War of the Worlds is such a fun novel, and H.G. Wells is always able to entertain. The book deals with a host of themes and allusions that are carefully constructed in the text to make the thematic significance of the book more apparent. However, Wells’ female characters, or female shadows, are interesting when we consider the implications of women in a post-apocalyptic world. Many of the female characters are silent, or can’t stop screaming, with one semi-redeeming exception. This begs the question: is there a place for only a certain kind of female character in science fiction (before the twentieth century), and does Wells’ description of them reflect an anxiety about women in general?
There are three ‘main’ women in the text: the narrator’s wife, and the two women the narrator’s brother meets. The narrator’s wife exists in a space of qualifying dialogue, saying things like “don’t, dear!” with a “deadly white” face and “they may come here” over and over (46-7). She falls into a kind of one-dimensional, uncomprehending panic as soon as we meet her, with her husband (the narrator) left to comfort her. “The necessity of reassuring [his] wife” (48) falls to him, and we get no thought, genuine reaction, or interesting dialogue from his wife, and don’t know her at all beyond her “sweet anxious face” (48) before she is passed off to the narrator’s cousins and falls out of the book (and our minds) until the end of the novel. Although we don’t get much of her character, Wells seems to be saying that we don’t need much beyond what she contributes to her husband. She is a damsel in distress in its purest incarnation: saved and sequestered.
The other two relevant women in the text are the “two ladies who became [the narrator’s brother’s] fellow travellers” (147), who he comes upon “just in time to save them” (147). “One of the ladies, a short woman dressed in white, was simply screaming; the other, a dark, slender figure, slashed at the man who gripped her arm with a whip she held in her disengaged hand” (147). It becomes clear to the reader that the woman in white is a similar to the narrator’s wife, and archetypal damsel, but the rescue that happens isn’t so much a result of the narrator’s brother as it is from the slender woman, which changes the way we might view her. She’s a powerful woman, and commands far more of herself and the situation than her sister-in-law, but she is still secondary, and is pushed back into the role of a “silly woman” (211) when “Miss Elphinstone was white and pale, and her sister-in-law sat weeping” (162).
All three of these women are, at the very least, secondary. Despite Miss Elphinstone’s sister-in-law’s moxie, she must depend on the narrator’s brother. So, why doesn’t Wells allow them a voice? Part of the answer is because he doesn’t think to do it, but I also think that with the end of the world and the destruction of British values and consequently the patriarchy, the question of what to do with women becomes too big to answer. In theory, all the social systems that govern and confine women in nineteenth century London are destroyed, but we have only one women in the text who is even close to taking advantage of this, and she still relies on a man. Of course, the world is ending and everything’s on fire, but if the effort is being made here to maintain patriarchal values and stereotypes surrounding women, then there can certainly be an effort to subvert them.
This is almost too large a topic for a blog post, but it is interesting to consider.