H.G. Wells’ Satire of Religion in The Island of Dr. Moreau
In The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells satirizes faith and religion through the words, actions, and interactions of Edward, Montgomery, Moreau, and the Beast People. His biblical allusions throughout the story serve to ridicule a belief in the Judeo-Christian God as the creator and overseer of the universe, suggesting a more existential view of life. Although his human characters assert a faith in a “Maker” (55, 75) and the possibility of something greater beyond “the daily cares and sins and troubles of men” (104), the book ends with a pessimistic evaluation of human nature and the reason for or purpose of human existence.
Wells opens the book with a darkly satiric sketch of human survival. As Edward Prendick narrates his close encounters with death out at sea, we find that laughter or a tone of humor discordantly accompany these experiences. After watching his two fellow passengers on the life boat of the Lady Vain fall overboard in a life and death struggle, Edward relates, “I remember laughing at that and wondering why I laughed” (2). And later, as he sees the Ipecacuanha approaching, he morbidly states, “I had a persuasion that I was dead, and that I thought what a jest it was they should come too late by such a little to catch me in my body” (3). This commingling of death and humor is disturbing because it suggests a flippant attitude toward the sanctity of human life. Such a light-hearted view of death conveys the sense that, contrary to popular belief, human existence is not so incredibly important or central to the overall functioning of the universe. By questioning the gravity of death in the beginning of the story, Wells prepares his readers to confront the idea that human existence might not be planned or ordered by any kind of providence, divine or otherwise.
In the microcosm of Moreau’s Island, Wells satirizes Judeo-Christian beliefs by having Moreau’s intellectually inferior Beast People create a religion for themselves that mimics many of Judaism and Christianity’s central tenants. The “idiotic formula” (42) that Edward is forced to repeat on his first visit to the Beast People’s village shares a striking resemblance to the Ten Commandments found in the book of Deuteronomy. Both “Laws” follow a pattern of repeating negative statements: “You shall have no other gods before me…. You shall not make yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (5:7-8), compared to “Not to go on all-Fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?” (43). Both sets of laws are obeyed through a sense of fear. The Beast People repeat the refrain, “Evil are the punishments of those who break the Law. None escape” (44), while the book of Deuteronomy warns, “Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name … for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land” (6:13-15). Both laws are also to be constantly recited. The frequent recitation of pieces of the law is practically the only form of speech that some Beast People produce, and Deuteronomy commands the Israelites to “talk about them [the commandments] when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (6:7). In his interview with Edward, Moreau states that the Beast People “have a kind of mockery of a rational life…. There’s something they call the Law” (59), which indicates that they have created most of this creed on their own, without his interference. The implications of the Law being primarily a product of bestial cognition is highly unflattering to the intelligence of those who practice organized religion.
Wells continues in his mockery of organized faith by dropping biblical language and allusions throughout the novel that compare Moreau to God, Montgomery to the Holy Spirit, and Edward to Jesus Christ. Edward’s use of the phrase “we three blue-clad men” (68) in his account of the gathering of the Beast People for the hunt of the Leopard Man subtly invokes the idea of the Trinity, and the Satyr’s use of the expression, “The Third” (65) more directly alludes to this biblical concept. The irony of Wells’ unholy trinity of Moreau, Montgomery, and Edward is the fact that none of these characters really care for the Beast People to whom they are considered deity, with the possible exception of Montgomery whose compassion proves to be more deadly than Edward’s aversion and Moreau’s indifference. By creating parallels between these three men and the three central figures of Judeo-Christianity, Wells implies that faith in such a system is unreasonable and absurd.
Wells creates many parallels between Moreau and the Judeo-Christian God, but the most striking are those that involve biblical phraseology. In his private meeting with Edward, Moreau describes the process of vivisecting animals into human form, at one point stating, “I made my first man. All the week, night and day, I moulded him” (56), and afterward he “rested from work for some days” (57). These statements use language very similar to that found in Genesis, in which God is said to have “formed” (2:8) man and then “rested from all his work” (2:2). However, previously in the interview, Moreau plainly declared that he had no ultimate plan or purpose in mind when creating the Beast People other than to satisfy his own curiosity and appetite for knowledge. He tells Edward, “I have gone on not heeding anything but the question I was pursuing” (56). As the God-figure in the novel, Moreau’s lack of concern for his creation implies a parallel disregard that any type of deity may have for humanity. Wells, in his comparison of Dr. Moreau to the Judeo-Christian God, seems to be saying that if there is a God, he has no real purpose or plan for mankind.
