The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells

The beast in man…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Shipwrecked, Edward Prendick is rescued and finds himself on an island in the eastern Pacific Ocean, inhabited only by scientist Dr Moreau and his assistant Dr Montgomery – and some strange creatures that appear half-human and half-beast. As Prendick becomes more familiar with what Dr Moreau is doing on the island, he is horrified at the cruelty and danger of his experiments.

While there are some horrific images in this novella and some scenes of real animal cruelty, Wells doesn’t linger too much over them, and the book says so much about the world Wells was living in that, squeamish though I am, I found this a great, thought-provoking read. The hellishness of the images is important to the underlying points that Wells is making, and therefore in no way gratuitous.

Wells’ writing is brilliant, making this a tense and frightening adventure as well as a novel stuffed full of ideas. Like so many of the adventure writers of his time, Wells clearly understood that any book has to be first and foremost interesting and exciting, making the reader willing to turn the pages and absorb the deeper meanings without it beginning to feel like either a text book or a polemical rant. Read purely as an adventure, this is a dark and terrifying story indeed, from the first pages when Prendick and his fellow survivors are afloat on an open sea with no food and running out of fresh water, to the scenes on the island when Dr Moreau’s experiments go horrifically wrong.

But it’s what the book says about Wells’ society that lifts it to the status of a true classic, and since I find it impossible to discuss any of that without spoilers, I suggest anyone who wants to read the book stops reading my post at this point. In short, I highly recommend both the story and the Oxford World’s Classics edition, which contains an informative introduction written by Darryl Jones, who goes into the themes of the book much more deeply and knowledgeably than I’m about to.

* * * * * * * * *

Dr Moreau’s experiments are an extreme form of vivisection – an attempt to give animals the characteristics of humans, such as the ability to walk upright, to speak, and so on. To do this, he puts them through a process of unspeakable cruelty and, although Wells doesn’t go into a mass of detail, he makes it very clear what is happening and leaves the reader in no doubt of the appalling suffering of the beasts. Intriguingly, the book is not an anti-vivisection tract, however. Prendick, who seems to speak for Wells, accepts the necessity and benefits of vivisection, as he sees it. His objections to Moreau’s experiments are two-fold – firstly, that not enough consideration is given to minimising the suffering of the animals and, secondly, that Moreau’s experiments have no beneficial point – science for science’s sake, part of the tradition of “mad science” that was being explored in so many books of the period.

Again, as in The Time Machine, Wells is also looking at the questions raised by evolution. At first, Prendick thinks Moreau is experimenting on men to turn them into beasts, and is utterly horrified at what he clearly sees as blasphemous. On learning the truth, that beasts are being made human-like, he still feels disgust, but not to the same degree. The suggestion implicit in evolution, that man ascended from the beast and is, in fact, still no more than an animal, was clearly one that was still troubling society, particularly with its seeming contradiction of the idea of creation as told in the Bible. Moreau’s beasts are only part of the horror here, though. Wells also shows how quickly the shipwreck survivors descend to bestial behaviour in the face of starvation.

There are also hints in this theme about the question of separate races, a kind of hierarchy of superiority, with, of course, white people at the top. Black people are shown as at the bottom of the heap, closer to the ape, but Wells manages to disparage Jews too. Again, one has to allow for the time of writing, but these hints don’t sit well in a modern context. In his introduction, Darryl Jones clarifies that this ties in with the then prevalent theory of racial polygeny – the idea that there was more than one line of evolutionary descent, that all humans do not share common ancestry.

HG Wells

If Wells’ acceptance of evolution (and therefore implicit rejection of the Biblical creation story) wasn’t enough to upset religious leaders, then I imagine his own creation of a religion specifically designed to control and subjugate the beasts would have done it very effectively, especially based as it is on a kind of beast-ish bastardisation of the Commandments. It reminded me of Marx’s description of religion as the “opiate of the masses”, though whether that’s a connection Wells wished us to make I can’t say.

Jones also puts the book into a tradition of “island novel”, a form that was used as a way to study man isolated from the constraints of civilisation – Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, The Coral Island, etc. The island in this book is set very close in location to Galapagos, the island which, in legend at least, gave Darwin his first ideas about how evolution worked. When things break down on the island, Wells shows how quickly the creatures revert to their original beast, but the true horror is that, on his return to civilisation, Prendick’s eyes have been opened to such a degree to the evolutionary closeness of man and animal, that he can see only the innate beast in the behaviour of the people around him.

Superbly written, I found the depth of the ideas it contained vastly outweighed the horror of the imagery. Not one I shall forget in a hurry, that’s for sure.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics, via Amazon Vine UK.

Book 8 of 90

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57 thoughts on “The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells

    • Thank you! One of the things I like most about Wells is that he makes you work a little, but not too hard – and he always tells a great story for when you don’t want to think about “meanings” and stuff…

  1. One of my all-time favourites, although when I read it as a child I probably didn’t get the full depth of its horror. (I did reread it in my 20s and it seemed more science-fictiony at the time than it does now.)

    • For some reason, I’ve never read it before, which is strange since I went through a big Wells phase in my teens. But it’s leapt up to favourite status now – I think it may actually be his best. I loved science fiction when it addressed questions like this – before it became all about space wars and weapons and stuff…

  2. Oooh this is a brilliantly disturbing book. I love this review you capture the spirit of the book perfectly, there are various levels of story and ideas going on here and I think this is one of Wells’ finest, myself. I shall be thinking about this all day, now!

