War of the Worlds: ESSAY AND QUESTIONS
SUGGESTED ESSAY QUESTIONS
1. After the release of Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation of The War of the Worlds, one reviewer wrote:
Spielberg seems to be driving at a point… about American empire. First, the film is released on a July 4 weekend, has Ray [the protagonist, played by Tom Cruise] living in a row house with flags flying everywhere, portrays Ray exclaiming that the lightning is like a July 4 fireworks show—an explicit allegory for the aliens as American imperialists theme, has real U.S. military troops and equipment as extras in some spectacular battle sequences, and then ends in Boston around a statue of a Minuteman (not a real one, but one tailor-made for the film). The most important scene is the one involving the statue, covered in dying red weeds, which is the film’s climax, since it appears right next to the first fallen [Martian] tripod. Cruise’s character tears away part of the dead weed strangling the statue and crushes it in a scene framed with the Minuteman statue behind him, while he proclaims that “It’s dying”
— http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1442462/posts; accessed 30 September 2008.
In a brief essay, discuss the ways in which the novel shares or does not share this “point… about American empire” which the reviewer believes Spielberg wishes to make.
>Although answers may vary, students may respond that, while the reviewer’s comments seem to indicate a belief that Spielberg’s film celebrates American imperialism (garbed in patriotic guise), Wells’ novel offers several solid critiques of nationalism and imperialism, notably the cautionary note that the Martians, who expand their “empire” through heartless application of what can easily be deemed military technology, represent the future evolutionary state of humanity.
2. The narrator identifies the mass exodus from London in I.17 as “the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind” (p. 445). This statement, while it doubtless seemed true at the time to the novel’s characters, does not ultimately prove true by the book’s end, since the Martians are defeated. In what sense, therefore, can it still offer a “true” reading of the invasion’s significance?
>Essays may focus on the fact that, in the evacuation of London, the novel’s recurring identification of civilization with rational thought again appears: for example, at one point the narrator describes the throng as an “eddy of people” in which “weaklings elbowed out of the stream” (p. 441; I. 16)—a social Darwinian description of the panic that replaced reason when the population fled. Or, essays may focus on the ways in which the invasion does literally strip away the veneer of human civilized behavior: for instance, as “the scattered multitudes” grew hungry, “the rights of property ceased to be regarded” (p. 447; I.17)—people revert to “survival mode” rather than the legal and social constructs on which civilization rests. In either case, essays should also note the definite division of time the invasion causes (see II.10). “Civilization” can never be the same after the panic of the invasion has revealed to humanity what social Darwinism posits as its true nature: another animal species struggling for existence.
3. Compare and contrast the characters of the curate and the artilleryman as reflections on responses to the Martian invasion. How does each character further the development of the novel’s overarching themes?
>Both the curate and the artilleryman react in fundamentally flawed ways to the Martian invasion. The curate succumbs to blind panic, retreating from the reality of the crisis in a theology that posits the events as punishment from a wrathful God. This attitude leaves no room for thoughtful human response; it is fatalism dressed up as piety. Where the curate thinks too little about how to respond to the invasion, however, the artilleryman thinks too much: the narrator ultimately rejects the artilleryman’s schemes for a guerilla resistance because the soldier puts no effort into working to bring them about. His reaction, then, is one of sloth disguised as planning. Over and against both characters, the novel suggests that consistent, calm, deliberate action is the proper human, civilized response to crisis.
4. As the novel begins, the narrator is preparing a series of papers on the probable developments of moral ideas as civilisation progressed” (p. 358; I.1). These papers reappear at the novel’s end, as the narrator draws attention to the fact that he was interrupted—by the invasion—while drafting them (p. 513; II.9). What significance does Wells’ use of these papers to “book-end” his tale have?
>The subject of the narrator’s paper is a fitting one for a learned man in late Victorian England. That society often assumed technological progress would inevitably lead to ethical progress. Such an attitude reflects a subscription to a kind of “social Darwinism” (not advanced by Charles Darwin himself), a belief that imparted a moral dimension to “the survival of the fittest”: i.e., that those people who survived deserved to survive. In The War of the Worlds, the Martian invasion gives the lie to the idea that technological progress necessarily leads to moral progress, as the invasion lays bare not only the Martians’ ruthlessness toward humanity but also, at several junctures, human beings’ inhumanity toward each other.
5. The narrator’s reaction to the Martian handling-machines is worthy of note: “The contrast between the swift and complex movements of these contrivances and the inert, panting clumsiness of their masters was acute, and for days I had to tell myself repeatedly that these latter were indeed the living of the two things” (p. 473; II.3). How does this reflection on life interact with the larger themes of the novel?
>Martian technology is clearly highly advanced—so much so that the mechanisms seem more alive to the narrator than their masters. The novel has already suggested, most notably in II.2, that Martians represent a possible evolutionary future for humanity. Humanity must therefore endeavor to not lose its essential qualities of life to its machines. Technology must not become more alive, more “human,” than those who develop and wield it. (Readers may further note an ironic allusion to the fact that the Martians are brining forth their aluminum-like raw material out of the clay of the earth. When God, in Genesis 2, worked the earth’s clay, God created a human being; God created life. When the Martians exercise god-like dominion over the planet, in effect using its own soil against it, they bring forth fuel for the destruction of human life. Here again, Wells may be sounding a cautionary note about that perennial moral concern of science fiction, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein on, the perils of “playing God.”)