H.G. Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU
H.G. Wells (1866-1946) is responsible for The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man. He called The Island of Dr. Moreau an “exercise in youthful blasphemy.”
Wells, H.G. The Island of Dr. Moreau. 1896. NY: Penguin, 1988.
Wells, H.G. The Island of Dr. Moreau. 1896. NY: Dover Pub. Inc., 1996.
Here is an online version of the novel:
The Island of Dr. Moreau.
The first significant film version was titled Island of Lost Souls (1932), starring Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. It is reported that Wells was “delighted” with it, especially in that it was banned by the British Censor.
A film version starring Burt Lancaster and Michael York appeared in 1977: The Island of Dr. Moreau.
The latest film version stars Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer: The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996).
Topics for Writing:
The specific “madness” of this mad scientist.
Horror and/or science fiction.
Wells and Judeo-Christianity.
The female presence in the novel.
The threat of misanthropy.
Influences and Contexts:
Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (1866-1946) did not think highly of each other’s work. Wells’ vision is much bleaker, but in The Time Machine, which enjoyed tremendous success in 1895, despite the nightmarish elements seen in the future, Wells still gives us glimmers of hope. The following year, with The Island of Dr. Moreau, however, the thoroughly dark vision repulsed readers. Instead of focusing on potential dangers of the future, the work this time emphasized “the animal, chaotic, bloody origins and hidden nature of the human present” (McConnell 89). Wells acknowledged that the work itself is “rather painful” (qtd. in Williamson 74-75).
Influences include Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe with its “air of documentary factuality” (Williamson 76); Voltaire’s Candide, one of Wells’ favorite works (McConnell 90); Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels with its own dark, satirical misanthropy and final repulsion for human “Yahoos”; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for obvious reasons; Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book and its imperialistic “Law of the Jungle” — very different from what Wells describes; “a scandalous trial about that time, the graceless and pitiful downfall of a man of genius [understood to be Oscar Wilde]” (qtd. in Reed 134); and the famous scientist and lecturer Huxley, who had been attacked by anti-vivisectionists. Prendick is made a former biology student of Huxley’s. The book cannot be read as straightforwardly anti-scientific and anti-experimentalist (McConnell 93), especially since Wells penned numerous scientific essays in which he seems to express his faith in the possibilities of biological experimentation.
18th-century romances about “the natural goodness of man” were often set on tropical islands, so this setting is nicely ironical. Caliban, the malicious wretch-creature from Shakespeare’s The Tempest is another influence, via a Browning poem, “Caliban upon Setebos.” In 1884, the legal case of Regina v. Dudley and Stephens resulted in a decision against sailors who had had to resort to cannibalism to survive (Reed 134).
Wells referred to the book as “an exercise in youthful blasphemy” (qtd. in Williamson 75). He also reported in his own autobiography that he lost his religious faith when at about the age of 12 he experienced a nightmare in which God was slowly roasting a sinner over a fire built under a wheel. He hated God intensely and was resentful at the kind of divine hypocrisy he invests in Moreau (Williamson 78).
“The Law,” the chanting of which was a late addition to the novel (Reed 136), is a “bitter parody of the Ten Commandments handed down by the vengeful God of the Old Testament; Moreau’s own set of conditioned responses” (McConnell 96), and a parody of Kipling’s “Law of the Jungle” in his Jungle Books (Reed 136). Wells is exploring behaviorism, a “scientific” paradigm that did not exist as such for another 50 years.
The Island of Dr. Moreau calls into question “the most basic tenet of the entire tradition of Western humanism: the belief in the speciality, the sublime individuality, the autonomy of the human species on this planet” (McConnell 90). This was the really revolutionary effect of Darwinism: the dethronement of humankind from the center of creation. Morality is shown to be merely a conditioned reflex (McConnell 92). “Moreau’s island is a totalitarian regime — perhaps the first really totalitarian regime imagined by Western man” (McConnell 92).
