The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells

The beast in man…

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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.

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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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