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

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6. The Work of Fifteen Days


Summary:  The narrator wades through the thick, red weed in search of some way to alleviate his hunger. He manages to find food in a garden: onions, carrots, mushrooms, and the like. He notices then that the red weed is dying; he comments to his post-invasion audience that the weed, not being native to Earth, lacked terrestrial defenses against bacterial infections. The narrator moves on in his hunt for nourishment, aware that he sees neither living humans nor Martians. When he reaches Putney Hill he fears, for a moment, that “mankind ha[s] been swept out of existence” altogether.


Analysis: Wells’ fascination with the insights of Darwinian evolutionary theory informs this chapter, which begins with the narrator once more demonstrating his empathy with other, “lower” members of the animal kingdom: “I touched an emotion beyond the common range of men, yet one that the poor brutes we dominate know only too well” (p. 483). The emotion is what the narrator terms “a sense of dethronement,” and it is an apt summary of the way in which the entire invasion (and, for readers, Wells’ whole narrative) has served to radically revise humanity’s view of its place in the cosmos (a downward revision, at that!). Darwinian theory also appears in the narrator’s retrospective analysis of what killed the Martian red weed: the narrator invokes the mechanism of “natural selection” to explain the alien growth’s demise (p. 484). The red weed thus becomes an important clue (although, again, unrecognized at the time) to understanding the Martians’ eventual downfall. Thus, the chapter of this title takes on ironic meaning: the Martians’ “work of fifteen days” has been devastation and destruction—but, as readers will soon learn, terrestrial organisms have been at work this fortnight to destroy the destroyers!


7. The Man on Putney Hill


Summary: The narrator breaks into an abandoned inn on Putney Hill and sleeps in a bed for the first time in a long time—although he actually spends more time reflecting on his experiences than he does sleeping. The next morning, he encounters an artilleryman—the same officer, in fact, that the narrator encountered at Weybridge (see I.12). Believing that the Martians will soon be capable of flight, the artilleryman seems convinced that humanity has been defeated. But he has been devising his own scheme for the human race’s survival: he would recruit to himself those people he deems worthy of survival, of “breeding” the humanity of the future, a humanity free of the weak and the soft, a humanity composed of guerilla soldiers who will launch attacks against the Martian overlords from underground, spying upon the aliens, eventually perhaps even stealing some of their own heat-rays and flying ships to use against them. Initially, the narrator begins to warm to the artilleryman’s plans and visions; however, when he sees that the artilleryman has only managed to accomplish nothing more than digging a small trench in a week, he comes to see the soldier’s scheming as vain and empty, incapable of effecting any change for a humanity living under Martian rule. More acutely, the narrator sees that the artilleryman really has no intention of doing anything himself to bring his plans to pass. The narrator resolves “to leave this strange undisciplined dreamer of great things… and to go on into London.”


