The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The story is told retrospectively by an unnamed narrator, an educated, philosophically trained man who witnessed many of the events he describes and reports them as recent history. The first signs of an invasion from Mars come when astronomers note a series of spectacular explosions on the planet. Experts, however, think they were caused by meteorites or volcanic eruptions; no one suspects any danger. Only later does it become known that climatic changes steadily had made Mars less hospitable for its inhabitants, and they were looking to Earth as their only refuge. The explosions were the firing of ten projectiles, each containing a small Martian invasion force, at Earth.

The first cylinder-shaped projectile lands southwest of London, on a summer night. By morning, it has attracted a crowd of curious onlookers. In the early evening, the cylinder opens to reveal a grotesque, octopus-like figure the size of a bear, its body glistening like wet leather. The crowd retreats in shock. By dusk, an official deputation arrives, waving a white flag. The authorities have decided that the Martians are intelligent creatures and wish to communicate with them. A devastating beam of heat shoots out from the invaders’ cylinder, destroying everything it touches. Forty people lie dead, and the narrator flees in terror.

This sets the pattern for the next few days. The Martians appear to be unstoppable. They construct huge tripod-shaped machines, higher than a house, within which they sit, covered by a hood. The machines stride across the country, causing death and destruction wherever they go. Military might is useless against them: Troops and weapons are annihilated in large numbers. The narrator manages to escape the deadly heat ray by diving into a river. He meets a curate who believes that the day of judgment has come.

The narrative switches to London as the narrator tells of the experiences of his brother. News is slow to reach the capital city, but when it does, it is grave: The Martians are advancing on London and are releasing a poisonous black smoke that suffocates everything in its path. There is no defense against it. The entire population of London flees northward in a stampede of six million panic-stricken people. The Martians take possession of the city, although they also suffer losses: A warship rams and kills one Martian who has waded out to sea, and another Martian is killed when the same ship explodes after being struck by the heat ray.

The narrator hides with the curate in an empty house to escape the black smoke. Trapped for fifteen days by the presence of Martians outside, he observes them at work and learns to his horror that they feed on human blood. The curate loses his mind, and in a struggle, the narrator kills him. When he emerges from the house, he realizes that humanity’s rule over Earth has ended, and he encounters an artilleryman who has visionary ideas about what people must now do to survive.

The narrator makes his way to the deserted London, where he comes on a Martian emitting a strange crying sound. He then stumbles on the remains of a dead Martian; he soon finds fifty more. The Martians have died because they have no resistance to Earth’s bacteria. The joyful news is telegraphed across the world, and relief comes to the stricken city.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Horsell Common

*Horsell Common. Rough, wooded landscape in Woking, on the edge of one of London’s dormitory towns, where the first Martian cylinder comes down. It is a hint of wildness close to the heart of Victorian domesticity where the narrator and his fellows first have to come to terms with the nature of the invasion. The narrator, who writes about science, maintains a dispassionate voice, observing, reporting, and rarely judging, so the reader gets a clear record of how the Martians emerge from their cylinder, which is dug into a sandy pit. This pit is at first an amphitheater for the observers and later a trench within which the attackers prepare their weapons.

Fleeing the destruction, the narrator embarks on a zigzag odyssey through the suburbs southwest of London, an area which highlights the destructive threat of the Martians by being supposedly safest and most prosperous.


*Weybridge. Prosperous Surrey town on the River Thames where the narrator witnesses the first of the Martian war machines to be destroyed by a lucky artillery shot. This victory, however, is offset by the appearance of the curate, a weak and cowardly figure who is used to represent some of the worst aspects of human character.


*London. Great Britain’s capital city. The narrator’s own eyewitness account of the invasion cannot encompass the whole picture that Wells wants to present, so he interpolates the story of the narrator’s cousin in London, who is also a man of science and hence a dispassionate reporter. At first, away from the fighting and getting only confused and intermittent reports of what is happening in Surrey, the reader is given an image of a great Victorian city enjoying its wealth, power, and confidence. When reports do come through, the people initially behave well, but this confidence is quickly broken when London itself comes under attack. In the exodus from the city that then follows, kaleidoscopic scenes of panic, cruelty, greed, selfishness, and violence are presented. This image is set against that of heroism presented by the gunboat which manages to destroy two of the Martian war machines before being destroyed itself.


*Sheen. Suburb of London. By this stage, the comfortable little towns on the outskirts of London have become ruined and depopulated, the very image of Victorian success laid low. It is in Sheen that the narrator and the curate become trapped in the cellar of a house when a Martian cylinder lands beside them. This allows, for the first time, close and prolonged observation of the Martians, during which the reader learns, for example, that they are using captured humans for food. However, this is contrasted with the final breakdown of the relationship between the narrator and the curate, as the latter tries to gorge on their small but carefully hoarded food supply.

