The War of the Worlds


H. G. Wells

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The War of the Worlds: Book 1, Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

The narrator returns to the pit at sundown to find hundreds of spectators in a commotion while the cylinder unscrews. As the crowd pushes back and forth, a man falls into the pit, and a humming sound emanates from the Thing. The cylinder’s lid falls to the ground with a heavy, metallic thud. The narrator sees “greyish, billowy movements” in the dark hollow of the cylinder as something with eyes like “two luminous discs” emerges, wriggling one tentacle and then another into the air, little appendages that look like grey snakes. The narrator feels a sudden chill, and a woman behind him screams. He starts forcing his way back through the crowd, all the while keeping his eyes trained on the cylinder behind him as more and more tentacles extend into the air. 
Although the narrator—along with the crowd of spectators—first experiences intense curiosity regarding the cylinder and what emerges from its depths, his interest quickly turns to revulsion. In response to the horrific, inhuman appendages, he turns and runs away. As such, the unknown is cast as terrifying and repulsive, and the natural human reaction is to escape. This reaction also brings to mind the biological “fight or flight” response, a hardwired survival technique. In this way, the narrator’s response to seeing the first Martian illustrates both humankind’s inherent fear of the other and its first survival tactic.
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As he tries to make his escape, the narrator continues to looks at the Martian over his shoulder, noting its size (that of a bear), its flat eyes, and its strange mouth dripping with gooey saliva. The Martian quivers and pulses as it squeezes out of the cylinder. The narrator observes that the Martian’s features are “intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous.” Recalling this initial glimpse, he writes, “Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.” Abruptly, the Martian drops from the top of the cylinder, vanishing from the narrator’s sight into the pit. Upon hitting the ground, it moans a “thick cry,” and yet another circular being appears in the cylinder’s hole.
Again, the narrator underlines the disgust and horror that come along with encountering the unknown. The Martian he sees is unlike anything he’s ever looked upon in his entire life. Because of this, he has no way to contextualize the alien’s physical features, and so his reaction is all the more pronounced. Nothing, it seems, could be more dreadful than something so utterly unknown.
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The narrator breaks into a run and heads toward the nearest tree line. Although he tries to run as fast as possible, he finds himself unable to take his eyes off the pit, staring at the aliens over his shoulder as he sprints. Upon reaching the trees, he stops and looks back to see a “round, black object bobbing up and down on the edge of the pit.” This is the backlit silhouette of the man who fell in—his head rises as he tries to climb out, but suddenly he sinks down and vanishes completely, pulled back with a shriek. The narrator points out how strange the entire sight of Horsell Common would be to somebody unaware of the situation. He remarks upon the abandoned wheelbarrows used for selling soda and the “row of deserted vehicles with their horses feeding out of nose-bags or pawing at the ground.”
In this moment, the narrator highlights the disconnect between what’s happening in the pit and the ordinary nature of life going on outside the pit. As the Martians kill their first human and the crowd scatters in fear, horses stand idly by, eating and busying themselves with ordinary activities. This compartmentalization of danger runs throughout the following chapters, when newspapers fail to accurately report the dire situation and people go on living their lives as if nothing significant has happened.
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