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The War of the Worlds

by H. G. Wells

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What Victorian elements are present in H.G Wells' The War of the Worlds?

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The War of the Worlds is not only a science fiction masterpiece written by H.G. Wells in the late-nineteenth century, but also reflects in part the attitude toward science of English society during the Victorian Era from 1837–1901. Unlike the atmosphere in other parts of the world, Victorians appreciated science. Accordingly, the development of science and furtherance of scientific theories were of paramount importance to the London populace.

One of the highest priorities by research scientists of the Victorian period was the further exploration of theories of evolution. However, it was not until 1859 that Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, which heavily influenced modern Western thought. Darwin’s ideas spread quickly throughout England, and Wells took advantage of the opportunity to introduce some of the controversial theories of his day directly to the general population, rather than keeping them within the realm of discussions among scientists. Darwin’s explanation of evolution was the “survival of the fittest.” He reasoned that “natural selection” occurs because individuals having more-useful traits, and mental and physical abilities, have a better chance of survival than those individuals with less-favorable traits.

In 1896, the year before the publication of The War of the Worlds, Wells wrote a magazine article inspired by the findings of an astronomer who claimed to have seen lights on the planet Mars. That revelation prompted Wells to write his novel about the Martian invasion of Earth. Additionally, at this time in history, Germany had become unified and the British public grew anxious over a possible invasion represented by the new German power in Europe. The connection between a possible invasion of Britain and Darwin’s theories on evolution paralleled the fictional version of foreign invasion found in The War of the Worlds:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable.

Three Victorian elements found in this Wells classic are the infatuation with science, the exploration of evolution, and the anxiety over invasion by a foreign power that prevailed in England in the late-nineteenth century. The War of the Worlds reflects those elements.

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