BOOK TWO: “Earth Under the Martians”
1. Under Foot
Summary: Resuming his narrative as he and the curate are “lurking in the empty house at Halliford,” seeking safety from the Martians’ Black Smoke, the narrator relates how he is worried for the welfare of his wife and cousin. Peering out at their surroundings, the narrator and the curate see “an unaccountable redness” tinging the landscape. This (we will learn) is what the narrator will call “the red weed,” a fungus-like organism carried from Mars by the invaders, and an organic mark of their attempt to take Earth for their own.The two men eventually leave the house and start back toward Leatherhead, encountering ample evidence of destruction and panic and death along their way. Near Kew Lodge, they see a Martian tripod actively pursuing and abducting several individuals. Later, as the narrator and curate camp in an abandoned house, an explosion causes the house to partially collapse. The fifth cylinder from Mars (cf. I. 17) has crashed at their location, effectively trapping them within.
Analysis: The narrator’s initial thoughts in this chapter, of his wife and his cousin (at whose home she is staying), introduce a subtle nuance into the novel’s ongoing concern with how to react to the Martian invasion: “My cousin I knew was brave enough for any emergency… [but w]hat was needed now was not bravery, but circumspection” (p. 455). In other words, neither reason alone nor courageous action alone are enough for survival; caution—a facet of calm reasoning—is also essential. We shall see later, in the narrator’s discussions with the artillery man (II.7), how “circumspection” keeps reason on the right path.The curate’s lethargic insistence that he and the narrator are “safe” at the house in Halliford is ironic considering that the curate should, as a clergyman, be able to remember Scriptural warnings against protestations of safety. In his “Temple sermon,” the prophet Jeremiah warns, “Behold, ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit. Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not; and come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations?” (Jeremiah 7:8-10, KJV). The sermon is one of judgment upon those who trust in themselves and believe themselves safe even when faced with imminent judgment. Similarly, the Martian invasion, while not specifically cast in Wells’ text as a judgment upon human sin, nonetheless is an apocalyptic moment that lays bare human beings’ illusions of their ability to trust in themselves and in the “false gods” of human technology, military might, ordinary routine and conventional piety—all of which we have seen fall, one after the other, before the Martian advance. The curate’s insistence, “We are safe,” rings hollow indeed (p. 456).The “red weed,” first introduced (although not yet so named) in this chapter, forms an appropriately sinister symbol of the Martian invasion. As mentioned earlier, the aliens are not content to occupy the Earth as it is; rather, they seek to transform it to accommodate them. Here again, we may detect a critique of colonialism and imperialism: the tendency of newcomers and strangers (literally, “aliens”) to try and change the places where they go is a blight and an “infection,” just as the red weed becomes a blight upon the blue-and-green Earth.2. What We Saw from the Ruined House
Summary: Through a small opening in a ruined wall, the narrator can see that the Martians from the fifth cylinder have constructed another tripod, as well as “an extraordinary glittering mechanism,” a “handling machine,” that proves, later in the book, to be the means by which the Martians feed off their human captives: “They did not each, much less digest. Instead, they took the fresh, living blood of other creatures, and injected it into their own veins.” He also looks on the actual Martians for the first time since he glimpsed them in the invasion’s earliest days (cf. I.4). Intriguingly, he mentions that the Martians brought some other “source of nourishment” with them from their home world, a bipedal species not altogether unlike humanity, judging from the remains the narrator sees. The narrator pauses his relation of the invasion to offer numerous insights about Martian physiology, biology, and intelligence; as well as information about the “red weed” that began to creep over planet Earth at the time.
