[Note: Page numbers refer to H.G. Wells: Four Complete Novels (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1994). To facilitate reference to the novel’s text, page numbers in this guide will often be accompanied by citations of book and chapter; e.g., “p. 381; I.9” refers to page 381 or Book I, Chapter 9.]
BOOK ONE: “The Coming of the Martians”
1. The Eve of the War
Summary: As the nineteenth century draws to its close, our anonymous narrator tells us (writing from a perspective six years after the events he relates), creatures on the dying planet of Mars “regarded this earth with envious eyes” (p. 353) and, in a desperate move for the survival of their species, planned and launched an invasion. After presenting readers with some scientific data about Mars, the narrator recounts how astronomers across the globe notice strange flares of gas on the Martian surface. (These flares will prove to be signs of the Martians’ cylinders launching toward Earth.) The narrator converses with “the well-known astronomer” Ogilvy (p. 356), who dismisses as fancy the idea that the gas flares may indicate intelligent Martian life. For ten nights, the flashes continue; yet terrestrial life continues as usual, as well. The narrator and his wife take evening walks and gaze at the stars, blissfully unaware of the horror about to descend from the heavens.
Analysis: While very little action occurs in the opening chapter of The War of the Worlds (apart, of course, from the critical action of the Martians launching their cylinders toward Earth), many of the novel’s key themes are established and the story’s overall tone is decidedly set. The opening paragraphs are justly famous: not only do they showcase Well’s stylistic prowess, but also they create a mood of suspense and foreboding with their steady, deliberate cadence—mirroring the Martians’ “slowly and surely [drawing] their plans” (p. 353)—and the striking reorientation of readers’ perspectives. The narrator tells us that we humans, accustomed to thinking of ourselves as “Lords of the World” (see the novel’s epigraph from Johannes Kepler), are in reality vastly inferior to the Martians. The aliens observe us “as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water” (p. 353). This reevaluation of humanity’s place in the cosmos is central to The War of the Worlds; as the artillery officer will later lament to the narrator, “This isn’t a war… It never was a war, any more than there’s war between men and ants” (p. 491; II.7).What does this radical reversal of humanity’s stature accomplish? Certainly, it will foster the sense of horror that pervades the novel; more importantly, however, it encourages readers to reevaluate their own and their societies’ actions in “the real world,” outside of the book’s pages. Wells himself, through the narrator, signifies that this may be his purpose by alluding to humanity’s history of rendering other species extinct, and also to Great Britain’s conquest of other, indigenous peoples (p. 355). Wells is apparently critiquing the arrogance that accompanies imperialist expansion. He may have written his novel, in part, to arouse sympathy in his readers for the victims of imperialism, possibly with an eye toward leading to social change that might avoid imperialistic mistakes in the future. (Although his main intention was no doubt simply to tell a good, and commercially successful, story!)In addition to making a critique of imperialism, Wells also seems to be using his tale to reflect on the implications of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Darwin published his groundbreaking theory of evolution by the mechanism of natural selection—“the survival of the fittest”—in 1859 (On the Origin of Species), and the effects of his work on all areas of intellectual endeavor were still being felt at the turn of the 20th century. In presenting humanity as vastly inferior to the Martians, The War of the Worlds becomes, at one level, an extended meditation on Darwin’s ideas. The Martians’ motive for invading is their failure to adapt to the changing circumstances of their home world. Further, the Martians, with their lethal technology (soon to be revealed), are “fitter” than humans, and look poised to adapt to our home world without much difficulty! In the novel’s end, of course, Wells will give the concept of “the survival of the fittest” an ironic twist by revealing that the same adaptive mechanism that gives the Martians the upper hand also proves to be their downfall (cf. p. 506; II.8).2. The Falling-Star
Summary: Early one morning, a “falling-star,” presumed by astronomers to be a meteorite, lands on the Horsell Common. Ogilvy goes to investigate the site and finds a large cylinder has crashed. He notices the top of the cylinder slowly rotating open and assumes a man is inside, trying to escape a fiery death. Ogilvy tries to assist, but the cylinder is simply too hot to his touch. He heads back toward Woking in search of help, bringing back with him Henderson, a journalist. They hear the sound of air escaping the cylinder, but receive no response when they bang on it with a stick. They presume anyone inside has perished. The newspapers that evening carry reports of “dead men from Mars” (p. 362).
Analysis: Chapter 2 offers a brisk account of the discovery of the first cylinder from Mars. Readers should appreciate Well’s keen eye for descriptive detail—e.g., “the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and a half away” (p. 359)—as well as the way he continues to create a feeling of verisimilitude by references to expert opinions (e.g., Albin; Denning), an allusion to a minor character as though he should be someone well known to the readers (“Henderson, the London journalist,” p. 361), and the location of the action at real, familiar sites: the Horsell Common, Woking, the Ottershaw bridge. Wells achieves the effect of making his fantastic story seem real; his readers would have recognized the scene and would have had little difficulty imagining the events of the plot as they unfold. (Decades later, in 1938, Orson Welles would achieve the same effect by transposing the plot to American settings in the Mercury Theater of the Air’s famous, panic-causing radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds.) By establishing his science fiction story in a real world setting, Wells ensures that readers will be fully attentive and emotionally invested in what is yet to come.