Prendick: “A sort of Christ to Moreau’s God, he fraternizes with the Beast People and attempts to teach them” (Williamson 80).
Montgomery: what was his crime? “Why am I here now — an outcast from civilisation — instead of being a happy man enjoying all the pleasures of London? Simply because — eleven years ago — I lost my head for ten minutes on a foggy night” (11).
Moreau: physically looks like whom or what? “I looked at him, and saw but a white-faced, white-haired man, with calm eyes” (59). He functions like whom or what?
Wells uses the “found manuscript” tradition. The main character’s nephew introduces Prendick’s manuscript, and we are left to take it or to leave it.
The “facts” of the case include noticeable ship names: Lady Vain, Scorpion, Myrtle, Medusa, and especially the Ipecacuanha. So women, poison, and vomit are the nautical themes. The last name, in particular, is interesting. Prendick acknowledges the idea that the ship “acts accordingly” — as an emetic purgative (4) — but despite the emphasis on graphic unpleasantness here, the idea is to restore health. The book itself might be seen as functioning this way.
Wells gives us several depictions of communities, the first being the shipwreck survivors in the lifeboat. One man had died, “luckily for us” (1). They don’t talk after the first day, just eventually eye each other with a common unspeakable thought. So here is a vision of distrust and antagonism, finally of cannibalistic impulses. When two of the men fight and tumble overboard to their deaths, Prendick laughs hysterically (2; see the “King Laugh” passage in Dracula). This is the first nasty and contentious “community,” a manifestation of the anxiety that “We were up from the apes, not down from the angels” (Aldiss 140).
The second community is that of the “rescue” ship, but Prendick awakens to a drink described like iced blood (4). The first worry is when he’ll be eligible for “solid food” (4). It’s difficult to believe that under any circumstances boiled mutton (4-5) is in any way an “appetising” smell. But Prendick scarfs it down while he hears animals howling above deck (5). Montgomery has saved Prendick’s life, but he insists it’s entirely a matterof chance and randomness. There’s no real connection or friendship here; Montgomery shuts down when real topics approach (11). The captain is foul and perpetually drunk, but he declares himself “the law and the prophets” (9). And everyone hates the “black-faced man” (e.g., 6). So in this community there is no sympathy, there are no alliances, and once again it’s a vision of raw survival.
The island consists of masters and slaves. It’s not a community, just one man’s mad vision and the results of his irresponsibility. The biblical phrase of “Increase and multiply” (19) is applied to rabbits so that Montgomery can breed meat. And further eating takes place all while animals are screaming. “It was as if all the pain in the world had found a voice” (26). When Prendick seems to be stalked, he assumes the creature is out to get him, though ultimately it only says “No” and runs away (30), then follows. So, like the creatures later, it really just seems curious, yet the narrative perspective projects enmity onto everything else. Prendick doesn’t ask what is different about the creatures, but what is “wrong” (e.g., 18).
It was no brute this time. It was a human being in torment! … I picked myself up and stood trembling, / my mind a chaos of the most horrible misgivings. Could the vivisection of men be possible? The question shot like lightning across a tumultuous sky. And suddenly the clouded horror of my mind condensed into a vivid realisation of my danger. (36-37)
“But I never before saw an animal trying to think” (51). No, just humans failing to.
“But … I still do not understand. Where is your justification for inflicting all this pain? The only thing that could excuse vivisection to me would be some application — ” (54). So supposedly the sadistic infliction of pain is not the horror, but pointlessness: “… like a wave across my mind, came the realisation of the unspeakable aimlessness of things upon the island” (73).
“The study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature” (52). Rhetorically slick, but questionable self-justification.
Moreau’s vegetarianism has been compared to Hitler’s, which Carol Adams explains had everything to do with a health movement’s neurotic obsession with purity and nothing to do with ethics or compassion. It’s a kind of narcissism divorced from any protest aspect of consumption.