Analysis: A mood of sheer horror suffuses this chapter, as the narrator watches the Martians feed, like vampires, on hapless human beings. Even without explicitly describing the procedure, Wells can evoke terror in his readers at the very thought—since he is relying on his readers’ imaginations to fill in the most gruesome aspects. His detailed description of the Martians’ “unearthly” (p. 464) and repulsive physical appearance also heightens the horrific tone. Yet even these passages are not without the hallmark of evolutionary content that marks the novel: for example, the narrator speculates that the Martians hoist themselves off the ground by using their tentacles, and that while increased gravity makes this difficult if not impossible for them to do on Earth, “[t]here is reason to suppose that on Mars they may have progressed upon them with some facility”—Wells’ extrapolation of Darwin’s principles of natural selection and adaptation into a science fiction context. The narrator even speculates that humanity itself may, at some future point, resemble the Martians, who have advanced or “evolved” into asexual, super-intelligent beings (p. 467). And readers should also note that the description of the Martians and their activities carries with it another shift in humanity’s perspective on itself: “we should remember how repulsive our carnivorous habits would seem to an intelligent rabbit” (p. 465).This chapter, with its extended discussion of Martian evolution and physiology, also further lays the foundation for the novel’s conclusion, with the introduction of the fact (within the narrative context, established after the invasion) that “[M]icro-organisms, which cause so much disease and pain on earth, have either never appeared on Mars or Martian sanitary science eliminated them ages ago” (p. 467). These discussions, at first glance tangential, also prove helpful to interpreting the book in another way, for they demonstrate how the narrator was able to change his mind in light of his experiences. For instance, regarding the fact that the Martians appear to communicate telepathically, the narrator admits, “Before the Martian invasion… I had written with some little vehemence against the telepathic theory” (p. 469). Now, of course, writing from a post-invasion standpoint, the narrator feels obliged to revise his thinking. It is this capacity to change—not only one’s mind, but also one’s ways—that Wells may be suggesting is a positive attribute of humanity, and thus essential for its continued survival; else, why write a cautionary allegory of imperialism’s dangers to both victim and perpetrator at all?
3. The Days of Imprisonment
Summary: So desperate have they become for information about their situation, the narrator and the curate have fallen to fighting each other for the chance to gaze through their scullery “peep-hole” at the Martians who have cornered them. So efficient and even oddly graceful are the handling-machines that are fashioning aluminum-like bars from earthen clay, the narrator is forced to remind himself that the grotesque and clumsy Martians, rather than their mechanical contraptions, are the living, sentient creatures. The narrator also sees the horrific “feeding” of the Martians upon humans, anticipated in the previous chapter but here described. On the fourth or fifth night, the narrator hears heavy artillery fire, briefly rekindling a hope that human effort might repulse the invaders. Peering through the peep-hole, he sees that the Martians have moved on. An opportunity for escape has arisen, as the narrator early reasoned it might.
Analysis: The invasion again proves a revelatory event as it lays bare the “absolutely incompatible dispositions” of the narrator and the curate (p. 471). More than a point of characterization, however, the contrast Wells draws between the two men further serves his theme of the importance of reason, for, as the narrator reports, the curate’s “stupid rigidity of mind” and “endless stuttering monologue vitiated every effort I made to think out a line of action” (p. 471). Witnessing the abduction of the Martian’s human feast robs the clergyman “of all vestiges of reason or forethought” (p. 474). And so the narrator finds himself endlessly distracted: “I was unable to keep my mind off him” (p. 471)—a serious issue, considering that Wells has been suggesting throughout the novel that reason, properly focus and applied, is essential to humanity’s survival. The contrast between the two also paints the curate as one of the “weak”—as opposed to “the strong” who are supposedly fit to survive in Darwinian evolutionary theory, another ongoing concern in the text. Readers get the distinct impression that the narrator believes the curate does not deserve to survive. Indeed, the narrator goes so far as to state that the curate “had already sunk to the level of an animal” (p. 474). Whether Wells as author approves of his narrator’s social inferences from Darwinian theory, readers can decide; but the narrator, at least, does seem to regret many of his thoughts about and actions toward the curate, reflecting on them now after the crisis has passed. This fact, however, is not without its own troubling implications, and may lead readers to wonder how well reason did, in fact, serve the narrator during the invasion. At the very least, the contrast and the conflicts it precipitates between the narrator and curate serve to remind readers how fragile a faculty human reason can be, and how intensely it must be guarded and practiced when it counts, in times of trouble—as the narrator himself puts it, “under the shadow” (p. 472) (possibly an allusion to Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”).
