The Martians hold dominion over England during their short stay in The War of the Worlds. If not for the bacteria that eventually kills them, it seems certain that they would go on to rule the animal kingdom, replacing humans at the top of the world’s pecking order. As a result of this reshuffling of the hierarchy, the Martians’ presence brings about significant changes amongst humans. Amidst the chaos of the Martian attack, many characters lose all sense of order and, in some cases, decency. Conversely, others seem to commit themselves even more devoutly to the hierarchies and forms of order to which they’ve always adhered. By highlighting this range of reactions—in addition to examining the temporary demotion of humankind to the status of a subordinate species—Wells reveals that humanity’s sense of order and control is perhaps more fragile than people would like to think.
When the Martians first arrive, many Englanders are slow to recognize the danger the creatures represent. Even after the aliens have already killed a handful of men—men waving a peace flag and trying to communicate—people continue to act as if the rules of their small, protected world still apply. Unable to reckon with the horror of the Martian invasion, Englanders instead try to preserve the social structures they’ve relied upon for their entire lives. The narrator remarks upon this, saying, “The most extraordinary thing to my mind, of all the strange and wonderful things that happened upon that Friday, was the dovetailing of the commonplace habits of our social order with the first beginnings of the series of events that was to topple that social order headlong.” This “dovetailing” of the everyday with the catastrophic is reflective of a more general effort, on the part of the public in Orwell’s novel, to keep at bay the emotional terror that comes with the toppling of their social order. Similarly, people foolishly cling to markers of social class in a way that prevents them from acknowledging the full danger of the situation. For example, when Ogilvy runs to inform others about the cylinder, he comes upon a wagoner who ignores him because of his disheveled appearance. The wagoner, it seems, can only focus on the fact that Ogilvy isn’t wearing a hat (and thus not adhering to the social norms of British society), and therefore doesn’t heed Ogilvy’s warning. That the wagoner is blinded by such a trivial matter just suggests that society’s focus on the insignificant details of its social order has eclipsed common sense and decency.
Unlike those who refuse to admit that the invasion has disrupted the world order, some people try to capitalize on the collective loss of a sense of order. These characters see chaos as an opportunity, realizing that powerful people are no longer safely protected or separated from the masses. Although this is arguably an immoral and opportunistic way of behaving in a time of crisis, it’s true that the appearance of the Martians effectively upturns many of society’s hierarchies, ultimately putting everybody on the same level and rendering wealthy people vulnerable in ways they may never have experienced before. This is evident when the narrator’s brother comes upon two women getting mugged and robbed by three men. After he saves the women from the three criminals, he learns that they set out in their carriage alone after one of their husbands armed them with a pistol and urged them to flee the town. Moreover, the narrator notes that these women are alone in their travels because their servant left them two days before. Abandoned by the lower class, these wealthy women suddenly must fend for themselves, contending with bandits and anybody else who wants to take advantage of them. As such, readers come to understand that these characters have undergone a total reordering of their world. While the Martians go about destroying the physical structures of society—churches and houses and entire towns—humans, in the chaos, dismantle the hierarchies that have defined their society for centuries.
In addition to prompting a reshuffling of power amongst humans, the Martians’ attack gives the narrator a new perspective on the hierarchies of the natural world. Upon reemerging after two weeks of hiding underground, he finds himself dizzied by the realization that humans have fallen from their position as the earth’s dominant species. He writes, “I felt as a rabbit might feel returning to his burrow and suddenly confronted by the work of a dozen busy navvies digging the foundations of a house. I felt […] a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that I was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heel.” The narrator characterizes this realization as being “beyond the common range of men,” suggesting that humans rarely ponder the nature of their existence on earth. Rather, they take their high position in the natural order for granted, hardly ever pausing to consider their good fortune. His words suggest that part of what it means to be human is to be dominant and powerful—a notion which becomes all the more apparent when the narrator defines what has happened to humans as a “dethronement.” When the Martians reduce the empire of man to rubble, suddenly humans not only find themselves equal to one another, but also equal to lowly creatures like rabbits and rats. Consequently, people like the narrator are forced to come to terms with the idea that human dominion isn’t a fact of life, but rather a delicate reality that is just waiting to be thrown off balance.
