Monday, 31 October 2011

The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H. G. Wells

After reading about fictional members of the Fabian Society I turned my thoughts to the fiction of a real life member; HG Wells was a radical thinker of his time, a socialist, Fabian, and eugenicist. He wrote many works of fiction and non-fiction, but is now mainly remembered for his science fiction works. The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of HG Wells’s most successful novels. It has been adapted many times into film versions with varying success. Like many early works of science fiction, and urban gothic novels such as Frankenstein, the ideas loom larger in public consciousness than the original text.

Shipwrecked on a remote island Edward Prendick finds himself in the company of Dr Moreau and his assistant Montgomery. At first he is happy to be offered their hospitality, but quickly develops a growing sense of unease over the mysterious happenings on the island, and the grotesque native inhabitants. He is provided with a room, which contains a mysterious locked door, from behind which emanates screams that torment Prendick. At first he believes it is a puma he can hear, but when the cries take on a more human aspect Prendick opens the door and discovers the truth: Dr Moreau is a vivisectionist. The island is inhabited by his experiments, animals that have been made into quasi-humans. With all memory of their animal past suppressed but not extinguished, Dr Moreau keeps his experiments in line with the Law, which dictates they cannot eat flesh, lap up water, or walk on all fours. Moreau is a godlike figure to them, who sees and hears all. However his experiments are all failures; in time the beast reasserts itself. Now a rebellious few have rediscovered the taste for meat. Moreau no longer has control over the inhabitants of his island..

The Island of Dr Moreau is narrated in first person by Prendick, in the form of a journal written at some later stage of his life. This was published by his nephew who found the documents after his death. It includes an introduction written by the nephew, informing us that the ship Prendick names was indeed wrecked, and that Prendick was found adrift at sea some eleven months after his disappearance. His initial ravings are dismissed as that of a man driven crazy, and subsequently he keeps quiet; the journal entry is the only explanation of this time Prendick has ventured. The nephew also confirms the existence of an island, later explored as uninhabited but populated by some unusual animals. This narrative style is common in books of the time; Frankenstein is narrated to a stranger who records the tale for his sister, Dracula is written in the form of diary entries and letters. By doing so the author conveys a sense of veracity: I do not make this up, I am merely the vehicle by which this strange and true tale is brought to you. In Doctor Moreau this style has another effect, as we know that Prendick escapes alive. We are never in suspense as to whether his life is seriously in jeopardy, therefore we are free to focus on the events themselves, and the ideas that are contained within them..

Doctor Moreau was published some forty years after The Origin of Species, and a little over twenty years after The Descent of Man. The idea of human evolution was still a recent and controversial idea. Indeed, some people still struggle with the concept. At a time when people still debated if different races were the same species, Wells published a novel exploring the bestial nature of humans. For that is what this book is truly about, not the failure of the animals to become human. Moreau himself is a nightmare, on the surface a civilised, rational, intelligent man, but he inflicts pain and terror on his creations, all in the pursuit of science. He states
‘I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter’.
However it is Moreau, in his contempt for his fellow human beings, who reveals the truth, ‘the mark of the beast’ that lives in all of us beneath the veneer of civilisation..

The novel reaches its climax in fighting between the animals and their creators, but as I have already said, we always know Prendick survives. The high point is the final chapter, where Wells finally explicitly reveals his theme: Prendick’s horror at finding himself in the company of humans again. In a few spine chilling paragraphs Wells deconstructs the societies we have created, asking the reader to question his own humanity, something that resonates now, but must have been truly shocking for its time. Like many of Wells’s books The Island of Doctor of Moreau is short, but the ideas are huge, and the prose clear and evocative. A deserved classic that should be remembered, and not as a silly Val Kilmer film.


  1. And don't forget the Simpsons Halloween episode vignette! Classic.

  2. Trust Andy to bring up The Simpsons : )