Updated: Mar 15, 2020
Aliens, Anxiety, and Immortality in Victorian Literature
Writing: Albertine Clarke
Illustration: Cat Easeman
On page 115 of his iconic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde writes that ‘the past could always be annihilated. Regret, denial, or forgetfulness could do that. But the future was inevitable’. These words, published in 1890, epitomise the paralysing anxieties that haunted street corners across Britain at the turn of the century. As the Victorian juggernaut surged forwards, literature was dragged along beside it, and that atmosphere of volatility seeps through the pages of works such as The Picture of Dorian Gray, and more overtly, H G Wells’ science fiction masterpiece The War of the Worlds. At first glance, these two novels are (literally) worlds apart, but they are united by an underlying sense of apprehension which drives the narrative in both texts. Dorian Gray’s obsession with his own youth and beauty, as well as his desire to live and act without consequence, lead him down a dark, immoral road that eventually culminates in his own destruction. H G Wells’ doomsday narrative taps into the primal fear of invasion, drawing comparisons with colonialism whilst discussing the very nature of humankind and the moral universe within which we exist. Both texts ultimately depict societal collapse - Dorian Gray’s moral corruption is an allegory for Victorian hubris. Nothing can last forever, states Wilde, not power, nor beauty, nor youth. Eventually, everything will succumb to the inevitability of time. H G Wells’ alien invaders can also be read in this context; Pintér states that ‘a summary of the imaginary evolutionary history of Mars is presented: Mars is an older planet where life developed earlier and reached a higher level of sophistication than on Earth’. This suggests that the Martians are, perhaps, a vision of humanity’s distant future. In both texts, humanity is decaying, morally and physically - however, this has been a constant throughout literary history; it is human nature to fear the future, as the future inevitably leads to death.
The Picture of Dorian Gray opens on a balmy summer day, with the ‘rich odour of roses’, the ‘heavy scent of lilac’, and the ‘delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn’ setting a scene of delightful, almost untouchable beauty. The excessive use of floral imagery establishes an idea of fleeting beauty; the flowers are in bloom on this summer day, but will inevitably fade, rot, and die. Wilde employs a lexicon of temporality - even Henry Wotton’s ‘innumerable cigarettes’ relate to the notion of passing time, the imagery of the ‘thin blue wreaths of smoke’ denoting the transient and impermanent nature of human pleasure. This establishes an underlying tension, an awareness of the ever-ticking clock bringing us closer every second to that ‘inevitable future’ of which Dorian Gray is so deathly afraid. Furthermore, the presence of the natural world reminds us of the inescapable decay to which all living things must eventually submit. The vision of a garden on a summer’s day is a comment on the inexorable nature of time - the beauty of the garden is held in the fact that the sun will go down, and autumn will come. Wilde sets the pivotal conversation between Henry Wotton and Dorian Gray, where Wotton states the line ‘Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!’, in the garden, providing a backdrop of temporality which mirrors Wotton’s assertion that ‘we never get back our youth’. Dorian is in the springtime of his life, and when he is confronted by the fact that springtime cannot last forever, he is thrown into existential panic. However, this stems not from uncertainty about the future, but the very opposite; every living thing will, eventually, experience the same descent into physical decay, ending in death. There is no uncertainty, as uncertainty would suggest that these events were, in some way, changeable. Suzanne Raitt argues that ‘[the portrait] is not just disturbing for psychological reasons, it is also horrifying for existential reasons, serving as a metaphor for the inexorable nature of biological decay’.
This concept of inevitable biological decay is also present within The War of the Worlds. Scientific advances, such as the development of germ theory, and Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ published in 1850, forced people to confront the facts of their own biology in a more direct way than ever before, leading to a reassessment of what it means to be human. In Well’s imagined universe, ‘Mars is an older planet where life developed earlier and reached a higher level of sophistication than on Earth’. The implicit suggestion within this statement is that the martians are a version of humanity’s future, where evolution has progressed to a point where their own planet is unable to sustain them - the narrator states, in the second part of the novel, that he finds it ‘quite credible that the Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves’. Their own biology has betrayed them. There is a profound sense of loss of control; both the concepts of bacteria and of evolution represent one’s lack of agency in the context of physicality, and the Martians are a product of this. On page 63, the Curate asks the narrator ‘what are these Martians?’, and he replies with ‘what are we’. This phrase conveys alienation - every assumption once held about the state of humanity was in the process of deconstruction, as humanity was confronted with the fact that we have no control over our own physical progression as a species. In a way, the relationship between the Martians and the humans they are attempting to destroy can be read as representative of the relationship between humans and bacteria, or germs - an invasive, elusive species completely beyond understanding, living within ourselves. Peter Katz argues that ‘bacteriology provides narrative material for the Victorians to think through the exterior dangers - from monsters, to aliens, to dangerous men - that threaten the cohesion of the self’, conveying the idea that the Martians are a representation of humanity’s greatest weakness - our physicality. Wilde, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, discusses fear of the inevitable future on an individual basis, whereas Wells approaches the issue from the perspective of an entire species.
