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: Great Expectations

Great Expectations is the first novel I ever wrote a blog post about. It was written by Charles Dickens and published in 1861. Great Expectations is a bildungsroman (‘coming of age’) novel about the growth and personal development of an orphan nicknamed Phillip Pirrip, affectionately known as Pip.

Criminality

Crime is key to the novel. Firstly, as a young boy, Pip meets Magwitch, a criminal. From this encounter, Pip grows fearful of criminality. Even once he has grown up and, due to fortuitous circumstances, becomes involved in middle-class society, he is worried his childhood encounters with a criminal have tainted him forever.

Criminality also adopts different forms in the novel.

For example, Magwitch is a stereotypical criminal. He speaks with a local dialect, uses slang, is dirty and violent, and even threatens to cut Pip’s throat. Dickens draws on an obvious stereotype: if he looks like a criminal and sounds like a criminal, he probably is a criminal. However, this in itself is ironic; young Pip doesn’t even know what a convict is, so he does not make these assumptions, and helps Magwitch escape.

‘I put my mouth into the forms of saying to Joe, “What’s a convict?” Joe put his mouth into the forms of returning such a highly elaborate answer, that I could make out nothing of it but the single word “Pip.”

(Great Expectations, Chapter 2)

As a second example, Compeyson is not a stereotypical criminal. He looks like a gentleman, he is well-spoken, educated, charming, although perhaps a little arrogant.

Yet, (spoiler) when Magwitch reveals to Pip he and Compeyson are both criminals, and were involved in the same counterfeiting scheme, this is a complete shock. Magwitch was given 14 years in prison – Compeyson was only given 7, as Compeyson’s lawyer stressed the differences in social class between the two men; Compeyson didn’t fit the mould of a stereotypical criminal, essentially. Thus, Dickens is critiquing how his audience viewed criminality, highlighting that society is more complicated than just dividing people into “good” or “bad”.

Class

Speaking of class, this is also another interesting theme in the novel. Dickens critiques the binary notion of just “lower-class” and “upper-class”. Social mobility – whether rising in class or lowering in status – was increasingly possible in the Victorian period.

For example, Pip makes the declaration:

‘I want to be a gentleman’

(Great Expectations, Chapter 17)

As a boy, he is initially apprenticed as a blacksmith by his guardian and brother-in-law, Joe. When he suddenly receives finances from an anonymous benefactor, he moves to London as a young man and is able to better his circumstances, experiencing and enjoying city society. This highlights the extreme fluidity there is in social class, and challenges the notion that individuals are born and “trapped” in one way of live forever.

– Judith