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Explore the theme of humanity under threat in H.G Wells ‘The War of the Worlds.’ In H.G Wells’ The War of the Worlds, the Martian invaders view mans culture and society with less regard than a man would the itch from a flea. Wells depicts mans insignificance in the workings of unfathomable Martian intentions; “It was never a war, any more than there’s a war between men and ants.” (Wells, H.G, The War of the Worlds. Penguin Books Ltd: 80 Strand, London WC 2 R ORL, England, 2005. Ch 7, p.152). The human response to the invasion is at first confused and at times disturbingly complacent. Wells shows us a Darwinian influenced pattern that pervades throughout humanity and suggests that humans as a species are just clever animals. He challenges the Christian view that man has a special place in the universe and dominion over the earth. The fact that it is bacteria, the lowest form of life, which defeats the invaders and saves humanity, is simply pure chance. This further suggests that all life is a consequence of chance and backs up the Darwinian standpoint. Humanity is exposed as just another manifestation of life, and humans are no more important in the greater scheme of things than the very lowest form of life, represented here by bacteria. Wells does this by presenting humanity under the threat of extinction as no more important than an ant hill under threat from man. (Ch 7, p.152).
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At first the people of Horsell Common don’t know what to make of the cylinder from Mars or its occupants. A feeling of excitement infects the crowd as the cylinder is unscrewing. The invaders are successful in preparing their attack due in part to the people’s hesitation in acting; this uncertainty leads to many deaths by the invaders. It is only when the Martians first emerge from the cylinder that any sense of fear can be detected. Fear compels the narrator to run and deny rescue to the shopkeeper still trapped in the pit; “I had a momentary impulse to go back and help him that my fears overruled.” (Ch 4, p.22). His humanity in this case is to preserve himself at the expense of his fellow man. Wells lays bare our animal nature in this chapter and how we, like many creatures, rely on our baser instincts for self protection. He uses the fear of the narrator to good effect showing it as a survival mechanism which influences his actions.
The invaders are responded to by many, as any other invading army would be, and their intentions are assumed to be, very human ones. Mans very understanding of the situation is demonstrated as just another prime mover in his own demise, “Did they grasp that we in our millions were organised, disciplined, working together? Or did they interpret our spurts of fire, the sudden stinging of our shells (â€¦) as we should the furious unanimity of onslaught in a disturbed hive of bees?” (Ch 15, p.86). Wells draws distinction between mans perceived place in the universe and its actual place, revealed by virtue of the Martian extermination process.
As a further illustration of the futility of mans world view the narrator describes the war-fever that spreads through a community under threat; “[It] had got into my blood (â€¦) I can best express my state of mind by saying that I wanted to be in at the death.” (Ch 10, p.44). The narrator’s assumption that the Martians can be defeated by military means highlights his level of ignorance, which subsequently influences his interpretation of the first tripod when he encounters it. His lack of familiarity also fuels his fascination and his failure to react when self-preservation dictates that he should flee. In this chapter Wells demonstrates the narrator’s inability to comprehend something that he is not previously familiar with; “At first I took it for the wet roof of a house.” His incomprehension puts emphasis on the weirdness of the object and his unawareness of the situation. The tripod is so unfamiliar that at first he cannot comprehend what it is. His negligence to immediately turn and escape in the opposite direction seems illogical but is understood, due to his flawed perception of the tripod and ultimately shows mans flawed perception of themselves in relation to the wider universe. That is, man is no longer at the centre of all worlds.
Wells show us this flawed perception itself is deep rooted in our unilateral experience as a species and can therefore hinder effective action when faced with something previously unknown. Incomprehension soon gives way to terror as the tripod is finally revealed; “clear and sharp and bright.” (Ch 10, p.46). In the few moments it takes him to realise the tripod for what it is, the horror of the situation is revealed to the reader and the technological superiority of the Martians is made known.
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Wells suggests that extinction of our species either by our own hand or that of an outside force is in fact a possibility; “we can never anticipate the unseen good or evil that may come upon us suddenly out of space.” (Ch 10 p.179). In his novel, Wells is asking the reader to re-evaluate our importance as a species in the greater scheme of things.
However, taking this as a standpoint we can examine the significance of the bacteria and the reason why the invaders were defeated; “in all the bodies of the Martians that were examined after the war, no bacteria except those already known as terrestrial species were found.” (Ch 10 p.177). The Martians had presumably advanced to a level of technology where they had eradicated all bacteria on their home world. (Ch 10). Physically they were poor adversaries, only their technology made them impressive. It could be argued here that Wells’ book teaches us a moral lesson; that the quest for knowledge, represented by the Martians technology, can lead to downfall. Interestingly, to illustrate this idea Wells uses a Christian parable, that of Adam’s temptation in the Garden of Eden as written in the book of Genesis. Adam ate from the tree of knowledge because he wanted to understand the universe as God did. This caused him to be separated from God and with that he suffered his fate. This causes the reader to ask why Wells would draw this parallel with Christian dogma considering his opinion of humanity from a Darwinian standpoint. A possible conclusion from this is that Wells is not saying there is no God, but rather the exact opposite; that life itself is a supreme force, represented in his novel by the bacteria that defeats the Martians. Is Wells alluding to a different kind of God, a supreme life-force which permeates itself throughout the universe and gives rise in turn to all other conceivable life forms? Wells may be saying yes, there is no Christian God, man has no significance and life is meaningless. But he may also be saying that life itself is the manifestation of a supreme force. And that separation from this life-force through pursuit of knowledge could spell disaster for our own species as it did in the case of the Martian invaders.
War of the Worlds, although classified as a sci-fi novel, could in many ways be seen as an old fashioned morality tale, in this case warning humanity to be careful of our pursuit of technology and knowledge, lest we lose our very soul. Wells shows us that extinction of our species can and may happen at some stage in the future and that our view of who we are and our perceptions of the wider universe may affect our survival in such an instance. He does this by exploring of the theme of humanity under threat in The War of the Worlds.
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