War of the Worlds: BOOK ONE - 6,7,8,9,10

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6. The Heat-Ray in the Chobham Road


Summary: The Martian heat-ray kills nearly forty people, and news of the “massacre” begins to spread. As the events actually transpired, many people in the surrounding vicinity were still going about their daily business, oblivious to the imminent threat of the invaders. Not even all of those who did hear the news of the appalling events seem to grasp their full import: for instance, as a mounted police officer attempts to control the crowd, “[t]here was some booing from those more thoughtless and excitable crowds to whom a crowd is always an occasion for noise and horseplay.” Gradually, however, the crowds grew; and many were saved from death only because of the uneven terrain across which the heat-ray swept. Once the danger is all too apparent, widespread panic sets in, and at least three people are trampled to death by the stampeding crowd.

Analysis: The “scientific” explanation of the heat-ray that the narrator furnishes as the chapter begins further serves to increase the sense of verisimilitude for which Wells strives throughout the novel. His well-crafted use of such words and phrases as “practically absolute non-conductivity,” “polished parabolic mirror” and “unknown composition” reinforce the illusion that the narrator is describing actual events. At the same time, Wells hearkens to biblical visions of the end of the world by depicting immediate conflagrations and water turning in a moment to steam—an “invisible hand” (p. 374) wreaking destruction upon the face of the earth (pp. 372-73). (Perhaps this “invisible hand” also is meant to recall the hand that wrote a message of judgment and doom on the wall at the feast of King Belshazzar in Daniel 5.) Both the verisimilitude and the apocalyptic imagery play roles in evoking readers’ emotional response.


This chapter also demonstrates how Wells uses his narrator as a microcosm of larger events, as a way to make personal to readers the broader sweep of the novel’s plot. We see how the alarmed uncertainty that our narrator experienced earlier (in I.4-5) was mirrored by his fellows: “…the panic-stricken crowd seems to have swayed hesitatingly for some moments” (p. 374). The narrator’s responses were not unique; indeed, more than a fully developed character, he is one more means by which Wells attempts to bring readers as close to the novel’s events as possible.


One brief but poignant detail at the chapter’s close points to the true evil of the events about to unfold, however: the panicking, unreasoning crowd—whom the narrator explicitly compares to sheep, animals not known for their intelligence or ability to find their own way—tramples at least three people in its rush away from the Martians, “two women and a little boy” (p. 374). Those who are victims of a panicked, unreasoning humanity are society’s most vulnerable members, “left to die amid the terror and the darkness” (p. 375).


7. How I Reached Home


Summary: Physically and emotionally drained by the Martians’ attack and the ensuing public panic, the narrator collapses on his way home, remaining there for some indeterminate time. When he regains his senses, he staggers toward his home; astonishingly, to his mind, he encounters more people who do not yet fully grasp the severity of what has transpired on the common. He is able to convey successfully to his wife the situation; and, in fact, grows more confident in the assumption that the Martian invasion is a foolish effort doomed to failure.


Analysis: After adopting a broader view in the previous chapter, Wells now returns to the microcosmic scale to advance his plot; i.e., what the narrator himself is experiencing (“For my own part…,” p. 375). Here again, that experience underscores the contrast between the calm reflection of former days (in which, for example, the narrator had been able to write his abstract, academic papers on moral progress) and the current unreasoning panic (“I was exhausted by the violence of my emotion…,” p. 375). Note the possibly significant detail that the narrator collapses “near [a] bridge” (p. 375). Bridges are a symbol of transition; they are a liminal threshold, not only literally, from one place to another, but in this case metaphorically, from one state of being to another. When the narrator falls, he is gripped by mindless panic; when he revives, he is “the self of every day again—a decent, ordinary citizen” (p. 375). He is not, perhaps, fully returned to his former state of being—for instance, he “is minded to speak to” the boy who passes him, but does not (p. 376)—but he is at least again able to observe and reflect on his circumstances (again, however, not perfectly; note his frustrated encounter with the bystanders, pp. 376-77).  It is this calm, reasoned reflection that, the events of Wells’ plot will show, remains an essential attribute of humanity, even and perhaps especially when it is confronted with a crisis. Without it, Wells apparently suggests, civilization cannot endure.


