The War of the Worlds

views updated

The War of the Worlds

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading

H. G. Wells


H. G. Wells's science fiction masterpiece The War of the Worlds was originally published in Pierson's magazine in 1897 and was issued as a novel the following year. A century later, it has never been out of print. The story has become an integral part of our culture, frequently retold in graphic novels and films. In 1938, it became part of one of the greatest and most horrifying media events of all times. The Mercury Theatre on the Air, headed by twenty-three-year-old Orson Welles, broadcast over the radio an adaptation of the book that was so realistic that it caused widespread public panic, mob violence, and looting. Until the night of that broadcast, few people realized the power of broadcast media to make whole populations feel powerless when faced with breaking events.

Like the radio program, much of the novel takes its power from appearing to be real. Wells, who had an intense interest in science from an early age, created his Martian invaders with a strict sense of the laws of biology and physics. They are not super beings, but bodiless heads, barely able to move because the atmosphere of Earth is so much thicker than that of their own planet. Still, their advanced intelligence gives them the power to create powerful weapons, such as Heat-Ray guns that can level whole towns; tripods with hundred-foot legs, that give them mobility; and even flying machines, which, in 1898, were beyond human technology. Humanity has entered into space exploration since this novel was published, and many of the specific details are no longer of concern.

But there will always be uneasiness about the unknown and curiosity about what might happen when people of Earth contact lives from other worlds.

Author Biography

Herbert George Wells was born on September 21, 1866, in Bromley, Kent, in England. His father was a shopkeeper and a professional cricket player with the Bromley team; his mother was a part-time housekeeper. When Wells was seven, he was injured while playing with a friend of his father. He broke a bone in his leg and was forced to spend two months in bed. He looked back on this as a lucky turn of events, as it was then that he developed the habit of reading.

Because his family did not have much money, Wells became an apprentice to a draper at age thirteen, working twelve-hour days. He was determined to become educated, and earned a scholarship to Midhurst Grammar School by agreeing to function as a student teacher. He entered the Normal School of Science at South Kensington when he was eighteen and studied under famed biologist T. H. Huxley. After college, he took a position teaching, but a bout with tuberculosis forced him to become bedridden again. It was then, while reading constantly, that he decided that he did not want to be not a teacher but a writer.

In 1891, while making money by grading lessons for the University Correspondence College at Cambridge, Wells published several short stories in Science Schools Journal. These stories were later collected to make his first novel, The Time Machine (1895). Next followed a series of science fiction classics that are read to this day and often adapted to films, including The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). The widespread popularity of these books, all published when the author was barely thirty, gave him an income that would make him financially comfortable for the rest of his life.

As he aged, Wells's books concentrated more and more on scientific and philosophical matters. He became a leading voice in the Fabian society, which was a socialist movement. His first marriage ended in divorce, and his second, to one of his students, was an "open" marriage: his wife knew about his many affairs, including at least one that resulted in a child, and raised no objection, though his lifestyle hurt his public image. After World War I (1914–1918) he wrote books about social order, such as The Outline of History (1920) (one of his most famous works) and The Common Sense of World Peace (1929). He lived to the age of seventy nine, having spent much of his life as one of the world's most famous authors. Wells died on August 13, 1946 after a prolonged illness.

Plot Summary

Book 1, Chapter 1: The Eve of the War

The narrator of The War of the Worlds is never identified by name. He refers to a "great light" seen on the planet Mars in 1894, explaining that this was six years before the time when he is writing. Earth's astronomers were perplexed about what to make of it, he says, but later realized that it was the invading forces, being shot toward Earth as if out of a gun.

Book 1, Chapter 2: The Falling Star

People think that the first Martian ship is a falling star, then a meteor. An astronomer hears something within the metal tube that landed.

Book 1, Chapter 3: On Horsell Common

The narrator goes to investigate the crash site, where a crowd of spectators has gathered. Also there are several astronomers gathered.

Book 1, Chapter 4: The Cylinder Opens

The top of the cylinder opens, and the crowd scatters. A Martian, with huge eyes and flailing antennae, jumps out, and another looks out the top. One man who slipped into the crater that the cylinder made tries to crawl out of the hole, but the Martian grabs him and pulls him back.

Book 1, Chapter 5: The Heat-Ray

Because the Martians do not seem able to climb out of the pit their ship is in, people crowd around again. A group of men approach the Martians with a white flag, signaling that they come in peace, but they are incinerated by a Heat-Ray that is fired at them.

Book 1, Chapter 6: The Heat-Ray in the Chobham Road

Word of the Heat-Ray spreads to the nearby towns of Cobham, Woking, and Ottershaw. Hundreds of people come to observe what is coming on. When the ray is turned on the crowd, it is unable to kill everyone because it is being fired from down in the pit, but two women and a little boy are trampled in the rush to get away from the Martians.

Book 1, Chapter 7: How I Reached Home

The narrator returns to his home, on the way hearing people talk about the Martian ship. His wife has dinner on the table. She has not heard anything about all of this until he tells her what he saw. The morning newspapers report on the Martians, but they say that they would never be able to threaten the planet because the Earth's gravity, much stronger than the gravity of Mars, would weigh them down.

Book 1, Chapter 8: Friday Night

While they can hear hammering sounds from within the pit where the Martians have landed, the army sends soldiers to surround the cylinder. A second cylinder from Mars arrives on Earth, landing not too far from the first.

Book 1, Chapter 9: The Fighting Begins

The day is like an ordinary Saturday, except that everyone is talking about the Martians. The Martians release the Heat-Ray across the countryside, and it reaches for miles around. The narrator rents a dog cart from his landlord to take his wife away from their home, which is too close to the invaders, to live with his cousin in Leatherhead, twelve miles away.