*Putney Hill

*Putney Hill. Suburb of London. After escaping from the ruined house, the narrator’s journey takes him on along the south bank of the Thames toward London. It is on Putney Hill, at this point a landscape not unlike Horsell Common, that he meets again with the artilleryman with whom he had escaped from Woking. The narrator’s odyssey has seen a gradual stripping away of the veneer of civilization, and the artilleryman now presents a fantasy of guerrilla warfare, of collaboration with the invaders, and of a new but far more primitive human society. It becomes clear that the artilleryman cannot even live up to the crude ideals of his new society: Victorian society, it is implied, is barely a step away from savagery. Meanwhile it is the narrator, the man of science, who is thus somewhat outside society, who goes on to London to discover the Martians killed by bacteria.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Fear of Invasion
At the end of the nineteenth century, the nations of Europe were divided into strategic alliances that pitted...

(The entire section is 561 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The War of the Worlds is set in the late 1890s in England. For Wells and his original audience, this was a modern setting, and the...

(The entire section is 306 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

In order to present this story as a first person narrative, told by an “I” speaker who is a character in the book,...

(The entire section is 399 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In his autobiography, Wells declares that "I am journalist all the time and what I write goes now — and presently will die." He is mistaken...

(The entire section is 389 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

At the time Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, science had become the subject of much public debate. During this period, the natural...

(The entire section is 267 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The War of the Worlds is primarily an entertainment, without the overt social commentary of The Time Machine (1895). Even so, it reflects...

(The entire section is 273 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The social commentary in The War of the Worlds is thick, but it continues to attract a multitude of readers, and the depiction of...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1898: One of the most frightening aspects of the Martian invasion is when they master the concept of flight, giving them the ability...

(The entire section is 195 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Why are the characters given abstract names such as "the Narrator" and "the Curate"? Are the names symbolic? What would be the point of...

(The entire section is 275 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Throughout his career, Wells was concerned about the ethical uses of technology and scientific knowledge. How are his ideas reflected in...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

This novel is specific about what sorts of physical characteristics the Martians would have developed, due to the kind of atmosphere Wells...

(The entire section is 209 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Like The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds is a seminal work — it sets precedents. It is the first "alien invasion" novel; all subsequent...

(The entire section is 135 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Costa, Richard Hauer, H. G. Wells, Twayne’s English Author Series, No. 43, Twayne Publishers, 1967, p. 42....

(The entire section is 236 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Costa, Richard Hauer. H. G. Wells. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Praises the novel’s vivid imagery, its superb characterizations, its antiutopian theme, Wells’s scientific knowledge of life on Mars, and his extraordinary sociological grasp of his own times.

Hammond, J. R. An H.G. Wells Companion: A Guide to the Novels, Romances, and Short Stories. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1979. Describes Wells’s ability to describe startling events happening to ordinary people, his remarkable anticipation of how crowds react to events of mass destruction, his superb evocation of actual settings, and his literary style. Includes a map showing the sites of the Martian invasion.

McConnell, Frank. The Science Fiction of H. G. Wells. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. Compares the novel’s themes to Wells’s work as a scientific journalist. Discusses the narrative’s image patterns, contrasting the novel with other tales of invasion, the uniqueness of Wells’s description of the Martians, the role of the curate, and the relationship between realism and fantasy in Wells’s fiction.

Mackenzie, Norman, and Jeanne MacKenzie. The Life of H. G. Wells: The Time Traveller. Rev. ed. London: Hogarth Press, 1987. Compares the novel to scientific theories of catastrophe and stories of the apocalypse. Emphasizes the moral tone of the novel, written at a time when there was much discussion of a decadent England.

Smith, David C. H. G. Wells: Desperately Mortal. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. Emphasizes that the novel was written at a time when Germany was challenging England as a world power and invasion was on peoples’ minds. Explains Wells’s scientific knowledge, the precision of the plotting of the Martian invasion and of Wells’s descriptions.

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Wells wrote several visionary novels similar to The War of the Worlds. These books were called "scientific fantasies" because the term...

(The entire section is 615 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

An audiocassette version of Wells’s The War of the Worlds is available from Books in Motion. It was released in 1982.


(The entire section is 167 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Readers interested in reading more of Wells’s work can find this novel and First Men in the Moon (1901), The Invisible Man...

(The entire section is 239 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Asimov, Isaac. "The Science Fiction Breakthrough." In Asimov on Science Fiction. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981. Asimov contends...

(The entire section is 276 words.)