War of the Worlds Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


War of the Worlds: Characters

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Readers of The War of the Worlds will note while many secondary characters (some of whom actually appear in the novel and others who exist only as names mentioned in passing) receive names (e.g., Ogilvy; Carver), the key characters go unnamed, perhaps reflecting their status as “everymen” characters in whom Wells invites his readers to see something of themselves—for good or for ill. The four anonymous but key “everyman” characters are:


The narrator guides us through the events of the Martian invasion. He is left unnamed presumably because Wells wishes to preserve a universal, “everyman” quality to the narrative: i.e., if we knew too much about the narrator, if too many particulars were provided, we might not identify and empathize with him as readily as we do. We do know, however, that he is married (without children, contrary to the 2005 film adaptation starring Tom Cruise!) and lives a comfortable middle-class life as a scholar specializing in “speculative philosophy.” As the novel opens, he is writing a series of papers that explore the link between technological progress and moral progress in civilization. His assumptions on this matter undergo severe testing as he endures the ordeal of the Martian attack. He is consistently characterized as intelligent and compassionate, although the stressful events through which he passes at times tempt him to abandon these bedrock traits of humanity.


The curate is characterized as the exact opposite of the narrator. (In fact, at one point he is called “half-sane,” p. 477; II.4.) He is one of the narrator’s foils. His panic and despair in the face of the Martian invasion throws into sharp relief the narrator’s generally calm, reasoned and even optimistic responses. Although a clergyman, the curate does not have a deep faith that can withstand crisis. The stress of the invasion forces him to confess (although never to come to healthy terms with) the “sham” of his ministry: “There was poverty, sorrow; the poor were trodden in the dust, and I held my peace…” (p. 477; II.4). He is a fear-filled individual—as the narrator rebukes him, “You are scared out of your wits! What good is religion if it collapses under calamity?” (p. 413; I. 13). His theology is dominated by a vengeful, angry God; indeed, he calls the Martians’ “God’s ministers” (p. 414; I.13). This theology leads him to a bleak fatalism, which, ironically, may help seal his fate: convinced no possibility of escape exists, he makes too much noise and attracts the Martians to his and the narrator’s hiding place. Shortly thereafter, the Martians find and kill the curate.


The artilleryman whom the narrator encounters first at Weybridge (I.12) and then again at Putney Hill (II.7) serves as another foil to the narrator. Like the curate, this solider has not cultivated the “lifelong habit of mind” (p. 490; II.7)—i.e., the rationality—that leads to hope. Instead, he indulges in fanciful schemes of underground, guerilla resistance to the Martians. His plans at first appeal to the narrator; but, ultimately, the narrator rejects them because they are not prudent (Wells’ term is “circumspect”). Moreover, the future the artilleryman envisions for humanity is a bleak one indeed—it is a future of social Darwinism taken to the worst extreme, a future in which he and those like him determine who is weak and who is strong, who is worthy of survival and who is not. As he outlines this future to the narrator, he speaks of a large portion of his fellow human beings with contempt (e.g., “We’re not going to pick up any rubbish that drifts in. Weaklings go out again,” p. 495; II.7). As it is, the artilleryman is actually slothful and does nothing to put his plans into practice (thankfully, readers can only conclude!).


The narrator’s brother appears in only a few chapters, and his account of the mass evacuation of London offers a parallel account to the narrator’s record of the invasion in the suburban and rural areas. The key trait that emerges in the narrator’s brother is his compassion, a trait the novel identifies as key to the maintenance of humanity. The brother helps Miss Elphinstone and her cousin escape London; when it would be easier for him to be caught up in the panicked reaction of the masses, he takes the time to help his fellow human beings. 


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