At the same time, ironically, this chapter shows how reason does not always adequately respond to crisis. The narrator attempts “to comfort [his wife] and [himself] by repeating all that Ogilvy”—now dead, of course, a fact not lost on the narrator—“had told me of the impossibility of the Martians establishing themselves on the earth” (p. 377); and further concludes, “A shell [i.e., an artillery shell] in the pit… will kill them all” (p. 378). Both statements are reasonable ones—yet both also ultimately prove untrue. The novel’s conclusion will show that, while the Martians are, in the end, unable to “establish themselves on the earth,” the reason for their failure is not Earth’s gravity or humanity’s military might. More importantly, perhaps, neither of these statements motivates the narrator and his wife to take any action to protect or preserves themselves or their society. Reason, then, while important, can also mislead and fail us. It is not for nothing, surely, that the narrator says he “grew by insensible degrees courageous and secure” (p. 378, emphasis added) as he dines with his wife that night. He had a moment of clarity on the bridge; but continuing clarity has eluded him as he returns to the creature comforts of his home. He (and humanity) will have to do better at maintaining calm, rational clarity if they (and we) are to prevail amidst crisis. (The narrator, of course, now realizes this fact as he relates the events in hindsight, pointedly comparing himself at that point to “some respectable dodo in the Mauritius” [p. 378], a representative of a species now extinct, who never recognized its impending demise.)


8. Friday Night


Summary: Even after the heat-ray’s devastating attack, life at first continues very much as normal in the immediate vicinity, with only occasional disturbances. Despite the generally placid evening, however, the Martians at the crash site remain at work, constructing (as we will learn) the mechanisms by which they will attempt to claim planet Earth as their own. Ominously, a few seconds after midnight, a second cylinder from Mars falls.


Analysis: To the narrator, the unremarkability of life in the immediate aftermath of the Martians’ arrival is itself remarkable: “for the most part the daily routine of working, eating, drinking, sleeping, went on as it had done for countless years” (pp. 379-380). Readers familiar with the New Testament will catch the biblical overtones of Wells’ prose. In Matthew’s gospel, for example, Jesus speaks of the Day of Judgment in similar terms: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left” (22:36-41). As he may have done by alluding to the “invisible finger,” then (see I.6), Wells is possibly continuing to foster the theme of judgment that runs through the book, although the judgment in The War of the Worlds comes not (presumably) from God, nor even from the Martians; rather, as we will see, humans judge themselves (and find themselves wanting) by their reaction to the crisis. Interestingly, the narrator notes, “It was only round the edge of the common that any disturbance was perceptible” (p. 380). Wells may be reminding his readers that small signs of great crises often emerge first in the margins of human society, in those quarters most people overlook; and that we ignore these marginal warning signs at our own peril.


9. The Fighting Begins


Summary: Saturday morning, the narrator learns from his milkman, who is making his rounds as usual, that troops have surrounded the Martians, but are under orders not to kill them. The narrator expresses regret that the Martians have chosen to arrive in so belligerent a fashion, and that humanity will have no opportunity to learn from them of life on another world. The narrator returns to Horsell Common; along the way, he discusses the Martians’ heat-ray with a group of soldiers, who advocate various approaches—some aggressive, some not—toward dealing with the new arrivals. As the day wears on, however, the Martians take no notice of any attempts to contact them, aggressive or otherwise. Only that evening, around tea-time, do they respond, using their heat-ray to utterly destroy the Oriental College. The narrator hurriedly arranges for his wife to leave their home, which is now within range of the attackers. A mass evacuation of the area begins, the heat-ray close behind.


