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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Every human character in The War of the Worlds displays a level of arrogance that leads to problems for them. It never occurs to Ogilvy that the flaming gas is cause for alarm because he cannot fathom the intelligence of anything that is not human. This same belief in human superiority leads people to ignore the initial news items and eyewitness accounts and to think that the authorities can resolve the problem quickly and easily. Despite clear evidence that the Martians are technologically advanced, highly evolved, and very intelligent, the government and people have faith in the strength of their military’s weapons. Once it becomes obvious that the Martians’ weapons are superior, panic ensues and those same people who believe in the inherent superiority of humans extend no compassion to their fellow humans as they clog the roadways and fight and cheat one another in attempts to save themselves.
Though he ultimately comes to understand how highly intelligent the Martians are, the Narrator initially wonders if the Martians haven’t underestimated the humans’ numbers, organizational skills, and discipline, even as those around him prove to be highly disorganized and undisciplined. Once the Narrator shows more reason, he cannot persuade the curate to think of anything but clearing his conscience and feeding himself because the curate’s egocentrism has driven him to denial. The Narrator often discusses the fact that humans take their dominion over animals for granted, and the artilleryman’s plan to spearhead a strong new generation of survivors shows that he takes his dominion over his fellow humans for granted as well.
Throughout the novel, the civilized rules of society break down and change constantly. When the Martians attack, humans are slow to realize and react to the changes, and when they realize they are powerless to stop the change, they resort to panic and behave immorally. They fight over food and drink when just days before these resources were plentiful to those who could afford them. The Narrator notes the changes in the social order during the invasion and realizes that money is no longer valuable. While the Narrator’s brother is escaping London, a cache of gold spills out onto the ground, but the fleeing people do not even stop to try to scoop it up because survival has become more precious.
The constant changes lead people to give in to their instincts and act like animals as they trample each other, fight, and jockey roughly for position on the roads. What becomes important reverts to humans’ basic needs for food, drink, and shelter from the marauding invaders. Once an educated man of privilege, the Narrator now is willing to fight over access to food and drink and knocks a man unconscious to protect himself in the changing world. By the end of the novel, the Narrator is a changed man with a transformed future. He realizes that humans must be prepared for more visits from Mars or elsewhere and that they must change their perspective to be ready.
The book is an homage to Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection. At the time this book was written, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was almost forty years old, but his theories were not widely accepted yet. It becomes clear to the Narrator that the Martians are further along the evolutionary process than humans. Their brains are more sophisticated and they wield more advanced levels of technology. It is ironic, then, that something as small as bacteria takes them out. Humans and other life on Earth have evolved to have a natural immunity to most bacteria because of their history with them on Earth. The Martians, because they do not have these bacteria on Mars, succumb to a microscopic foe despite their place in the evolutionary hierarchy.
By making bacteria the hero of the story, Wells demonstrates that evolution isn’t magic but happens differently in different environments like Earth and Mars. The Martians employ highly superior fighting technology, which allows them to destroy whole towns in seconds, while all humans have to combat Martians is their natural immunity. Most of the humans in the story do not react well to change, which shows that adaptation can be a mental as well as a physical process. Once the artilleryman sees that the military cannot combat the new threats, he changes his survival plan. He is willing to live like a rat and struggle to survive, unlike the elite of Victorian England. He adapts to the new circumstances, which saves his life. The Narrator explains the mental leaps mankind has taken as a result of the invasion and says it has removed humans’ placid thoughts about their place in the hierarchy of the cosmos. The book makes clear Darwin’s theories and makes intellectual progress a companion to the adaptive process.