The War of the Worlds
by H.G. Wells
Analysis: Writing Style
Journalistic, fanciful, with a hint of the Bible
Just the facts: Journalistic
The narrator isn't a journalist, exactly. The word "journalist" meant something a little different back in the 1800s. The narrator is more of an essayist than a reporter, but he does strike a somewhat journalistic tone and style. That is, he doesn't get carried away by his feelings (mostly) and he's very observant.
Because the narrator is a big observer, the info he gives us tends to be very detailed and very realistic. That's one reason why the book's original readers found it so scary: it was so believably detailed. In a later essay on his work, Wells would say that it was important to "domesticate the fantastic" (source) – that is, to make the impossible seem plausible, as if he were talking about a real thing. Hence, the journalistic style of The War of the Worlds.
One of our favorite little details is how the narrator describes the ruined house after the Martian cylinder hits it:
The floor was littered with smashed hardware; the end of the kitchen towards the house was broken into, and since the daylight shone in there, it was evident the greater part of the house had collapsed. Contrasting vividly with this ruin was the neat dresser, stained in the fashion, pale green, and with a number of copper and tin vessels below it, the wallpaper imitating blue and white tiles, and a couple of colored supplements fluttering from the walls above the kitchen range. (2.1.32)
Think about it. The Martian cylinder has just hit the neighborhood, but rather than rush to describe the Martian cylinder and how scary it is, Wells takes the time to tell us all about the ruined house. Why do that? Maybe because a ruined house is easier to picture than a Martian cylinder. If we visualize the ruined house – with its smashed plates and pale green dresser – it might then be easier for us to imagine the Martian cylinder.
What's that? Sorry, could you repeat that?: Fanciful
Even though the narrator's style is detailed and journalistic, sometimes he just has trouble describing what he's seeing. At those times, he falls into a fanciful style – the sort of style where you might ask, "Wait, what?" This style comes out most when the narrator is trying to describe something unusual, like the Martian Heat-Ray.
Actually, let's look at that Heat-Ray. According to the narrator, when the Martians use it on the first group of people, "It was as if each man were suddenly and momentarily turned to fire" (1.5.14). OK, that sounds a little fantastic, but it's not so hard to picture. Imagine a person. Now imagine a fire where the person was (sorry we had to put that image in your head). That's not so fanciful.
But then the narrator goes on, as if he's helping us, when really he's just complicating the issue (we think). For instance, he describes the Heat-Ray as a "sword of heat" and then as "an invisible yet intensely heated finger" (1.5.17). Um, what? It seems like the narrator is stretching to describe something that is hard to describe. The result is he comes up with some rather fanciful language.
A hint of the Bible
Throughout the book, a number of descriptions remind us of Biblical passages. As you might expect, quite a bit of this Biblical language comes from the curate, but there are also a number of allusions spoken by others too. For instance, when the brother sees the Martian flying machine, "it rained down darkness upon the land" (1.17.35). That sounds like a few parts in the Bible, like when God rains down punishment on Sodom and Gomorrah. Why does the narrator (and Wells) use Biblical language here?
(Psst. Check "Shout-Outs," where we list a number of Biblical allusions.)