War of the Worlds: BOOK ONE - 11,12,13,14,15

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11. At the Window


Summary: The narrator looks out his window toward Horsell Common, noting the Martian tripods that lumber across the landscape. He gradually becomes aware of the widespread scope of the devastation the Martians have caused, and reflects on the nature and work of the Martian machines. As the thunderstorm dies away, a solider enters the narrator’s garden. The narrator invites the solider into the house, where the soldier tells the narrator, “They wiped us out—simply wiped us out.” As he shares bread and meat with the narrator, he describes the Martian destruction of the human military. After the meal, the narrator again looks out his window: “In one night the valley had become a valley of ashes.”


Analysis: The narrator’s reaction to the sight of his nearly decimated community is one of the strongest soundings of apocalypse, or “unveiling,” that Wells provides in the early portion of the book: “And this was the little world in which I had been living securely for years, this fiery chaos!” (p. 394). In its immediate context, of course, the comment refers to the Martians’ destructive work; thematically, however, it illustrates the narrator’s new perspective on his world, a perspective thrust upon him and his neighbors at great cost. The Martian invasion is an “apocalypse” not only in the word’s popular sense of a fiery cataclysm, but also in its sense of a revelation. As events progress, we will, through the narrator’s eyes, see human beings regress; we will learn firsthand of the “fiery chaos” usually cloaked by the veneer of civilization, a chaos in which—in accord with the most brutal interpretations of Darwinian theory—life is truly a struggle for existence, with people contending solely for themselves and their own immediate interests, unable and unwilling to struggle on each other’s behalf. And yet Wells’ narrative, as we will also see, does not conclude that human life must remain so. Like all apocalyptic literature, The War of the Worlds confronts its readers with a stark, alternate vision of reality, and forces them to choose how they will respond. The narrator’s responses will vary, but even here, at this early stage, we see hints that he will find a better way than the unreasoning panic of the neighbors. We see a further indication in his connection with the soldier: “At the sight of another human being my torpor passed, and I leaned out of the window eagerly” (p. 395). Connections among people must be maintained when “fiery chaos” is laid bare. The meal the men share—“We lit no lamp for fear of attracting the Martians, and ever and again our hands would touch upon bread and meat” (p. 398)—symbolizes the importance of relationship for humanity’s survival. It is a symbolic sacrament of communion, connecting human beings, not to God, but to each other.


The description of the devastated landscape as a “valley of ashes” near the chapter’s end (p. 398) may call to mind the valley witnessed by the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 37). In that prophetic book, the valley, though the scene of a great slaughter and filled with the bones of the fallen, ultimately becomes a site of resurrection: “Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet…” (Ezek. 37:9-10). Perhaps Wells is foreshadowing the reversal of fortune that awaits humanity at the end of his tale. On the other hand, the narrator’s judgment on what has happened—“Never before in the history of warfare had destruction been so indiscriminate and so universal” (p. 398)—seems Wells’ prescient anticipation of warfare in the 20th century. Humanity may only escape such widespread devastation and achieve “resurrection” if we maintain our communion with each other.


12. What I Saw of the Destruction of Weybridge and Shepperton


Summary: The artilleryman and the narrator gather what provisions they can from the narrator’s house and strike out for Leatherhead, by a long, roundabout route in order to avoid the Martians. Prompted to do so by defeated army officers they meet along the way, the two head for Weybridge, noting as they go that the destruction has not yet reached that far. The community of Byfleet, however, is busy with people preparing to evacuate—even though the army (whose presence has intensified—“here no longer hussars, but grenadiers in white”) is finding it difficult to convince some of the evacuees how desperate the situation really is. By midday, the crowd of evacuees is swelling, but full realization has not yet set in. From Chertsey, however, comes the sound of artillery fire, and the fighting begins. Five Martian tripods advance, firing the heat-ray. Although frightened the narrator has the sense to tell those around him to submerge themselves in the river. Oblivious to this human drama, however, the Martians soldier on, wreaking further destruction. The military does manage to hit one tripod with a bursting shell, killing the Martian at its controls; ironically, however, the tripod does just as much if not more damage as an unguided “mere intricate device of metal whirling to destruction.” Its collapse destroys a church tower and creates a boiling tidal wave in the river. Fascinated, the narrator for a moment watches the Martian’s death-throes. He then pushes on through the scalding water, while Weybridge and Shepperton burn around him. Although the heat is nearly unbearable, and although a Martian tripod’s foot passes “within a score of yards” of him as he scrambles out of the river, the narrator, “by a miracle,” survives.