Order, Subordination, and Hierarchy ThemeTracker
Order, Subordination, and Hierarchy Quotes in The War of the Worlds
And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars. Their world is far gone in its cooling, and this world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what they regard as inferior animals. To carry warfare sunward is, indeed, their only escape from the destruction that generation after generation creeps upon them.
And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races.
The most extraordinary thing to my mind, of all the strange and wonderful things that happened upon that Friday, was the dovetailing of the commonplace habits of our social order with the first beginnings of the series of events that was to topple that social order headlong.
They seemed amazingly busy. I began to ask myself what they could be. Were they intelligent mechanisms? Such a thing I felt was impossible. Or did a Martian sit within each, ruling, directing, using, much as a man’s brain sits and rules in his body? I began to compare the things to human machines, to ask myself for the first time in my life how an ironclad or a steam-engine would seem to an intelligent lower animal.
No doubt the thought that was uppermost in a thousand of those vigilant minds, even as it was uppermost in mine, was the riddle—how much they understood of us. Did they grasp that we in our millions were organized, disciplined, working together? Or did they interpret our spurts of fire, the sudden stinging of our shells, our steady investment of their encampment, as we should the furious unanimity of onslaught in a disturbed hive of bees? Did they dream they might exterminate us? (At that time no one knew what food they needed.) A hundred such questions struggled together in my mind as I watched that vast sentinel shape. And in the back of my mind was the sense of all the huge unknown and hidden forces Londonward. Had they prepared pitfalls? Were the powdermills at Hounslow ready as a snare?
At the sight of the sea, Mrs Elphinstone, in spite of the assurances of her sister-in-law, gave way to panic. She had never been out of England before, she would rather die than trust herself friendless in a foreign country, and so forth. She seemed, poor woman, to imagine that the French and the Martians might prove very similar. She had been growing increasingly hysterical, fearful, and depressed during the two days’ journeyings. Her great idea was to return to Stanmore. Things had been always well and safe at Stanmore. They would find [her husband] at Stanmore.
They just used to skedaddle off to work—I’ve seen hundreds of ’em, bit of breakfast in hand, running wild and shining to catch their little season-ticket train, for fear they’d get dismissed if they didn’t; working at businesses they were afraid to take the trouble to understand; skedaddling back for fear they wouldn’t be in time for dinner; keeping indoors after dinner for fear of the back-streets; and sleeping with the wives they married, not because they wanted them, but because they had a bit of money that would make for safety in their one little miserable skedaddle through the world. Lives insured and a bit invested for fear of accidents. And on Sundays—fear of the hereafter.
And we form a band—able-bodied, clean-minded men. We’re not going to pick up any rubbish that drifts in. Weaklings go out again. […] Those who stop obey orders. Able-bodied, clean-minded women we want also—mothers and teachers. No lackadaisical ladies—no blasted rolling eyes. We can’t have any weak or silly. Life is real again, and the useless and cumbersome and mischievous have to die. They ought to die. They ought to be willing to die. It’s a sort of disloyalty, after all, to live and taint the race. And they can’t be happy. Moreover, dying’s none so dreadful.
For so it had come about, as indeed I and many men might have foreseen had not terror and disaster blinded our minds. These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things—taken toll of our prehumen ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting-power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle, and to many—those that cause putrefaction in dead matter, for instance—our living frames are altogether immune. But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow. Already when I watched them they were irrevocably doomed, dying and rotting even as they went to and fro. It was inevitable. By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers.
At any rate, whether we expect another invasion or not, our views of the human future must be greatly modified by these events. We have learned now that we cannot regard this planet as being fenced in and a secure abiding-place for Man; we can never anticipate the unseen good or evil that may come upon us suddenly out of space. It may be that in the larger design of the universe this invasion from Mars is not without its ultimate benefit for men; it has robbed us of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence, the gifts to human it has brought are enormous, and it has done much to promote the conception of the commonweal of mankind.