions to the test by the intervention of an unexpected ally, the most minute of rescuers: the microbe. The invaders from Mars, lacking immunity to terrestrial diseases, are annihilated by one of them.

The possibility of life on Mars was part of the folklore in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century. The first volume of Camille Flammarion’s La Planète Mars had appeared in 1892, thus making, as Bernard Bergonzi suggests, “a convenient and plausible superhuman adversary for mankind.” Passages in Chapter I of Wells’s novel are probably imitations of Flammarion; they describe the physical conditions of Mars and are strikingly similar to descriptions in Flammarion’s books. Wells’s theories of the superhuman qualities of the Martians were also in line with those of the American astronomer Percival Lowell, who in 1896 advanced the idea that the canals on Mars were the work of intelligent beings.

But H. G. Wells’s “scientific” knowledge of Mars, impressive as it was, has in the years since the book’s publication become secondary to the message that underlies the romance—a message few of Wells’s early readers understood. The novel continued his practice of bludgeoning the complacent bourgeois. He who had forced his mean little undernourished and illness-ridden body out of dingy shops was at century’s end, by dint of the scientific romances, forcing himself on literary society.

Who can say how many of Wells’s dread forebodings in these four novels had their origin in Huxley’s laboratory and how many in severe social maladjustment? The H. G. Wells of 1897, barely thirty but soon to be famous, was encountering difficulties in gaining acceptance in the cultivated world with its necessary insincerities and demand for credentials. It may be that the early Wells might have welcomed some such social upheaval concomitant upon invasion or similar catastrophe. As he wrote to his close friend George Gissing that very year, he might see in such an event, “a return to the essential, to honorable struggle as the epic factor in life. . . .”

At any rate, the assertions of the coarse artilleryman, though somewhat discredited later in the novel, mark perhaps a beginning toward a new, sociological Wells—one who, within less than a decade, would project in a landmark utopian book, A Modern Utopia, a thoroughgoing blueprint for world revolution in the hands of an intellectual and physical élite, the Samurai. If, as St. John Ervine insists, sociology ruined H. G. Wells, the beginnings of that forty-year penchant may be gleaned even in a masterful scientific romance like The War of the Worlds.

Source: Richard Hauer Costa, “The Scientific Romances,” in H. G. Wells, Twayne, 1967, pp. 42–46. was only about five, however, that a field gun reached

The Role of the Two Women

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The early novels that H. G. Wells wrote are remembered for infusing a groundbreaking sense of realism into unlikely situations, all the while holding fast to the principles of science. The War of the Worlds, in particular, is considered as “realistic” as a book can be when there are slimy tentacled creatures cutting down whole countrysides with ray guns. The book is apocalyptic, showing a very convincing vision of how the human race could quite conceivably end. It dismisses the most dominant factors of our society, presuming that they would be unable to rise to the kind of challenge presented by a Martian invasion.

The novel follows its vision of mankind’s defeat through until the end, when, in the depth of his despair, its unnamed narrator finds out that the invasion has been defeated, mostly by a fluke. From there, things pick up: he returns to his home, he is reunited with his wife, international aid packages arrive for the displaced and there is hope that such an invasion could not work as well a second time without the element of surprise. In the end, though, the sense of hope is tinged with the kind of fear that any war survivor would harbor, having once seen how easily the life he knows can collapse in on itself.

Even with the final reconciliations, this is an almost unrelentingly bleak story. Wells seems to be saying, as he was to throughout his writings, that humanity is nothing but a cog in the greater machine of science. This message comes across in the narrator’s tone, in the losses that the world encounters, and even in the unexpected way in which the Martians die.

There is, though, in the middle of this dark story, a small episode that reflects the romantic ideals of courage, love, and mystery. As the world faces the destruction of London—possibly the worst imaginable catastrophe for an Englishman— the story’s focal character at that point, the narrator’s brother, becomes involved with two interesting women. Their story is not by any means adequately examined, but the fact that they appear in this novel at all opens a window to a worldview that the rest of the book labors hard to shut out.

