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Study Guide for H. G. Wells: The War of the Worlds (1898)


War of the Worlds was written in response to several historical events. The most important was the unification and militarization of Germany, which led to a series of novels predicting war in Europe, beginning with George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (1871). Most of these were written in a semi-documentary fashion; and Wells borrowed their technique to tie his interplanetary war tale to specific places in England familiar to his readers. This attempt at hyper-realism helped to inspire Orson Welles when the latter created his famed 1938 radio broadcast based on the novel.

John Gosling’s site on the broadcast.

There was a specific event that inspired Wells. In 1894 Mars was positioned particularly closely to Earth, leading to a great deal of observation and discussion. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had reported seeing “canali” on Mars, meaning “channels,” but the term was mistranslated as “canals,” leading to much speculation about life on the red planet. [Although scientists were able eventually to photograph what seem to be large stream beds on Mars, these are on a much smaller scale than the blobs and blotches which misled Schiaparelli into thinking he had seen channels.] One of the 1894 observers, a M. Javelle of Nice, claimed to have seen a strange light on Mars, which further stimulated speculation about life there. Wells turned Javelle into Lavelle of Java, an island much on people’s minds because of the explosion there in 1883 of Mount Krakatoa, which killed 50,000 people and drastically influenced Earth’s climate for the next year.

Wells became famous partly as a prophet. In various writings he predicted tanks, aerial bombing, nuclear war, and–in this novel–gas warfare, laser-like weapons, and industrial robots. It was his tragedy that his most successful predictions were of destructive technologies, and that he lived to experience the opening of the atomic age in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Wells was to become famous as a socialist and a utopian, but his science fiction novels are almost uniformly pessimistic about human nature and the future.

There is an excellent DVD-ROM entitled Mars: The Red Planet, which provides further background information, video interviews with experts, and a wealth of other material relevant to the study of Wells’ novel and other Martian SF. To read more about this resource and get some sample and auxiliary materials, go to the Mars, The Red Planet Web site.

Book I

Chapter 1: The Eve of the War

From what perspective is humanity viewed? What qualities in the Martians make them dangerous to humanity? Mars’ reddish color led to speculation that it had at one time held more oxygen in its atmosphere, now locked up in iron oxide. Wells’ treatment of it as an old and nearly-exhausted world was commonplace at the time he was writing, and his adoption of this view influenced much later Martian fiction. The American bison seemed poised on the brink of extinction in 1898, though it has since been brought back; but the dodo was entirely killed off by English explorers of Mauritius in the 17th Century, becoming in fact synonymous with extinction, as in the expression “dead as a dodo.” In the 18th Century the British almost eliminated the native inhabitants of Tasmania, an island off the coast of Australia, when they turned it into a penal colony. Wells several times draws parallels between the Martians’ treatment of Earth and Britain’s treatment of its colonies. The use of gigantic guns rather than rockets to launch space vehicles may have been inspired by Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865). In Orson Welles’ production, the narrator is Ogilvy, the astronomer, introduced against the background of the ticking clockwork described here. What effect does it have on the novel to have an ordinary, unnamed narrator, not technically trained and often far from the center of activity? What irony is created by the topic of the series of papers he is writing? The bicycle had been recently invented, and Wells was learning how to ride one during the writing of the novel.

Chapter 2: The Falling Star

In the second paragraph, what evidence is there that Wells is trying to avoid making his narrator a perfect observer? Why do you suppose he does this? How is Ogilvy’s first reaction to the movement of the cylinder top ironic? In the absence of broadcasting , the telegraph was the fastest means of communication, and ordinary people received the news by one of several different editions of newspapers during the day. What error do the first reports of the landing make?

Chapter 3: On Horsell Common

What methods does Wells use to make these events seem realistic?

Chapter 4: The Cylinder Unscrews

What is a Gorgon, and why might Wells have chosen to compare the Martians to one? In what way does Wells make his narrator distinctly unheroic?

Chapter 5: The Heat-Ray

X-rays were discovered by Roentgen in 1895; and novelists immediately began imagining all manner of other rays which could be used as weapons; but Wells is probably thinking here as well of ancient accounts of “Greek fire” projected against enemies to terrifying effect. What is the narrator’s reaction to the attack?

Chapter 6: The Work of Fifteen Days

Navvies are manual laborers. Why is it a hopeful sign that the Red Weed dies so quickly and thoroughly?