Analysis: Wells’ description of what the narrator and artilleryman discover upon leaving the house—in addition burned corpses, “here and there… things that people had dropped—a clock, a slipper, a silver spoon…” (p. 399-400)—will resonate with readers who have seen the aftermath of natural or man-made disasters. The carefully chosen details add both to the text’s sense of reality and its sense of horror. Readers may also, of course, recognize the way in which, once the narrator is clear of the immediate destruction, he is tempted to lapse back into his former confidence regarding humanity’s chances against the invaders. At Addlestone, for instance, he notes note six cannons awaiting the Martians, prompting him to hope that the armed forces will still at least “get one fair shot” at the Martians. The artilleryman, however, knows better: “It’s bows and arrows against the lightning” (p. 402). This exchange, coupled with the scenes of evacuees donning their finest clothing and taking the time to gather their most valuable possessions, underscores the psychological reality that we can be very skillful at denying unpleasant truths. We cling to the psychological defenses we have constructed for ourselves until the last possible moment, when an “apocalyptic” event “unveils” (or unmasks!) them as the false assurances that they are. To his credit, despite his moment of bravado, the narrator does seem further along than most in realizing the truth: “‘Death!’ I shouted. ‘Death is coming!’” (p. 403).


More positively, however, the evacuation at Weybridge also shows us some of the first signs of constructive, positive response to the crisis. “Part of the time,” the narrator reports, “we spent helping two old women to pack a little cart” (p. 403). It is small acts of altruism, such as this, in the midst of calamity that seem to suggest this “apocalypse” will “unveil” not only the worst in humanity, but also the best. As the narrator recalls, when the Martian tripods attacked, “I was not too terrified for thought” (p. 405). It is not the last time that reason will prove key to his survival. (Of course, even this moment is ironic, in that the Martian tripod is not actually focused on the narrator and his fellows: it is too busy destroying the next village. Here again, Wells illustrates differences of scale to reorient humanity’s perception of its own importance!) Similarly, the narrator’s observation of the Martian tripod operator’s death is not without some subtle hint of empathy: “The tentacles swayed and struck like living arms… it was as if some wounded thing were struggling for its life” (p. 407). Appropriately enough in a novel shaped by Darwinian theory, Wells is perhaps drawing attention to the commonalities shared by living beings, despite their differences (and, in this case, vast differences!).


13. How I Fell in with the Curate


Summary: The narrator boards an abandoned boat and paddles down the river for hours, eventually landing at Middlesex. Exhausted, he drifts in and out of sleep, at one point awakening to find a curate (i.e., a parish priest) with him. The clergyman interprets the invasion as God’s punishment for human sins. The narrator ventures his opinion that, despite the devastation, “[t]here is still hope,” but the curate meets this attitude with disbelief, persisting in his belief that the Martians are “God’s ministers” of judgment. The two men see a heliograph (a device that transmits messages by reflecting sunlight) flickering—a sign that all human struggle against the Martians has not yet been abandoned.


Analysis: Wells deftly draws the curate as a character who has been found wanting in light of the Martians’ attack. As the narrator states, this beleaguered priest has been “driven… to the very verge of his reason” (p. 413)—reinforcing Wells’ concern with the two possible reactions to crisis, reasoned action and unreasoning panic. The curate seeks refuge (though none is to be had) in wild theological speculation (“Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done?,” p. 412), rather than devoting himself to a practical course of action—as the narrator has just done, determinedly paddling down the river to safety, despite his injuries and exhaustion. The curate’s panic reduces him to an utter inability to act: “What are we to do?” (p. 413). It also robs him of hope—supposedly, one of the core Christian virtues (“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three,” 1 Cor. 13:13, KJV). In contrast, the narrator’s insistence, “There is still hope” (p. 413), is not based on abstract theology but on concrete experience. Even though the Martians have done much damage, he has also seen them retreat—albeit temporarily—after the tripod’s destruction (“After getting this sudden lesson…”, p. 409). He knows that humanity can and must still act. And he is able to articulate this belief because, unlike the curate, he is no longer panicking. He rebukes the curate, “You must keep your head,” and refers to his own “laboured reasoning” (p. 413); he urges the priest, “Be a man!... You are scared out of your wits! What good is religion if it collapses under calamity?” (p. 413)—all textual signs from Wells intended to keep this conflict between reason and panic before readers’ eyes. In sharp contrast, the curate’s obstinate clinging to dogma prevents him from accepting the facts: when the narrator tells him one of the Martians has been killed, the clergyman asks, incredulously, “How can God’s ministers be killed?” (p. 414). The narrator responds, “I saw it happen”—thus sounding a traditional dichotomy in Western literature, the gap between external authority (represented in this case by the curate’s theology) and personal experience (what the narrator has witnessed with his own eyes).


14. In London


Summary: The narrator interrupts the telling of his own experiences to relate those of his brother, who was in London at the time of the invasion. In London, as in the countryside, people went about their normal routines even after news of the invasion began breaking. The papers at first reassured their readers—falsely, of course—that the Martians could not move under Earth’s gravity. Even as evacuees begin arriving in the city, its inhabitants do not fully grasp the danger. The narrator’s brother only reacts with alarm when papers begin accurately describing the Martians’ mobility and lethal force. But even these reports give “reiterated assurances of the safety of London.” The assurances, however, do not uniformly have their intended effect, and panic begins to set in. At last, the sounds of battle are heard in the city; even at that late moment, some Londoners can, incredibly, ask, “What the devil is all [the row] about?” Adding to the Londoners’ frenzy are reports of “black smoke,” a poisonous gas the Martians are said to be using to smother the artillery forces. The narrator gathers what possessions he can, and heads out into the panic-filled streets.


