Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Wells's The War of the Worlds: shoe's on the other foot

I finished reading The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells, on Saturday.  The initial excitement at reading the book waned as the Book One progressed.  But as I got into Book Two, that changed.  Especially with the entrapment of the narrator and the curate, the terror of their situation became a bit more real.

Wells’s evolutionary assumptions manifest themselves in his occasional comparison of human beings to animals.  With the domination of England’s populace by the Martians, human beings are compared more than once to rabbits and to ants.  “It never was a war, anymore than there’s war between man and ants” (Bk 2, Ch 7).  Now human beings can empathize with the animals they’ve dominated for so long.  “For that moment I touched an emotion beyond the common range of men, yet one that the poor brutes we dominate know only too well. I felt as a rabbit might feel returning to his burrow and suddenly confronted by the work of a dozen busy navvies digging the foundations of a house. I felt the first inkling of a thing that presently grew quite clear in my mind, that oppressed me for many days, a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that I was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heel. With us it would be as with them, to lurk and watch, to run and hide; the fear and empire of man had passed away” (Bk 2, Ch 6).  Wells seems to be making two points with this.  First, he may be signifying that we need to ease up on our domination of the animals kingdom.    “Surely, if we have learned nothing else, this war has taught us pity—pity for those witless souls that suffer our dominion” ( Bk 2, Ch 6).  Second, we need to recognize that we are like the animals, and one day, a higher order may dominate us in the same way.  Humanity is nothing more than animals, albeit a higher order of ones.  Both the introduction (Karl Kroeber) and the afterword (Isaac Asimov) highlighted the fact that Wells may have been writing against the colonizing practice of his country, The War of the Worlds being a means of putting the shoe on the other foot.  What Britain gets from the Martians is what she was dishing out to the Africans, for instance.  Now that is an interesting thought!

Is this a jab at Christian theology?  It’s interesting that a curate figures prominently for a while.  He is not an admirable character.  His belief system can’t seem to handle the new situation.  He struggles with insanity, and in the end dies for want of reason and clear-headedness.  The narrator himself comes to pray at one point, but his prayers to God are given such a context as to make them seem foolish.  “… now I prayed indeed, pleading steadfastly and sanely, face to face with the darkness of God. Strange night! Strangest in this, that so soon as dawn had come, I, who had talked with God, crept out of the house like a rat leaving its hiding place--a creature scarcely larger, an inferior animal, a thing that for any passing whim of our masters might be hunted and killed. Perhaps they also prayed confidently to God” (Bk 2, Ch 6).

The ending was unexpected and interesting.  Who was really the more advanced?

No comments: