The War of the Worlds | Study Guide

H.G. Wells

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The War of the Worlds | Book 1, Chapter 1 : The Eve of the War | Summary

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Summary

The unnamed narrator from Woking, England, begins by comparing the unsuspecting human population to the contents of a slide on a microscope, those contents as unaware of the beings observing them as the Earthlings are of the Martians with "intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic" who watch them as they go about their daily activities. He claims Mars is older than Earth and wonders why man—"so blinded by his vanity"—has failed to recognize for so long the probability of the existence of intelligent life on its neighboring planet. He observes that just as Mars is cooling as it ages and its inhabitants long for a younger, verdant world, so too must humanity face the same fate. Foreshadowing the destruction the aliens will bring, the narrator reminds readers of the cruelty that humans have also brought on their fellow beings, as when native Tasmanians were wiped out by British colonialists off the coast of Australia.

The narrator speculates on the superior intelligence of the Martians and claims astronomers, including Schiaparelli, have seen clues proving their existence. One such astronomer is Ogilvy, whom the narrator recalls invited him to an observatory to study Mars after another astronomer reported a dramatic explosion of gas on the surface of the planet, which seems to be directed toward Earth. The narrator observed a similar explosion as he watched through the telescope. Ogilvy doubted the existence of life on Mars and speculated the phenomenon may be related to meteorites or volcanoes. Many other people witnessed the phenomenon, which repeated itself at midnight over a total of 10 days.

The narrator marvels at how unconcerned the population was about the celestial events, including himself at the time, busying himself with his philosophical writing and learning to ride a bike. He pointed out Mars to his wife as they took an evening walk; all was "so safe and tranquil."

Analysis

The author at first portrays the Martians as a species so dissimilar and unknown to readers so as to elicit fear. While creating a sense of foreboding about strange beings observing humans from afar and plotting about the future of Earth, the author undercuts the sense of complete fear of the Martians by repeatedly pointing out the ways in which humans are similar to them. Hinting at the damage the invaders will do, the author notes that humankind exercises its own powers of destruction over creatures they consider lesser beings, a point Wells uses to criticize British colonialism in places such as Tasmania. The author also draws parallels between the fate of humans and the Martians, suggesting humans will one day find themselves in a similar position, searching for a new home in order to escape a dying planet.

Wells is a master of foreshadowing. By telling events in a nonlinear arrangement, he gives readers glimpses of future events in the plot, skillfully invoking dread and creating suspense. In this first chapter he uses foreshadowing to tell readers he believes that alien creatures have been watching humans for some time and are already on their way to Earth. Wells places the launch of the capsules in the past—"six years ago now" in 1894—to create a sense of inevitability and dread as well as an awareness of the powerlessness of humans to avoid impending destruction.

The author uses a combination of real people, places, periodicals, and events together with fictional ones to create realistic fiction. By pairing historically documented scientific discoveries, such as those by astronomer Schiaparelli, with those by fictional characters, such as Lavelle of Java, Wells makes the story believable. The author solidifies the realism of the novel through the journalistic style of the narrator, a man of evident scientific training and quiet but confident authority. Like a journalist, the narrator begins with a hook, necessary background information, facts relevant to the events, names of sources and places, and references to times and dates in order to clarify the sequence of events. Wells uses realism to make the fictional events of the narrative frightening to readers, who are left questioning what may be real and what is not.

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