Media Adaptations

  • An audiocassette version of Wells's The War of the Worlds is available from Books in Motion. It was released in 1982.
  • The 1938 radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, by Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre on the Air company, is of course the most famous and has become an important piece of American history because of the panic that it induced when it went out across the country.
  • The War of the Worlds was loosely adapted into a movie in 1953 by producer George Pal, and it starred Gene Barry and Ann Robinson. The adaptation won the Academy Award for Best Special Effects. It is available on VHS and DVD from Paramount.
  • A stage musical version of the story was produced in London in 1978. Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of the "War of the Worlds" starred Richard Burton and had songs by David Essex and musicians from the bands The Moody Blues and Tin Lizzy. The soundtrack album achieved multi-platinum status and is available on CBS Records.

Book 1, Chapter 10: In the Storm

There is a thunderstorm when he tries to return. On the road, he encounters the Martians, mobilized in a pod that walks on three hundred-foot-tall legs. As he goes toward his house, he encounters the charred remains of people.

Book 1, Chapter 11: At the Window

From the upstairs window of his house, the narrator sees fires across the whole countryside, and several Martian tripods lumbering across the valley. He sees an artilleryman outside of his house and has him come inside; the man tells of how the Martians' Heat-Ray wiped out his army division.

Book 1, Chapter 12: What I Saw of the Destruction of Weybridge and Shepperton

The narrator and the artilleryman leave for London. They come across another army division and tell them of the destruction they have seen. They also come across refugees fleeing their homes. When the Martians arrive, the narrator is able to survive their Heat-Rays by diving under water. One Martian pod is destroyed by artillery fire before the people are wiped out by the Heat-Ray.

Book 1, Chapter 13: How I Fell in with the Curate

The narrator floats downstream in a boat, scorched from the heating of the river water. He meets a curate who is turning crazy with panic and takes him with him toward London.

Book 1, Chapter 14: In London

Chapter 14 is about how the narrator's brother, a medical student in London, learned of the Martians. While battles are being waged against the Martians to the south, little news had reached the city: telegraph lines are down and observers are dead. There are rumors about the one Martian cylinder that has been destroyed, and refugees from the countryside tell stories about what they have seen. Finally, reports reach the city of the Black Smoke, which hovers near the ground and waterways and suffocates anyone whose lungs it seeps into.

Book 1, Chapter 15: What Happened in Surrey

The narrator and the curate watch the human military forces smashed by three Martian tripods using the Heat-Ray and the Black Smoke.

Book 1, Chapter 16: The Exodus from London

This chapter chronicles the attempts of the narrator's brother to escape from London. All trains are overcrowded, and the tracks are crammed with people trying to escape. The Black Smoke is traveling up the river from the south. The narrator's brother helps two women as some men are trying to steal their horse carriage from them, and they invite him to travel with them.

Book 1, Chapter 17: The Thunder Child

The narrator's brother and his companions have their horse taken away from them. They make it to the sea just as the Martians are approaching, but they manage to escape on a boat. A naval ship manages to destroy a Martian tripod before a flying ship that the Martians have made on Earth flies overhead, spreading the Black Smoke.

Book 2, Chapter 1: Under Foot

Book 2 chronicles "The Earth under the Martians." The narrator decides that the curate is too much trouble to stay with him, and decides to part ways. They arrive at London and find it deserted, but a strange red plant is growing everywhere: it is something that came with the Martians from their planet. The house where the curate and the narrator have stopped to look for food is nearly hit by a new cylinder arriving from Mars, and they are then stuck there because the Martians will see them if they leave.

Book 2, Chapter 2: What We Saw from the Ruined House

In the ruined house on the edge of the crater, the men watch the Martians build new machines, which look like themselves but have the mobility to attack the human race.

Book 2, Chapter 3: The Days of Imprisonment

Trapped in the ruined house with food supplies dwindling, the narrator comes to hate the curate, who complains constantly and eats and drinks, which makes him loud, threatening their hiding place. They watch the Martians take human prisoners and suck the blood out of them.

Book 2, Chapter 4: The Death of the Curate

When the curate panics and makes too much noise, the narrator hits him with a cleaver. A Martian reaches into the house with its tentacle: it comes close to the narrator but does not find him, and instead drags the curate's body away.

Book 2, Chapter 5: The Stillness

After fifteen days in the house, the narrator steps outside to find that the pit where the Martians were working is abandoned. Birds and dogs scrounge among the discarded skeletons of humans.

Book 2, Chapter 6: The Work of Fifteen Days

The narrator wanders through London and finds it deserted.

Book 2, Chapter 7: The Man on Putney Hill

The narrator meets the artilleryman from Chapter 12 who has a pragmatic idea for the regeneration of humanity. He plans to start a new society in the sewers, and they will adapt to the new reality of Martian dominance and focus on the disciplined struggle for life. Despite what he says, the man works little and wants to spend his time playing cards, drinking, and smoking.

Book 2, Chapter 8: Dead London

Wandering through the desolate streets of London, the narrator comes to realize that the Martian tripods are not moving. The Martians are dead. He explains that scientists later determined that they had no natural defenses for Earth's bacteria.

Book 2, Chapter 9: Wreckage

The narrator is driven nearly mad with the idea that he is the last man alive. A family looks after him until his delirium breaks. Then he goes home, sorrowful that he will not see his wife ever again, but she shows up there, thinking he is dead, and they are reunited.

Book 2, Chapter 10: The Epilogue

Once news of the Martians' demise spread, countries from all over the world send food and aid, and those who had survived by leaving return. The government believes that the Martians may have colonized Venus and that might satisfy their needs, but the narrator still is uneasy about whether they might try another attack against Earth some time in the future.


The Artilleryman

The narrator first encounters him outside of the window of his house. He is from a regiment of the army that has been destroyed by the Martians' Heat-Ray, and he is shocked and barely able to speak. They travel together until they come upon a cavalry unit, who tell the artilleryman where he can find a superior officer to whom he can report. The army is in such disarray that he has trouble finding who is in charge. The narrator is separated from him when the Martians attack with their Heat-Ray, and the narrator escapes by diving under the river.

