The pervasion of horror in "The War of the Worlds" by H.G. Wells

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2010
17 Seiten, Note: 1,3


Table of contents


2. Well’s and the British society in the nineteenth century

3. Well’s scientific- romances

4. Monsters from Mars
4.1.The consideration of the Martians
4.2. A superior human species
4.3. Martians as colonizers

5. Reactions to the invasion

6. The stylistic implementation of horror
6.1.The choice of perspective
6.2.The choice of setting
6.3. The decay of the Empire

7. Conclusion


In the nineteenth century the British Empire under the reign of Queen Victoria experienced an era of scientific and technological progress. Moreover the British had achieved to be the leading world power due to their economic situation, as well as their successful expansion of territory in foreign countries. This success created a form of self-confidence and complacency. But what if the peacefulness and decadency in Britain was invaded by a more sophisticated species from another planet?

This term paper researches into the pervasion of horror in H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds. The story’s thrilling invasion of Martians punctures at the Victorian pretensions in the nineteenth century. Furthermore its imagination is based on the scientific progress which emerged in these days and develops the idea of evolution further and hence, calls its guarantee for a better tomorrow into question. With the help of focusing on the historical background and the socio-cultural situation of the nineteenth century, I will identify the major concerns of the novel and concentrate on their literarily transmission.

In the first chapter I will outline the most important historical events and social changes of the end of the Victorian era in order to present the Zeitgeist of the novel’s year of origin. In addition I will focus on the general attitude and thinking of the British in the time of transition from the Victorian to the Edwardian era and before the outbreak of the First World War.

The second chapter gives a description of Wells’ scientific romances, because they show typical wellsian themes, stylistic devices and intentions. Moreover, the description will help to set the novel into a specific perspective.

In the following part of my term paper I will apply the basic knowledge of the first two chapters on the novel “ The War Of The Worlds”. First, I focus on the way the narrator considers of the aliens and include glimpses of information about the peoples’ perspective on the invaders.

Afterwards I analyse the Martians’ anatomy, behaviour and their technical equipment in terms of Darwin’s principle “ survival of the fittest”. With the invasion of a superior species Wells’ confronts the reader with the cruelty of imperialism. So, I will research to what extent the Martians can be considered as colonizers.

By examining the curate’s and artilleryman’s reaction to the invasion I will point at the two contrary standpoints which refer to the evolution debate.

The last part concentrates on the stylistic realization of the spread of horror and fear. Here, I will limit my paper by concentrating on the choice perspective and depiction of setting for the invasion.

2. Well’s and the British society in the nineteenth century

The Victorian Age (1837-1901) was characterised by rapid change and developments in nearly every sphere - from advances in medical, scientific and technological knowledge to changes in population growth and location. Due to the enormous achievements in this time Victorian Britain was able to become the largest and most influential empire.[1] The countries future was determined, and ‘the doctrine of predestination made the future as unchangeable as the past’.[2]

Over time, this rapid transformation deeply affected the country's mood: an age that began with a confidence and optimism leading to economic boom and prosperity eventually gave way to uncertainty and doubt regarding Britain's place in the world. A status which reflects the dichotomy of a positive attitude and on the other hand, fears for the future. The question whether this progress is the sublime answer to all the appearing conflicts, or whether it alters into a nightmare.

The time from 1885 to 1910 which forms the transition from the Victorian to the Edwardian period, is marked by a change in ideology of colonialism. Moreover it is the period of Britain’s heyday of the expansion of the British Empire. Slowly but surely Africa became a burden for its mother country because the other powers, like Russia, France, America and Germany achieved economic recovery and thus became competitors for the world power[3]. In addition Britain’s colonies were not able to self-finance and so, they depended on its mother country. Britain’s power in influence diminished and the Empire showed ‘signs of vulnerability and fear’[4] and criticism from anti-imperialist currents was steadily increasing.[5] The Boer War (1899-1902) marked the prostration of the old Empire.[6]

Sensation literature which became increasingly popular in this time[7] reacted to the ongoing changes in thinking. So did the Science-Fiction literatures after the 1950s which either show ‘positivist optimism’ or ‘degeneration pessimism’[8]. H.G. Wells’ works of these days take up this dichotomy but tend to emphasize the fin-de-scièle pessimism[9] which includes ‘nihilism and the sense of degeneration and global despair of the 1980’s’.[10] Wells makes repeated use of plague-related themes and moral decay. Additionally he plays with a major preoccupation: the dissolution of society and its physical destruction and thus the fear of a complete annihilation of mankind.[11]

3. Well’s scientific- romances

Hugo Gernsback introduced the term ‘scientific romances’[12], a subgenre which is predominately assigned to H.G.Wells. Kingsley Amis gives the following definition of scientific- romances:

That class of prose-narrative treating of a situation that could not arise in the world we know, but which is hypothesised on the basis of some innovation in science or technology , or pseudo-science or pseudo- technology. It is distinguished from pure fantasy by its need to achieve verisimilitude and in the „willing suspension of disbelief through the scientific plausibility.[13]

Especially his early works, those before 1900[14], show a certain consensus of social deconstruction and decay[15]. Another major topic is the evolution debate and the origin of humanity which arose from the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859[16]. As a student of T.H. Huxley[17] and his own personal interest in science, Wells achieved the basic knowledge for the evolutionary imaginations in his romances. The publication of the evolution theory arouses the question of the relation of natural- historical and cultural origin of the human species. Moreover it changed the view of the religious, anthropological and cultural self-perception of the human being.[18] In his scientific- romances, the boundaries between his scientific argumentations and fictional concepts obliterate in fantastic speculations.[19] These results in an aesthetic handling of Darwinism as imaginative potential and a space of imagination which thematizes what the cosmic pessimism, ‘cosmic view’[20] and the optimistic perception of evolution, ‘human perspective’[21] dismiss. In the literary discourse of Wells’ scientific-romances, the attempt to unify these two controversy standpoints[22] appears in the form of ‘social criticism and satire’.[23] Furthermore, as the term indicates, this genre is made up of science fiction and basic elements of romances. Scientific knowledge is used to explain the unknown territory and unusual phenomena the scientist, which replaces the knight of the romances, experiences in the story[24].

