The War of the Worlds


H. G. Wells

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The War of the Worlds can help.

The War of the Worlds: Book 1, Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Regarding the tumultuous flight out of London, the narrator writes, “Never before in the history of the world had such a mass of human beings moved and suffered together.” He notes that the Martians could easily decimate everybody in their path, but that they seem less interested in total “extermination” and more interested in the “complete demoralization and the destruction of any opposition.” Still, the narrator’s brother learns on Tuesday that the Martians have now fully occupied London, and cylinders continue to fall. In their travels, the brother, Miss Elphinstone, and Mrs. Elphinstone enter Chelmsford, where a band of people calling themselves the Committee of Public Supply confiscate their pony as food, telling them they can share it with the rest of the town on the following day.
Although the Martian attack has clearly pitted humans against one another—as evidenced by the previous chapter’s antics in the road—it’s true that, in a different sense, it has brought humanity together, since everybody suffers the same catastrophe. Nonetheless, while some people try to run rampant and free, happy to dispense with the social order, others try to enforce new kinds of systems and hierarchies, like the Committee of Public Supply. Unfortunately for the narrator’s brother and his two companions, both kinds of people (criminals and law-abiders alike) end up harming them or standing in their way.
Order, Subordination, and Hierarchy Theme Icon
Finally, the narrator’s brother and the Elphinstones reach the ocean. The harbor is crowded with many boats, and a large ironclad—an armored naval ship called the Thunder Child—can be seen several miles off the coast. Further off in the distance, an entire fleet of fighting ships is at the ready. Unfortunately, Mrs. Elphinstone starts to panic upon seeing the ocean, suggesting that they turn around and go back home, where it has always been “well and safe” and where they’ll surely find her husband. After much convincing, the narrator’s brother and Miss Elphinstone coax Mrs. Elphinstone down to the beach and onto a steamboat. 
Mrs. Elphinstone’s belief that she should return home shows how strongly people believe in the safety of routine and habit. Because her home has always been “well and safe,” she assumes it will remain that way even under Martian dominion. This viewpoint amounts to a vehement rejection of reality. Faced with such total change, Mrs. Elphinstone ceases to approach the situation with reason, instead trying to retrieve her old life by way of wishful thinking.
The Other and The Unknown Theme Icon
Related Quotes
As the steamboat moves out of the harbor, a Martian fighting machine appears in the distance, accompanied shortly thereafter by a second. Together, the Martians wade into the water while the Thunder Child charges toward them, cutting swiftly through the wake with its low hull and sharp bow. A third Martian joins the brigade, but the fighting machines seem almost perplexed—perhaps even fearful—of the Thunder Child, which goes on advancing at full speed. One of the Martians shoots a canister of Black Smoke at the ironclad, but it merely bounces off her portside and drops into the ocean. One Martian steps back and shoots the Heat-Ray, but it doesn’t do much to stop the Thunder Child, which shoots the fighting machine until the large Martian stumbles into the water, sending up a spray of steam and flame.
At last, the Martian fighting machines seem to have met their match. Because ocean travel and maritime trading have been in practice since the early days of humankind, marine technology is arguably more advanced than any other kind of human invention in Victorian England. The ironclad, then, is humanity’s most sophisticated and colossal weapon against the otherwise far-superior fighting machines. As such, the Martians are for the first time the ones who must face the unknown as they look confusedly down at this impressive piece of weaponry. 
The Other and The Unknown Theme Icon
Though on fire, the Thunder Child charges on, flaming through the water until one of the other Martians shoots its Heat-Ray at it. The Thunder Child bursts fully into flame but is able to keep on advancing until finally colliding with the great alien beast, sending it reeling into the water. At this point, the steamboat upon which the narrator’s brother stands has successfully escaped and is out of sight of the Thunder Child’s battle with the third Martian. With the sunset in their eyes, the passengers try to see through the smoke and steam as they listen to rapid gunfire. Just before the sun falls fully beneath the horizon, the narrator’s brother sees an object rise suddenly into the sky—“something flat and broad and very large” that moves in a “vast curve” before shrinking into the distance. 
It’s significant that the narrator’s brother only gets to witness part of the Thunder Child’s battle with the Martians. Indeed, Wells is aware of how effective it is to keep his characters—and his readers—in a state of partial ignorance about the Martians and their power. In keeping with this, he tempers the Thunder Child’s success by obscuring the final outcome of the battle. And just when the narrator’s brother might feel as if he can relax and safely travel away, he spots the mysterious “flat and broad” object sail through the air, adding to the sense that the battle—and certainly the war at large—is far from having concluded.
The Other and The Unknown Theme Icon
Get the entire The War of the Worlds LitChart as a printable PDF.
The War of the Worlds PDF