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The War of the Worlds

by H. G. Wells

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Why are the characters in The War of the Worlds nameless?

Quick answer:

Name the character. Keep it short, but descriptive.

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You've asked a really great question! Several reasons exist for the technique, used by H. G. Wells in The War of the Worlds, of not naming the characters with proper names. Here are a few ideas. See which ones resonate most with you.

1. Everyman/Everywoman: By giving each character generalized names, like "the wife," or "the artilleryman," it allows the readers to experience being each one of these characters simultaneously. The characters are no one and everyone. Other authors that use this technique effectively include Jose Saramago. In his novel Blindness, which is also about a global calamity, the characters are simply the doctor, the girl in the dark sunglasses, and so on. This effect, due to the global nature of the calamity, like the alien invasion in Wells's novel, keeps the drama from being exclusive to one or two specific people, but rather, to a group of potentially many people. Wells does this again in The Time Machine. Since the narrator is a nameless character, anyone can take a seat in the time machine and go for a ride.

2. Effective use of description: Wells's technique allows for the reader to immediately know the function and role of each character, without having it be explained. When you read "the wife," or "the artilleryman," you can immediately assume their roles without an elaborate description of what they do. Making a comparison to Saramago's work, we can see "the doctor" as a professional, without laborious detail to explain it. We take at face value that he is in fact a doctor, just like we take at face value that the wife is playing her part as the wife, and the artilleryman is being an artilleryman.

3. A dramatic means of immediacy and secrecy: H. G. Wells is attempting to make the invasion terrifying, immediate, and impacting the world, globally, as people are reading the book. Another technique authors use to create this immediacy effect is to keep characters generalized, in order for the plot to move more quickly. If, for instance, Wells stopped to clue us into backstory on the wife or the artilleryman, or even the nameless narrator, then the immediacy would go away. We'd feel safer knowing details like where they grew up, or what favorite restaurant they ate at. They become familiar and, at the same time, more distant. But because he wrote them to be anyone, anywhere, a little bit of secrecy is left for the reader, propelling the plot forward quickly.

Another good example and comparison to Wells's work can be found in Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca. The main character is referred to throughout the novel as the "second Mrs. de Winter." The distance, for the reader, keeps the suspense, especially because we know early on that she's the second wife, in a story where an air of mystery surrounds the death of her husband's first wife. The plot and story move very quickly.

In Wells's War of the Worlds, the reader is kept at a distance to heighten the dramatic effect of the global chaos, the urgency of the attack, and the nameless narrator's plight to survive. It is one of the great successes of the novel.

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The concise answer is probably that Wells intended each of his characters as an Everyman, given that the theme of his novel is humankind against the alien, extra-terrestrial force. There may, however, be a deeper reason for the characters remaining unnamed. Nineteenth-century writers, in general, were obsessed with detail. In authors as diverse as Flaubert, Dickens, and Tolstoy, seemingly inconsequential details are minutely focused upon. The characters' names often have symbolic meaning. The emphasis on people tends to lead writers into presenting contradictory traits within the same character in a way that the modern age would consider a form of sentimentality. Wells relegates this sort of "people focus" to the background. It is as if he's pointing out that individuals are helpless against cosmic forces—especially when the origin of those forces is another planet. The religious-based view of man as the center of the universe is stripped away. To the Martians, men are like insects. The lack of specific names for the characters is emblematic of this insignificance of individual people in the scheme of things.

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This is a good question. In H.G. Wells' 1989 novel War of the Worlds, the novel's characters are seldom named (exceptions are Ogilvy, the astronomer who first detects activity coming from Mars, and "Henderson, the London journalist"). This is also curious because Wells seems incredibly concerned about naming every little town and feature in the English countryside (e.g., Ottershaw bridge; Horsell Common), but he does not give us the names of the main characters.

I would suggest that the reason for Wells' silence on the names of the main characters is because he wants these characters to represent static types in society. The narrator is an educated adult male in society, as is his brother the medical student. The narrator's wife is supposed to represent the typical female in society. The artillery man may be intended to serve as a representative of the military.

The most interesting, in my opinion, of these unnamed characters is the curate, whom Wells puts forward as a representative of the Christian church. Given the literal meaning of the word "curate" (one who cares) and given the expectations of those who are adherents of Christianity, Wells' curate behaves in a rather cowardly way ("He was as lacking in restraint as a silly woman") and seems to care for only himself ("I tired of the sight of his selfish despair").

In sum: Wells' decision not to name his major characters seems to suggest that the reader should regard them as stereotypical representatives of society.

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