The War of the Worlds
by H.G. Wells
a) Someone who enjoys the end of the world because it provides him with a chance to move up in the world, or
b) Someone who enjoys the end of the world because it provides him with a chance to move up in the world but is too lazy to actually do the work required?
This is the question that comes up when we look at the character of the artilleryman.
But we're getting a little ahead of ourselves. Let's start at the beginning. What is the artilleryman doing in this book?
After the Martians destroy the British army, the narrator finds two different companions – the artilleryman and the curate – and each of them tells him about how he see this world. That's the role of the artilleryman: he presents a certain sort of reaction to the end of the world.
What is his reaction to the Martian invasion? He thinks the old way of the world is over. And, frankly, he's pretty satisfied with that. According to him, because the Martians have destroyed the world as we knew it, now "Life is real again" (2.7.72). That's the kind of line that should set off alarms. After all, what was so unreal about life before the Martians came? Is it just that people looked down on the artilleryman for dropping his "aitches" (2.7.49)? (That's a very British and very class-based remark. English accents in which the "h" gets dropped – for instance, "ello" instead of "hello" – tend to be working-class accents.)
Now, the artilleryman does make several good points about what the future might be like, with his vision of the Martians establishing breeding pens and people learning to live with being Martian food. The artilleryman can be convincing about this future, and the narrator is completely persuaded at first. And so are we, up to a point. It really is silly for the artilleryman to be judged just because of his accent, so we're totally on his side about that.
Where the artilleryman loses us, though, is when he starts outlining his new perfect society. For one thing, in this new society, he'll be in charge, naturally. He'll only accept, into his super special survivors' club, people who can obey orders. And then he starts talking about the things that he wants to save for this future society. There won't be any time for music or fiction or poetry, he says, but maybe they'll play cricket when the Martians are vacationing elsewhere. That doesn't sound like a great future to us.
This point is debatable (come on – debate it, we dare you), but we get the impression that the artilleryman is enjoying the end of the world. For instance, he lists the things that will no longer exist in this new, Martian-dominated earth:
"There won't be any more blessed concerts for a million years or so; there won't be any Royal Academy of Arts, and no nice little feeds at restaurants." (2.7.49)
We might ask ourselves, of that list, how many of those are things that the artilleryman went to before the Martians invaded? He doesn't quite seem like the concert-going type. So, it's not like he's listing all these things he'll miss – he's just listing things that no one will get anymore. (You can almost imagine him saying, "If I don't get to go to concerts, then no one will!" And then he launches into an evil laugh.)
Now let's return to our original question. What's worse about the artilleryman: that he's got this crazy idea of the future where he's in charge and people play cricket when the Martians aren't around? (Do we have to let him win when we play cricket?) Or that he's too lazy to put this plan into action? For the narrator, it definitely seems like the artilleryman's real problem is his laziness. At first, the narrator seems impressed with the way that the artilleryman adapts to the new situation. What bothers the narrator is the artilleryman's laziness, the fact that he's an "undisciplined dreamer" (2.7.96).
So what do we learn from running into the artilleryman and seeing how he reacts to the Martian invasion? Well, at the very least, it's clear that some people wouldn't mind having civilization fall to pieces around them.