With his novels, H.G.Wells pursues a special purpose as well. As he indicates in his essay ‘Human Evolution,- an artificial Process’, the role of literature is to keep the human away from instinctive behaviour and in addition to this, guide him in ‘currents and winds of the universe’ .[25] So, with his concept of future development, Wells intends to prepare human beings for evolutionary changes.

4. Monsters from Mars

4.1.The consideration of the Martians

Information about the Martians’ outward appearance is interspersed throughout the novel and given by the subject observations of the narrator or by utterances of the people. Having a closer look at the descriptions one can see a change in perspective towards the invaders from considering them as a ugly, crippled animal species[26] to uncontrollable, unearthly creatures[27]. Both considerations emphasize their difference to human beings and evoke antipathy, fear and revulsion at the monsters.

When the anonymous narrator sees the Martian for the first time after their landing, he, - moved by disgust and terror, describes them as:

A big greyish rounded bulk, the size perhaps, of a bear , was rising slowly and painfully out of the cylinder. As it bulged up and caught the light, it glistened like wet leather. Two large dark-coloured eyes regarding me steadfastly. The mass that framed them, the head of the thing, was rounded, and had, one might say, a face. There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered and panted, and dropped salvia. The whole creature heaved and pulsated convulsively. A lank tentacle appendage grippe the edge of the cylinder, another swayed in the air.[28]

This introduction is clearly constructed to shock the reader and to point out the difference between humans and Martians. Although the creatures are able to terrify the onlookers, they are categorized as a sort of animal and thus regarded as an inferior species due the peoples’ Victorian self-confidence and their conviction of being superior to others. Their reactions show an absolute passivity and disinterest. Moreover they proceed in their usual bourgeois life. It is the Victorian complacency which leads to this passive behaviour. The narrator hints at this already in the opening lines of the book, criticizing: ‘with infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter’.[29] The inability to make an essential leap of perspective is reinforced when Mrs. Elphinstone is hard to convince about the danger of the invasion:


[1] see Evan, Eric, ‘ Overview:Victorian Britain, 1837-1901 ’, BBC History (2011) <> [accessed 24 March 2011].

[2] see Jack Williamson ,‘The Evolution of the Martians’ in The War of the Wolrds: Fresh Perspectives on the H.G. Wells Classic, ed. by Glenn Yeffeth ( Dallas: BenBella Books, 2005),pp.189-198 (p.191).

[3] see Ulrich Pallua, Eurocentrism, Racism, Colonialism in the Victorian and Edwardian Age (Heidelberg, Winter, 2005), pp.45-48.

[4] see ibid. p.49.

[5] see ibid, p.8.

[6] see Williamson,‘ The Evolution of the Martians’, in The War, ed. by Yeffeth, pp.189-198 (p.192).

[7] see H.G.Wells, The War of the Worlds (London: Penguin, 2005), XV.

[8] See Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction. (New York: Palgrave, 2007),pp.106-107.

[9] see P.A.McCarthy, Heart of Darkness and the Early Novels of H.G.Wells: Evolution, Anarchy, Entropy, JML 13.1 (1986), 56.

[10] see John Batchelor, H.G. Wells (Cambridge: CUP,1985),p.5.

[11] see Stephen Gill, Scientific Romances of H.G. Wells (Cornwall, Canada: Vesta Publications, 1977),p.72.

[12] see Mark R. Hillegas, The Future As Nightmare: H.G.Wells and the Anti-Utopians (Carbondale: Southern Illinois, 1974), p.7.

[13] see ibid, p.8.

[14] it is common to divide Well’s works in those before 1900 and those afterwards because each group show a certain attitude towards progress and future development

[15] see Wells, War, p. xxv.

[16] see Pallua, Eurocentrism, p.81.

[17] see Batchelor, H.G. Wells,p.2.

[18] see Hermann Josef Schnackertz, Darwinismus und literatischer Diskurs: Der Dialog mit der Evolutionsbilologie in der englischen und amerikanischen Literatur (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1992),p.96.

[19] see Schnackertz, Darwinismus,p.96.

[20] there are two contrary interpretations of evolution: the cosmic view express that humanity is only a byproduct of nature’s evolution. This view is pessimistic. see Schnackertz,Darwinismus, pp.96-97.

[21] The human perspective is an optimistic interpretation of the evolution theory which states that the human can determine the development of evolution on his own.

[22] see Schnackertz, Darwinismus,p.100.

[23] see Hillegas, The Future, p.8.

[24] see Gill, Scientific, p. 28.

[25] see Helmut Jansing, Die Darstellung und Konezption von Naturwissenschaft und Technik in H.G. Wells ‘scientific romances’ (Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang 1977), p.142.

[26] see Wells, War, p.22.

[27] see Wells, War, pp. 124-130.

[28] see Wells, War,p.21.

[29] see Wells, War, p.7.

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The pervasion of horror in "The War of the Worlds" by H.G. Wells
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Jochen Mueller (Autor), 2010, The pervasion of horror in "The War of the Worlds" by H.G. Wells, München, GRIN Verlag,


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