How do the first five chapters of War of the Worlds reflect on Wells’ concerns and prepare the reader for what is to come
H. G. Wells wrote war of the Worlds in 1898, in two books. The book is written as an account of one man’s experience of the Martian invasion. We are never told the name of this character, so he is known as the Narrator, but he is believed be Wells himself. The Narrator is very subjective; everything comes from his point of view. However, most readers mistrust subjective narrators, but in War of the Worlds, Wells’ Narrator seems very believable and he quickly gains the audience’s trust. He also helps us gain much understanding of the events taking place, which many would not have had before.
Such an understanding adds very much to the reader’s perception of the book. There are many similarities in the both the character of Wells and the Narrator. They are both well educated men, as the Narrator makes all this theories seem more believable by using science as to validate them, such as in Chapter 1, where he describes the Martians observation of man in the same way as ‘a man who might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm in a drop of water’. In reality, Wells was an educated man with a degree in science, his forte being biology.
However the Narrator is perceived as a gentleman or member of the upper class, although he has many sympathies with the common people, similar to those of Wells. Wells saw the class structure of Victorian England as being an outdated attempt at social elitism. H. G. Wells was born into a lower class family, both of his parents being servants in a nobleman’s household. Wells disagreed that birth alone should give some men power over others, and in order to escape such a system he set about educating himself by reading whatever material he could find in his masters house.
Luckily, during Wells’ childhood, the British government passed the Education Act, entitling all boys to an education. After completing his schooling, Wells won himself a scholarship to and furthered his education, and during this time, his disagreement with the class system grew, as at his university he would have been surrounded people mainly of the upper class and, being from a lower class background, he would have felt different and alienated.
This may give some explanation to his representation of the upper class character later on in the book, as they become increasingly incompetent and discouraging [the Curator], and the lower class start becoming the leaders and organisers [the Artilleryman]. When the first Martian pod lands on Horsell Common, only the Narrator’s friend Ogilvy, an upper class man, takes an interest and tries to warn the common folk, who are none fussed, of the impending danger. However, they take no heed and when the Martians emerge from the pod it is Ogilvy and other members of the upper class who die first.
As the Martians rampage through Maybury, many common and upper class people die, here Wells comments on how ‘no matter how highly men are born, they all die the same’. Such a statement would have been very much resented by the upper class at this period as they saw themselves as the elite of society and it was believed that that was how society was meant to be. Later on in the book, the Narrator encounters the Artilleryman, a member of the army whose comrades have all been wiped out by Heat-Ray mounted on the Martians ‘Fighting Machines’.
He explains how terrestrial weapons are having no effect on the alien metals used to construct the Martians machines. He [the Artilleryman] is of the lower class however, when it comes to planning and deciding on the best strategy of staying alive and avoiding the Martians, he takes control. This is an important point in the book as this reflects Wells’ ideology and proves that the lower classes are no less able than the upper class, and are therefore equal.
Once the Narrator and the Artilleryman reach Weybridge they become separated and go on their separate paths. This is not the last we see of the artilleryman as further still into the book, when the Narrator is near London, he yet again stumbles upon his friend. This time the he has an even greater scheme: to hide from the Martians in a network of underground tunnels, and so he enlists the Narrator in helping him to dig the first of these tunnels. Although Wells leaves him to continue with his mission, he talks about him with great respect and admiration.
Whilst waling further towards Central London, the Narrator touches on the subject of empire and invasion, likening the colonisation of Earth by the Martians to the manner in which Britain conquered Tasmania and butchered the 10,000 or so Aboriginals who lived there. The invasion of the Martians might also have been used to make Britain see how fragile her empire was, as at this period many countries were overthrowing their monarchies and replacing them with democracies.
This cynical view of Britain’s invasion of foreign lands would have made many readers of the time think about what it must have felt like to be invaded and to live in fear. Wells uses the semantic fields of science and death/war to great effect. Right from the off, the reader is bombarded with scientific terms and explanations. Not only does this make what the Narrator is saying, it also prepares the reader for the vast quantity of scientific language that is coming.
This was proven during the 1930’s when a BBC radio version of War of the Worlds was played on American radio, the book was edited and read in the style of a news broadcast. It was so convincing that it caused panic and hysteria across the United States. In many places, water towers were mistaken for the Martians ‘Fighting Machines’ and were attacked by mobs. This only goes to show the effectiveness of Wells’ writing skills and ability. However, when Wells uses the semantic field of death and war it is very much a taste of what is to be experienced later on in the book, with the coming of the Martians and the havoc they bring.
In the first chapter alone, the reader hears such words as ‘warfare’, ‘ruthless’, ‘destruction’, ‘mercy’ and ‘warred’. Such dramatic language immediately sets the readers mind to war and destruction, thus drawing them into the book. The first five words of the book, ‘No one would have believed’, immediately installs a sense of foreboding and helps to build tension as the book progresses. Such a statement marks the book as being unpredictable, a quality that is very much proven at its end.
There are many other linguistic structures used. One of the most noticeable is the varying length of sentences from chapter to chapter. In the first chapter, before the appearance of the Martians, Wells uses very long sentences full of specialist terms. One sentence in particular contains 71 words, and there is many more of a similar length. However, when the Martians are first seen leaving Mars, the sentence length shortens dramatically, with many sentences confined to fewer than 20 words.
This variation helps to pace the book and ensure that important information is thoroughly explained and appreciated, but also ensuring that dramatic periods retain their tension and surprise. This ‘pacing’ of the chapters ensures that the book flows and leads well from one section to another. As the book draws to a close Wells rounds off the story, not from personal accounts but through the statements of others, this again makes him seem more believable and friendly. He does however; make some closing remarks about human technology and its ‘inefficiency’ in dealing with the Martian threat.
He is also very quick to state that no matter how hard humans strive to better nature, they can never match its power, which is very much backed up by the defeat of the Martians who were not beaten by human efforts but by ‘terrestrial bacteria, to which they had no defence’. He also remarks upon how advanced the Martians were and how if it had not been for the intervention of nature, humanity would have been wiped out. Some how, the reader gets the message that the Narrator is trying to show humans that they are not the most intelligent species, and have no right to control others.
Combined with many of the other remarks made at various points through the book, it appears that Wells is trying to put across a very important political message, but in an indirect context. The War of the Worlds was a fascinating read; it had a real affect on my views on class, invasion and the origins of science fiction. Wells has sometimes been called the ‘Father of Science Fiction’ and many would certainly agree that his ideas were well ahead of their time and still bear some relevance in our modern society.