The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of H. G. Wells

Wells was born into a working class British family, the youngest of four children. His education was erratic—though he read passionately and broadly, his father sustained an injury that forced Wells to work in various apprenticeships to support the family. Although these apprenticeships got in the way of his schooling, they were deeply influential to his lifelong belief in the injustice of unequal distribution of wealth. Wells eventually apprenticed under a chemist and earned a spot at a university where he studied biology with Thomas Henry Huxley. Huxley was a passionate proponent of Darwin’s theory of natural selection—a theory that figures prominently in The War of the Worlds. Wells’s university years fostered his passion for socialism, devotion to science, and interest in writing. By the end of his time at university, he was beginning to see writing as his main occupation as he wrote biology textbooks and short stories, one of which (“The Chronic Argonauts”) went on to become The Time Machine, one of his most famous novels. In his science fiction writing, Wells defined what are now established conventions of the genre (including alien invasion and mechanical time travel). He also composed acclaimed realist novels, nonfiction works about science and history, and political tracts. Wells was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature four times, and is widely known as one of the “fathers of science fiction.”
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Historical Context of The War of the Worlds

When Wells was a university student, he studied biology with Thomas Henry Huxley, a great proponent of the theories of Charles Darwin. Thus, Wells was exposed to Darwin’s idea of natural selection earlier than most, and The War of the Worlds is a testament to the theory’s influence on his thinking. Although Darwin’s magnum opus, On the Origin of Species, was published in 1859, his theory of evolution and natural selection wasn’t yet widely accepted when The War of the Worlds was published almost 40 years later. As such, the fact that the Martians in Wells’s novel die because they haven’t gone through natural selection on earth is quite significant, since it is a clear endorsement of Darwin’s theory. Indeed, Wells treats the idea of natural selection as a simple fact, thereby allowing the theory itself to ease its way into the discourse not only of the scientific community, but of the general public, as well.

Other Books Related to The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds forged a new direction for a genre known as Invasion Literature. This style of writing focused on military conquest, especially regarding the sudden invasion of a city or country by foreign enemies. George Tompkyns Chesney’s short story “The Battle of Dorking” (1871) is generally thought to have established the genre, which remained popular until the First World War. Chesney’s story outlines the invasion of Britain by an unnamed, German-speaking military force. Seeming to have tapped into an acute national fear of invasion, the story was an instant success. Wells pushed the fear of invasion to the extreme by writing about alien invaders, playing off of and highlighting his readers’ xenophobia and discomfort with the unknown. This imaginative exploration of real-world political issues through fantastical scenarios can also be seen in Wells’s 1895 novel The Time Machine, which addresses the issue of class stratification and examines the impact of the industrial revolution on society by imagining a distant future in which society’s rich and poor have evolved into distinct species. 
Key Facts about The War of the Worlds
  • Full Title: The War of the Worlds
  • When Written: 1897
  • Where Written: England
  • When Published: First serialized in Pearson’s Magazine in 1897, and later published as a book in 1898.
  • Literary Period: Victorian Literature
  • Genre: Science Fiction, Invasion Literature
  • Setting: Victorian England
  • Climax: Because The War of the Worlds was originally published in installments (and because Wells later added chapters), each installment can be said to have its own narrative arc and climax. However, the most obvious climax is when the narrator narrowly escapes a Martian’s notice by hiding under a pile of coal.
  • Antagonist: The Martians
  • Point of View: First-person narration

Extra Credit for The War of the Worlds

Radio Broadcast. In 1938, a radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds aired in America. The actor Orson Welles narrated the story as though it were a newscast—and was so convincing that many listeners thought the events he described were actually happening. Widespread panic and hysteria abounded that night, sparking heated controversy in the coming days about the station’s decision to run such a program.

Innovation. Inspired by The War of the Worlds and the Martians’ flying machines, Robert H. Goddard had an idea that eventually led to the invention of the liquid-fueled rocket. This invention paved the way for the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969.