Analysis: In this chapter, Wells shifts his narrative’s perspective, giving us another view of the invasion. Whereas the narrator has been experiencing the crisis in rural and pastoral settings, the narrator’s brother has been facing it in the urban environment of London. By introducing a new (although still ultimately secondary) viewpoint character, Wells further reinforces the sense that he is telling a story of wide scope; it also lends extra verisimilitude to the narrative, as the story takes the shape of an orderly account of the invasion, gathered from multiple sources after the fact.


If the confidence shown by earlier characters proved ill-founded, the “habit of personal security” exhibited by Wells’ London-dwellers proves even more so (p. 416). Even as the London papers report on the devastation in Woking (which lies only about 20 miles south of central London), their readers do not have concerns for their own safety. Indeed, they seem inordinately concerned with the “inconvenience” (p. 422) the invasion is causing them: the interruption of train and subway service, for example, and the influx of evacuees from the suburbs. Even as late as the felling of the Martian (described by the narrator in I.12), newspaper reports stress the ability of government and military authorities to keep the public safe, “printed in enormous type on paper so fresh that it was still wet” (p. 420)—a telling detail that indicates the emphatic nature of the authorities’ “quasi-proclamation.” Wells is once again depicting the human capacity for denial of the truth. The trait, of course, is not unique to city-dwellers; but a critique of urban life may nevertheless be implicit. For all its advantages, city life isolates people from the natural world and, potentially, from each other. Even the narrator’s brother seems afflicted: although not presented as an unsympathetic character, he several times thinks to learn how the narrator is doing (e.g., “He read and re-read the paper, fearing the worst had happened to me,” p. 422), but he lets several opportunities to take action that would let him actually find out pass him by. Once the reports of black smoke begin filling the streets, the narrator’s brother no longer has opportunity to enquire after his brother, but must now worry about his own safety.


15. What had Happened in Surrey


Summary: The Martian tripods continue to advance, their relentless heat-ray scattering the British artillery before them (though some companies, apparently made of sterner stuff than their fellows, make braver stands than others). The invaders, “by means of… gun-like tube[s],” spread a black smoke over the vicinity, a poisonous shroud that causes instant death. Human resistance is effectively ended.


Analysis: As he did in the previous chapter by temporarily shifting viewpoint to the narrator’s brother, Wells in this chapter further reinforces the sense that he is relating an “after the fact,” orderly account of the invasion by describing the Martians’ actions during the same time span (“It was while the curate… and while my brother… that the Martians had resumed the offensive,” p. 425). The description of the St. George’s Hill men’s stand against the Martians, and the narrator’s accompanying speculation that these artillerymen were “of a better mettle” than their comrades (p. 426) shows us again that Wells treats the invasion as an apocalyptic, or revelatory, event: in a crisis, our true “mettle” is uncovered. (Incidentally, Wells will, through the narrator, further explain the significance of the shifts in viewpoint in I.17: “that my readers may realise how that swarming of black dots [in the flight from London] appeared to one of those concerned,” p. 445—in other words, to humanize or personalize the larger picture of the invasion.)


Wells’ mastery of descriptive language shines in this chapter as he depicts the dread black smoke: “an enormous volume of heavy, inky vapour, coiling and pouring upward in a huge and ebony cumulus cloud, a gaseous hill that sank and spread itself slowly over the surrounding country” (p. 429). Wells attempts to provide a scientific explanation for the black smoke, but readers are impressed more by the terror of his images than the technicality of his science. Indeed, it is fearful because, as even the narrator ultimately admits, it is completely unknown: “we are still,” he writes from his post-invasion vantage point, “still entirely ignorant of the nature of this substance” (p. 430). Wells also provides readers a chilling moment of foreshadowing as the narrator asks, “Did [the Martians] dream they might exterminate us? (At that time no one knew what food they needed)” (p. 428). Soon, of course, the narrative reveals that the Martians feed on humans—a fact that could very well lead to the species’ extermination!


The Martians’ relentless advance, as depicted in this chapter, may also be Wells’ further critique of imperialism. Notice the almost plaintive quality of the narrator’s thoughts regarding the Martians’ ignorance of humanity: “Did they grasp that we in our millions were organised, disciplined, working together?” (p. 428) In other words, don’t the Martians know or care that those they vanquish are intelligent beings? Of course, the Martians neither know nor care! Wells is echoing his earlier comparison of the Martian invasion to the European invasion of Tasmania (I.1). It is the nature of imperialism to have no care for those being colonized or conquered. It is the strategy of imperialism “to crush and overawe the opposition” (p. 431). In this chapter, Wells’ concern with imperialism and Darwinism merge, succinctly, in the word “extinction” (p. 432)—for both forces lead to the same end for those “unfit” enough to survive their onslaught.

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