Analysis: The conversations in the early portion of this chapter—of the narrator with his milkman, of the narrator with the soldiers—are striking for their underlying attitude that humanity is still in control of the situation. It is not that characters assume there will be no battle (“I sat at tea with my wife… talking vigorously about the battle that was lowering upon us,” p. 384), but rather that they assume the humans will emerge victorious. Clearly, as the previous chapters’ depictions of daily life continuing largely uninterrupted have shown, the reality of the invasion has not impressed itself upon most people. Wells may here be sounding a criticism not only of human willfulness in general—we do, after all, have an astounding capacity to ignore facts that do not suit our liking; and we often find comforting but false security in the face of danger (e.g., “I found people in the town quite secure again in the presence of the military,” p. 384)—but of the arrogance of British imperialism specifically. Even as human “empire” over the Earth is beginning to crumble, humans military and civilian, well-educated and common, seem unwavering in their belief that they are superior to the Martians. The conversations are heavy with sad irony: in more ways than one, “[t]he soldiers I addressed didn’t know anything” (p. 383). The ways in which the narrator imagines defeating the Martians, his “schoolboy dreams of battle and heroism” (p. 384), may be seen as a direct repudiation of the “dreams of battle and heroism” that so often marked British imperialism (as, for example, in some of the works of Wells’ contemporary, Rudyard Kipling). As events in Wells’ books unfold, there will be much “battle,” but precious little “heroism.” As if to emphasize this last point, Wells shows us how the narrator, in his frantic attempt to secure his wife’s safety, gives no thought to anyone else’s: “I explained hastily that I had to leave my home… At the time it did not seem to me nearly so urgent that the landlord should leave his” (p. 386). A common and understandable reaction to a crisis—but not one, when multiplied many times over, that will serve civilization well.


10. In the Storm


Summary: On their drive in a hastily rented dog-cart to her cousin’s home in Leatherhead, the narrator attempts to reassure his wife that the Martians’ advance will be inhibited by Earth’s gravity, but his reassurances sound hollow. Nevertheless, the narrator leaves his wife with her relatives and begins his journey home. The now-evacuated community is an eerie place, illuminated by the ominous “blood-red glow” and “lurid green glare” caused by the Martians’ attacks. The narrator watches a third cylinder fall to Earth. A terrific thunderstorm breaks out about midnight, matching the pyrotechnics of the Martian heat-ray. The narrator also witnesses a “monstrous tripod” striding above the houses and trees, “a walking engine of glittering metal,” unleashing destruction in its path. The sight of a second tripod completely unnerves him. As the tripods pass, they emit “an exultant deafening howl.” The narrator runs through the woods toward his house, but instead crashes into another fleeing person before falling into a ditch. When he regains his footing, he finds the man with whom he collided a little further ahead, dead, a victim of the Martians. It is the man whose dog-cart the narrator rented in the previous chapter. The narrator pushes on to his home, locking the door behind him (presumably in vain).


Analysis: Wells captures perfectly the large-scale shift in his narrative’s tone in this chapter by depicting the small-scale reaction of the narrator’s wife to the narrator’s attempts at comforting her: “she answered only in monosyllables” (p. 387). The confidence and, indeed, arrogance demonstrated as recently as the previous chapter is now beginning to fade. This plot development nicely mirrors a thematic development: the ideals of inevitable progress and moral advancement explored in the narrator’s personal research (see I.1, p. 358) are, with the negative example of the Martians, starting to crack. Notably, what replaces this confident arrogance is not at first, as one might reasonably expect, caution or pessimism or resolve, but “[s]omething very like the war-fever that occasionally runs through a civilised community” (p. 388). As he has critiqued imperialism, Wells is perhaps here critiquing jingoistic militarism. It will not, of course, play a part in civilization’s salvation in this book; and Wells may be questioning whether it should ever be tolerated in “civilised community” at all. 

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