Montgomery’s semblance to the Holy Spirit is equally ironic. An obvious connection between Montgomery and the Holy Ghost is evident in the scene in which he distributes alcoholic spirits to the Beast Men, crying, “Drink, and be men. Dammy, I’m the cleverest. Moreau forgot this. This is the last touch” (84). Additionally, the description of Montgomery’s death in which a “weltering tumult of dazzling lightÉfell like a glory upon his death-shrunken face” (87) also recalls a similarity to biblical passages in which the Holy Spirit is described in terms of dazzling radiance, as in the blinding light in the account of Saul’s conversion (Acts 9:3) and the opening of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism (John 3:16). By assigning Montgomery the role of the Holy Spirit, Wells mocks his inability to save the Beast People, to infuse them with a human-like spirit that would drive out their inherent bestiality. Montgomery’s attachment to and sympathy for the Beast People paradoxically leads to their violent destruction rather than the redemption of their souls.
As the Christ figure of the Trinity, Edward’s relationship with the Beast People is particularly satirical. Although he occasionally displays compassion for them, he is an unlikely Savior, generally showing concern only for his own survival. The confusion that the Beast People have over his categorization as a Moreau creation and genuine human parallels the tenuous state of being that qualified Jesus as both human and divine. As Montgomery attempts to convince the Beast People that Edward is a man with authority equal to that of himself and Moreau, the Satyr states, “Yesterday he bled and weptÉYou never bleed nor weep. The Master does not bleed nor weep” (65), invoking images Christ and the crucifixion. Edward is also frequently addressed by the Beast People with the epithet of “Man who walked in the Sea” (65, 81, 93) which brings to mind the account of Jesus walking on water, found in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John. By using biblical imagery to connect Edward to Jesus Christ, Wells underscores the impossibility of salvation for the Beast People. His blasphemous allusions to Judeo-Christian faith serve to shock the reader into a recognition of the disordered state of the universe and the horrifying fact that humanity may not be at its center.
By systematically destroying the illusion of a well-ordered, human-centered universe implied by organized religion, Wells leaves his readers exposed to a disturbingly chaotic depiction of the cosmos. Following the death of the Leopard Man, Edward realizes, “the unspeakable aimlessness of things upon the island” (73), and confesses, “I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island. A blind fate, a vast pitiless mechanism, seemed to cut and shape the fabric of existence” (74). Montgomery confesses a similar awareness of the incomprehensibility of human life when he confides to Edward, “I haven’t had any life. I wonder when it’s going to begin…. What’s it all for, Prendick? Are we bubbles blown by a baby?” (82). Wells does not attempt to provide any answers to these questions, but seems satisfied simply to have challenged his characters and his readers with the possibility of not having an answer or a purpose for human existence. Before Montgomery dies, he murmurs to Edward, “the last … the last of this silly universe. What a mess–” (87). In this final pronouncement, Wells highlights the nonsensical enigma that is human existence.
By revealing the bestial nature of men and transforming actual beasts into humanoid form, Wells destroys the sense of superiority and divine purposefulness that humanity generally assumes. Edward reveals an injured sense of this superiority when he describes how he must “get away from these horrible caricatures of my Maker’s image” (75) after learning that Moreau’s victims were not fundamentally human. However, upon return to “civilization” he relates how he “could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another, still passably human, Beast People, animals half-wrought into the outward image of human souls” (102). Edward’s realization of the indistinction between man and animal is a dark comment on the bestial quality of human nature. By destroying humanity’s claim to the divine through his satire of religion, Wells corners his readers to an acceptance of life at face value and the primacy of simple existence above everything else.
In The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells employs satire to mock organized religion and to question the supposedly unique nature of mankind. Throughout the novel, he darkly alludes to the fact that humanity is not so incredibly special or dissimilar from the rest of creation and subtly argues that a homocentric view of the cosmos is absurdly limited. His depiction of the Beast People as semi-intelligent creatures capable of human-like interaction and religious cognition destroys the idea of humanity’s divine separateness from the rest of creation and places human existence at the same level of basic survival as the rest of the life forms on earth.
The Holy Bible. New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
Wells, H.G. The Island of Dr. Moreau. 1896. New York: Dover, 1996.