Their paths cross again in Chapter 7 of Book 2, when London is just a ghost town. The artilleryman is protective of his territory and food until he recognizes the narrator as the man who had helped him before. Then he shares his idea about how the human race will repopulate itself. The Martians, he explains, will imprison those who fight them, and fatten them up for food and breed them like cattle, but humans who manage to stay out of their way and who do not prove to be difficult will probably be left alone. He has planned out a new, underground society, living in sewers, led by the strongest. They will keep learning until they acquire knowledge of how to beat the Martians.

The narrator is impressed with the artillery-man's plan until he notices that, for all of his talk, the man is not really willing to work hard at all. The man has dug a small hole, and then he wanders outside to look at the sky; instead of working through the night, he wants to smoke, drink champagne, and play cards. The narrator soon leaves him, disillusioned.

The Curate

In Chapter 13 of Book 1, the narrator finds the curate looking over him after he has fallen asleep on a river bed, and they travel together. He quickly finds that the holy man's fears are unnerving to him, a position that angers him all the more because he feels that there is no point to being a religious man if religion cannot at least give the curate the courage to face his situation. When a cylinder from Mars lands next to a house that they are ransacking together, the narrator and the curate find themselves trapped, afraid of going outside because the Martians who have just arrived might find them and feast upon them. Food becomes scarce, but the curate continues to eat wastefully and to cry out in fear. Finally, when he becomes mentally unstable and makes enough noise to attract the nearby Martians, the narrator hits him in the head with an ax (although, he points out, he has mercy and hits him with the blunt end). The Martian who investigates the sound takes the curate's body with him, presumably to drink his blood.

Mrs. Elphinstone

Mrs. Elphinstone is a woman who is escaping from London with her sister. Thieves are trying to steal their horse carriage from them when the narrator's brother intervenes. Mrs. Elphinstone is pale in complexion and dressed in white. She is nervous, screaming for her husband George. Her sister-in-law, on the other hand, is dark, slim, and cool; it is she who draws a gun and fires at the attackers.

Lord Garrick

Lord Garrick is the Chief Justice. When the narrator's brother is trying to escape London, Lord Garrick is brought through the crowd on a stretcher. despite his high place in society, he receives no special treatment in all of the turmoil.


Henderson is a journalist from London, who lives near where the first Martian cylinder arrives. He dispatches an early report of the situation, but he is one of the first people killed by the Martians when they emerge from the cylinder and fire their Heat-Rays.

The Narrator

The name of the first-person narrator of this novel is never given to the reader. He is a philosopher, working on series of papers that are to discuss the development of moral ideas, when the invasion begins. He lives southeast of London, not far from where the Martian invasion begins. Because of his connection to the world of academia, he is invited to look at Mars through the telescope of Ogilvy, a prominent astronomer, and is given updates on the knowledge of the canister that lands on Earth as Ogilvy receives them. He borrows a wagon to take his wife away to live with relatives, but returns to his home as the tide of refugees starts arriving.

The stress of the situation takes its toll on the narrator. Trapped in a house just outside of a Martian encampment, his irritation with the curate that he has been traveling with turns to panic when the man will not be quiet. Fearful of being discovered, the narrator murders the other man and hides while Martian tentacles drag the body away.

His calm philosophical attitude is also broken when he listens to the artilleryman's plans to restore the human population. Having earlier hoped for a victory over the Martians, he comes to realize that the best that can be hoped for would be for some humans to escape from them, like insects that manage to survive by staying out of sight. In the course of a few weeks his understanding of the world has gone from assuming that humans dominate to viewing humans as relatively insignificant.

At the end of the book, his mind snaps briefly. Finding the Martians dead, he thinks that he is the only human who has survived. He is later told about his ravings on this subject by people who care for him, who he does not notice. Having survived this episode, his despair reaches its depth when he returns to his house with the thought that he will never see his wife again. After her return, he settles into a domestic pattern somewhat like the life he once led, but he can never really be comfortable again.

The Narrator's Brother

Chapters 14, 16 and 17 of Book 1 relate the experiences of the narrator's brother, who is a medical student in London. At the same time that the narrator is fleeing from the Martians' Heat-Rays, his brother is unaware of anything that is happening. It is through his eyes that readers experience the invasion's effect on the large city. He sees the gossip and the panicked exodus of thousands of people once they become convinced that the rumors of an alien invasion are true. He reads the news of the release of the Black Smoke that the Martians use to exterminate masses of people.

When he does join all the people fleeing the city with whatever belongings they can carry, the narrator's brother joins up with a woman, Mrs. Elphinstone, and her sister-in-law, after saving them from bandits who are trying to steal their carriage and horse. The sister-in-law fires a pistol at the thieves, and then gives it to the narrator's brother, trusting him with their security. He travels with them along the Thames River to the sea, where they pay their way onto a boat. As the boat is going out to sea, they see a flying ship that the Martians have evidently made since arriving on Earth, spraying the Black Smoke on the people on shore. Readers must assume, from the fact that the narrator knows these stories, that the brother survived the Martian attack.

The Narrator's Wife

The narrator's wife plays a minor role in this novel. When he first comes home from examining the unidentified metal canister that has arrived from Mars, she has dinner on the table, providing a contrast between the strange adventure that is beginning and the normal life he is used to. When the Martian advance is predicted, he borrows a dog cart and takes her to Leatherhead to live with his cousin. Later in the book, he hears that Leatherhead has been destroyed and all of its inhabitants killed. He despairs that he will never see his wife again, but she shows up at their house after the invasion is all over.


An astronomer friend of the narrator's, he invites the narrator to look at Mars through his telescope after the first cylinder is fired from Mars at the Earth. Later, he joins Stent and some other astronomers to investigate the cylinder where it has landed at Horsell Common. He is with the party that approaches the cylinder with a white flag of peace, and the Martians that emerge from the cylinder obliterate the members of the peace party with their Heat-Ray.


The Astronomer Royal, he leads the expedition team that includes Ogilvy in investigating the first Martian cylinder when it arrives. He is one of the first people killed by the Martians.



