The War of the Worlds
by H.G. Wells
Confess: did you secretly cheer when the curate gets eaten by the Martians? (Well, okay, we don't actually get confirmation that the Martians eat the curate, but we can assume they didn't invite him to tea. Although, this is England, so maybe.) The curate gets in some memorable lines while he's around, but he also annoys the heck out of us.
In fact, no one likes the curate.
Some of Wells' contemporaries thought the curate was a cheap shot at religion and/or was a clichéd character. However, Wells kept the curate in the story, despite having made some larger edits in between the magazine serialization and the book printing of the novel. Why did Wells keep the curate in the story the way he is now? How does the (annoying but short-lived) curate affect your reading of this book?
On one level, like the artilleryman, the curate gives us one more point of view on the whole Martian business. Remember, when the artilleryman is confronted by the Martian menace, he comes up with a theory on how to survive, possibly based on his life as a soldier. (He imagines a society in which people obey his orders, which sounds like the army to us – or possibly like kindergarten.) How does the curate react?
Confronted with the Martian invasion, the curate turns to God as an explanation. In the curate's worldview, the Martians aren't just an enemy army (as the British army considers them), and they're not just an invasive, competing species (as the narrator seems to think). According to the curate, the Martians are "God's ministers" (1.13.42) and they have been sent to punish us for our sins:
"It is just, O God!" he would say, over and over again. "It is just. On me and mine be the punishment laid. We have sinned, we have fallen short. There was poverty, sorrow; the poor were trodden in the dust, and I held my peace. I preached acceptable folly – my God, what folly! – when I should have stood up, though I died for it, and called upon them to repent – repent! […] Oppressors of the poor and needy…! The wine press of God!" (2.4.6)
The curate thinks God is responsible for the Martian invasion, but he isn't convincing, at least not to our narrator. For one thing, the narrator offers some counter-arguments, like God "is not an insurance agent" (1.13.38), which seems theologically sound to us. For another thing, the curate comes off as hypocritical, as when he switches so quickly from a) criticizing himself for not helping those who didn't have enough to b) stuffing his face with all the food he can find (2.4.2).
But there is another reason why the curate bothers us: he kind of looks like a Martian and occasionally acts like one too. Don't believe us? Check this out:
- The curate has a receding chin, while the Martians have no chins (1.13.13 and 2.4.16).
- Both the curate and the Martians have large eyes (1.4.15 and 1.13.13).
- The Martians don't sleep at all (2.2.17), while the curate doesn't sleep much (2.3.2).
We're not entirely sure what to make of this, but it does seem like the similarities could mean something. Is this a way of signaling to us that the curate isn't right, after all? Or are we just looking for excuses to ignore the curate so that we don't have to deal with this point of view?
Even if we don't like the curate, he very well could be right. He could be right either about the role of God, or he could be right about how people have failed to live up to their moral ideals. Consider the curate's comments about how people have ignored the poor and the needy. If we change some of the words around, isn't that close to what the narrator said at the beginning of the book? That we've ignored some people – like the Tasmanians – in order to get what we wanted? Maybe the curate, for all his weirdness, is actually saying something close to the narrator's own views. (And don't you just hate when annoying people agree with you?)
Lastly, there's one role that the curate has as a companion that the artilleryman does not: the curate is a replacement wife. Notice that the narrator thinks about his wife in Book 1, Chapter 13 and then the curate shows up shortly after. While the narrator is trying to find his wife, he instead gets stuck in a house with the curate. We're not sure we'd want to push this point too far, but this might be worth pondering.