Themes and Characters

The War of the Worlds reflects some of Wells’s social concerns, although it is not as heavily laden with social commentary as The Time Machine. The Martians represent colonialists, while the Europeans-traditionally the colonialists themselves-are the primitives confronting invaders who possess a bewilderingly superior technology. Confusion, fear, panic, and bravado are the typical reaction of the English to the invasion. The Martians have “minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts.”

The principal theme of The War of the Worlds is evolution. The Martians are what humanity could become. They are super-intellects with highly evolved brains and ugly, shrunken bodies. As monsters, they are suitably grotesque and inhuman. Inside their terrible war machines, they are fearsome masters of technology, blasting whole towns out of existence; indeed, they destroy and kill sometimes without purpose-just for the joy of exercising nearly invincible power. Outside of their machines, they are pathetic and nearly helpless.

The destruction of the Martians by microbes has seemed too easy to some readers. The Martians were “scattered about … some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, … slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared.” To Wells, whenever a creature gained something through evolution it also lost something; here, the Martians have gained great intellects but have lost the robust bodies of their evolutionary past. With advanced technology has come contempt for nature, and with that contempt has come ignorance. The infections surprise the overconfident aliens, and they are reduced to crying “ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla” as dogs run them down.

Wells was a cautionary visionary in an era when Western civilization reveled in its technological conquest of nature. The novel directly contradicts the assumption that all technological progress makes life better. The Martians see themselves as so superior to nature that they are not bound by rules of morality and ethical behavior. But their contempt for other living beings brings about their own destruction. They treat humans like beasts and ruthlessly pursue them like hunters. By implication, so too may humanity’s arrogance lead to destruction by the forces of nature.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, critics fussed about the “passivity” of the Characters of The War of the Worlds. The Narrator, in particular, is faulted for being primarily a cowering observer. Such criticism misses the point of Wells’s characterizations. The people of England respond as people have responded before to invasions by technologically more advanced peoples. “Since the Martians were evidently intelligent creatures,” the Narrator notes, “it had been resolved to show them, by approaching them with signals, that we too were intelligent.” Apples are brought as gifts, and dignitaries approach the Martians’ spacecraft.

Those assembled to observe this meeting seem to take for granted that a technologically advanced race will also be morally advanced. Then there are “flashes of actual flame,” and “it was as if each man were suddenly and momentarily turned to fire.” At first there is disbelief; later comes panic. Then the mighty military powers of England fight and are slaughtered.

The Narrator is a journalist who is “busy upon a series of papers discussing the probable developments of moral ideas as civilization had progressed” when the story begins. He relates the unfolding action with a journalist’s eye for local color; his commentary appeals to a broad general audience. As an educated modern man, the Narrator acts as the reader’s observer, describing what he sees as accurately as possible. In constant fear for his life, he is only “passive” in the sense that he can do nothing to stop the Martians. For most of the novel, he uses his wits to avoid death, much as anyone else would. Like Wells, the Narrator is interested in moral evolution, and he colors his dialogue with moral and ethical observations. But nothing distracts from his story as it races from the sighting of “incandescent gas” on Mars to the final, emotional reunion of the Narrator and his wife.