“It was a limbless thing with a horrible face that writhed along the ground in a serpentine fashion” (58).
The female principle — there are no women in the book — is cast as particularly foul. The female puma brings about the demise of Moreau (80-81) after being cast (screaming in pain) as a “virago” (75). The female creatures are described as particularly monstrous (63-64, 68), especially when they “even attempted public outrages on the institution of monogamy” (97). Note that the Vixen/Bear or Fox/Bear becomes a “Witch.”
“Then we went into the laboratory and put an end to all we found living there” (82).
“An animal may be ferocious and cunning enough, but it takes a real man to tell a lie” (94).
Signs of bestiality?
- Hands — fewer fingers.
- Lack of laughter (62) — a) what the hell do they have to laugh about? b) who says they don’t when men are not around?
- Hanging arms — rendered useless? Relaxed?
- Poor posture — they don’t walk around like they have sticks up their butts.
The dog man becomes the St. Bernard dog man, from a domesticated animal form. M’ling has a name as a sign of rudimentary status, like a pet.
“How much, we are forced to ask, is our belief in the afterlife simply an expression of our fear — fear that the dead, our fathers, may still be looking on and judging our lives?” (McConnell 97). Scandalous!
When the creatures get human voices, they lose their voice. Discuss.
(They end up parroting The Law in an empty ritualistic litany vaguely linked to the memory of pain. Their former “voice” was manifested in the screams of pain that, as good scientists, we are not to take anthropocentrically as if the noises they emit signify pain as you and I feel it — they do not. Animals do not experience pain the same as we do, we are perpetually told; they are not sentient creatures and do not go to heaven. The earmuffs worn in slaughterhouses are, well, never mind that.)
An individual experimenter was stopped, arbitrarily, but the modus operandi and all the assumptions remain. Moreau’s place could have been filled more securely by Prendick.
“The spirit of Dr. Moreau is alive and well and living in these United States. These days, he would be state-funded” (Aldiss 142).
“I could not get away from men; their voices came through windows; locked doors were flimsy safeguards. I would go out into the streets to fight with my delusion, and prowling women would mew after me, furtive craving men glance jealously at me, weary pale workers go coughing by me, with tired eyes and eager paces like wounded deer dripping blood, old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves, and all unheeding…” (103).
Perhaps it takes animals to point out, at least implicitly, how disgusting and unworthy of the planet’s resources is humankind. There does circulate a usually unspoken notion that animals are ours to torture and slaughter; and this is only slightly a paraphrase: “I don’t care how many millions of animals have to suffer if it saves my little Cody one afternoon of the sniffles.” So Prendick ends up emotionally scarred and anti-social, and critics have fits and frets. He might justifiably have been a heck of a lot more misanthropic finally.
I hope Wells intended to blow anthropocentric assumptions out of the water, that he was consciously attacking the smugness of the assumption that evolution has occurred for our benefit, or glorification, that evolution is somehow a pro-human force or designed towards man as the superb end-product.
Aldiss, Brian. Afterword. The Island of Dr. Moreau. NY: Penguin, 1988. 139-144.
McConnell, Frank. The Science Fiction of H.G. Wells. NY: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Philmus, Robert M. and David Y. Hughes, eds. H.G. Wells: Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.
Reed, John R. “The Vanity of Law in The Island of Dr. Moreau.” H.G. Wells Under Revision. Ed. Patrick Parrinder and Christopher Rolfe. London: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1990. 134-144.
Wells, H.G. The Island of Dr. Moreau. 1896. NY: Penguin, 1988.
—. The Island of Dr. Moreau. 1896. NY: Dover Pub. Inc., 1996.
—. The Island of Dr. Moreau: A Variorum Text. Ed. Robert M. Philmus. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1993.
Williamson, Jack. H.G. Wells: Critic of Progress. Baltimore: The Mirage Press, 1973.