That this ray of hope should come to the narrator’s brother should be no surprise. The narrator’s story has no place for romance. He is presented as a moral pragmatist, a philosopher who sees the doom and destruction and, like the true philosopher that he is, considers its place in his understanding of the world. The fact that the book gives readers a happy ending when he is reunited with his wife does nothing to negate the fact that that he does not think of her while he is out on the road, struggling for survival. His rationalism is what makes him turn the others whom he encounters into symbols for society’s doomed framework. The curate, for example, stands for religion, and when the narrator sees him crumble psychologically he realizes that faith is not strong enough to offer solace when the pressure is truly on. The artilleryman seems to have a better idea for how to cope with humanity’s destruction, an intricate plan that includes long-term and short-term goals and an abandonment of any hope for comfort in the foreseeable future. After mouthing his theories, though, he quits work and digs in to the comfort of cigars, whiskey, and cards. The narrator simply walks away from him, an act even more disdainful than bashing the curate’s head in. These two odd, dead-end relationships fit perfectly into the mood of the rest of the narrator’s tale, in which humanity is beaten by the invaders at every turn.

Critics have noted that the section of the book that breaks away from the narrator’s story to tell the story of his brother—Chapters 14, 16, and 17— show a weakness in Wells’s ability as a novelist. This break does not appear to be the result of any overall narrative strategy but is instead just a matter of convenience: it enables Wells to keep with his narrator from the discovery of the first alien through the invasion’s end, while showing what happened in the crowded metropolis at the same time. Certainly, there must be some way to do this that would be more grounded in the story, but most readers seem to feel that it is worth a little cheating in the story telling if that is what it takes to work the destruction of London into the book. Generally, then, the brother’s story is considered a small, forgivable misstep, and little is said about it.

And, in fact, this break in the narrative continuity hardly makes any difference at all. The narrator and his brother are barely distinguishable from one another. Neither shows any independent characteristics, other than the roles they have to play in the book: one is a philosopher and the other a medical student, and both are motivated by staying alive. The most important differences between them seem to be those that are implied, rather than stated: the brother is younger, and unmarried. These qualify him to be a romantic hero in a way that the narrator could not.

On the road out of London, the narrator’s brother stops to aid two women who are being accosted by some thugs. He is injured in the skirmish, and they take him into the carriage that he helped save for them. This act is, in itself, remarkable: it does come after he has risked his life for them, but it also comes during the exodus, while anyone slowed down is likely to be killed. The fact that they take him in shows two distinct traits. First, there is a sense of indebtedness, which the narrator himself encounters when he meets up with the artilleryman the second time; if he had not helped the man earlier, he may have been shot. Second, there is the need for protection, in a traditional gender- role sense. These women, traveling with a gun, a carriage, and money, know that they will need someone to save them from looters.

The two women are drawn as opposites. The first, Mrs. Elphinstone, is one of the few characters in the book to be given a name, and certainly the only one to be named after the invasion begins. This can be contrasted with the main characters that the narrator meets, who are referred to by their social functions, curate and artilleryman. She, in turn, frequently talks about another named character, George, who is presumably Mr. Elphinstone. Her function in the novel is to become hysterical, unable to keep her wits about her in what are, admittedly, trying circumstances. While there might seem no reason to dwell upon one hysterical person during the evacuation of a city of millions, Mrs. Elphinstone does serve to provide a clean contrast to her sister-in-law, who provides the book’s romantic center.

Mrs. Elphinstone is short and dressed in white, and her sister-in-law is slim and dark complexioned; she is nervous, while her sister-in-law is “astonishingly quiet and deliberate”; she speaks out loud to George as if he were there, while her sister-in-law has the present situation well in hand. The sister-inlaw, who is never given a name, also has a pistol, which she does not hesitate to use. And she has the courage to tell the narrator’s brother, “We have money,” at a time when the road is filled with thieves.

Mrs. Elphinstone’s sister-in-law, George’s sister, is the most unique character in the book. She cuts a dashing figure. She can be vicious, but she can be kind. One has to wonder how she turned up in the middle of a story that has all of the rest of the race bowing down to the inevitable or, like the artilleryman, too lazy to resist.

The story of these two women is woven with romantic imagery. The threatening highwaymen and the out-of-control horses are conventions of Victorian bodice-rippers. That in itself would make their appearance unusual, but one could see it, like the appearance of the curate, as Wells’s commentary on a particular social convention. But, within the dashing romance, Wells turns the convention on its head by giving the sister-in-law characteristics that were at that time traditionally left to men. She not only produces the pistol, but she fires it without flinching; she takes the horse’s reigns after the narrator’s brother enters the carriage; and, besides, she has the smoldering dark looks that one expects of a male character from a Brontë novel. Although the narrator’s brother ends up as the leader of their small party, as is evidenced by the fact that he is the one who pays the passage of the three onto a boat, Mrs. Elphinstone’s sister-in-law is still an independent spirit.

