This section looks at the main themes displayed by H. G. Wells in The War of the Worlds.
Without doubt Imperialism is the main underlying theme in the novel. At the time of the novel was published the British Empire had conquered and colonised dozens of territories throughout the World and had become the largest Empire the World had ever known.
While other novels had provided an imaginative foundation for the idea of the heart of the British Empire being invaded by foreign forces, it was not until The War of the Worlds that the British public were presented with an enemy completely superior to themselves. A significant force behind the spread of the British Empire was its use of sophisticated technology. The Martians, 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. In writing the novel Wells was challenging the British governing class’ notion that the British Empire had a right to rule by its own superiority over its subject races.
Key quote from chapter 1 of the novel
“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?”
War and Conflict
The novel explores a very one sided war as the Martians dominate and annihilates the humans. Through this scenario HG Wells is able to explore the impact of war on human beings and portray the sheer horror of invasion. This includes not only increasingly frequent scenes of buildings in ruins and of dead bodies as the Martians advance, but also the mental suffering caused by war. The Artilleryman, who had been a devoted soldier, becomes an impractical dreamer. The Narrator ends up physically attacking the Curate to save them both from discovery by the Martians. In the mass migrations, it becomes a survival of the fittest as people turn on each other in their fight for survival. The novel explores courage and resilience but also cowardice and panic. Interestingly, the weapons given to the Martians – the HeatRay and Black Smoke, and even the Tripods themselves - were HG Wells’ predictions for the future of warfare - chemical warfare, laser-like weapons, and industrial robots.
Key quote from chapter 7 of the novel
“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.”
The Destruction of Civilisation/ Social Darwinism
HG Wells was fascinated with Darwinian evolutionary theory that had only been published 40 years before this novel. Darwinian theory argues that life evolves by means of “natural selection” those species that are able to adapt to their environments thrive, while those who are not, do not - a process known as ‘survival of the fittest’ or ‘the struggle for existence.’ Although Darwin was primarily concerned with biology, not intending his theories to be applied to humans, they were developed into a philosophy of ‘social Darwinism’, the law of natural selection in human society. The theory gained popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The War of the Worlds explores this theory by suggesting that all humanity, regardless of strength or social class, suffers collectively under the Martians’ rule. It forces its 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. It is notable that in the early chapters when people gather around the pit, they represent all social classes, in late 19th Century Britain people from different classes rarely mixed. The Martian invasion is thus seen as a great leveller where no individual can avoid the catastrophe by virtue of their class or wealth. 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 calm logic and perseverance are far more useful in facing the atrocities. Interestingly, in the end the Martians are wiped out because they have no resistance to the bacteria on Earth that humans have resistance to. Man can then recover to rebuild and revaluate their own society.