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… (p. 353; I.1) The novel’s famous opening words both emphasize the relative positions of humans and Martians in the cosmos (i.e., the latter is superior to the former) and to stress what they share: a mortality that will prove key to the book’s conclusion. The words also strike an appropriately suspenseful and foreboding tone.
A few minutes before there had been only three real things before me—the immensity of the night and space and nature, my own feebleness and anguish, and the near approach of death Now it was as if something turned over, and the point of view altered abruptly. There was no sensible transition from one state of mind to the other. I was immediately the self of every day again—a decent, ordinary citizen. The silent common, the impulse of my flight, the startling flames, were as if they had been in a dream. (p. 375; I.7) The narrator’s reflections here underscore two opposite reactions to the Martians’ invasion—or, of course, to any stressful crisis people in the real world may face: unreasoning fear and panic, and calm, reasoned thought. The scene does not mark the last time the narrator, let alone other characters, will switch between one and the other; but it does provide an insight into this duality’s thematic importance in the book. Wells could be seen as arguing that humanity is defined by its ability to rely on reason even in the face of crisis, for, when the residents of his England fail to do so, they become almost something less than human—and, consequently, more of a menace to their fellow humans than the extraterrestrials invading from the stars.
They seemed amazingly busy. I began to ask myself what they could be. Were they intelligent mechanisms? Such a thing I felt was impossible. Or did a Martian sit within each, ruling, directing, using, much as a man’s brain sits and rules in his body? I began to compare the things to human machines, to ask myself for the first time in my life how an iron-clad or a steam-engine would seem to an intelligent lower animal (p. 395; I.11)The fact that the narrator is devoting time to relatively calm speculation about the nature and purpose of the tripods reinforces the novel’s contention that reason is the proper response to crisis. Further, his capacity not only for reason but also for perspective shifts, demonstrated in these words, speaks well of his capacity to survive.
“But how can we escape?” [the curate] asked, suddenly. “They are invulnerable, they are pitiless.”“Neither the one nor, perhaps, the other,” I answered. “And the mightier they are the more sane and wary should we be.” (pp. 413-14; I.13) This exchange between the narrator and the curate reinforces the need for calm and reason in the face of crisis. It also foreshadows the conclusion of the novel, in which we learn that the Martians are not, in fact, invulnerable, since they are brought low by others of “God’s ministers” (i.e., creatures placed in the creation for a purpose—see p. 506; II.8).
Edgware had been a scene of confusion, Chalk Farm a riotous tumult, but this was a whole population in movement. It is hard to imagine that host. It had no character of its own (p. 439, I.16).The narrator is relaying his brother’s description of the mass, panicked exodus from London. The “whole population” has been, basically, “un-civilized.” It is no longer a social body in which “civilized” strata identify who is who and who belongs wear; this is raw, common humanity in the face of danger, some still clinging to ideas of compassion and service to neighbor, but the vast majority seeking only their own welfare. The passage may offer insight into Wells’ reflections on Darwinian evolutionary theory, as it is not hard to cast the scene as one in which humanity has “devolved” into a brutish natural state of rank self-interest. It may also, given the chapter’s title, be a literary allusion to the Book of Exodus, in which not only the Hebrew slaves but a larger host of non-Hebrew peoples escaped from Egypt on the night of the Passover.
We men, with our bicycles and road-skates, our Lilienthal soaring-machines, our guns and sticks and so forth, are just in the beginning of the evolution that the Martians have worked out (p. 469, II.2).These words may give insight into Wells’ purposes in writing The War of the Worlds. In speculating that human beings may turn into something not unlike the Martian invaders, the narrator is sounding a cautionary note about the species’ future. He seems to pose the question: will we use our intelligence and technology to advance morality (as his pre-invasion papers suggested) and help our neighbors (as many panicked people during the invasion, unfortunately, fail to do); or will we allow that intelligence and technology to transform—perhaps deform—us into ravaging, inhuman monsters?
But he was one of those weak creatures, void of pride, timorous, anemic, hateful souls, full of shifty cunning who face neither God nor man, who face not even themselves (p. 471, II.3).These words are the narrator’s harsh (but clearly not unfounded) judgment upon the curate with whom he finds shelter during the Martian invasion. They reflect the influence that Darwinian biological theory had upon social theory: though arguably not Darwin’s intent, thinkers of the 19th century (and beyond) drew inferences that his postulations of the “survival of the fittest” in the “struggle for existence” played out not only in countless generations past of the animal kingdom but also in human societies of the present. The narrator thus classifies the curate as “weak” and, implicitly, not worthy of survival.
For that moment I touched an emotion beyond the common range of men, yet one that the poor brutes we dominate know only too well… I felt the first inkling of… a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that I was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heel. With us it would be as with them, to lurk and to watch, to run and hide; the fear and empire of men had passed away (p. 483; II.6). In this moment, the narrator realizes that humanity’s sense of its place in the universe can never be the same after the Martian invasion. The words take a Darwinian view of human beings: as members of the animal kingdom who now have empathy with “inferior” members. The words also reinforce the novel’s overall critique of overreaching imperialism.
“It’s all over,” he said. “They’ve lost one—just one. And they’ve made their footing good and crippled the greatest power in the world… This isn’t a war… It never was a war, any more than there’s war between men and ants” (pp. 490-491; II.7). These words express not only the radical shift of perspective that humanity now must have of itself as a result of the Martian invasion (i.e., the comparison of human beings to ants when measured against the Martians), but also the artilleryman’s conclusion that humanity has been defeated. Ironically, of course, it is in a sense the artilleryman’s own plans that would truly mark the death of humanity: namely, his ruthless application of social Darwinism to his envisioned future society, a society without compassion and without reason—qualities Wells may be suggesting are essential to any definition of human civilization.
By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain (p. 506; II.8) The narrator is explaining how the microbes that are harmless to humans, because generations of people have been exposed to them, could have proved fatal to the Martian invaders. They put humanity in its proper place on the cosmic scale: the dominant life on planet Earth, no doubt, but not the mightiest in the universe—and not without need of reliance on humbler forms of life, as well!