One reason that the invasion against the Earth is so successful is that the humans do not know what to make of it. The first Martian craft to arrive lies in the crater made by its arrival, seeming to be powerless. There is a noise from within, but that stops, leading astronomers to believe that the creatures inside have perished. When the Martians emerge from the cylinder, they are weak, gelatinous organisms, and their inability to move very freely in Earth's thick atmosphere leads scientists to believe that they do not pose much of a threat. These assumptions are based on what little information can be gleaned from the spacecraft's behavior. The Martians seem to pose no threat, until they swiftly begin their destructive attacks.

Even after the Martians prove hostile, the people of London do not see the danger facing them because the news is so sketchy. While people are being cut down by Heat-Rays just twenty miles away, Londoners go about their daily business. The novel seems to be making the point that, given an ambiguous situation, people will prefer to believe that all things are going to remain as they were. The view of the Martians that the narrator gets from his secluded house on the end of a Martian crater, where he watches them drain the blood from humans and throw away their bodies, is vastly different from the early assumption that they were disabled. Action is forestalled for crucial days by uncertainty about what these very strange visitors want or are capable of.

Victory and Defeat

Once the humans in this novel realize that the Martians can and will destroy them, they see the entire adventure in terms of victory and defeat. Early on, a party of scientists approaches the Martian cylinder with a white flag, to signify a willingness to live in peace, but that peace party is incinerated by the Martians. After that, the reports about the invasion are all sweetened with false hope because an artillery shell manages to destroy one of the Martian pods. The fact that they can be destroyed indicates to the hopeful that they will be, although no similar victories occur. By Book 2, there is no longer any pretense that humanity might be victorious. The narrator finds great appeal in the plan that the artilleryman puts forth: he cedes inevitable victory to the Martians, but says that, if it is able to survive and reproduce, the human race might find a way to be victorious at some distant time in the future.

Man versus Machine

One reason that the Martians do not seem all that threatening is that they are small and weak. They lack mobility, being made of large heads that slither slowly around on tentacles. Their power makes itself manifest when they climb into the tall tripod machines that can carry them high above the ground and shoot Heat-Rays. In Chapter 10 of Book 1, when the narrator first encounters one of the Martian tripods up close, he constantly refers to it as a machine but is also amazed at how responsive it is to the controls of the Martian inside:

… it was no mere insensate machine driving on its way. Machine it was, with a ringing metallic pace, and long, flexible, glittering tentacles (one of which gripped a young pine tree) swinging and rattling about its strange body. It picked its road as it went striding along, and the brazen hood that surmounted it moved to and fro with the inevitable suggestion of a head looking about.

The suggestion here is that neither the Martians nor their machines would independently be able to vanquish humanity but that the combination of living creature and metal machine would prevail.


Persistence is at the heart of Herbert Spencer's social Darwinian concept of "survival of the fittest." In this book, it shows itself on levels grand and miniscule. At the level of world dominance, there is the theory that, although greatly overpowered, the human race could survive and eventually win out over the Martians over the course of generations, but only if some humans are willing to adapt to the new reality of being conquered. These people would have to live underground and train themselves: "We can't have any weak or silly," the artilleryman explains. "Life is real again, and the weak and the cumbersome and mischievous have to die. They ought to be willing to die. It's sort of a disloyalty, after all, to live and taint the race." His theory that the race can live on, with modifications, makes sense, but then he proves unwilling to make those necessary modifications.

The ultimate defeat of the Martians comes, not from the persistence of human willpower, but from the persistence of the human biological organism. The human bodies that have survived over the course of millions of years are the ones that have been able to survive exposure to bacteria: the ones that have not have died off. The Martians, with no history of exposure to these bacteria, die quickly. The Martians' swift invasion is terrifying and effective, but it is the bacteria that have persisted that make the survival of humanity possible.



In order to present this story as a first person narrative, told by an "I" speaker who is a character in the book, Wells has to resort to some clever tricks. For one thing, the narrator is a scientist and a friend of an astronomer, Ogilvy: this gives him access to the world of astronomy when most of the news about the first projectile from Mars is not commonly talked about. Another method used is to have the narrator speaking from six years after the action has taken place, so that information that would not have been available during the Martian invasion, such as the details of their physiognomy, can be introduced into the book at appropriate times.

The most obvious narrative device, though, is in switching the action's point of view for several chapters into that of the narrator's brother. This is not a character whom readers come to know with any depth. The details of his experience are known without much insight into his personality. The function of these chapters is to show what the general reaction to the invasion was around London, and perhaps to introduce a dashing, romantic figure aiding damsels in distress without breaking away from the reality of the narrator's perspective.

Topics For Further Study

  • This novel is specific about what sorts of physical characteristics the Martians would have developed, due to the kind of atmosphere Wells believed Mars to have. Using current information about Mars, describe what types of creatures would live there if there were any Martians at all.
  • Examine the information that has been printed by people who suspect that aliens have already come to Earth, especially the theories around Roswell, New Mexico, and the government facility at Area 51 in Nevada. After reading the information, explain why you do or do not believe that the government is keeping the presence of aliens a secret.
  • Listen to a recording of the Mercury Theatre's 1938 broadcast of their adaptation of The War of the Worlds, and then read about the panic that broadcast caused. Compare the public's response to that fictional account with the reaction to the real-life destruction of the World Trade Center, which was broadcast live throughout the world. Explain whether you think people in the 1930s acted rationally or irrationally.
  • The invasion of London in this novel can be compared to the attack against New York City in 2001. Write a report about the ways people behaved at that time, comparing and contrasting them to the behaviors that Wells describes.


Once readers reach the end of The War of the Worlds, many realize that they should have seen the Martians' defeat clearly prepared in the course of the story. When an action in the story prepares readers for what is going to be done, it is called foreshadowing. Done well, readers will not even notice foreshadowing until after they have seen the event foreshadowed.

