The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

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Themes

(Novels for Students)

Ambiguity
One reason that the invasion against the Earth is so successful is that the humans do not know what to make of it. The first Martian craft to arrive lies in the crater made by its arrival, seeming to be powerless. There is a noise from within, but that stops, leading astronomers to believe that the creatures inside have perished. When the Martians emerge from the cylinder, they are weak, gelatinous organisms, and their inability to move very freely in Earth’s thick atmosphere leads scientists to believe that they do not pose much of a threat. These assumptions are based on what little information can be gleaned from the spacecraft’s behavior. The Martians seem to pose no threat, until they swiftly begin their destructive attacks.

Even after the Martians prove hostile, the people of London do not see the danger facing them because the news is so sketchy. While people are being cut down by Heat-Rays just twenty miles away, Londoners go about their daily business. The novel seems to be making the point that, given an ambiguous situation, people will prefer to believe that all things are going to remain as they were. The view of the Martians that the narrator gets from his secluded house on the end of a Martian crater, where he watches them drain the blood from humans and throw away their bodies, is vastly different from the early assumption that they were disabled. Action is forestalled for crucial days by uncertainty about what these very strange visitors want or are capable of.

Victory and Defeat
Once the humans in this novel realize that the Martians can and will destroy them, they see the entire adventure in terms of victory and defeat. Early on, a party of scientists approaches the Martian cylinder with a white flag, to signify a willingness to live in peace, but that peace party is incinerated by the Martians. After that, the reports about the invasion are all sweetened with false hope because an artillery shell manages to destroy one of the Martian pods. The fact that they can be destroyed indicates to the hopeful that they will be, although no similar victories occur. By Book 2, there is no longer any pretense that humanity might be victorious. The narrator finds great appeal in the plan that the artilleryman puts forth: he cedes inevitable victory to the Martians, but says that, if it is able to survive and reproduce, the human race might find a way to be victorious at some distant time in the future.

Man versus Machine
One reason that the Martians do not seem all that threatening is that they are small and weak. They lack mobility, being made of large heads that slither slowly around on tentacles. Their power makes itself manifest when they climb into the tall tripod machines that can carry them high above the ground and shoot Heat-Rays. In Chapter 10 of Book 1, when the narrator first encounters one of the Martian tripods up close, he constantly refers to it as a machine but is also amazed at how responsive it is to the controls of the Martian inside:

. . . it was no mere insensate machine driving on its way. Machine it was, with a ringing metallic pace, and long, flexible, glittering tentacles (one of which gripped a young pine tree) swinging and rattling about its strange body. It picked its road as it went striding along, and the brazen hood that surmounted it moved to and fro with the inevitable suggestion of a head looking about.

The suggestion here is that neither the Martians nor their machines would independently be able to vanquish humanity but that the combination of living creature and metal machine would prevail.

Persistence
Persistence is at the heart of Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinian concept of “survival of the fittest.” In this book, it shows itself on levels grand and miniscule. At the level of world dominance, there is the theory that, although greatly overpowered, the human race could survive and eventually win out over the Martians over the course of generations, but only if some humans...

(The entire section is 1,158 words.)