With its lush descriptions of otherworldly creatures and unfathomable machines, The War of the Worlds underscores that all alien stories are, at their root, stories about discomfort with—and fear of—the unknown. Wells’s story falls under the broad category of “invasion literature,” a genre of fiction made famous by Colonel George Chesney’s “The Battle of Dorking” (1871) which details a hypothetical invasion of England by German forces. Englanders were perhaps especially anxious about the prospect of invasion, perhaps in part because a history of colonialism meant, among other things, that their country had always been the conqueror, never the conquered. As Brian Aldiss writes in his introduction to The War of the Worlds, Chesney’s use of “the device of future war and sudden invasion, which exposes the unprepared nation to inevitable defeat, aroused fears and imitations everywhere.” The War of the Worlds was one such imitation, but Wells’s choice to have the invaders hail from Mars took the genre one step further, emphasizing his countrymen’s hysterical fear of the foreigner—or the “other”—making their way into England. The Martians, for their part, embody the mysteriousness and inscrutability that characterize the other in the imaginations of the people. As such, these creatures are the ultimate manifestation of otherness. In turn, the public’s uncontrollable fear of the invaders mirrors the xenophobia that was rampant throughout England in the late 19th century.
The narrator’s overwhelming fear of the Martians (and the mystery surrounding them) throws him into a state of confusion about even his own familiar surroundings. “The fear I felt was no rational fear,” he writes, “but a panic terror not only of the Martians but of the dusk and stillness all about me.” Suddenly, with the introduction of an unknown species, he sees his world anew. He finds himself disoriented by simple things like “the dusk and stillness” of the surrounding landscape. This is perhaps because he’s seeing the world through new eyes, imagining what earth must look like to these foreigners. It’s worth noting that he admits his fear is irrational, since it suggests that Wells understands that it’s necessary to levelheadedly come to terms with the presence of an outsider, even when doing so may bring on a state of “panic terror.” While the narrator’s countrymen respond to this terror by frantically and pointlessly firing guns at the enormous fighting machines, the narrator merely takes in the new landscape around him in an attempt to reconcile himself to the presence of the other.
The narrator’s willingness to step outside his limited viewpoint and reexamine his immediate reality shows that the Martians have a strong effect on human psychology. Their arrival prompts self-reflection and evaluation. For instance, their presence causes the narrator to observe the following about himself: “At times I suffer from the strangest sense of detachment from myself and the world about me.” Not only does the narrator find himself scrutinizing his surroundings (the “dusk and stillness”) with new eyes, but he also finds himself assessing the way he—as a human—processes the world, realizing that he often tends to detach himself from reality, as he tries to do in this moment while wandering home after witnessing the Martians’ first violent act. “I seem to watch it all from the outside,” he realizes, “out of time, out of space, out of the stress and tragedy of it all.” That the narrator’s realization about himself is spurred by the Martian invasion suggests that the arrival of outsiders presents people with an opportunity for self-reflection and growth. Although the Martians are dangerous and pose a great challenge to humanity, their arrival causes the narrator to develop a greater understanding of himself and the world around him. Forced into a situation in which he can’t detach from “the stress and tragedy” around him, he instead reckons with his own emotional escapism.
Although religion doesn’t play a major role in The War of the Worlds, it’s worth examining Wells’s treatment of religion in relation to the theme of the unknown in the novel. Unlike the narrator, the curate is unable to come to terms with the presence of the mysterious Martians because he has devoted his entire life to God, and the existence of aliens doesn’t fit into the religious framework through which he views the world. As a result, he feels pessimistic and defeated, simultaneously unwilling to renounce his religious views and unable to understand how his beliefs might account for this strange new reality. Simply put, the curate is no longer confident in his system of belief and is therefore suddenly thrust into a state of unknowing. At the same time, he also feels entitled to safety and justice as a reward for his past devotion. “Why are these things permitted?” he wails. “What sins have we done?” Later, he adds, “All the work—all the Sunday-schools—What have we done—What has Weybridge done?” By asking what he has “done,” he bitterly implies that he doesn’t deserve to experience the horror of the Martian invasion, but should be protected because of his piety. A man of philosophy and reason, the narrator finds this line of thinking pathetic, asking “What good is religion if it collapses under calamity?” In this moment, the narrator suggests that the ultimate end of religion is to comfort people in times of difficulty. However, the curate’s religious views don’t help him to cope with the Martian invasion—they only serve to prevent him from accepting the objective nature of his new reality. In this way, Wells calls attention to the psychological acrobatics humans put themselves through in order to avoid reconciling themselves to otherness and the threat of the unknown—a phenomenon Wells no doubt witnessed at the end of the 19th century as his fellow citizens fretted over the prospect of foreign invasion.
The Other and The Unknown ThemeTracker
The Other and The Unknown Quotes in The War of the Worlds
No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same.
The fear I felt was no rational fear, but a panic terror not only of the Martians but of the dusk and stillness all about me. Such an extraordinary effect in unmanning me it had that I ran weeping silently as a child might do. Once I had turned, I did not dare look back.
Perhaps I am a man of exceptional moods. I do not know how far my experience is common. At times I suffer from the strangest sense of detachment from myself and the world about me; I seem to watch it all from the outside, from somewhere inconceivably remote, out of time, out of space, out of the stress and tragedy of it all. This feeling was very strong upon me that night. Here was another side to my dream.
But the trouble was the blank incongruity of this serenity and the swift death flying yonder, not two miles away.
I began to comfort her and myself by repeating all that Ogilvy had told me of the impossibility of the Martians establishing themselves on the earth. In particular I laid stress on the gravitational difficulty. On the surface of the earth the force of gravity is three times what it is on the surface of Mars. A Martian, therefore, would weigh three times more than on Mars, albeit his muscular strength would be the same. His own body would be a cope of lead to him. That, indeed, was the general opinion. Both the Times and the Daily Telegraph, for instance, insisted on it the next morning, and both overlooked, just as I did, two obvious modifying influences. […]
But I did not consider these points at the time, and so my reasoning was dead against the chances of the invaders. With wine and food, the confidence of my own table, and the necessity of reassuring my wife, I grew by insensible degrees courageous and secure.
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.
“This must be the beginning of the end,” he said, interrupting me. “The end! The great and terrible day of the Lord! When men shall call upon the mountains and the rocks to fall upon them and hide them—hide them from the face of Him that sitteth upon the throne!”
I began to understand the position. I ceased my labored reasoning, struggled to my feet, and, standing over him, laid my hand on his shoulder.
“Be a man!” said I. “You are scared out of your wits! What good is religion if it collapses under calamity? Think of what earthquakes and floods, wars and volcanoes, have done before to men! Do you think God had exempted Weybridge? He is not an insurance agent, man.”
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.
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.