The pervasive atmosphere of trepidation present in both novels is driven both by anxiety over future events, and current identity. The Victorians, or at least the authors writing through the turn of the century, faced a crisis on both a cultural and existential level. The Picture of Dorian Gray tells a story of moral degeneration, suggesting that there was questioning of the societal codes by which the Victorians had lived, and thrived - a reevaluation of right and wrong running parallel to the revaluation of what it means to be human. Toward the end of the novel, one stumbles across the telling line ‘you and I are what we are, and will be what we will be’; an attempt, on Wilde’s part, to defy the oppressor that is unbreakable morality. There is a more sinister query within the line - Wilde is suggesting, implicity, that humanity is inherently flawed; no matter how hard one tries to escape one’s nature, it remains within oneself, an unavoidable fact. There is a difference, here, between Wilde’s novel and Wells’ - Frank D McConnell writes in relation to The War of the Worlds that ‘[Wells’] two central beliefs lie at the heart of science fiction: Man is under universal sentence of death, but he has it within his power to cheat that cosmic doom’, conveying the idea that humankind can, if properly motivated, escape the dark future to which the late Victorian novelists felt condemned. Wilde presents a more dismal view: that one cannot outrun the consequences of humanity’s flawed nature. On page 115, Dorian descends into panic over the physical manifestation of his immorality, stating that ‘what the worm was to the corpse, his sins would be to the painted image on the canvas. They would mar its beauty, and eat away its grace. They would defile it, and make it shameful. And yet the thing would still live on. It would always be alive’. He is confronted with his wrongdoing, and cannot rid himself of it - the portrait is representative of the broken relationship between one and one’s animal self. Robert Louis Stevenson covered similar themes in Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde four years earlier, suggesting that it was a widespread cultural feeling. Ultimately, there is deep uncertainty over the ‘true nature’ of man, and the moral degradation of society.
This brings us to another paranoia which pervades Victorian literature - the fear of invasion, or societal corruption by a force representative of the ‘other’. Whilst The War of the Worlds can be read in an anti-colonial context, there is another layer of meaning beneath this, which is significantly darker. The Martians, with their ‘oily brown skin’, and ‘large dark-coloured eyes’, seem to represent the perceived threat to British society posed by those groups regarded as colonialist ‘others’. McConnell argues that ‘[Wells’s] permanent and preeminent concern was the fate of mankind’, but perhaps the word ‘mankind’ is misplaced, as his concern seems more directed toward the future of his own race. Wells was a known eugenicist, and the text takes on new meaning when read in this unfortunate light. The Martians, perhaps, could be a vision of humanity’s future if an effort is not made to preserve the ‘purity’ of mankind - Pintér states that ‘ultimately, his reading of the Martians is inseparable from and dependent on his interpretation of human’, suggesting that the alien invaders are less alien than first implied. Thinking back to the line ‘it is quite credible that the Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves’, one can understand the invasion as both a warning over the evolutionary future of humanity, and a projection of Wells’s anxiety over the corruption of society by outside forces. The artilleryman betwitches the narrator with his rhetoric of eugenics, and although the narrator abandons him eventually, he is not condemned. His repetition of the phrase ‘able-bodied, clean-minded’ juxtaposes the scenes of human chaos in other parts of the novel, such as the ‘exodus from London’, where Wells describes the ‘stream of flight rising swiftly to a torrent, lashing in a foaming tumult around the railway-stations, banked up into a horrible struggle’. Overall, the opinion is expressed throughout the novel that humanity is in danger of invasion both from outside forces and from those within society who are viewed as perhaps not ‘worthy’.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Penguin Books, 1891.
Wells, H G. The War of the Worlds. Oxford University Press, 1898.
Pintér, Károly. ‘The Analogical Alien: Constructing and Construing Extraterrestrial Invasion In Wells’s “The War of the Worlds”’. The Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, vol. 18, no. ½, 2012, pp. 133-149
McConnell, Frank D. ‘H G Wells: Utopia and Doomsday’. The Wilson Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 3, 1980, pp. 176-186
Raitt, Suzanne. ‘Immoral Science in The Picture of Dorian Gray’, in Strange Science: Investigating the Limits of Knowledge in the Victorian Age. Edited by Lara Karpenko and Shalyn Claggett. University of Michigan Press, 2017.
Katz, Peter. ‘Victorian Literature and Science: An Introduction’. Critical Survey, vol. 27, No. 2, 2015, pp. 1-3.