The War of the Worlds

by

H. G. Wells

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The War of the Worlds: Book 1, Chapter 16 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In the panic that strikes London, even the police force is useless, “losing shape and efficiency, guttering, softening, running at last in that swift liquefaction of the social body.” With no trains running, the narrator’s brother finds a bicycle shop that has been broken into by looters. Obtaining a bike, he rides out of London until the front tire—punctured from the outset—can go no farther. On a chaotic road in the city’s outskirts, he strikes out on foot, stopping at an inn for some food and rest. Setting out again, he sees two women getting robbed in their small carriage. He hastens over and fights the three attackers until they retreat. One of the women gives him a revolver, and he joins them in their carriage, learning that they are sisters-in-law: Mrs. Elphinstone and Miss Elphinstone
By showing how fellow humans turn against one another in this time of strife—despite the fact that they should be banding together and uniting against their common enemy, the Martians—Wells tangibly demonstrates the “swift liquefaction of the social body.” Whereas before many people were still standing on custom and living their ordinary lives, now the social order has fully disintegrated, leaving each person to fend for him- or herself. Indeed, this is something of a “survival of the fittest” scenario, a fact that aligns with Wells’s interest in Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Themes
Order, Subordination, and Hierarchy Theme Icon
Evolution and Survival Theme Icon
Mrs. Elphinstone and Miss Elphinstone tell the narrator’s brother their story. Returning late from an urgent medical case, Mrs. Elphinstone’s husband—a doctor—heard about the Martians and prepared the two women for escape, promising to catch up with them on the road and giving them a pistol. Though he claimed he’d meet up with them around 4:30 in the morning, he still hasn’t arrived, and it is almost 9 o’clock. Though Mrs. Elphinstone is hesitant, the narrator and Miss Elphinstone convince her to keep moving, and the three resolve to travel together. The women give the narrator’s brother the revolver, since he tells them he’s an expert gun-handler in order to quell their nerves, though he’s never actually used a pistol. Forging on, the threesome decide to combine the money they have to buy passage out of the country on a boat.
The narrator’s brother’s decision to lie about his experience with guns is ultimately an attempt to give his companions a sense of order and control, presenting them with a falsehood that will perhaps comfort them. That said, the decision is also a foolish one with possibly sexist connotations, since it’s entirely possible that one of the women actually has had experience using guns. Regardless, it’s obvious they hope they won’t have to use the weapon, instead resolving to flee the country, thereby opting for flight in the decision between “fight or flight.”
Themes
Order, Subordination, and Hierarchy Theme Icon
The narrator’s brother, along with Mrs. Elphinstone and Miss Elphinstone, encounter a mass of people traveling in the opposite direction. The town they’re headed toward, they realize, is alight in flames. Instead of turning around, though, the narrator’s brother slowly inches forward, “irresistibly attracted” to the extraordinary scene. He sees carriages and cabs and people on foot streaming away, one cart even splattered in “fresh blood.” Injured citizens limp by, yelling, “They are coming.” One man tries to make his getaway while hauling a bag that breaks and spills a large quantity of coins into the road. Despite the commotion, the man falls to his knees and starts scooping up the coins. Finally, a carriage rolls over him and breaks his back, but still he tries to collect his money. When the narrator’s brother tries to pull him up, the man bites his wrist until he lets go.
The man collecting the coins is a perfect example of somebody who fails to comprehend what’s really important in this moment of catastrophe. Indeed, he still believes in the value of things that no longer carry any importance, stupidly pawing at money on the ground even though doing so is both pointless and dangerous. The fact that he bites the narrator’s brother’s wrist further accentuates his crazed and desperate mentality, proving that he’s willing to turn against others in order to go keep hold of the things he still believes are valuable.
Themes
Order, Subordination, and Hierarchy Theme Icon
Evolution and Survival Theme Icon
Finally, after an extended struggle against other travelers—in which Miss Elphinstone is forced to point a gun at a cart that is preventing them from moving in the opposite direction—the narrator’s brother and his two companions break free of the crowd, moving east until they reach a safe resting place. 
The turmoil these travelers must endure accentuates humanity’s disarray. That Miss Elphinstone must hold a fellow human at gunpoint shows that the Martians are not only a threat to humanity’s physical wellbeing, but also to its social health, pitting humans against one another in their fight for survival.
Themes
Order, Subordination, and Hierarchy Theme Icon
The Other and The Unknown Theme Icon
Evolution and Survival Theme Icon
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