Study Guide

The War of the Worlds Fear

By H.G. Wells


And invisible to me because it was so remote and small, flying swiftly and steadily towards me across that incredible distance, drawing nearer every minute by so many thousands of miles, came the Thing they were sending us, the Thing that was to bring so much struggle and calamity and death to the earth. (1.1.13)

Since the narrator is telling us this story retrospectively, he can do all sorts of foreshadowing. Heck, in the very first line he could say, "Martians invaded and then died of colds." But he doesn't. (He's a better storyteller than <em>that</em>). Rather, notice how the narrator manages our emotions by telling us just a little bit. For example, here, he reminds us that something really bad is coming for us. Scared yet? One thing to think about in terms of the theme of fear is not just whether the characters are afraid, but how the book tries to get a rise out of us too.

Suddenly, like a thing falling upon me from without, came fear. (1.5.21)

Put this next to the narrator's comment that "My terror had fallen from me like a garment" (1.7.4) and we start to get a sense of his weird relationship with emotions. The narrator often talks about his emotions as if they were something outside of himself. Now, we think that fear is one of the main emotions of the book – what <em>else </em>are you supposed to feel when invaders come to your town with Heat-Rays? – yet the narrator treats it like something outside himself. That's weird, isn't it? Maybe he's trying too hard to be an objective witness to these events.

The fear I felt was no rational fear, but a panic terror not only of the Martians, but of the dusk and stillness all about me. (1.5.23)

Well, we've never been through a Martian invasion, but this seems more realistic, doesn't it? Just totally freaking out – that seems about right. Interestingly, the narrator distinguishes between fear and panic. What do you think is the difference between the two? Is one emotion a more useful response in a dangerous situation than the other?

I was a little depressed at first with the contagion of my wife's fears (1.10.5)

Here, the narrator is saying that he's caught a little bit of what his wife feels. "Contagion" is related to "contagious," so you can imagine someone catching an emotion in the same way that someone catches a cold. This quote raises a few questions for us. First, is "contagion" a hint about how the Martians are going to die in the end? Second, did you notice this idea come up a few times in the book? For some examples, see 1.14.14, 1.17.18, and 1.14.45. Yep, this is a big issue.

That was the story I got from him, bit by bit. He grew calmer telling me and trying to make me see the things he had seen. (1.11.33)

We get a lot of scenes in which fear spreads like the flu, but this is perhaps the only scene in which someone gets calmer in the company of a calm person. Why does telling his story calm the artilleryman?

At sight of these strange, swift, and terrible creatures the crowd near the water's edge seemed to me to be for a moment horror-struck. […] I turned with the rush of the people, but I was not too terrified for thought. (1.12.50)

Fear is often thought of as something that hurts people because it prevents them from thinking clearly. But here the narrator can still think straight. Why do you think he's able to do that?

[…] the coming storm of Fear blew through the streets. It was the dawn of the great panic. London, which had gone to bed on Sunday night oblivious and inert, was awakened, in the small hours of Monday morning, to a vivid sense of danger. (1.14.44)

The narrator also refers to fear as a wave in 1.16.1. What does it do to your reading to have this fear talked about as if it were something physical? Does it make fear sound as real as the Martians?

But varied as its composition was, certain things all that host had in common. There were fear and pain on their faces, and fear behind them. (1.16.51)

Here we have another good quote on the contagion of feelings. In this passage the narrator's brother is escaping London and runs into a huge mass of people. The crowd is made up of many different kinds of people, but they are all similar in that they're all terrified. Now, when you have something in common, you might expect some sort of community to evolve. But it seems as if fear isn't enough to build a real community on. (And yet, at the end of the book, isn't it fear of the Martians that promotes "the commonweal of mankind" [2.10.8]? )

I must confess the stress and danger of the time have left an abiding sense of doubt and insecurity in my mind. (2.10.11)

Whatever good the invasion has done for Earth as a whole, the terrifying experience has scarred the narrator. And yet the invasion was supposed to be good because it made humans feel less secure, and therefore less prone to our complacent folly. Does that mean fear and insecurity useful or not?