What this character meant to Wells is unclear. Probably, like the entire shift to the narrator’s brother’s perspective, she just materialized while he was writing and seemed like the right thing to do. He did not even give her a name, although in this section of the book he was naming characters. He did, however, give her a striking presence, making her the type of woman who is a match for a young medical student like the narrator’s brother. The reader knows that the brother survived to tell the tale of his escape to the narrator, but nothing more is said of Mrs. Elphinstone’s sister-in-law. She is just a strong-willed woman amongst a mood of general panic, and as such she gives the novel a romantic flair that it shows nowhere else. In that way, the brief interlude with the dark lady changes the book’s entire meaning.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on The War of the Worlds, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

H. G. Wells: The Critical Heritage

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Following in the wake of the sciences for half a century is a new species of literary work, which may be called the quasi-scientific novel. From M. Verne’s prophetic submarine boat to Mr. Waterloo’s prehistoric caveman, one could classify a score of romances which try to put into imaginative form the latest results in science and mechanics. Like all literature, too, the new novel is not content with presenting living embodiments of truth, but is fain to make guesses at the future. It is as yet experimental, and is quite too young to have produced an enduring masterpiece. The whole group can claim nothing that will live very far into the next century. It is hopelessly doomed, not more by its lack of artistic breadth of treatment than by its slipshod style, which betrays all the haste of the daily ‘leader’ to get into type.

Had Mr. Wells not been forestalled by Mr. Du Maurier, he would probably have called the novel before us The Martians. It is the story of the invasion of our earth by a company of intelligent beings from Mars. Kepler furnishes an appropriate motto: ‘But who shall dwell in these worlds, if they be inhabited? Are we or they Lords of the World? And how are all things made for man?’ Having created an atmosphere of reality for his story, the author proceeds in journalistic style to tell of the coming of the first cylinder. ‘Flying swiftly and steadily towards me across that incredible distance, came the thing they were sending us.’ Though the mysterious projectile fell near London, its arrival did not cause the sensation that an ultimatum to Spain would have done. Ten cylinders, each thirty yards in diameter and containing five Martians, arrived at intervals of twenty-four hours.

The war which ensues is melodramatic and shamefully one-sided. The strangers fight in vast spider-like engines, a hundred feet high, which stride along with the speed of a limited express. In each of these ‘boilers on stilts’ sat the guiding intelligence of the machine, smothering cities with seas of poisonous black smoke, and wiping out of existence artillery and battleships with his heat-ray, a sort of search-light which burned. As the gunner said, it was soon all up with humanity; we were beaten by superior mechanical genius. After completely subjugating humanity, the Martians are attacked from an unexpected quarter, and fall victims to our invisible allies, the bacteria. This is highly satisfactory and the happiest stroke in the plot.

Mr. Wells’s conception of the Martians is not only daring as a piece of imaginative work, but interesting for its deduction from biological laws. He, in common with Mr. Du Maurier and Miss Corelli, is evidently a close student of M. Camille Flammarion. The highest intelligence in Mars, through the processes of evolution, is embodied in what is scarcely more than a huge round head with large protruding eyes, and a mouth surrounded by sixteen whip-like tentacles—a kind of octopus that is all brain. The complex apparatus of digestion is dispensed with, for he injects directly into his veins the blood of living creatures, including man. The interest of Mr. Wells’s work is divided between the excitement of the story and speculations on the differentiated forms of life on this and other planets.

The author has written an ingenious and original work. Now and again in the intervals of a colloquial or hysterical style, one comes upon passages of sweetness and virility. The book has the tone of intense modernity, with notes of convincing realism and morbid horror. One misses the simplicity of Gulliver and the epic impressiveness of the stories of Sodom and Mt. Carmel. It is an Associated Press dispatch, describing a universal nightmare.

Source: Anonymous, “18. Unsigned Review, Critic,” in H. G. Wells: The Critical Heritage, edited by Patrick Parrinder, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972, pp. 68–69.


Critical Evaluation


Critical Overview