Academic | Essay Contest
Rendered Inhumane: Anonymity and The War of the Worlds
H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds is not easily classified: it is a compelling adventure, an incisive and socially conscious speculation, a love letter to scientific knowledge and human capacity for survival, an influential progenitor of the sci-fi genre. It is also a horror novel. The particular horror of The War of the Worlds lies not necessarily in its gory details, the sophisticated killing-machines and blood-sucking aliens, but in its deepest-rooted, all-encompassing themeits stark depiction of the human's animal nature. To this end, Wells refuses to name all but a handful of his characters, as if to underscore their interchangeability and insignificance in a brutal world.
Over the course of The War of the Worlds, Wells deprives his characters, and their world, of nearly any vestige of what we might refer to as "humanity." They are starving, hunted down, willing to sacrifice empathy and dignity in a last-ditch quest for survival. Their stately houses are reduced to ruins, and their earthly hierarchies become meaninglessthe protagonist witnesses a "stout, ruddy, middle-aged man," "a man of considerable consequence," drained of blood by hungry extraterrestrials. Even that great characteristic which we so often claim makes us and only us human, the possession of logic and rational thought, is destroyed, as evidenced in the curate's mad rambling prayer or the artillery-man's grandiose post-apocalyptic fantasy. It is no coincidence that a motif of cattle recurs throughout the bookin the comparison of the Martians' tripods to milking-stools, the artillery-man's reference to a "thundering ox," and the suggestion that the Martians paid as much attention to human surrender attempts as "we should of the lowing of a cow," among other references. Whether by implying likeness between humans and cattle, or simply by setting them in contrast to a more intelligent life formthe aliens are literally walking brains, gifted with exceptional thought and ability and devoid of sex drives or apparent emotionWells makes it clear that any trigger has the potential to reduce humans to what he might call their naturally animalistic states. To that end, Wells leaves his story's major players, and most of the characters around them, nameless. It is perhaps worth noting that the few characters who are dignified with names appear and disappear in the first few days of Martian invasion. Stent, Ogilvy and Henderson, though no more defined characters than anyone else in this plot-driven novel, are all named numerous times; they are quickly slaughtered by the aliens' heat ray. They are also intellectuals, out of place in the earthy scavenging world left by the Martians, and their destruction is perhaps symbolic of the invasion's devastating impact upon humanity.
Yet, beyond its reflection of The War of the Worlds's theme, Wells's insistence upon character anonymity has another chilling effect. In his famous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, Orson Welles, speaking to an American audience, moved the novel's events from London and its environs to New York and New Jersey; George Pal chose to visit extraterrestrial terrors on Los Angeles for a Hollywood remake. These experienced storytellers were aware that any story has more of an impact on its audience if its characters are immediately relatableif that audience is convinced that the same thing could happen to them. Like the setting of The War of the Worlds, placed in England by an English author for the benefit of comfortable English readers, the namelessness of its characters allows readers to literally insert themselves in the place of the novel's various and sundry victims. When our hero is buried under the debris of an alien cylinder's landing, or his wife abandoned in the wreckage of their home, we are keenly aware that we, too, could find ourselves in their places.
So it is perhaps self-explanatory that this ingenious literary device, the literal stripping-away of characters' human identities, enhances the emotional impact of Wells's novel. Our identities as peoplewith names, personalities, defining characteristicsare integral to our own ideas of humanity, and when Wells throws away those trappings of humanity he underscores its frailty as a concept. The War of the Worlds is one of the greatest works of horror fiction ever penned, one of the richest in its capacity to frighten us; its power lies in its ability to reduce its characters to ciphers and beasts, and in its willingness to show us that we, too, could be reduced.
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