    • Thank you – I’m glad you enjoyed it! 😀 For some strange reason I hadn’t read this one before, but yes, I agree – I think this is the most powerful of them. I love that he doesn’t forget to put a great story in there too…

  3. Wells really did have a way with words, didn’t he, FictionFan? I know just what you mean, too, about his ability to convey the horror of what’s going on in this story without being gruesome about it. And it does really raise some important questions, and it invites the reader to think. All without preaching, too. I do think you have to be in the right mood to get the most out of it, as (for me) it’s not one of those enjoyable reads that you later put down and forget. But it’s well worth it and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    • He was a great writer, and the fact that he can do it all without obsessive detail – and that he remembers to put a great story in there too – is something that seems to have been lost in contemporary fiction somehow. I think the blurb had made me fear it was going to be even worse than it is in terms of horrors, which I think actually helped – I had steeled myself in advance! But there are still some pretty disturbing images…

    • Hurrah! It really is up there with his best, I think, and even though there are bits of it that are pretty disturbing, it’s worth it! Just don’t blame me if you have nightmares… 😉

  4. You’re a better woman than I am – I never managed to finish this, and I doubt I ever will, despite normally being a big fan of Wells.

    • I suspect it may be age related – I think it would have upset me much more if I’d tried to read it as a teenager. But there’s no doubt I’m tougher about stuff like this now – when it’s on paper anyway. However, I’ve decided not to watch any of the film versions.

  5. Hmm, I never read this one and, despite your outstanding review, I don’t think I will. Experiments on animals disturb me greatly. Yes, I know in theory that Man is superior to Animal, but to me that only means we have a responsibility to care for them humanely. Okay, I’ll hop off my soapbox now!

    • I’m not at all convinced we’re superior! But maybe that’s because I live with cats, who remind me of my lowly status every day… 😉 I’m not going to try to twist your arm on this one – it’s excellent, but there are some fairly horrific scenes. Never seen the point of reading books that don’t appeal…

      • On reconsideration, Dallas is a way better “person” than a lot of persons I’ve heard of! And you’re so right — with so many books available, it’s just hard to spend time with something that’s unappetizing!

    • Thank you! 😀 I’ve never seen the film and don’t think I will – oddly, I can cope with reading horror better than watching it. I do recommend the book highly, and if you do decide to read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

  6. I’m glad you enjoyed this and didn’t let that blurb put you off reading it! It’s certainly disturbing, but it’s also the sort of book that really leaves you with a lot to think about. Your review is great, by the way. 🙂

    • That blurb really had me worried, but actually I think it helped – I had kind of steeled myself in preparation! Thank you! I love that about Wells – his ability to give us something so thought-provoking but still tell a great story too… 🙂

    • I thought I’d read more of him in my teens than it seems as if I actually have. But I’m really appreciating reading them now – I don’t think younger me picked up on anything except the exciting adventures. Definitely dig them out! 😀

  7. Great review. I’m not sure if discussing themes count as ‘spoilers’, if so, my reviews are full of them! Twists and plot points are spoilers, especially late in the story, but I don’t think themes are. It doesn’t leave much to review without them!

    • Thank you! Ha! In general terms I totally agree with you, but there was something about this one that meant I was finding it really hard to discuss the themes without giving away the plot, including how it ended – so I decided to wimp out and just split the review. But I don’t usually do it… 😉

  8. What a fascinating review! I read the second half as I was fairly convinced I wouldn’t want to read this one myself but that’s not to say I wasn’t tempted by the themes you then discuss. I do enjoy books that tell a good story but have another point under the surface and you are quite right about Wells not forgetting that chiefly readers want something that keeps them turning those pages.

    • Thank you! It’s a fascinating book – I love the fact that he can manage to pack so much into such a short space, and still manage to tell a great story too. I really thought I’d struggle more with this one but, though some of it is pretty horrific, it’s not quite as bad as the blurb led me to expect…

  9. Great review! I’ve never read this book, but you make me want to. Wells was amazing for his time, I’ve read a bit about his life, he was quite the ladies’ man too and had lots of affairs. He was originally a biology teacher which I guess explains how true to life his stories are. The Time Machine was one of his books I liked.

    • Thank you! 😀 These little Oxford World Classics books are great because they give you an introduction and in The Time Machine there was a mini bio too. I reckon I’d probably have hated Wells in person – but boy, could he write! And you can tell that he really knows his science and was bang up to date with the latest theories when he was writing…

  10. Alright, FF – just what do you think you’re doing, making me add another book to my TBR? Shamefully I’ve never read ANY Wells before! I didn’t read the second half of your review because I’m going to try this one – eventually! (I may be forced to join the Classics Club sooner rather than later, between your post and Resh Susan’s!)

    • Haha! Sorry about that! But at least this one is short. 🙂 I haven’t read Wells for years and had never read this one, but I’ve been so impressed by him with this and my re-read of The Time Machine. I really want to re-read The War of the Worlds too and see what I missed first time round!

      (Yes!! You must – see how much fun Resh Susan had making up her list?? You know you want to… 😀 )

  11. A really nice review. As horrible as some of the scenes are, it’s really an important work on so many levels: sociology, biology, history, linguistics….

    • For some reason I hadn’t read it before, but definitely deserves its classic status! These Oxford editions are great – they give just enough background info to be interesting without becoming tedious…

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