HG Wells novel “The War Of The Worlds”
In the novel The War Of The Worlds, there is a constant feeling of terror and dread, which is heavily influenced by the Victorian sense of anxiety and worry about the world around them and their sudden rise to almost absolute power. Wells manipulates the culture of the time and so creates a novel which preys upon their underlying feelings of anxiety and resentment of the people they conquered. Having said this, there is an argument which can be created to challenge this view, which states that HG Wells’ ideas cannot have the same effect on modern audiences as they did on Wells’ contemporaries.
When Wells was writing The War Of The Worlds, there was a huge rush in technology to create machines that could replace the jobs of men and revolutionise Britain industrially and socially. This created an anxiety based on the “machine over man” worry. For once Man wasn’t leading Natural Selection; there was something perhaps more powerful than Man himself. This can be seen in the Martians’ total dependence on their machines that the narrator sees from the broken house – “I had to convince myself that this was indeed a machine with a Martian at the helm”.
Another, perhaps more immediate worry for Great Britain was the situation with Europe being on the brink of a major war. A matter particularly pertinent to Britain was the naval race, and Wells alludes to this in the book, with the Martians secretly planning a great attack to cripple Earth reflecting the Germans secretly building a huge navy to rival Britain’s, and invade. Britain’s navy was previously thought to be infallible, but the challenge by Germany disproved their arrogance. This again links back to Wells’ ideas about Natural Selection and the belief that white Victorians are perhaps not the perfect race; they can be toppled.
This can be seen in the book during the attack of the “Thunder Child”. It is an outdated, outmoded ship in the navy, but it manages to take down the supposedly almighty Martian. It can be said that this would scare Victorians, who had huge faith in their new ships. Wells’ Britain was changing, and another aspect of life, perhaps thought previously to never change, was religion. In the past religion controlled almost every aspect of life for British people, and it provided an easy means of escape from menial life. It explained the mysteries around them.
But Wells was writing in a time when these comforts were being replaced by science. It was explaining the mysteries and people were beginning to doubt religion and God. Through the use of hyper-realism (imposing a fantasy story on a real world with real town names) he created a sense of unease because the aliens’ coming was not prophesised in the Bible, and yet he makes it seem very believable and real for aliens to come. When arguing a point all these contextual issues must be taken into account. Wells was by no means writing in a vacuum. He, like all writers, was influenced greatly by his time’s topical events.
The difference here perhaps is that these events drove Wells to write. To a Victorian audience the idea that they were not the “top dogs” would be worrying in itself. They had spent so much time and effort controlling and creating an empire that to find out they were not the greatest and could be beaten so easily would have been similar, I suppose, to America being so devastated by the 9/11 attacks and the supposed ease with how they were orchestrated. By shocking them in this way Wells achieved his aim, perhaps; to encourage his fellow men to not be so arrogant and complacent.
In order to present these ideas of his effectively Wells had to package them attractively and skillfully. One aspect of his craft that can be commented on is the use of tension to engage the reader. This is a major aspect of Wells’ writing and can be seen virtually anywhere in the book. One of the main ways he introduces tension is by withholding information to delay the action. An example can be seen at the beginning of book II, where in the first chapter he begins with “In the first book I have wandered so much from my own adventures to tell of the experiences of my brother… .
Another example of this is withholding from the reader what happened to his wife until the very end of the story. By not letting the reader know what has happened to him, or his wife, he creates a feeling of tension because, by humans’ curious nature, we want to know these things, and are action-hungry. Wells creates a frightening atmosphere not only through tension, but also using imagery. One example of this would be the constant references to blood, such as the Martians draining people’s blood, and the red weed being such a vibrant scarlet colour.
This serves to make the reader uneasy, because humans do not like to see blood, especially drawn from a human. By doing this Wells keeps on reminding the reader of fear and the morality of humans. Another example of imagery Wells uses to strike fear into the heart of the reader is in the absolute degredation of the Victorian people, which again links back to the theme of Natural Selection and Victorian superiority. In the novel, everyone is levelled down to an animal. This can be seen in the rush from London, where everyone loses their morals and intelligence and blindly runs away from London, not caring about anyone else almost.
A particularly pertinent example of levelling is when the narrator’s brother is moving through London, and comes across a very rich man. He is blindly running like everyone else, and drops his money. While rushing to pick it all up he is trampled and killed by a horse – an animal obviously far dumber than he is. Although in the literal sense the reader is shocked by the man’s death, in the metaphorical sense, to the pride white Victorian upper-class, imagery such as this scared them, because they thought they could not be hurt by creatures stupider than them.
However, it can be said that in the modern setting, Wells’ book is not frightening because most of the ideas he pioneered in his time have already been used so much in horror works over the years that nowadays they are commonplace. An example of this is the Heat-Ray; although the idea is frightening, lasers are somewhat cliched today and the modern audience has seen the premise before. Another reason modern horror fans may not be scared by Wells’ book is because of the execution and his descriptions. Wells’ style is subtle, building tension and unease.
Most popular horror is based around shocking the audience; they wouldn’t want to wait around for the cylinder to unscrew, for example, and coming back to the heat-ray: if the victim just vanishes, people wouldn’t be scared. If they were more verbosely described as being having third degree burns and being reduced to the bare bone, people would be more engaged. I think modern audiences are more impatient than Wells’ contemporaries, and to a modern audience The War Of The Worlds isn’t a frightening book, but more an interesting book.
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