As early as Chapter 2 of Book 2, the narrator explains that

Micro-organisms, which cause so much disease and pain on earth, have either never appeared upon Mars or Martian sanitary science eliminated them ages ago. A hundred diseases, all the fevers and contagions of human life, consumption, cancers, tumours and such morbidities, never enter the scheme of their life.

Readers who do not see this as a clue to the Martians' eventual inability to survive on Earth are given further evidence when the narrator goes on to introduce the red weed that came with them from Mars, which grew prodigiously but was unable to survive local bacteria. The end is foreshadowed early on, but readers who are engrossed in the story might miss it.

Historical Context

Fear of Invasion

At the end of the nineteenth century, the nations of Europe were divided into strategic alliances that pitted them against each other in the event of a war. From 1882 onward, these military associations resulted in a greater military buildup than the world had ever known before. The proof that this trend created a dangerous political situation can be seen in the fact that it ended in the largest and bloodiest confrontation that had ever happened up to that time, the Great War.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1898: One of the most frightening aspects of the Martian invasion is when they master the concept of flight, giving them the ability to spread their dominance across the globe.
    Today: Humans have been able to fly since the Wright Brothers were able to attain lift-off at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.
  • 1898: Wells presents interplanetary travel as being a matter of a canister projected from Mars to Earth like a bullet from a gun.
    Today: Humanity understands the principles of rocket propulsion well enough to explore the far reaches of our solar system.
  • 1898: In the novel, Wells describes lakes of water on Mars, visible through telescopes.
    Today: For a long time, theories about Martian water have been discredited as a misinterpretation of the visible data; however, in recent years, probes on the surface of Mars have determined that there is in fact significant water.
  • 1898: The only means of communication are telegraphs. When the Martians are a few miles away from London, people in the city go about their ordinary business, unaware.
    Today: Wireless phones with video capabilities make it possible for an average citizen to send sound and images from any remote corner of the world.

The roots of this division of Europe came in 1871, when Prussia conquered France. Prussia, the kingdom state that included Germany, sought to prevent France from coming back at some future time to take back the land that had been taken from it by forming alliances with first Austria-Hungary and, later, Russia. By the 1880s, Germany had signed on to a Triple Alliance with Italy and Austria-Hungary. Britain, France, and Russia, in turn, signed on to a Triple Entente, promising to defend each other in case of attack. By the time Wells wrote The War of the Worlds in the late 1890s, all of the nations of Europe were aligned with one of these organizations. The balance of military power was strictly monitored and maintained: for instance, the German naval build-up in the 1890s spurred Great Britain to pour resources into their own navy, which caused Italy, France, the United States, and Japan to follow suit. The political scene in which Wells wrote about the Martian invasion was a stable one, then, but one that was expected to explode.

The military melee that was expected throughout Europe did not actually occur until nearly twenty years later. When it did, though, it followed a course that by then seemed inevitable. When Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated by Serbians in 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Within a week, Germany, France, and Russia were involved, and days later Belgium, Great Britain, and Japan were drawn in. By the time of the war's end four years later, ten million had died, and twenty million were wounded.


One of the greatest influences on scientific thought at the end of the nineteenth century was the theory of biological evolution that had been put forward by the British naturalist Charles Darwin. Darwin's theory of natural selection, which posits that organisms evolve over the course of generations, is prominent in The War of the Worlds, particularly in the way that the Martians are said to have lost any need for bodies or sexual reproduction, and in the way that the bleak fate of humanity is viewed as perhaps regrettable but nonetheless unavoidable.

In 1859, Darwin outlined his theories in his book On the Origin of the Species. Based on observations made in previously unexplored regions of the South Pacific, he concluded that similar species were actually related to each other, and that those that had grown up under different circumstances had evolved in ways that best suited their individual environments. The book was a sensation after its publication, and the theory of evolution was applied to other fields as well, leading to such concepts as Herbert Spencer's competitive "social darwinism" to explain the survival of some social traits over others. One of Wells's teachers, T. H. Huxley, has been recognized as perhaps the single most influential writer to popularize Darwinism.

Critical Overview

The War of the Worlds was published early in Wells's career, at the tail of a string of successful novels that are still considered classics today: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), and The Invisible Man (1897). Critics of the time were split between finding the book a marked improvement on his earlier works and a repeat of the same old formula. For instance, John St. Loe Strachey, in a review in the English magazine The Spectator, notes that "One reads and reads with an interest so unflagging that it is positively exhausting. The War of the Worlds stands, in fact, the final test of fiction. When one has taken it up, one cannot bear to put it down without a pang." In addition, an unsigned review in the American publication The Critic concludes that "The author has written an ingenious and original work…. The book has the tone of intense modernity, with notes of convincing realism and morbid horror." Academy starts its review with "Mr. Wells has done good work before, but nothing quite so fine as this." Basil Williams, writing in Athenaeum, finds the prose to be too flat to make the story exciting: "There is too much of the young man from Clapham attitude about the book; the narrator sees and hears exciting things, but he has not the gift of making them exciting to other people."

In the decades that have passed, The War of the Worlds has come to be considered one of Wells's best books, if not his best one. One problem that modern readers might have in appreciating the story is that it has been retold frequently in many different forms so that it seems all too familiar. As Richard Hauer Costa puts it in his 1967 study of Wells's career,

The War of the Worlds is the archetype of all B-Grade films which present giant creatures from another world who invade the earth armed with death-ray guns. The imagery of the novel is so vivid that it is no wonder film scenarists have always thought of outer-space invasions in Wellsian terms.


David Kelly

Kelly is an instructor of literature and creative writing at two schools in Illinois. In this essay, Kelly examines the role that is played in the novel by the two women that the narrator's brother meets while fleeing London.

The early novels that H. G. Wells wrote are remembered for infusing a groundbreaking sense of realism into unlikely situations, all the while holding fast to the principles of science. The War of the Worlds, in particular, is considered as "realistic" as a book can be when there are slimy

tentacled creatures cutting down whole countrysides with ray guns. The book is apocalyptic, showing a very convincing vision of how the human race could quite conceivably end. It dismisses the most dominant factors of our society, presuming that they would be unable to rise to the kind of challenge presented by a Martian invasion.

