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The Narrator describes Earth in the early twentieth century. During the last few years of the nineteenth century, Earth was being watched closely by a higher intelligence on Mars. Humans are unaware and actually dismiss the idea of life on Mars as impossible. The beings on Mars view humans much like humans view other animals, “as lowly and alien” as monkeys. Since Mars is older and smaller than Earth, the lifespan and resources of the planet are running out. The beings on Mars see the vast resources of Earth. The Narrator meets Ogilvy, an astronomer, and visits his observatory outside of Ottershaw. The two look at Mars through the telescope and see the venting of gases. They do not know that they are seeing the launch of projectiles toward Earth. While the projectiles travel toward Earth, life goes on peacefully, as no one is aware of the impending threat.
A falling star is seen over Winchester. Ogilvy investigates and finds the crash site of a large metal cylinder in Horsell Common. It is still extremely hot, so he is unable to get very close. Ogilvy does notice that the end which protrudes from the ground is slowly rotating. He connects what he saw the previous night on Mars through his telescope and determines that there must be men inside. He runs to town, but people dismiss his story. He finds a London journalist, Henderson, and convinces him to come to the crash site. Finding that the cylinder has stopped moving, they return to town, where Henderson telegraphs the newspaper. When the Narrator reads of the crash site in his newspaper, he travels from his home in Woking to Horsell Common.
The Narrator arrives at the cylinder’s crash site, where a small crowd has gathered at the edge of the crater. The table-sized end cap is no longer rotating, but he notices a yellowish-white metal between the cap and the cylinder. He believes that the cylinder must be full of information from Mars, and not living beings. He becomes impatient and returns home. He returns after the evening papers have reported “a message received from Mars.” Henderson, Ogilvy, Stent (the Astronomer Royal) and several workmen are trying to unearth the portion of the cylinder that is still embedded in the ground. Ogilvy asks the Narrator to contact Lord Hilton, who owns the property, to remove all of the onlookers, who are impeding the excavation. The Narrator is pleased to be involved, finds out that Lord Hilton will be arriving by train soon, and heads to the train station.
The Narrator returns at sunset. Several hundred people have gathered. He elbows his way through the crowd and hears Ogilvy yelling to keep everyone back, since no one knows what is inside the cylinder. The end of the cylinder twists itself off and the Narrator stares into the dark emptiness of the cylinder. Gray tentacles, the thickness of a walking-stick, emerge from the cylinder, followed by a “rounded bulk” the size of a bear. The Narrator describes its movement as slow and painful, due to the difference in gravity between Mars and Earth. He adds that it is difficult to imagine the “strange horror” of a Martian’s appearance, with a V-shaped mouth, large pair of eyes, rounded body and mass of tentacles. The Narrator retreats to a group of trees and tries to watch. The crowd has almost entirely dispersed, but he can no longer see what is happening in the pit around the cylinder.
The unnamed Narrator’s expository descriptions of late-nineteenth-century Earth highlight the egocentrism of humans, which becomes a theme in the novel. Humans are blissfully unaware that the more advanced Martians are studying them because humans are ignorant of their place in the order of the universe. Wells introduces the idea that all life contains hierarchies, and humans view themselves at the top. Just as humans view animals as subordinates, Martians view Earth as a place to serve their own needs. The vanity of humans becomes evident as they continue to worry about the minutiae of their own lives while completely oblivious to the threat of a pending catastrophe.
Ogilvy and Henderson are characters who conform to the archetypes of their respective professions, which leads other characters to dismiss their claims. As a solitary “mad scientist” type, Ogilvy’s myopic view prevents him from seeing an other-worldly invasion, in yet another example of human egocentrism. It behooves Henderson to follow up on Ogilvy’s claims and also plays to the archetype of the relentless newspaperman who will stop at nothing to get the scoop on a hot story.
The Narrator’s actions at the crash site highlight how humans’ reliance on routine can lead to willful ignorance in the face of the unknown. The Narrator is both inquisitive and bored with the activity at the crash site, and his natural curiosity is at odds with his human desire to continue life as usual. The Narrator’s inability to concentrate on work demonstrates his understanding that something significant is taking place and his desire to be a part of it, but it also shows his unwillingness to interrupt his daily habits to learn more.
The sight of the first Martian prompts various reactions in the witnesses, each of whom reveals a different aspect of human nature. The narrator initially freezes at the sight of the Martians’ tentacles, a representation of the unknown. It is an act that illustrates humans’ innate fascination with things that horrify them. Most of the crowd seeks solace among others who have also seen the site, which shows humans’ social nature and their need to check their reality with that of others. Humans’ first reaction to something new or foreign is often fear, a reaction that can be seen throughout history and this story. When the Narrator’s natural curiosity turns to terror and prompts him to flee, it demonstrates that fear of the unknown is a natural human reaction, and the evolutionary fight-or-flight is part of humans’ innate will to survive.
The large size of the creature underscores the smaller physical stature of humans and illustrates how large the creature’s potential for danger looms in the humans’ imagination. The creature is described as the size of a bear—an animal often feared by humans—and is the first of many animal references to follow in the novel. Wells juxtaposes the description of the creature’s large and intense eyes with the crowd’s blindness to what is happening, which symbolizes that those who have yet to encounter the creature are also oblivious. To understand this unknown threat, they must rely on their imaginations, which inevitably leads to more fear and misunderstanding.