3. On Horsell Common
Summary: The narrator responds to the news of the strange “falling-star” by going to see it for himself. He is impatient to see the cylinder open. That afternoon, Ogilvy and others are working with “spades and pickaxes” to unearth the object further. Ogilvy complains to the narrator that the growing crowd is hindering the excavation. Sent to talk to the owner of the property, the narrator departs, and takes his daily tea.
Analysis: Readers will note that in this brief chapter Wells shows a cross-section of English society present at the impact crater: children and adults, men and women, the working class (“a jobbing gardener… [and] Gregg the butcher”) middle class (the narrator, who is thinking of a manuscript he can write about the events, sometimes employs the gardener; p. 363) and upper (the cylinder has crashed on the estate of one Lord Hilton; p. 364). Interestingly, the narrator seems to lump all these together as “the common people” (p. 363), another indicator of how the events about to ensue will “level” human society, both literally (in terms of the Martians’ destructive impact) and figuratively, in that no one will escape the calamity by virtue of social standing.
4. The Cylinder Opens
Summary: The narrator returns to the impact site as the sun is setting. Even more curious onlookers have assembled. By now, the top of the cylinder has almost completely unscrewed. When it finally does come off, a most repulsive creature emerges. For a time, the narrator is paralyzed with fear; but when he hears the Martian cry out, he runs. An unfortunate shop man falls into the pit; the narrator feels an urge to return and help, but his fear instead propels him away.
Analysis: A familiar saying declared, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” Given this novel’s thematic occupation with imperialism, then, the fact that this chapter commences as “the sun was setting” (p. 365) may be more than merely descriptive detail. It may reinforce the idea that it is a story critiquing Britain’s imperialistic status. The Martians will, after all, soon threaten to bring an end to not only Britain’s dominance but also humanity’s over the earth.The chapter is a masterful one. Not only does Wells vividly describe the Martian invaders, but also he has his narrator do so in a way that bolsters the conceit that he is chronicling a past, widely shared experience: “Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance” (p. 367)—in other words, the narrator is communicating to one portion of the population a reality that another portion would have readily understood. Additionally, the narrator’s initial reaction to the Martian—“…ungovernable terror gripped me. I stood petrified and staring… I was overcome with disgust and dread” (p. 367)—establishes one of the recurring motifs of the book: when faced with the crisis of the invasion, characters will have to overcome mindless terror in order to undertake meaningful action. Some will succeed; others will fail. Even here, the narrator faces a choice: although he feels an impulse to go back to the pit to help the man who has fallen in, he does not do so: “my fears overruled” (p. 368). This incident is just the first of many which may prompt readers to reflect on their own responses to times of crisis and stress.
5. The Heat-Ray
Summary: The narrator wends his way back to the pit in a hesitant, roundabout way, occasionally spying tentacles lashing out from within. As the day draws to a close, a delegation of people (including Ogilvy the astronomer) approaches the pit, waving a white flag, attempting to signal humanity’s intelligence. The response is a bright flash of light accompanied by puffs of smoke, followed by “a humped shape” rising from the pit. The object fires flames at the men, incinerating them. The “invisible, inevitable sword of heat” kills many in the crowd, and sets much of the landscape on fire. Terrified, the narrator and those who have survived the heat-ray’s first strike run away into the night.
Analysis: The chapter begins with the narrator’s fuller reflections on his initial reaction to seeing the Martians: “[A] kind of fascination paralysed my actions… I was a battle-ground of fear and curiosity” (p. 368). This description of the Martians’ impact on human psychology calls to mind (and anticipates) the famous description of “the holy” or “the numinous” put forth by German theologian Rudolf Otto: a reality that simultaneously terrifies and fascinates, repels and attracts. Wells is emphasizing the radical “otherness” of the Martians, not only to create a sense of horror in his readers—he is writing what we might term a “thriller,” after all—but also to underscore what his novel sees as humanity’s proper place in the universe, a status much lower than it has heretofore pretended to occupy. Yet the chapter is not without hints of humanity’s dignity: when he does arrive back at the pit, the narrator’s first question is about the poor soul who had fallen in; and, though he receives no answer, he experiences “a certain comfort” in the company of his fellow human beings (p. 369). Wells may be foreshadowing future moments in the novel when these qualities of empathy and solidarity, as opposed to looking out only for one’s own interests, prove essential in surviving the Martian onslaught. For now, however, another quality is dominant: “Suddenly, like a thing falling upon me from without”—not, it may be noted, unlike the Martians themselves—“came—fear” (p. 372). This fear has the effect of rendering the narrator irrational (“no rational fear,” p. 372) and of “unmanning” him (p. 372). The moment is another early instance in the text of fear winning out over reason and thus diminishing a human being. The pattern will be repeated, and readers should note it when it is; for the possible human responses to fear, both constructive and destructive, form one of the book’s major thematic concerns.