The novel follows its vision of mankind's defeat through until the end, when, in the depth of his despair, its unnamed narrator finds out that the invasion has been defeated, mostly by a fluke. From there, things pick up: he returns to his home, he is reunited with his wife, international aid packages arrive for the displaced and there is hope that such an invasion could not work as well a second time without the element of surprise. In the end, though, the sense of hope is tinged with the kind of fear that any war survivor would harbor, having once seen how easily the life he knows can collapse in on itself.

Even with the final reconciliations, this is an almost unrelentingly bleak story. Wells seems to be saying, as he was to throughout his writings, that humanity is nothing but a cog in the greater machine of science. This message comes across in the narrator's tone, in the losses that the world encounters, and even in the unexpected way in which the Martians die.

There is, though, in the middle of this dark story, a small episode that reflects the romantic ideals of courage, love, and mystery. As the world faces the destruction of London—possibly the worst imaginable catastrophe for an Englishman—the story's focal character at that point, the narrator's brother, becomes involved with two interesting women. Their story is not by any means adequately examined, but the fact that they appear in this novel at all opens a window to a worldview that the rest of the book labors hard to shut out.

That this ray of hope should come to the narrator's brother should be no surprise. The narrator's story has no place for romance. He is presented as a moral pragmatist, a philosopher who sees the doom and destruction and, like the true philosopher that he is, considers its place in his understanding of the world. The fact that the book gives readers a happy ending when he is reunited with his wife does nothing to negate the fact that that he does not think of her while he is out on the road, struggling for survival. His rationalism is what makes him turn the others whom he encounters into symbols for society's doomed framework. The curate, for example, stands for religion, and when the narrator sees him crumble psychologically he realizes that faith is not strong enough to offer solace when the pressure is truly on. The artilleryman seems to have a better idea for how to cope with humanity's destruction, an intricate plan that includes long-term and short-term goals and an abandonment of any hope for comfort in the foreseeable future. After mouthing his theories, though, he quits work and digs in to the comfort of cigars, whiskey, and cards. The narrator simply walks away from him, an act even more disdainful than bashing the curate's head in. These two odd, dead-end relationships fit perfectly into the mood of the rest of the narrator's tale, in which humanity is beaten by the invaders at every turn.

Critics have noted that the section of the book that breaks away from the narrator's story to tell the story of his brother—Chapters 14, 16, and 17—show a weakness in Wells's ability as a novelist. This break does not appear to be the result of any overall narrative strategy but is instead just a matter of convenience: it enables Wells to keep with his narrator from the discovery of the first alien through the invasion's end, while showing what happened in the crowded metropolis at the same time. Certainly, there must be some way to do this that would be more grounded in the story, but most readers seem to feel that it is worth a little cheating in the story telling if that is what it takes to work the destruction of London into the book. Generally, then, the brother's story is considered a small, forgivable misstep, and little is said about it.

And, in fact, this break in the narrative continuity hardly makes any difference at all. The narrator and his brother are barely distinguishable from one another. Neither shows any independent characteristics, other than the roles they have to play in the book: one is a philosopher and the other a medical student, and both are motivated by staying alive. The most important differences between them seem to be those that are implied, rather than stated: the brother is younger, and unmarried. These qualify him to be a romantic hero in a way that the narrator could not.

On the road out of London, the narrator's brother stops to aid two women who are being accosted by some thugs. He is injured in the skirmish, and they take him into the carriage that he helped save for them. This act is, in itself, remarkable: it does come after he has risked his life for them, but it also comes during the exodus, while anyone slowed down is likely to be killed. The fact that they take him in shows two distinct traits. First, there is a sense of indebtedness, which the narrator himself encounters when he meets up with the artilleryman the second time; if he had not helped the man earlier, he may have been shot. Second, there is the need for protection, in a traditional gender-role sense. These women, traveling with a gun, a carriage, and money, know that they will need someone to save them from looters.

The two women are drawn as opposites. The first, Mrs. Elphinstone, is one of the few characters in the book to be given a name, and certainly the only one to be named after the invasion begins. This can be contrasted with the main characters that the narrator meets, who are referred to by their social functions, curate and artilleryman. She, in turn, frequently talks about another named character, George, who is presumably Mr. Elphinstone. Her function in the novel is to become hysterical, unable to keep her wits about her in what are, admittedly, trying circumstances. While there might seem no reason to dwell upon one hysterical person during the evacuation of a city of millions, Mrs. Elphinstone does serve to provide a clean contrast to her sister-in-law, who provides the book's romantic center.

Mrs. Elphinstone is short and dressed in white, and her sister-in-law is slim and dark complexioned; she is nervous, while her sister-in-law is "astonishingly quiet and deliberate"; she speaks out loud to George as if he were there, while her sister-in-law has the present situation well in hand. The sister-in-law, who is never given a name, also has a pistol, which she does not hesitate to use. And she has the courage to tell the narrator's brother, "We have money," at a time when the road is filled with thieves.

Mrs. Elphinstone's sister-in-law, George's sister, is the most unique character in the book. She cuts a dashing figure. She can be vicious, but she can be kind. One has to wonder how she turned up in the middle of a story that has all of the rest of the race bowing down to the inevitable or, like the artilleryman, too lazy to resist.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Readers interested in reading more of Wells's work can find this novel and First Men in the Moon (1901), The Invisible Man (1897), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Time Machine (1895) and several science fiction short stories all collected in a box set entitled Science Fiction Classics of H. G. Wells (2001) from Dover Thrift Editions.
  • Before Wells, French author Jules Verne was considered to be the top science fiction writer of the nineteenth century. Verne's novels have stood the test of time. While The War of the Worlds might be looked at as the prototype for all sci-fi stories about alien invasions, Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) has influenced an entire category of subterranean fiction.
  • Ray Bradbury's 1950 novel The Martian Chronicles tells the reverse of this story, as humans colonize Mars to escape a destroyed Earth and impose themselves on Martian culture.
  • Wells's life, spanning from the Victorian period to World War II, was one of the most interesting in twentieth century literature. One of the best biographies of him is H. G. Wells: Desperately Mortal (1986) by David C. Smith.
  • The H. G. Wells Scrapbook, edited by Peter Haining, is organized, as its title says, as a scrap-book—it collects various bits of material related to Wells's life, including possible sources of inspiration, newspaper clips, and artwork from and inspired by his books. It was published in 1978 by Clarkson N. Potter, Inc.

