Claire McKechnie’s “Spiders, Horror, and Animal Others in Late Victorian Empire Fiction.”
McKechnie begins her essay by speaking of the work of naturalist J.G. Wood, and framing her argument around a quote about ‘arachnophobia’ (505). She states that spiders became associated with “dismay and terror,” (506) during the late Victorian era, and that empire fiction writers, such as H.G. Wells, would capitalize on this association. Specifically, McKechnie claims that Wells uses the spider as a “key symbol of horror and fascination in fin-de-siècle literary culture,” (507). After her claims, McKechnie briefly explores the study of spiders during the Victorian era, citing the work of Philip Henry Gosse as responsible for the spider’s “sinister rhetorical function” (507). She continues to give an example of spider symbolism in other romances of the era, such as Bertram Mitford’s The Sign of the Spider (510 – 14).
According to McKechnie, the spider is specifically representative of colonial vengeance: “When spiders came to serve as phobic objects in later imperial fiction this association was developed further and they came to represent prevalent anxieties about the colonial aggressor seeking revenge on British imperialists,” (508). She claims that this is specifically true of Wells’s The War of the Worlds, due to its role as “reverse colonization narrative,” (514). This spider symbolism appears in Wells’s novel in the form of fighting machines that the Martians possess. McKechnie resolutely describes the purpose of this symbolism as vengeful, “the spider lands of British soil to wreak revenge on those who have pillaged other kingdoms,” (515).
I was fascinated by McKechnie’s account of how the spider became a literary menace due to its natural reputation. That being said, her eagerness to so definitively declare the spider as a symbol of vengeance in Wells’s novel was somewhat problematic. Within the confines of the narrative the Martians are not motivated by vengeance, nor are they the victims of British Imperialism, nor could they be due to their vastly superior technology. When understood through a Victorian lens and the fin-de-siècle phenomenon, this anxiety becomes more understandable, though I found it lacking in specific textual support.
“Public Imbecility and Journalistic Enterprise”:
The Satire on Mars Mania in H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds
Through applying close analyzation of the text, Malia reveals how The War of the Worlds is, “… a critique of media sensationalism as a form of scientific speculation.” Through the deployment of satirical storytelling, Wells successfully points out the unreliability of journalism.
Malia begins her argument by supplying the reader with knowledge of the time coined ‘Mars mania.’ Reports of strange lights had been reported coming from Mars and many prominent scientists considered it highly likely that life indeed existed on Mars. As mentioned in the Edinburgh Review: “(it) was the time of the great Mars boom when public imbecility and journalistic enterprise combined to flood the papers and society with ‘news from Mars,’ and queries concerning Mars, most exasperating to grave thinkers and hard workers in science.” Malia then introduces Wells as the most famous fiction writer to criticize the print media’s perpetuation of ‘Mars Mania.’ Wells is most successful in his critique when he employs journalistic-like storytelling through the unreliable narrator who embellishes and sensationalizes all events throughout the novel, mirroring the sensationalist-efforts of the news in order to make a profit off of the newspaper-readers. While Malia cites many sound examples of this journalist tone the narrator bestows himself, the best example of this when London is finally under attack and the narrator says, “…the first breath of the coming storm of fear blew throug the streets. It was the dawn of the great panic.” Here, Wells mixes journalistic storytelling (of an event that the narrator could not have actually witnessed) with the poetic devices of fiction.
Malia goes on to argue that, throughout the novel, print media repeatedly fails in producing legitimate, trustworthy news; ultimately leading to sudden and mass chaos when the strategies employed by the news agencies to sell more copies at higher prices (the threat of danger combatted with the assurance of safety) fails and London is really under direct attack. She concludes by arguing that Wells is warning the readers of the dangers of not checking sources and of believing everything that the news and print media suggests or prints.
I found this essay very convincing. There were many journalistic elements that I picked up on within the novel when reading, however I was not sure what to make of all of it. Throughout the essay, Malia makes very interesting connections to Wells’ own scientific publications that center on Darwinian theory of evolution, which also validate the claims that she makes when attempting to view War of the Worlds as a critique of the print media (and the news as a singular source). An interesting connection I see today is the reverence of the ‘sublime’ that she speaks of – of the parodoxical fear that becomes pleasure – in today’s media. Her interpretations of the novel make sense of the repetitiveness and focus on news-telling and the public’s reaction to, and obsession with, news and print media (which ultimately exists to gain a profit).
“Wells’s War of the Worlds”, the ‘Invasion story’ and Victorian Moralism, by Denis Gailor
In this article, Denis Gailor illustrates a connection between War of the Worlds and the invasion story, a narrative genre whose creation is commonly credited to George Chesney and his novella, The Battle of Dorking. The Battle of Dorking was published in 1871, after France’s defeat at the hands of the Prussians. In the novella, England is invaded by some foreign power (presumably Prussia). It’s commonly conceived that the invasion story written in relation to specific factors causing a nation to see its safety as threatened. Gailor points out that this isn’t necessarily the case in Chesney’s novel, the clearest evidence being that Prussia’s attack on France was a result of provocation from the latter, making it difficult to truly call the conflict an invasion. This also rules out any rational fear that England would suffer a fate similar to France.
Gailor therefore argues that the anxieties from which Chesney’s, and other writers’, invasion stories seem to have to do with a fear of an internal moral collapse rather than a fear of an external assault. In other words, the invasion doesn’t represent a hostile foreign power, but a moral consequence of weakness on the part of the English. The author of the invasion story then writes with an attitude of veiled satisfaction regarding the invasion. The writer portrays his own people as immoral, placing the invasion as the only suitable form of punishment. Gailor argues that the fundamental parallel between War of the Worlds and the invasion story, is the attitude of ambivalence the author holds towards his own people’s fate.. Wells sets the tone for this as he opens the novel, “what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races”(Wells 43). Here, Wells is more or less openly stating how the British deserve to be invaded due to their arrogance.
Gailor argues, “The persisting belief in a causal relationship between curiosity and presumption on the one hand, and punishment on the other, constitutes an ambivalent relationship between Wells and Victorian moralism”(Gailor 273). Here, we see Wells offering a slightly different account of moral collapse from Chesney who, according to Gailor, writes about the failing wisdom of the British empire’s methods. Wells, on the other hand speaks more towards the failing rightness of the British empire’s very existence. This helps to explain Wells’s depiction of the Curate, who views the Martian attack as a result of God’s judgement. The Curate also seems to serve the purpose of mocking Victorian moralism through his pitiful mannerisms. An interesting relation to this theme is the way that the martians are ultimately destroyed by the bacteria that mankind has been able to live with. Gailor argues that the bacteria signifies a corruption and inherent evil with which human beings, specifically the english, can live.
Gailor describes other ways in which War of the Worlds fits into this schema of the invasion story. Besides the fact that it takes place in England, a very common trope of the invasion story, Gailor claims that Wells borrows the idea of the enemy having an unfair advantage. In The Battle of Dorking the invaders possess a special kind of weapon (probably a torpedo) that can sink English ships. In War of the Worlds, this unfair advantage takes the form of the Martian heat ray. This implies some sort of sophistication possessed by the enemy that the English do not possess.