War of the Worlds: Theme
Imperialism: From the beginning of his novel, Wells makes clear that his tale of Martian invasion is to be understood, at one level, as a meditation on the evils of imperialism. “[B]efore we judge of [the Martians] too harshly,” his narrator writes, “we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?” (p, 355; I.1). The rhetorical question cuts to the heart of Wells’ critique of imperialism: however justified the militaristic spread of one culture and civilization may seem to those inside it, the toll it exacts from “outsiders,” from those on whom it is imposed, is far too high. Throughout The War of the Worlds, Wells provides artful moments in which ordinary British citizens—subjects of, not just any human empire, but “the greatest power in the world” (p. 490, II.7)—are subjected to an even greater power, and thus experience something of the terror and despair the Empire has inflicted on other, terrestrial nations. As many, not just its victims, but also its perpetrators. Alexander C. Irvine, for instance, describes the narrator’s disillusionment with the imperialistic goal of ever-advancing progress: “The course of the narrator’s experience with the Martian devastation is also the course of his rethinking of how to complete the sentence of his work-in-progress that the Martian invasion interrupts: ‘In about two hundred years ,we may expect—’ He arrives at the realization not that progress is necessarily an illusion, but that it is naïve to believe that progress will occur in the way nineteenth-century Europeans always assumed—through the civilizing influence of Western culture” (Irvine, “The War of the Worlds and the Disease of Imperialism,” in David Ketterer, ed., Flashes of the Fantastic [Westport, CT and London: Praeger, 2004; p. 36). The narrator even speculates (in II.2), that the Martians represent a future step in human evolution—a chilling thought when considered in the context of imperialism’s destructive ways.
Darwinian Thought: A student of the famous evolutionary theory advocate T.H. Huxley, Wells was deeply fascinated with and influenced by Darwinian evolutionary theory. In broad terms, Darwinian theory posits that life evolves by means of “natural selection”: those species that are able to adapt to their environments thrive, while those who are not, do not—a process known by such phrases as “survival of the fittest” or “the struggle for existence.” Although Darwin concerned himself with biology and did not intend for his theories to be applied to human society, other thinkers (rightly or wrongly) saw parallels and developed them into a philosophy of “social Darwinism,” “the theory that persons, groups, and races are subject to the same laws of natural selection as Charles Darwin had perceived in plants and animals in nature. According to the theory, which was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the weak were diminished and their cultures delimited, while the strong grew in power and in cultural influence over the weak” (Encyclopedia Britannica Online). The War of the Worlds is in many ways an extended meditation on this theory—and, as with imperialism, Wells finds the theory wanting. As a justification if imperialism, as described above, social Darwinism inhumanely divides humanity into “weak” and “strong.” The Artilleryman is the most notable proponent of social Darwinism within the book: e.g., “I mean that men like me are going to go on living [under the Martian occupation]—for the sake of the breed. I’m grim set on living. And if I’m not mistaken, you’ll show what insides you’ve got, too… [But] the sort of people that lived in these houses, and all those damn little clerks that used to live down that way—they’d be no good” (p. 493; II.7). Furthermore, the novel suggests that this kind of social Darwinistic thinking necessitates a loss of perspective: it impedes people’s view of a unified, common humanity. For this reason, the book repeatedly reinforces the view that all humanity, regardless of strength or social stratum, suffers together under the Martian rule. It forces its readers to revise their view of humanity’s place in the cosmos: no longer at the pinnacle of creation, but as one species that may very well be inferior to another—“minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish” (p. 353; II.1)—and that therefore must exercise compassion (as the narrator’s brother does to Miss Elphinstone, I.16).
The Importance of Reason: Despite faulting the human race for social sins of imperialism and social Darwinism, The War of the Worlds nevertheless lifts up the redeeming quality of the human mind. While warning that rational thought must not be elevated more than compassion for our fellow humans—lest, like the Martians, we evolve into little more than living brains (see II.2)—the book also affirms that reason can serve humanity when chosen over panic and chaos.