The story of these two women is woven with romantic imagery. The threatening highwaymen and the out-of-control horses are conventions of Victorian bodice-rippers. That in itself would make their appearance unusual, but one could see it, like the appearance of the curate, as Wells's commentary on a particular social convention. But, within the dashing romance, Wells turns the convention on its head by giving the sister-in-law characteristics that were at that time traditionally left to men. She not only produces the pistol, but she fires it without flinching; she takes the horse's reigns after the narrator's brother enters the carriage; and, besides, she has the smoldering dark looks that one expects of a male character from a Brontë novel. Although the narrator's brother ends up as the leader of their small party, as is evidenced by the fact that he is the one who pays the passage of the three onto a boat, Mrs. Elphinstone's sister-in-law is still an independent spirit.

What this character meant to Wells is unclear. Probably, like the entire shift to the narrator's brother's perspective, she just materialized while he was writing and seemed like the right thing to do. He did not even give her a name, although in this section of the book he was naming characters. He did, however, give her a striking presence, making her the type of woman who is a match for a young medical student like the narrator's brother. The reader knows that the brother survived to tell the tale of his escape to the narrator, but nothing more is said of Mrs. Elphinstone's sister-in-law. She is just a strong-willed woman amongst a mood of general panic, and as such she gives the novel a romantic flair that it shows nowhere else. In that way, the brief interlude with the dark lady changes the book's entire meaning.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on The War of the Worlds, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.


In the following brief review, an early critic praises Wells's novel.

Text Not Available

Richard Hauer Costa

In the following excerpt, Costa discusses the structure and prose of The War of the Worlds.

The War of the Worlds is the archetype of all B-Grade films which present giant creatures from another world who invade the earth armed with death-ray guns. The imagery of the novel is so vivid that it is no wonder film scenarists have always thought of outer-space invasions in Wellsian terms. Moreover, one grasps from this novel the essential technique of all of Wells's scientific romances, Dr. Moreau excepted: the pinning of strange events to an everyday locale. The attraction of The Invisible Man lay in placing the astounding dilemma of Griffin within the slow village life of Iping. In The War of the Worlds, the narrator sees the effects of the Martian invasion on a village in Woking, a place familiar to Wells because he once retreated there to convalesce from illness. Wells wrote in his autobiography of bicycling about the district and "marking down suitable places and people for destruction by my Martians." However, unless one counts Wells's characteristic chiding of the clergy in the sketch of a curate whose corner on salvation barely tides him over the invasion period, there is no evidence that Wells was writing autobiographically or even thought of his Woking villagers as individuals.

Combined with a faultless adherence to down-to-earth physical details is a sense of time; the chronology of invasion is attributable about equally to a boy's imaginative grasp of war games and to a man's foreboding vision of terrestrial resistance turned to panic:

About three o'clock there began the thud of a gun at measured intervals from Chertsey to Addlestone. I learnt that the smouldering pine-wood into which the second cylinder had fallen was being shelled in the hope of destroying that object before it opened. It was only about five, however, that a field gun reached Chobham for use against the first body of Martians.

About six in the evening, as I sat at tea with my wife in the summer-house talking vigorously about the battle that was lowering upon us, I heard a muffled detonation from the common, and immediately after a gust of firing. Close on the heels of that came a violent rattling crash, quite close to us, that shook the ground; and, starting out upon the lawn, I saw the tops of the trees about the Oriental College burst into smoky red flame, and the tower of the little church beside it slide down the ruin. The pinnacle of the mosque had vanished, and the roof-line of the college itself looked as if a hundred-ton gun had been at work upon it. One of our chimneys cracked as if a shot had hit it, flew, and a piece of it came clattering down the tiles and made a heap of broken red fragments upon the flowerbed by my study window.

I and my wife stood amazed. Then I realized that the crest of Mayberry Hill must be within range of the Martians' Heat-Ray now that the college was cleared out of the way.

This extraordinary grasp of moment-to-moment detail made the novel easy prey for Orson Welles when in 1938 he converted it into the script which panicked a national radio audience. Welles changed the setting from a British district to Grover Mill, New Jersey. That he drew from Wells the essential imagery of the invasion can be seen by a comparison of the novel's description of the Martian emerging from the space-cylinder with that of the radio script. In The War of the Worlds, Wells writes:

A big greyish rounded bulk, the size, perhaps, of a bear, was rising slowly and painfully out of the cylinder. As it bulged up and caught the light, it glistened like wet leather.

Two large dark-coloured eyes were regarding me steadfastly. The mass that framed them, the head of the thing, it was rounded, and had, one might say, a face. There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered and panted, and dropped saliva. The whole creature heaved and pulsated convulsively. A lank tentacular appendage gripped the edge of the cylinder, another swayed in the air.

In the scenario, the announcer gasps: "Good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadow like a grey snake. Now it's another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing's body. It's large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather…. The mouth is V-shapedwith saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate…."

Wells, apostle of the possible, registers himself in The War of the Worlds as the arch-enemy of the smug heralders of a new-century utopia in which the Union Jack would always prevail. "With infinite complacency," he writes in the opening paragraph of this novel about the routing of civilization, "men went to and fro over the globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter." Even as they luxuriate in a mental inertia of "all's well," keener intelligences from Mars covet the earth and lay plans to conquer it.

