The War of the Worlds | Study Guide

H.G. Wells

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The War of the Worlds | Themes



The benefits, possibilities, and potential threats of technology—represented in the Martian tripods—make technology a pervasive theme in the novel. Following the Industrial Revolution, technology changed society dramatically—from travel, to work, to communication. Virtually no part of life was untouched by new inventions. The benefits provided by these new machines meant people could accomplish tasks faster, easier, and often independently.

The benefits of new technology, such as the efficient British railway system and the telegraph, can be seen throughout the novel. The narrator's brother took it as a matter of course that he could take a train to Woking to check on his brother. When Lord Hilton arrives from London on the evening train, readers see an example of how the railway made the commute a part of everyday life. News traveled faster than ever before with the invention of the telegraph, an integral part of many plot points in the novel. The telegraph is the means through which the first news of the Martians' arrival reaches London when Henderson rushes to notify his editor. A telegraph also broadcasts the Martians' demise at the end of the novel when an unnamed person manages to telegraph the news to Paris from whence "the joyful news had flashed all over the world."

With the proliferation of technology came a sense of possibility. If humans could build a steamboat and a steam-powered train, what was to stop them from being able to fly? The Martian flying machine in the novel represents this hope, as well as its danger, as does the flier that announced scientists had studied the "Martin mechanisms" to discover the "Secret of Flying." Martian machines reveal the possibilities of technology humans as yet cannot fully understand.

With the introduction of machine labor came the beginnings of anxiety about ways in which technology might threaten humans. As the narrator watches the Martians and their machines through the hole in the collapsed house, he claims the machines seemed more alive than the Martians. The Martians are a frightening picture of what humans could become should they rely increasingly on a dangerous technology.


The appearance, communication, and movement of the Martians is unlike that of humans, which elicits a fear of difference. The Martians are incomprehensible, and humans do not know how their machines and weapons work. The Heat-Ray is terrifying because it is invisible. Humans don't understand enough about the Martians to know how to defeat them. In fact the Martians' overwhelming power makes anyone who isn't afraid of them just as foolish as the man who doesn't want to leave his orchids behind as tripods bear down on his town.

Fear has a variety of effects. It causes people to scream and run away, but at other times it can be paralyzing. The narrator describes himself as "petrified" at the sight of the Martian and "motionless" as the Heat-Ray incinerated the group of men who approached the pit. Fear can also overwhelm the mind. The narrator says his panic "unmanned" him as he ran in terror from the pit, claiming he has no memory of his flight. The fear of the Martians outside the ruined house in which the curate and the narrator are trapped for over a week gradually causes the curate to lose his mind and experience "the complete overthrow of his intelligence." Fear of the sudden silence of London after the howling of the Martians ceases inspires an "insane resolve" in the narrator to commit suicide by approaching a tripod. The accumulation of fearful experiences the narrator endures is likely the cause of the mental breakdown he suffers after the deaths of the Martians.


The theme of power is one the author introduces early in the first chapter when he compares humans on Earth to the contents of a Petri dish under a microscope. This is the first clue that humans are not going to have the upper hand. The author compares humans to animals when it comes to the superior powers of the Martians both in intellect and in might. The Martians spread their poisonous black gas to kill humans as humans might smoke wasps. The military forces arranged against the Martian tripod advance are killed by the Martians easily, efficiently, and seemingly without thought to their value or distress, often before they have a chance to fire a single shot. The comparison to the way humans carry out pest control is apt. Humans find their world destroyed as rabbits find their burrows overturned when a house is being built. Everything humanity has worked so hard to create, even their proudest achievements, are made into ruins by the stronger, dominating invaders.

It becomes clear to the narrator that Martians are now in the seat of power. He feels "a sense of dethronement" as the "empire of man had passed away." The Martians become the rulers of Earth, setting their sights on London, arguably the capital of the civilized world at the time, a place the narrator calls "the great Mother of Cities." They capture it easily, desecrating it by digging their pit, and gather together at the top of Primrose Hill, a vantage point from which the whole of central London can be seen, even "the towers of the Crystal Palace[, which] glittered like two silver rods," which had housed the very best of British technology in the Great Exhibition just years before, all now under Martian control. The humans are powerless to stop them. Their best inventions, their guns, railway, telegraph, are all destroyed or rendered impotent against the superior force of the invaders.

Familiar versus Strange

The author first explores the theme of the familiar versus the strange with the crash landing of the extraterrestrial vehicle in Horsell Common. The cylinder is completely strange or foreign. Residents don't know what it is, how it works, what it contains, or from where it came. This contrasts with the shared and familiar public setting of the common. The strange cylinder and its horrifying contents contrast with the mundane daily activities of village life in Woking. This contrast between the strange and the familiar makes the former seem like a nightmare and the latter like a comforting blanket. In another instance, familiar landmarks in London become strange sites when surrounded by the Martians' dead bodies.

At times the familiar is made strange. Peaceful British villages are turned into fiery scenes of terror. As the narrator is forced to flee Woking he remarks, "It was all so real and so familiar. And that behind me! It was frantic, fantastic!" Quiet country vistas the narrator knows so well become difficult to recognize as they are covered by the Martian red weed.

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