Themes, Ideas And Messages In The War Of The Worlds
The context of a novel means the circumstances in which it was written – the social, historical, intellectual and literary factors that influenced what the author wrote. All literature is influenced by the life experiences that the author has gone through and these are shaped by the world in which the author lived in. Therefore, in order to truly understand the themes, ideas and messages H.G. Wells portrayed through The War of the Worlds, it is vital to have some knowledge of the historical and social context which Wells’ lived in.
Herbet George Wells was born on 21 September 1866, in Bromley, Kent, a small town on the outskirts of London. When he was aged thirteen, his family broke up due to financial hardship. After failed jobs and apprenticeships, Wells began a degree course at the Normal School of Science thanks to a government scholarship. Wells was taught biology and zoology by T.H. Huxley; one of the leading thinkers during that time, as well as a friend and devotee of Charles Darwin. Wells was heavily influenced by T.H. Huxley and challenged by Huxley’s ideas and teachings.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the nations within Europe were separated into strategic alliances that pitted them against each other. These alliances and military associations consequented in a greater military buildup than the world had ever known before. The ideologies of nationalism and imperialism were conspicuous within nations and alliances. Consequently, political tension accumulated rapidly. This trend created a dangerous political situation and resulted in the largest and bloodiest confrontation that had ever happened up to that time, the First World War.
Additionally, a real and prominent fear developed towards the end of the nineteenth century suggesting that the turn of the century would be the ‘end of the age’ and an apocalypse would occur. During this time, the British Empire was the most dominant colonial power on earth. London was its political centre, making it a natural starting point for an imagined alien invasion. Finally, the pronounced existence of nationalism and imperialism during this time ensued a common fear of mass immigration due to colonialism.
With the aggregation of H.G. Wells’ influential experiences and figures such as T.H Huxley and Charles Darwin, along with the historical and social context of H.G. Wells’ world in the late nineteenth century, the themes and messages which are explored and exhibited through The War of the Worlds will be coherent and comprehensible.
Important themes explored within the novel
Different attitudes on various components of English society were explored and stitched into the famous plot of The War of the Worlds. During H.G. Wells’ time, new discoveries in evolution, British imperialism, anxieties of reverse colonization, and other moral ideologies were governing society.
To begin with, arguably the most important scientific publication within the nineteenth century was Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). Darwin proposes and forecasts a model of the world in which organisms evolve into greater and more complex organisms over a prolonged period of time. In the chapter entitled Struggle for Existence, Darwin proclaims:
“The action of climate seems at first sight to be quite independent of the struggle for existence; but in so far as climate chiefly acts in reducing food, it brings on the most severe struggle between the individuals, whether of the same or distinct species, which subsist on the same kind of food.” (Darwin, 1859)
It is evident that ideas such as this have shaped Wells’ writing of The War of the Worlds. Regarding the main action of the Martian invasion, Wells writes “That last stage of exhaustion, which to us is still incredibly remote, has become a present-day problem for their inhabitants of Mars” (Book 1, Ch. 1, p.8). Mars is depicted as a dying planet and in “the immediate pressure of necessity” (Book 1, Ch. 1, p.8), the Martians launch their invasion upon the vibrant planet Earth in an effort to survive. H.G. Wells predicted that humankind will run out of resources and struggle violently over the limited resources. Furthermore, Wells prognosticate that humankind will search for resources from other planets, such as Mars.
Wells incorporates these ideas through quotes such as: “And looking across space with instruments and intelligences such as we have scarcely dreamed of, they see, as its nearest distance only 35,000,000 pf miles sunward of them, a morning star of hope, our warmer planet, green with vegetation and grey with water, with a cloudy atmosphere eloquent of fertility…” (Book 1, Ch. 1, p.8)
“Their undeniable preference for men as their source of nourishment is partly explained by the nature of the remains of the victims they had brought with them as provisions from Mars.” (Book 2,Ch. 2, p.126)
In a subtle fashion, Darwin’s vision of a universe in which individuals and species struggle violently over limited resources, is played out through the subplot between the curate and the narrator within the house of Sheen.
“Then he would suddenly revert to the matter of food I withheld from him, praying, begging, weeping, at last threatening.” (Book 2, Ch. 4, p.137)
Moreover, Darwin’s findings suggest a future model of the world with the predominant principle of Social Darwinism, or ‘the survival of the fittest’. Social Darwinism implies a vision of an uncaring universe in which the strong dominate and destroy the weak with no intervention from God. The War of the Worlds challenges social darwinism by suggesting that all humanity, regardless of strength or social class, suffers collectively under the rule of the Martians. It compels readers to revise their view of humanity’s place in the universe: no longer on top, but as one species that may very well be inferior to another. In the developing stages of the plot, people gather around the pit, representing all social classes. The Martian invasion is thus seen as a great leveler: no individual can avoid the catastrophe by virtue of social class, education, or wealth. Congruently, the Artilleryman advocates that following the Martian invasion only the strong like him will survive, yet he shows himself unable to actually carry out any of his grandiose plans. The Narrator’s logic and perseverance proves far more useful in facing the atrocities.
Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and theory of living creatures evolving into more complex forms over immense periods of time created great philosophical, intellectual and emotional turmoil during the time of its publication in 1859. The core reason for this is because Darwin’s theory challenged the fundamental beliefs of the vast Christian society. The War of the Worlds surfaced Darwin’s theory and raised these points to many readers and the society in which the novel was published. In the world of the novel, Wells incorporates Darwin’s theory of evolution, as the Martians are superior to the human race because their planet is much older and thus, they have been evolving for much longer. On the other hand, the idea of God is also displayed through quotes such as: “For a moment I believed that the destruction of Sennacherib had been repeated, that God had repented, that the Angel of Death had slain them in the night.” (Book 2, Ch. 9, p. 169) The biblical reference suggests that God has relented and decided to spare humanity from total destruction. Wells presents the role of God as a supreme being who wants to teach the human race a lesson. “Martians – dead! … slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.” (Book 2, Ch. 8, p. 168) The War of the World artistically portrayed and significantly contributed in surfacing Social Darwinism and Darwin’s theory to the western society in the 19th and 20th century.