Analysis: With the panicked curate now gone, the narrator, as this key chapter opens, finds himself “thinking consecutively” again (p. 487): Wells is thus again signaling the necessity of rational thought for human survival—readers can almost sense the palpable relief the narrator feels at being able to reflect, calmly and orderly, once more. This newfound ability to think, therefore, makes the introduction of the artilleryman all the more jarring. The newcomer is thinking, to be sure—but, as anticipated earlier in this commentary (see notes on the concept of “circumspection” in II.1), his thoughts are neither prudent nor productive. Yes, as he so confidently proclaims, “it’s the man that keeps on thinking comes through” (p. 491)—but how does he come through? Surviving is not enough; surviving with one’s humanity intact is what counts, and the narrator, listening to the artilleryman’s stark vision of a Darwinian future carried to the extreme, rejects such a vision as appropriate to humanity. Ironically, the artilleryman’s reasoning has led him to a place where he is willing to do the very thing he fears the Martians will do: violate the human race, separating weak from strong. The fact that the artilleryman envisions human rebels confiscating the Martians’ own war machines is a telling one: “Heat-Rays right and left,” he describes, “and not a Martian in ’em… but men…” (p. 496). But would these future men be any better than the Martians? Might they not be the terrifying “flip side” of the speculation, asserted earlier in the novel, that “forecast[ed] for man a final structure not unlike the actual Martian condition” (p. 467; II.2)? Like the Martians, the artilleryman would be deciding who lives and who dies: “Life is real again, and the useless and cumbersome and mischievous have to die. They ought to die. They ought to be willing to die. It’s a sort of disloyalty, after all, to live and taint the race” (p. 496). These are the chilling sentiments of social Darwinistic thought (never intended by Darwin himself) carried to an inhumane extreme; and although it at first appeals to the narrator, he is ultimately able to reject it as the false hope that it is. It is the narrator’s insistence upon reason that breaks the spell of the artilleryman’s grim forecast for the future, seeing that all of the soldier’s thinking has inspired no more than “a burrow scarcely ten yards long” (p. 497). It is not for nothing that Wells shows us the artilleryman teaching card games to the narrator, for the soldier is, in fact, simply playing games. Thus, rational objections save the narrator from joining the artilleryman in a futile quest for what would in any event be a self-destructive and distinctly inhuman future. Wells distinguishes the artilleryman’s false hopes from the narrator’s true hope—specifically, the fact that he has not arrived at the same conclusion as the artilleryman, that humanity has been defeated—by taking care to have the narrator label the latter “a lifelong habit of mind” (p. 490). The implication seems to be, when we maintain lifelong habits of mind—when we take the time to think—hope remains.


8. Dead London


Summary: Descending from the hill into London, the narrator notices that, though the red weed is still covering everything, it is increasingly marked with white blight. The great metropolis has been rendered still—some of the people the narrator encounters are so still in fact that it is hard for him at first to distinguish whether they are dead or sleeping. The narrator also hears a keening ululation, strange and haunting. As the narrator shortly learns, it is the death cry of the Martians. He hears the cry coming from within a stationary Martian handling-machine; dogs have been feeding on the alien operator. As night falls, the narrator finds two more Martian machines, still, inanimate; moments later, scrampling up an earthen rampart, he sees on the other side a dozen dead Martians. As the narrator explains, the invaders, not being native to Earth, were not immune to its microscopic life forms. Humanity’s “microscopic allies” doomed the Martians. And just in time, too—for the invaders appeared on the brink of testing the flying machine that would have spread their dominion over Earth. The chapter ends, appropriately enough, at daybreak, as the narrator realizes with joy and tears that dead London may yet live again.


Analysis: Although the narrator does, in fact, discover dead corpses (and at least one drunkard) in ruined London, he is careful to tell us that the stillness pervading the city is “not so much the stillness of death” as “the stillness of suspense, of expectation” (p. 502). Wells is thus foreshadowing for his readers the reveal to come of the reversal of humanity’s fortunes; for, while expectation is in itself neutral, we will soon learn that this still suspense will be relieved by the demise of the Martians.


The echoing refrain, the “dismal howling” (p. 503), of “Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla”—the “death rattle” as it were (not Wells’ term) of the Martians—has the perhaps unintended effect of rendering the invaders sympathetic to some degree as they, who have caused so much death, now meet their own. (No wonder the narrator is “confused [in] mind” [p. 503]!) Perhaps Wells is providing a final reminder of the point he made at the book’s beginning: that the Martians, for all their relentless attacks, are seeking and striving to survive, to prevail in (again relying on Darwinian terms) “the struggle for existence.” For all our differences, and for all that the text has suggested humanity has the potential to evolve into creatures like the Martians, the echo of their death wail provides a present reminder of the two species’ shared mortality. Wells may be suggesting that pause to remember (again, the importance of rational thought!) the common fate of all living creatures might prevent the violent excesses of human colonialism and imperialism. (Of course, lest we in the end feel too much sympathy for the Martians, Wells paints the stark image of dogs feeding on the invaders’ corpses, a biblical image of judgment [e.g., 1 Kings 21:23] that would have been familiar to his audience.)