The same cautionary message, told in fable, is sounded in the previous romances: Man has no right to take control of the cosmic process for granted. Wells warns the reader to look at what happened to Mars—not only more distant from life's beginning but nearer its end. The conditions on Mars became increasingly uncongenial to higher life, Wells speculated, citing dropping temperature, thinning atmosphere, water drying up. Eventually, the planet was forced to search space for some buffer to cosmic annihilation. Once again Wells reinforces his convictions by presenting a picture of the expiring planet of war as a preview of earth's fate: an earth moving in Huxleyan inexorability along the declining parabola of evolution.

Wells, in effect, gives the reader a step-by-step report on how a breakup of metropolitan society would come about. Whereas The Time Machine and the yet-to-come First Men in the Moon are conceived poetically—that is, the myths of time travel and of moon visitation are rendered in such a way as to suspend the demands of verisimilitude—in The War of the Worlds the myth-poeic mood is exchanged for the methods of documentary realism. The Martian invasion is treated as an event of contemporary history.

It is not necessary to review the invasion in detail. Suffice it to say that the Martians are octopus-like creatures who are as far above mankind in intellect and command of machinery as humans are above animals. The Martians stride over the earth in machines of impregnable armor and devastate town and country with searchlights projecting rays more destructive than those of radium. They feed on human blood, and they force humanity, if it is not to perish or become as docile as the Eloi, to seek subterranean refuge. In the robot-like calculations of the Martians, Wells again underscores Huxley: evolution may produce creatures with superior brains, but it will not inevitably lead to a millennium.

In one of Wells's best passages of dramatic sociological speculation, a courageous artilleryman speaks of what life will be like for the survivors: "The tame ones [of us] will go like all tame beasts…. The risk is that we who keep well willgo savage—degenerate into a sort of big, savage rat…. You see, how I mean to live is underground. I've been thinking about the drains…. Then there's cellars, vaults, stores, from which bolting passages may be made to the drains. And the railway tunnels and subways. Eh? You begin to see? And we form a band—able-bodied, clean-minded men. We're not going to pick any rubbish that drifts in. Weaklings go out again." The artilleryman's formula is suggestive of the fallout fears of a more modern day which Wells did not quite live to see. In The War of the Worlds, the worldlings are relieved of the necessity of putting survival conditions to the test by the intervention of an unexpected ally, the most minute of rescuers: the microbe. The invaders from Mars, lacking immunity to terrestrial diseases, are annihilated by one of them.

The possibility of life on Mars was part of the folklore in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century. The first volume of Camille Flammarion's La Planète Mars had appeared in 1892, thus making, as Bernard Bergonzi suggests, "a convenient and plausible superhuman adversary for mankind." Passages in Chapter I of Wells's novel are probably imitations of Flammarion; they describe the physical conditions of Mars and are strikingly similar to descriptions in Flammarion's books. Wells's theories of the superhuman qualities of the Martians were also in line with those of the American astronomer Percival Lowell, who in 1896 advanced the idea that the canals on Mars were the work of intelligent beings.

But H. G. Wells's "scientific" knowledge of Mars, impressive as it was, has in the years since the book's publication become secondary to the message that underlies the romance—a message few of Wells's early readers understood. The novel continued his practice of bludgeoning the complacent bourgeois. He who had forced his mean little undernourished and illness-ridden body out of dingy shops was at century's end, by dint of the scientific romances, forcing himself on literary society.

Who can say how many of Wells's dread fore-bodings in these four novels had their origin in Huxley's laboratory and how many in severe social maladjustment? The H. G. Wells of 1897, barely thirty but soon to be famous, was encountering difficulties in gaining acceptance in the cultivated world with its necessary insincerities and demand for credentials. It may be that the early Wells might have welcomed some such social upheaval concomitant upon invasion or similar catastrophe. As he wrote to his close friend George Gissing that very year, he might see in such an event, "a return to the essential, to honorable struggle as the epic factor in life…."

At any rate, the assertions of the coarse artilleryman, though somewhat discredited later in the novel, mark perhaps a beginning toward a new, sociological Wells—one who, within less than a decade, would project in a landmark utopian book, A Modern Utopia, a thoroughgoing blueprint for world revolution in the hands of an intellectual and physical élite, the Samurai. If, as St. John Ervine insists, sociology ruined H. G. Wells, the beginnings of that forty-year penchant may be gleaned even in a masterful scientific romance like The War of the Worlds.

Source: Richard Hauer Costa, "The Scientific Romances," in H. G. Wells, Twayne, 1967, pp. 42–46.


Costa, Richard Hauer, H. G. Wells, Twayne's English Author Series, No. 43, Twayne Publishers, 1967, p. 42.

Review, in Academy, January 29, 1898, pp. 121–22.

Review, in Critic, April 23, 1898, p. 282.

St. Loe Strachey, John, Review, in the Spectator, Vol. LXXX, January 20, 1898, pp. 168–69.

Wells, H. G., War of the Worlds, Harper & Brothers, 1898.

Williams, Basil, Review, in Athenaeum, February 3, 1898, p. 178.

Further Reading

Bergonzi, Bernard, The Early H. G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances, University of Toronto Press, 1961.

Wells changed much after the turn of the twentieth century. By focusing on the early novels, Bergonzi is able to give concentrated consideration to the style that was evolving.

Haynes, Roslynn D., H. G. Wells: Discoverer of the Future, New York University Press, 1980.

Haynes focuses on the influence of science on Wells's ideas, giving the history of scientific development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the balance.

Hillegas, Mark R., The Future as Nightmare: H. G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians, Southern Illinois University Press, 1967.

This book is principally about Wells, but it draws connection to the other writers who have raised fears about what the future might bring, including George Orwell (1984) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World).

Huntington, John, "The Logical Web," in The Logic of Fantasy: H. G. Wells and Science Fiction, Columbia University Press, 1982, pp. 57–84.

Huntington examines Wells's novels as an expression of thought, using The War of the Worlds as an example of his overall thesis.