As H.G. Wells makes conspicuous in the opening chapter, “man” is arrogant and vicious, the example given being the behaviour of British colonists in Tasmania earlier in the century. Accordingly, it can be interpreted that when Wells refers to “man” within this opening chapter, he is more specifically referring to the British Empire. At the time of the novel’s publication the British Empire had conquered and colonised dozens of territories in Africa, Australia, North and South America, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and the Atlantic and Pacific islands.
British Empire in the 19th Century
A significant force behind the success of the British Empire was its use of sophisticated technology and advanced inventions which were developed throughout the industrial revolution; the Martians, also attempting to establish an empire on Earth, have technology superior to their British adversaries. In The War of the Worlds, Wells depicted an imperial power as the victim of imperial aggression, perhaps encouraging the reader to consider imperialism itself.
“Before we judge of them [the Martians] too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?” Chapter 1, The War of the Worlds, pp 4.
The Martians represent the detrimental aspects of imperialism. We are told that as their planet, Mars, is imperiling to terminate supporting life, they discover the Earth and launch an invasion to take over it using physical force and weaponry rather than considering peaceful cohabitation. It is not evident whether the Martians view mankind as having any intelligence, thought or feeling. This reflects HG Wells’ views that during a period of great colonial expansion, native populations were treated unacceptably and their needs, views and rights were ignored.
The Martians are portrayed as highly technologically advanced compared to Man. They also seem incapable of emotions and feelings such as guilt, remorse, or empathy. This reflects HG Wells’ concerns that with scientific development comes great power and a tendency to play ‘God’. In war, common human decency is often cast aside for ruthless pursuit of victory. The Martians are therefore presented as killing machines, but they have also evolved to work extremely efficiently as living organisms. For example, they no longer have complex digestive or reproductive systems. “And this was the sum of the Martian organs. Strange as it may seem to a human being, all the complex apparatus of digestion, which makes up the bulk of our bodies, did not exist in the Martians. They were heads—merely heads. Entrails they had none. They did not eat, much less digest. Instead, they took the fresh, living blood of other creatures, and injected it into their own veins. . . The physiological advantages of the practice of injection are undeniable, if one thinks of the tremendous waste of human time and energy occasioned by eating and the digestive process. Our bodies are half made up of glands and tubes and organs, occupied in turning heterogeneous food into blood. The digestive processes and their reaction upon the nervous system sap our strength and colour our minds… But the Martians were lifted above all these organic fluctuations of mood and emotion.” (Book 2, Ch. 2, p. 125)
Conclusively, whilst the themes which are delineated in The War of the Worlds are still pertinent to this day, understanding the historical and social context which H.G. Wells’ lived in provides a glimpse into a new perspective from the past; the struggles, ideologies, conjecture and thinking of H.G. Wells and the world of the late nineteenth century is eye-opening to the modern reader.
H.G. Wells’ projection and way of exploring salient themes and messages through the events and morals which are raised throughout the story is exceptional. Despite this, I believe that albeit the plot of The War of the Worlds is thought-provoking, it lacks dramatic elements, suspense, and climactic action. For example, although it was meaningful that microbes killed the martians, I found the “deus ex machina” anticlimactic and a mere lacklustre ending. The story would be a lot more intriguing if the protagonist had contributed to the fall of the Martians in some way. Spanish Conquistadors landed on the shores of the New World. They didn’t win against the Aztec and Inca Empires so much because of the superiority of their weapons, religion or culture, but because they were bringing the smallpox virus along with them — first major and unwitting case of biological warfare. In similar fashion, if The War of the Worlds concluded with an ending such as the protagonist infecting himself with bacteria and sacrificing himself to cause the death of the Martians, there would be much more dramatic elements and heightened action, ultimately providing greater entertainment and enjoyment for readers whilst maintaining the message regarding the power of nature. Nevertheless, it is understood that in order to strongly deliver purposeful themes and meaning such as the ones portrayed in The War of the Worlds, the entertainment and typical fictitious elements were neglected.
The protagonist of The War of the Worlds is an unnamed man in Woking, faced with the immediate danger from the Martians. In traditional fiction such as myths and legends, the protagonist holds some values, morality and ability. The protagonist is often a “hero”. However, in The War of the Worlds, the protagonist does not play an important role in the storyline and helplessly observes the Martians invade the Earth. Although the protagonist is a relatable perspective for the reader, I believe that if The War of the Worlds concluded with an ending along the lines of the protagonist infecting himself with bacteria and sacrificing himself to cause the death of the Martians, the climax and emotional element of the story would have been heightened and greater sense of intriguement would have been created. Furthermore, questions regarding sacrifice, moral values and ethics would have been raised in the minds of readers as the protagonist is forced to make significant decisions to alter the storyline. This additional climactic action would have maintained the theme and message of the importance and power of nature as it is nature that kills the Martians in the end. Despite this, possibly one of the messages with most value and necessity in this day and age, is the fact that the human race needs to work with nature to progress towards a more sustainable environment. The War of the Worlds lets nature take over and defeat the Martians with no input from humankind. The symbolism of the protagonist working with nature to overcome the challenge of Martians would have been a lot more inspiring for readers, especially the modern readers of today.
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