Themes in: War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds is a science fiction novel by H.G. Wells about when Martians invade Surrey. It was published in 1898, towards the end of the Victorian period, known as the Fin de Siècle (end of the century). To find out more about the plot, and what I thought of the book, you can read my review here:

Otherness

This is the most apparent theme in the entire novel.

The Martians are not human and so are obviously, well, alien. Wells uses language such as ‘strange and ‘monster’ to emphasise how different these creatures are. The Martians are scary and powerful; they bring new technologies with them that humans have never even seen before. They are different, they are intimidating.

‘Machine it was, with a ringing metallic pace, and long, flexible, glittering tentacles. […] Behind the main body was a huge mass of white metal like a gigantic fisherman’s basket […] The monster swept by me. And in an instant it was gone.’

(War of the Worlds, Chapter 10)

The predatory, animalistic language such as ‘tentacles’ and ‘fisherman’s basket’ once again emphasises that it is the Martians who are the invaders, and the humans who are the invaded.

However, Wells not only makes the Martians “other”, but makes the humans “other” too.

The narrator observes the chaos and catastrophe once the Martians attack; homes are destroyed, streets are turned to rubble, and humans flee. Whilst this is happening however,  the narrator begins to describe the humans  less as individual victims, and more as a homogeneous group, stampeding. He uses language such as ‘the host’ and the ‘multitude’ which is language typically ascribed to alien or other beings.

‘Their skins were dry, their lips black and cracked’

(War of the Worlds, Chapter 16)

Furthermore, this dehumanising language suggests people have begun to lose their human appearance and behaviours in the face of panic – becoming something strange, something they’re not.

As a side note, I feel this line would not be out of place in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness is another book which touches on themes of invasion and otherness, and contains many racist depictions of African slaves as “other”.

Thus, the alterity of both human and aliens in War of the Worlds can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

1. For example, the fear of an unknown, alien population invading white Victorian Britain reflects fears of reverse colonialism. This was the fear that people from countries colonised by Britain, such as India, would attack or invade Britain in revenge.

2. The fear of a technological, scientific invasion also reflects fears of the increasing modernity of Victorian England. Science was making new discoveries and the capabilities of technology were expanding. This might have made some feel uneasy.

3. Furthermore, the invasion of the unknown and the unusual reflects fears regarding the end of the century. For readers in 1898, the 20th century loomed ahead ominously – nobody knew what it would be like, nobody knew what would happen next. So why not imagine an alien invasion?

– Judith

 

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Themes in: The Sign of Four

The Sign of Four is a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and is part of his famous Sherlock Holmes series, published in 1890. The Sign of Four has a plot which involves stolen treasure, a secret pact and the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

I remember reading The Sign of Four while I was trying to read the entire Sherlock Holmes series. I still haven’t managed it, and I didn’t particularly enjoy this one.

Masculinity

Sherlock Holmes is not a stereotypical Victorian gentleman man. He doesn’t work as a detective to support a family, or maintain social standing. He solves mysteries because they’re fun. He also frequently uses cocaine and opium during a time in which, although not illegal, recreational drug use was frowned upon by higher society. It’s clear Holmes does not mesh well with the stereotypical lifestyle expected of a stereotypical Victorian gentleman.

‘”Which is it to-day?” I asked, – “morphine, or cocaine?”‘

On the other hand, there’s Watson. He has good social standing as a doctor, disapproves of Holmes’ lifestyle somewhat, and even meets and courts Mary Morstan. In other words, Watson is more similar to the Victorian gentleman than Holmes. However, Watson is not entirely squeaky clean. He too is fascinated by mystery and disorder – joining Holmes on adventures together, so he can’t be overly aloof.

‘”It is cocaine,” he said, – “a seven-per-cent. solution. Would you care to try it?”‘

Otherness

This is probably my favourite theme to discuss from The Sign of Four. The novel was written during an era where the British Empire was still incredibly powerful; India did not achieve independence from the United Kingdom until 1947. With this in mind, both Watson and Holmes express problematic views regarding India, Indian characters, and convey the notion that white Europeans are ultimately superior.