Chapter 7: How I Reached Home

Wells’ description of psychic numbing as a result of trauma seems very modern. Why is it important that the narrator not be an omnicompetent swaggering hero in the Arnold Schwarzenegger mold? What seems to be the narrator’s attitudes toward working class people? Gravity acts “like a cope of lead” on the Martians; this phrase recalls the punishment of hypocrites in Canto 23 of Dante’s Inferno, (read the excellent Mandelbaum translation online) in which the damned are forced to wear weighty leaden capes. What does this following phase imply about the state of the world after the Martian invasion: “in those days even philosophical writers had many little luxuries”? How does Wells once again compare the Martian invasion to British colonialism?

Chapter 8: Friday Night

“Canard” usually means “malicious lie,” but here it means “hoax.” Note that until the 1960s “love-making” meant pretty much the same thing as “courting;” it would be a mistaken to envision activity any more passionate than hand-holding and the murmuring of sweet nothings. “Trenching on Smith’s monopoly” means that the enterprising newsboy is encroaching on the business of the newsstand officially established at the train station. Maxim guns, invented in the 1880s, were the first truly automatic machine guns.

Chapter 9: The Fighting Begins

Wells jokingly calls the milkman’s cart his “chariot,” comparing it to Phoebus Apollo’s chariot, because both appear at dawn. What is the significance of the pun “fishers of men–fighters of fish”? (Hint: see Matthew 4:19.) What act of realistic cowardice does the narrator commit in the last part of the chapter? What is the eventual fate of the landlord in a later chapter?

Chapter 10: In the Storm

In what way does the shape of the cylinders reflect the form of their creators?

Chapter 11: At the Window

What technique does Wells use to emphasize the thoroughness of the destruction? The phrase “pillars of fire” at the end of the chapter is Biblical, ironically echoing the pillar of fire which led the Hebrews out of Egypt in Exodus 15:21-22.

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

What is unusual about the sound of the attack the narrator is caught in? When Wells calls the beam-weapon a “camera” he is thinking of the large, box-like contraptions common his day, always mounted atop tripods to ensure their stability during the long exposure times they required.

Chapter 13: How I Fell in with the Curate

A curate is a sort of assistant clergyman. Wells had a low opinion of conventional religion. The disastrous Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1755 was famous partly because the Catholic church claimed it was caused by the wickedness of the inhabitants. More skeptical minds, like Voltaire, argued that Lisbon was the most orthodoxly pious of cities, and its destruction on a Sunday morning argued rather for a lack of divine justice. Just as had his Enlightenment predecessors, Wells refuses to read religious meaning into a natural disaster. What does the clergyman’s reference to Sodom and Gomorrah mean? (Hint: see Genesis 18:20-28.) See Revelation 14:11 for the source of this quotation: “The smoke of her burning goeth up for ever and ever!” How is the clergyman interpreting the attack of the Martians? See also Revelation 6:16-17. Why does he call the Martians “God’s ministers?”

Chapter 14: In London

At this point, the narrative switches to events in London, told second-hand through the experiences of the narrator’s brother. Can you think of reasons that Wells chose not to continue with the same first-person narrative technique? A “crammer” is a tutor specializing in preparing students for exams. What prevents many Londoners from immediately reacting to the Martian invasion?

Chapter 15: What Had Happened in Surrey

Analyze the paragraph beginning “No doubt the thought that was uppermost.” How does it view humanity? What is foreshadowed by the sentence in parentheses? A “kopje” is a small hillock or mound. The gas used by the Martians was seen as more prophetic than the fantastic heat-rays, for poison gas was used widely in World War I. Why would a gas like this be a particularly frightening weapon?

Chapter 16: The Exodus from London

The first cylinder had landed Thursday, the fighting began Friday, and the panic in London described in Chapter 14 had begun on Saturday morning. We are now at the dawn of Monday. What evidence is there that panic is overriding civilized behavior in this flight from the Martians? How does the brother rescue a lady, and what is the consequence to himself? In what ways does this scene contradict our usual expectations of a hero saving a lady in distress? Note how the death of the “eagle-faced” man is made emblematic of insane greed. Humanity is not at its best in these scenes. When the brother is giving advice to Miss Elphinstone toward the end of the chapter about escaping their pursuer, how does he avoid the stereotyped “kill or be killed” dilemma which plays so great a role in fiction?

Chapter 17: The “Thunder Child”

The home counties are the rural counties southeast of London. The “Pool of London” is the port on the Thames. What effect might the constant repetition of specific place names have had on Wells’ first readers? “Chaffering” is haggling, bargaining. Ostend is a seaport across the channel in Belgium.

Book II: The Earth Under the Martians

Chapter 1: Under Foot

We return now to the narrator, trapped in the empty house at Halliford with the curate. The narrator is no swaggering hero, but feels superior to the curate. Note the “unaccountable redness” on the river, reminiscent of blood; it will be explained later.

