The War of the Worlds
by H.G. Wells
Just give us the info.
Who cares about the narrator? No one cares about him. (Maybe his wife, but that's up for debate.) Don't get us wrong, the man's got some interesting things going for him. But, really, the narrator is mostly useful because he tells us what happened, not because he's a fascinating character with a rich and believable interior life.
Let's put it this way. Imagine you're in class and someone rushes in and says, "Oh my gosh, there was an explosion at the disaster factory and now there's a catastrophe!" Do you say:
a) "Whoa, how do you feel about this catastrophe? How does this catastrophe affect your hopes, wishes, and dreams?"
b) "Oh my gosh, I don't care how you feel. Tell us about the catastrophe!"
Those might be extreme examples (though we regularly tell people that we don't care how they feel), but you see the point: when a catastrophe occurs (like Martians attacking Earth), you probably want to hear the information more than you want to hear the commentary. Of course, to get the information, you're going to need someone who has some particular qualities: probably an intelligent person, who has done some research into the topic, and knows how to communicate.
That's pretty much what we've got in the narrator of The War of the Worlds. He's a writer (so he can communicate) and he often writes on scientific issues (so he knows about evolution and other scientific issues that are raised by the invasion). Plus he's intelligent (most of the time). Basically, the narrator is the perfect channel for us to get information from because he mostly focuses on the facts.
Even though the narrator is primarily a news channel for us, he has some issues that make him less than reliable as a narrator, but perhaps make him a more interesting (annoying? up to you) character. Let's get into those, shall we?
There are at least two issues about the narrator that mark him out as kind of a weird guy. The first issue might actually make him a better narrator; the second… well, we're not so sure about. We're not even sure these two issues really can exist in the same person at the same time.
Issue #1: Unemotional. The narrator may be described – some of the time – as a detached and unemotional person. (Stop laughing, we're serious.) At least, he describes himself that way:
At times I suffer from the strangest sense of detachment from myself and the world about me; I seem to watch it all from the outside, from somewhere inconceivably remote, out of time, out of space, out of the stress and tragedy of it all. (1.7.7)
That sounds like a useful trait for a narrator who is telling us about stressful, tragic events. Instead of getting caught up in his own emotions, he can take a step back, away from "the stress and tragedy of it all," and tell us what's really going on in the world.
It's easy to imagine how terrible it would be (for us) if we had a narrator who only focused on his own feelings. We wouldn't get many details about the invasion if he spent the whole time moping about how he lost his wife and everything he cared about. But our narrator is the kind of guy who gets "a queer feeling of impersonal interest" even when he's looking through his own window over his own (ruined) town (see 1.11.7). So, sometimes, the narrator is kind of a cold fish – and we get the benefit of that.
Issue #2: Overly emotional. While the narrator sometimes comes off as a cool customer, at other times he's an emotional yo-yo. Want an example? Of course you do. Check out the series of feelings he experiences in Book 1, Chapters 6 and 7:
- The narrator starts out terrified of the Martians.
- He calms down so much that he doubts whether the Martian attack was real or just a dream.
- He's offended when some random people aren't terrified of the Martians. (Wait, you believe in the Marians again?)
- He tries to calm down his wife down when she is terrified of the Martians. (Didn't you want people to be terrified of them?)
While we're on the subject of feelings, did you notice that the narrator sometimes talks about his feelings like they're not a part of him? For instance, if you were scared (which you never are), you'd say, "I'm afraid." When you say that, you're saying something about yourself, just like "I'm tall" is a statement about yourself. But the narrator talks about feelings like this: "Suddenly, like a thing falling upon me from without, came fear" (1.5.21). It's almost as if his feeling of fear is something separate from him, like a hat he could put on and take off. (See 1.7.4, "My terror had fallen from me like a garment.") That's a pretty weird. Frankly, we're not sure what to make of it.
Take my wife – please!
We've left one of the best (or weirdest) issues for last, which is the narrator's relationship with his wife. If you were going to write a disaster story, it might make sense to give the main character someone special in his or her life, that way you can have a sense of loss or worry ("oh no, my wife and/or child is lost!"), or at least a goal (that's the "I will find you" moment from The Last of the Mohicans).
That's the only role the narrator's wife plays: she gives the narrator something to worry about and someone to try to find. She's more like a prop in this story than a character. That's kind of a shame, but it's not too unusual for a loved one to be used as a prop in a disaster story.
What we do think is unusual is that the narrator doesn't do a very good job of worrying about his wife or trying to find her. (Usually, people do a better job of caring about their props.) He gives up on her pretty darn quickly, and even focuses a lot of his negative feelings on her. For instance, when he's upset about being separated from his wife, instead of being angry with the Martians (who are, you know, destroying his country), he feels anger towards his wife (see 1.13.7).
Now, this might sound like we're saying that the narrator hates his wife or something, but that's not what we're trying to get at. The narrator doesn't seem unhappy in his marriage. Their relationship just seems… strange. When you were reading The War of the Worlds, did you ever get the feeling that the Martian attack was a good excuse for the narrator to take a vacation from his wife?Timeline