Within H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, two central components of humanity stand out. These components are disbelief and terror, and they follow one another in a cycle throughout the work. These two components are important to understanding the larger statement Wells makes about Imperialism and false connotations of Evolution that were held to be popular during the late 1800’s.
Disbelief is the first component to appear within the novel, through the character Ogilvy, who observes bright flashes and smoke emanating from the planet Mars. When engaged in speculation as to what those plumes of smoke may be, Ogilvy “… scoffed at the idea of its having inhabitants who were signaling us,” (11) and this simple dismissal is all that is necessary for the same idea to be a threat. Ogilvy’s disbelief is in turn mirrored by the majority of the humans within the novel. When the aliens crash land into the Common between towns, Ogilvy investigates the “meteor” and though he refuses to believe that there are martians within the meteorite, he slowly comes to realize that it is a container rather than a meteor. Ogilvy becomes more aware of what is happening than those around him, who scarcely know there was an extraterrestrial object not a mile from where they slept. Upon attempting to convince people he found in the street, Ogilvy is met with the same staunch disbelief and incredulity that he himself was engaged in when he observed the Martian vessels launch from their home planet towards Earth. When Ogilvy engages a potman, “The fellow thought he was a lunatic at large, and made an unsuccessful attempt to shut him in the taproom,”(15). Not only is he met with disbelief from others, but this act also foreshadows the cycle of fear that stems from disbelief in the face of reality presenting contradictory evidence to you that go against those beliefs.
The first instance of this cycle occurring within the work is when the martian heat ray leaps between humans, disintegrating them within a split second. The narrator “…stood staring not as yet realizing that this was death leaping from man to man in the crowd,”(26). After the slaughter was over, the fear set in for the narrator saying, “It came to me that I was upon the dark common, helpless, unprotected, and alone. Suddenly, like a thing falling upon me from without, came fear,”(27). This cycle breaks humanity from their ideological routine through a rupture-event that challenges their beliefs. When this threat is lethal rather than merely another idea, fear is the most common response. This fear strongly supports Wells in his argument against the superiority of the British nation by reducing its inhabitants to terror-driven animals. No idea can save a Brit from the alien heat ray, and as these aliens are far more advanced than humanity, their lack of benevolence serves to challenge the popular notion that evolution has any sort of moral telos.