War of the Worlds: BOOK ONE - 16,17

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16. The Exodus from London


Summary: Panicked evacuation from London intensifies. Innocents are being trampled underfoot; law and order is breaking down. The narrator’s brother rides a bicycle away from the chaos for as far as it will carry him, until it is too damaged to ride any more. He sets out for friends in Chelmsford, on the way saving the lives of two women who are being assaulted by men desirous of their pony-chaise (a light, open, horse-drawn carriage). The narrator’s brother beats off the attackers, and the women become his traveling companions. Pooling their financial resources, the group sets off toward Harwich, away from the war-torn areas. On their way, they meet more refugees, scarred and stunned by their escapes from the Martians—“a torrent of human beings rushing northward, one pressing on another… a tumultuous stream of dirty, hurrying people.” Some people are helpful toward one another; many more, it seems, are “lowering and savage.” All social stratification has been forgotten as people flee from what a lone Salvation Army officer announces as “Eternity! Eternity!”


The narrator’s brother stops to assist a frightened little girl, whose name is known only to her mother, make her way out of the city; Lord Garrick, the Chief Justice, in contrast, even though his name is known by all, does not receive special consideration when his companion comes seeking water for him. When one of the evacuees spills coins on the ground, some people try to scoop up handfuls for themselves, while others press on—and are trampled upon by horses as a consequence. The narrator’s brother and the women finally stop to rest near a railway station, “for the violence of the day had already utterly exhausted all three of them.”


Analysis: From the very first sentence of this chapter, Wells effectively conveys the enormity of the crisis: London, “the greatest city in the world” (p. 433), has been reduced to panic and chaos as the Martians bear down upon it. The city here functions as a microcosm of humanity as a whole: all its self-importance, all its sense of power—gone, in an instant. The effect is not altogether unlike that achieved in the Book of Revelation, when the lament goes out over “Babylon” (i.e., imperial Rome): “Alas, alas, the great city, Babylon, the mighty city! For in one hour your judgment has come” (Rev. 14:10). The scriptural echo, intended by Wells or not, only reinforces his text’s status as an apocalyptic narrative. It lays bare humanity’s illusions about its standing and status in the universe; it lays bare society’s veneer of civilization (e.g., the driver who “whipped up at once” down the road around Edgeware “without the formality of thanks,” p. 438); it lays bare individuals’ self-images in the face of crisis (note, for instance, how police officers are now “breaking the heads of the people they were called out to protect,” p. 433). On the other hand, of course, we continue to see the dichotomy Wells is constructing: while the panic brings out the worst in some (e.g., the men who attack the women in the pony-chaise), it brings out the best in others (e.g., the narrator’s brother, who saves the women). The panic is driving some people apart, even as it is drawing other people, once strangers, together. The events are thus apocalyptic, or revelatory, on many levels at once.


Wells’ masterful description of the mass exodus reinforces a view of the importance of remembering our shared humanity in the face of crisis. The Salvation Army officer’s incessant crying of “Eternity! Eternity!” articulates the hidden reality facing the human race at all moments, but particularly in moments of crisis: we do live in the light of eternity, and we will be judged—not necessarily by a God, but surely by our conscience—on the basis of how we treat our fellow humans when nothing less than survival—theirs and ours—is at stake. All social rank falls away in the flight from London; and “men, sometimes helpful, sometimes lowering and savage” (p. 440), find themselves forced to choose if they will live remembering the eternal perspective, or merely (albeit understandably) tending only to their own interests and advancement. Furthermore, it is not just the lowly who are affected by the apocalyptic moment: “Lord Garrick… the Chief Justice” is also endangered, despite his high station (p. 442). And again, we see the fatal result of human greed in these moments of peril, as a man who grasps after spilled coins lies “writhing in the dust among his scattered money” (p. 443). Wells is again using the invasion as a device to make a plea for making the welfare of all human beings—rather than social rank or accumulated wealth—a personal and societal priority.


The exodus from London also provides Wells with further opportunity to dramatize his understanding of how Darwinian evolutionary theory plays out in human society: “weaklings elbowed out of the stream… A little way down the lane, with two friends bending over him, lay a man with a bare leg, wrapped about with bloody rags. He was a lucky man to have friends” (p. 441). The unspoken corollary, of course, is that some of the other “weaklings” in the evacuating masses (indeed, perhaps many of them) were not so lucky. The image may also conjure, for readers of the New Testament, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37); thus, the juxtaposition of Christian ethical teaching to care for one’s neighbor and the para-scientific postulates of “social Darwinism” may be Wells’ critique upon his society: the principle of  the “survival of the fittest” may indeed hold sway, but such a state of affairs ought not to be so. The narrator’s brother, in helping Ellen escape, would thus be viewed as commendable—although even he may still be having to fight the temptation to care only for his own survival: note how he instructs Miss Elphinstone to first point his revolver at the man behind “if he presses us too hard,” but then, in the next breath, relents: “No!—point it at his horse” (p. 444).


17. The Thunder Child


Summary: The Martians continue to methodically spray their poison over the land and its populace. The aliens completely control London. A fifth, sixth and seventh cylinder fall to Earth. The narrator’s brother and the two women continue their journey eastward, eventually arriving near Tillingham, where they board a steamship and witness the encounter of the ironclad torpedo-ram Thunder Child with the invaders in the waters of the Thames. The ironclad is protecting threatened shipping from Martian tripods. Although the Thunder Child charges at one of the tripods with nearly full power and fires upon them, the Martian’s tube of Black Smoke defeats it easily. The narrator’s brother also sees something indeterminate take to the smoke-filled skies before darkness covers all.


Analysis: “Had the Martians aimed only at destruction…” (p. 445). But of course, the Martians, in their arrogance, aimed at more than that; as we read earlier, they have “regarded this earth with envious eyes” (p. 353; I.1). They have sought to colonize this world for their own. Wells thus begins this chapter with an implicit critique of imperialism. As the Martians eventually bring about their own destruction in seeking to claim Earth as their own, so does an imperialist society, Wells could be arguing, only seal its own doom by expanding with “envious eyes.” Readers may also, once they have finished the novel, note the structural significance of the fact that while Book I ends with the Martian invaders completely triumphant and seemingly invulnerable, Book II will end, of course, with the invaders defeated and humanity regaining its rightful place on the planet—but no longer able to accept that “rightful place” unquestioningly.


What must give humanity pause in the future, Wells seems to be suggesting, is the way in which the crisis has stripped the veneer of civilization away. Indeed, the narrator deems these events “the rout of civilisation” (p. 445), a generality that is given specificity in later moments—for example, when “the rights of property cease to be regarded” as starving evacuees flee the Martian onslaught (p. 447). Man is not so civilized as he would like to believe, the novel may suggest, if that vaunted “civilization” does not withstand crisis (much as the curate’s religion cannot withstand difficult times; see p. 413; I.13).


The ironclad Thunder Child functions as a dramatic symbol of human civilization’s (read, given Wells’ apparent social agenda, Western imperialistic civilization’s) supposed superior might. For all its strength and weaponry, it is destroyed by the Black Smoke and Heat-Ray. The ship puts up a valiant fight, but the effort is not enough. It is on this bleak note—literally as darkness (and not only literal!) falls (p. 453)—that the first portion of the novel draws to a close.

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