4. The Death of the Curate
Summary: Six days into their “imprisonment,” the narrator catches the curate drinking, and imposes a rations system on their remaining provisions. Two days later, the curate—nearly driven mad with hunger and fear—threatens to retaliate by shouting to attract the Martians’ attention to the two men’s hiding place. On the ninth day, the curate loudly bewails his sins; the narrator implores him to be silent, and a struggle ensues, during which the narrator strikes the curate with the butt (he is careful not to use the blade) of a meat cleaver. Apparently attracted by the commotion, a tentacle of the Martian handling-machine breaks through the wall through which the two men have been spying on the invaders. The tentacle grabs hold of the curate and of a lump of coal in its fitful groping of the scullery. The narrator remains hidden for a full day before he feels confident than he can again move safely.
Profile: This brief, suspenseful chapter opens with another illustration of how the narrator embodies a reasoned response to crisis and the curate does not, as the narrator announces to his companion a “determination to begin a discipline” of dividing the pantry’s remaining food into rations (p. 476). Only a calm, rational mind can devise and impose discipline upon chaos. In contrast, as the narrator himself observes, the curate “was indeed beyond reason” (p. 476). Wells can draw the distinction no clearer. Even when he feels compelled to strike the curate down in order to preserve them both, the narrator, with “one last touch of humanity,” does so with the butt, not the blade, of a cleaver (p. 478). Wells employs silence in an ironic fashion: the curate, loudly confessing the hypocrisy of his previous days (yet another way in which the Martian invasion functions as “apocalyptic,” or revelatory), says he can no longer keep silent, but must announce repentance and the word of the Lord. The clamor he creates attracts the Martians’ attention. In contrast, the narrator, still in control of himself, resists any impulse to scream or cry out; even as the Martian handling-machine’s tentacle is probing the scullery, the narrator goes so far as to bite his own hand in order to quell his instincts (p. 479). By remaining calm and rational, therefore, the narrator has preserved his humanity; the curate did not, and perished in consequence.
5. The Stillness
Summary: The narrator is despondent to discover that the Martian, via the handling-machine’s tentacle, has taken all remaining food from the pantry. More days pass in fear and in silence, broken only by the narrator’s desperate creaking of the water pump in order to slake his thirst with a few glasses of dirty water. The Martians’ red weed begins to creep into the ruined house. On the fifteenth day, a dog arrives; the narrator entertains thoughts of attracting the animal inside in order to kill and eat it, but the dog leaves. Eventually, impressed with the silence outside the house, the narrator risks a look, and sees that all the Martian machinery has left, as well. Houses are wrecked, and red weed grows everywhere; but the sky is blue, the air feels sweet, and no trace of Martians is to be found.
Analysis: Another brief but well-constructed chapter lays a foundation for the eventual denouement of the novel. Upon emerging from his hiding place, the narrator sees signs of the Martians decline (although, of course, he does not yet recognize them as such). Significantly, as the chapter begins, the narrator reports that he is feeling despair—that is, the utter absence of hope—“for the first time” (p. 480). The admission is an ironic one: unbeknownst to the narrator (and to first-time readers of the book, although evident upon re-readings), the narrator is feeling this despair at the time at which the Martians are meeting their demise. The ubiquitous nature of the red weed belies the fact that the invaders who brought it to planet Earth are even then dying out. If, at this turning point in the “war of the worlds,” the narrator is only now reaching the point of despair, then Wells’ larger argument is vindicated: the narrator’s insistence upon calm and rational responses to crisis has served him well, carrying him through to a new day and a new beginning. Again, however, this layer of meaning in the chapter is only apparent upon re-readings of the text: Wells is using dramatic irony to fine effect, since the narrator’s true situation is not yet known to him.