‘Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?’ This is what H. G. Wells writes in his first chapter of The War of the Worlds, just after reminding the reader on what our own species destroyed in the past, including the extermination of the Tasmanians ‘in spite their human likeness’.
In the following I will point out in which way the context of British Imperialism is important and central to our understanding of Victorian texts nowadays and how this might have changed during the nineteenth century. This will be discussed in relation to H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds.
H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds was first published in 1898. The end of the nineteenth century was a time, in which Germany and America began to compete with Britain for primacy in global economy.
In the British society opinions differ what the great British Empire is concerned. Most people think the expansion was a desirable thing. Over the years the enthusiasm grows and better living standards are expected from the supplies of Empire products. ‘Children grow up in a climate of opinion that was unambiguously imperial.’ Britain was believed to have the destiny and the duty to rule the world. The mind of imperialism, so the society is told, was ‘reactive and defensive, not formally expansive’. Patriotic history and geography books, songs, imperial exhibitions and literature hide the truth. So is Boehmer arguing,
‘by offering us insight into the imperial imagination, the texts of the empire give some purchase on the occlusion of human loss that operates in colonial representation. The effect of empire on colonized peoples, and colonized responses to invasion, usually appear as mere traces in the writing of the time. Readings of imperial texts suggest, therefore, how it was possible for a world system which presided over the lives of millions to legitimate itself while masking suffering.’
In earlier novels of the nineteenth century, e.g. Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, imperialist themes can be found, indeed. However, they do not have a great impact on the general intention and are easy to miss. In Jane Eyre there is Bertha, a woman from Jamaica who Mr. Rochester was married to and is hidden in the attic of Thornfield because she had become mad. Rochester was to marry her because she came from a rich family. The money, so it is to be assumed, was made by slave trade. All these points are only traces throughout the whole novel and do not have a great impact on the protagonist’s decisions. Imperialism is taken for granted and is not commented at all.
Approximately fifty years later, H. G. Wells, in contrast, wrote his novel to reveal the truth, ‘[My] stories reflect upon contemporary political and social discussions’. The novel’s purpose is therefore, as Wells himself states explicitly, not to alert us to the imminence of Martian invasion. Wells uses scientific phenomena as a basis for looking at the present from different viewpoints. This is, what Alkon argues when he writes that Wells uses ‘the possibility of an encounter with a more technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilization to create a fundamental shift in political perspective whereby readers are shown what it is like to be on the receiving end of an imperial enterprise.’
The whole novel can be seen as a parable. The contemporary reader is confronted with the real face of Imperialism. The Martians who are obviously the novel’s antagonists invade Earth because Mars has become inhabitable for them. They take over Earth and claim it for themselves. Furthermore they live from the earthly population’s blood.
They invade without any warning and take what they need, completely regardless of the consequences for Earth’s population. Doing so, they act very violently and merciless. Humans are defenseless and entirely under the Martians’s mercy, ‘the monster […] had begun to walk […] across the common among the few fugitives […]. A kind of arm carried a metallic case […] and out of the funnel of this there smoked the Heat-Ray. In a few minutes there was […] not a living thing left.’
This is exactly how the British proceeded in their colonies. They took over the population’s land and their raw materials. For them it was not even necessary to colonize. It was a matter of prestige as well as a matter of keeping up with Germany and America. The Martians, in contrast, had to leave their home planet in order to survive. Just like the Martians destroy everything and act like machines the British invaded the lands they wanted and degraded the land’s populations to be merely the ‘colonial other’ and ‘subaltern’ in comparison to themselves. Furthermore, the British felt just as superior to the, from their vantage point, uncultivated, primitive and less developed as the Martians felt about the earthly population.
Nevertheless, the narrator himself develops during the plot. He has a clear mind and is able to see everything from different viewpoints. When he says, ‘The base idea of this is no doubt horribly repulsive to us, but at the same time I think that we should remember how repulsive our carnivorous habits would seem to an intelligent rabbit.’, the readers are reminded that it is important to look at their own actions from a different viewpoint to realize how their behavior might affect others.
The Martians are much higher developed than the earthly population. They are more intelligent and have stronger weapons against which humanity has no chance to survive. The whole mankind is under their control and no human weapons can stop them.
Wells also included the topic of evolutionary ascendancy in his novel. In comparison to the Martians humanity is weak and defenseless. Whenever people get attacked by the Martians, they feel tiny, just like an ‘ant’, ‘as a rabbit might feel returning to his burrow, and suddenly confronted by a dozen navvies digging the foundations of a house’, ‘an animal among animals, under the Martian heel’. Now humanity feels degraded and, above all, disempowered.
For the first time people realize, they are not the most intelligent animals in Universe, ‘No one would have believed, […] that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s’.
Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in which he states evolution as fact in 1859. According to him, only the fittest survive in the struggle for life, ‘Natural Selection acts by the preservation and accumulation of inherited modifications, each profitable to the preserved being’.
Wells wants to warn his readership about trying to be the fittest. Aiming to be always the best means concurrence. Britain tried to keep up with other economical powers and eventually behaved as inhuman and mechanical as the Martians do. According to McConnell, Wells’s intention was to show how ‘the evolutionary future [invades] and [sucks] the lifeblood from the human present’. The Martians were ‘ourselves, mutated beyond sympathy, though not beyond recognition’. They represent the danger of what ourselves might become. Huxley is of the same opinion writing in his essay Evolution and Ethics,
‘In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint, in place of thrusting aside, or treading down all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows; its influence is directed, not so much to the survival of the fittest, as to the fitting of as many as possible to survive.’
He warns of ‘fanatical individualism’ and states that mankind should work together as one species, instead. That does not contradict Darwin’s theory as he points out that the term ‘survival of the fittest’ ‘[includes] dependence on one being on another’. McConnell sees these hints for humanity’s future and writes that ‘only by facing the hopelessness of human condition man can begin to construct something in which, absurdly and heroically, to hope.’ He interprets the loss of human supremacy as a wake-up call which allows to hope that humans would work together eventually.
Until the end, humankind is not able to defeat the Martians. Earth is not under their control anymore. The Martians are defeated by microorganisms and bacteria they are, in contrast to humans, unresistant to. The tiniest and until then for humanity unimportant and unvalued species of animals reached what mankind was not able to.
To sum it all up, H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds is a parable in which its author obviously tries to reveal the truth about the Great British Empire, whereas many earlier Victorian texts rather hid or covered themes of Imperialism.
Considering that The War of the Worlds deals with a colonial reversal in which, instead of oversea countries, the British Empire itself is invaded, it is important for the reader to know about the context of Imperialism in order to completely understand what H. G. Wells intended to say. Of course, the destabilization of assumed hierarchies of biology as well as of civilization is another topic that Wells cleverly includes. However, this topic is strongly connected to the one of colonial reversal.
Although the novel can be interpreted from different point of views like every other novel, Wells explicitly expressed his intention which was to reveal the truth about Imperialism.