Firstly, as the narrative is about the discovery of hidden treasure in India, this underlines ideas that India exists solely to be an exotic, unknown place for white colonisers to take from. Secondly, Indian characters such as Tonga are made “other”. To be made “other” in Victorian England means they are represented in a way which deliberately makes them different from, and therefore inferior to, white British characters.

For example, Holmes describes inhabitants from the Andaman Islands – which is located in the Bay of Bengal – and is Tonga’s home, as ‘fierce’, ‘morose’, ‘naturally hideous’, and associated with cannibalism, massacres, and violence. Watson also describes Tonga with abhuman language such as ‘it straightened itself into a little black man’. The use of the pronoun ‘it’ emphasises how Watson refused to acknowledge Tonga as a person or identity, simply because of their ethnicity. This language is indicative of the time in which Conan Doyle was writing, but creates the horrid stereotype that anyone “other” to the “norm” of white British men are violent, cruel, abhuman and animalistic.

Perhaps that’s why I didn’t like the book.

– Judith

Themes in: Lady Audley’s Secret

Lady Audley’s Secret is a sensational Victorian novel about  Lady Audley, a beautiful lady residing with her husband at Audley Court, who is keeping multiple secrets and will do anything to ensure they stay hidden. It was written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon in 1862.

Spoiler Warning: There will be some. This is mild revision. If you’d like to read a spoiler-free book review of Lady Audley’s Secret, you can find mine here.

Class

The theme of class and social mobility underpins the entire narrative of Braddon’s novel. For example, Lady Audley – previously Lucy Graham, Helen Talboys, and Helen Maldon – soon to become Madame Taylor, slides up and down the social scale. She begins life as Helen Maldon, in a poor family with little financial support. She loathed her upbringing and poverty – even describing it as slavery.

I felt the bitterness of poverty

(Lady Audley’s Secret, Chapter 36)

‘I […] was a slave allied to beggary and obscurity’

(Lady Audley’s Secret, Chapter 36)

She then marries, becoming Helen Talboys, only to be plunged into debt by her husband. He travels abroad, clinging to the idea he will make a fortune for her. Helen is less convinced. She determines to make a better life herself, by changing her identity to one Miss Lucy Graham, applying for a position as a governess, and marrying into Audley Court. Thus, over the course of her life, Lady Audley’s position has changed from servant, to mistress at the drop of a hat, highlighting the emerging fluidity in the previously rigid Victorian class system. However, to become socially mobile, Lady Audley had to adopt multiple false identities, commit bigamy and lie excessively. This indicates social mobility was only accessible in the Victorian period through crime and transgression. This is similar to Great Expectations, in which Pip is able to better himself – rising from an impoverished background to the middle-classes – by using finances sent, unbeknown to him, by a criminal.

Transgression

This leads me to discuss transgression in Lady Audley’s Secret. There’s a lot of it!

Firstly, there is transgression of class boundaries. Lady Audley is from a poor background, so she does not fully know what the accepted codes of behaviour are for upper-class ladies. Consequently, she does not follow these codes. She permits her servant, Phoebe Marks, into her private chambers for girlish chatter and friendly company, even insisting the two girls are more alike than Phoebe would believe – an irony, as this is true, as both women have lower-class origins.

Secondly there is a transgression of gender roles and gender stereotypes. Lady Audley, on outward appearance, looks like a typical charming, feminine, domesticated Victorian lady. However, she possesses stereotypically masculine qualities; she is motivated by money, she lacks empathy, she disregards her son to better her own social status, and she is capable of violent acts not stereotypically associated women.

‘”Who ever heard of a woman taking life as it ought to be taken?”‘

(Lady Audley’s Secret, Chapter 24)

Finally, there’s a lot of obvious, criminal transgression in the novel, including, but not limited to, bigamy, identity fraud, attempted murder, actual murder, lies, and violence. The list goes on.

– Judith