Near the close of this chapter, Wells offers yet one more ringing affirmation of reason and rationality: “For so it had come about, as indeed I and many men might have foreseen had not terror and disaster blinded our minds” (p. 506). In other words, the fate of the invaders need not have surprised human beings: had they but stopped to think during the invasion, they would have realized that, due to the differences in biology, the Martians had undertaken a cause doomed from the start, and would win only Pyrrhic victories. Of course, Wells also suggests that more than mere biology might have been at work: “For a moment I believed… that God had repented, that the Angel of Death had slain [the Martians] in the night” (p. 507). Might both the biological and theological explanations be true in the narrator’s mind? Must reason and faith be opposed in this—or any—instance where Darwinian dynamics are at work?


9. Wreckage


Summary: Three days later, the narrator is reunited with fellow survivors of the invasion. In the midst of joyous celebration over humanity’s deliverance from the Martians, the narrator receives tragic news: Leatherhead, where his wife had fled for refuge, was destroyed by the aliens. Lonely and sad, the narrator now finds himself isolated not physically but mentally and emotionally from other people; even the sunshine seems “mockingly bright” as he returns to his home in Woking. When he at last arrives, he finds, to his amazement, his cousin and his wife, who came knowing, somehow, that they would meet him there.


Analysis: Although this chapter begins three days after the last, that symbolic number of resurrection belies the facts that any “resurrection” for the narrator and his world will take a long time to become fully realized, and will not be miraculous. Wells creates a keen sense of psychological realism by showing us the narrator’s reactions to the (presumed) death of his wife. He also takes care to point out how, even as life in London is returning to normal, the definition of status quo has forever changed: for example, “I noticed how yellow the skins of the people I met, how shaggy the hair of the men…” (p. 510) or “one of the common contrasts of that grotesque time—a sheet of paper flaunting against a thicket of the red weed” (p. 511). Wells thus reinforces the sense of verisimilitude that pervades the novel—that the narrator is presenting, after the fact, a record of events that really transpired. Not even two days of rain can wash away the grime and devastation the Martians have wrought, a symbol of how deeply changed the world is after this war with another one. There will always be “vestiges” (p. 512)—the word, of course, carries evolutionary freight—of the crisis.


10. The Epilogue


Summary: As he concludes his account, the narrator summarizes what the world has and has not learned about the Martians, their technology, and their motivations. He also voices his concerns that the world is not contemplating seriously enough the possibility of future attacks. Finally, he offers his meditations on how his view of humanity’s future has been forever changed. While the invasion has forever robbed humanity of a sense of security, it has also had some unexpected benefits, namely the advancement of humanity’s scientific knowledge, and the promotion of “the conception of the commonweal of mankind.” The world, having survived the Martian onslaught, has become more united. Even the revised perspective humanity now has of its place in the cosmos is beneficial, as it suggests future avenues for the race’s expansion when Planet Earth becomes uninhabitable: “If the Martians can reach Venus, there is no reason to suppose that the thing is impossible for men…” The novel ends as the narrator reflects that the world he now inhabits, in may ways so like the world he knew before, is nonetheless a fundamentally different one, both close and far removed from the world that died “under the dawn of that last great day…”


Analysis: Even here in his final chapter, Wells continues to craft a sense of verisimilitude by having the narrator compare his observations and conclusions regarding the Martian attack to those offered up by other experts, supposedly known by name to his readers (e.g., “it seems to me that Carver’s suggestions…”, p. 514). Readers in 21st-century America, of course, may not need much help in feeling that the text is “real”: the narrator’s worry that not enough “attention is being given” to “the possibility of another attack” (p. 515) has resonance for a post-9/11 situation that Wells might never have imagined.


The narrator’s apparent optimism that humanity can survive any eventual climatic change is ironic, given that climate change is the very reason the Martians fled their home world. The issue raises again a question that has occupied the novel as a whole: Will humanity become like the Martians? And, if we do not wish to become as they are, how will we avoid it? The book has given the consistent answer that we must retain our reason and our compassion. To avoid becoming “living brains,” we, in our dealings with each other, must continue to think with our heads and feel with our hearts.

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