Chapter 2: What We Saw from the Ruined House

Wells had first imagined future humans as essentially giant brains in “The Man of the Year Million” (1893) and The Time Machine (1895), based on the Darwinian observation that humanity had evolved in the direction of larger and larger brains. Since Mars is an “old” planet it follows that its inhabitants are similarly “old,” further along this path of evolution. At the end of the paragraph reading “And this was the sum of the Martian organs,” Wells added this sentence to later editions: “The bare idea of this is no doubt horribly repulsive to us, but at the same time I think that we should remember how repulsive our carnivorous habits would seem to an intelligent rabbit.” How does this addition alter the emotional impact of the paragraph? It was common in the nineteenth century to assume that sexual desire was a “lower” emotion, associated with animals, which we might hope to evolve away from. This seems to have happened to the Martians. Has the result been beneficial? Explain. The “certain speculative writer of quasi-scientific repute” is Wells himself, of course. Telepathy is posited here despite the lack of a plausible scientific theory to explain it. Wells’ lead was to be followed by a great many SF writers later. Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896) was the most important pioneer in glider building. The “Handling Machine” is an early example of a robot, though the word was only invented in 1921 by Karel Capek and not applied to machine/human creations until later.

Chapter 3: The Days of Imprisonment

In the 1953 film of War of the Worlds, the narrator was made a single man and the curate replaced with an attractive young woman.

Chapter 4: The Death of the Curate

Note how “the death of the curate” is referred to frequently in the narrative in indirect or passive ways. Why do you think Wells does this? In Isaiah 63 there is developed an image of God’s wrathful vengeance as the operation of a wine press: the wine is blood. In Greek mythology Briareus was a many-headed, many-handed giant.

Chapter 5: The Stillness

In a contemporary action novel, this chapter would probably be reduced to a line or two. What effect does it have? How is “the death of the curate” referred to? What other invader does the narrator discover has accompanied the Martians?

Chapter 6: The Work of Fifteen Days

Navvies are manual laborers. Why is it a hopeful sign that the Red Weed dies so quickly and thoroughly?

Chapter 7: The Man on Putney Hill

“Biscuits” is the British word for cookies. Note how “the killing of the curate” is referred to impersonally again here, as “the former.” Does the killing haunt the narrator? Explain. What effect does the narrator says the war with the Martians has had on human attitudes toward animals? How does this passage fit in with his comments about animals at the beginning of the novel? The artilleryman is the opposite number of the cowardly curate. Why does he say “This isn’t a war?” Why does the artilleryman welcome the collapse of civilization? Can you compare him with any group in our contemporary culture? What is his attitude toward human beings? He is the ancestor of many figures in contemporary post-disaster novels. What convinces the narrator that the artilleryman is crazy? How does his behavior contradict his words? Playing “for parish points” means that they are pretending that they will inherit all of London and are gambling for its districts, or parishes. What is the function of the artilleryman in the novel?

Chapter 8: Dead London

A “chemist’s shop” is a drugstore. Why is the title of this chapter somewhat ambiguous? Samson was the amazingly strong hero of a number of stories in Judges 13:1-16:31. What stops the narrator from committing suicide? Can you compare the death of the Martians to any other similar lethal encounter in world history? “The destruction of Sennacherib” is a reference to the poem by that title by Lord Byron. A sudden miracle killed his whole army overnight. The phrase “that would fight no more for ever” is a reference to the often-quoted 1877 speech of the Nez Perce Chief Joseph upon his surrender to the U.S. Army: “I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. . . . Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.” What effect does this comparison of the Martians to the defeated Native Americans have?

Chapter 9: Wreckage

Why does the narrator know nothing of the next three days? How does the rest of the world respond to England’s plight. “Corn” is grain, usually wheat. What Americans call “corn” the English call “maize.” Why is the narrator so upset by learning that Leatherhead has been destroyed? What technological side-benefit have humans derived from the invasion? Why does he mention the burial of “the landlord of the Spotted Dog?” What is ironic about the paper he finds on his desk? How does this incident reflect changing attitudes about the future of humanity in the late nineteenth century? What effect would it have had on the novel to develop his reunion with his wife more fully, in traditional fashion.

Chapter 10: The Epilogue

Why is it significant that no Martian bacteria were ever discovered? When a planet is “in conjunction” it is at the closest point in its orbit to Earth. Ronald Reagan once mused that an invasion from space might unify humanity, as it does here. What do you think of this theory? What long-term hope does the possibility of travel hold out for humanity, according to the narrator?

Many of the notations are based on (but do not quote verbatim) those in the Oxford annotated edition of The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, edited by Frank D. McConnell.

More Science Fiction Study Guides

Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.
Version dated June 13, 1995.

This page was used by the Discovery Channel as a resource for its program on War of the Worlds.