The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

29981Fiction — print. Bantam, 1994. Originally published 1896. 157 pgs. Library copy.

Shipwrecked somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, Edward Prendick is rescued by a passing ship and revived by a man named Montgomery. The ship has been chartered by Montgomery to carry a collection of animals to an small island in the Pacific owned by a Dr. Moreau, although Montgomery refuses to tell Prendick what exactly Moreau plans to do with the animals or explain who exactly Moreau is.

“So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick, so long as your own pains drive you, so long as pain underlies your propositions about sin, so long, I tell you, you are an animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels.” (pg. 83)

As the ship reaches the island, the captain demands Montgomery, his bestial manservant M’ling, and Prendick leave the ship and remain on Moreau’s island despite Montgomery’s assertion that he cannot off refuge to Prendick. Stranded by the captain, Montgomery eventually takes pity on Prendick and allows him to make a home in an outer room of Moreau’s compound with the promise that Prendick will not bother the doctor or interfere with his work.

However, the anguished cries of the puma Montgomery transported for Moreau’s use drives Prendick from the enclosure and into the jungle. There, he finds a group of humanoids — half-human, half-beast known as the “Beast Folk” — who are victims of Moreau’s mad experiments and now live their lives by a series of laws that praise Moreau and criticize their beastly behavior. Worried that Moreau and Montgomery plan to experiment on him, Prendick attempts to live among the Beast Folk until Moreau’s laws begin to lose their grip on this ragtag society and the Beast Folk begin to revert back to their baser instincts.

“Before they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence began in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau — and for what?” (pg. 109)

Back in May, I finally listened to my friends and started watching the television series “Orphan Black” blowing through nearly three seasons worth of episodes to catch up before the season finale near the end of June. Those of you who are familiar with the show know that Ethan Duncan, the creator of the LEDA clone experiment, hide the answer to the clones’ genetic code in a copy of Wells’ 1896 novel about the horrors of scientific experimentation. And, well, if I’m going to call myself a member of the #CloneClub (name for fans for the show), then I’m obviously going to do it right and read The Island of Dr. Moreau.

The back cover of my copy says “this early work of H.G. Wells was greeted in 1896 by howls of protest from reviewers, who found it horrifying and blasphemous. They wanted to know more about the wondrous possibilities of science in his first book, The Time Machine, not its potential for misuse and terror”. I haven’t read Wells’ first book so I cannot comment on that comparison, but horrifying and blasphemous? Yes, I would concur with that assessment.

Horrifying because how terrifying would it be to stumble across a St. Bernard fashioned into a man or a hyena and a pig stitched together? I ended up visualizing every aspect, stitching together and recreating these horrifying beasts in my mind long after I should have been asleep. In a tent. In the middle of the woods.

The small solace I had reading this novel is, unlike in 1896, we know you cannot take the parts of one and stitch them into another with serious anti-rejection drug regimes so the bizarre beasts Wells concocts would die long before they learned to walk on two legs.

The novel stands not only as a critique of scientific exploration but also of colonialism, itself. The setting, the top-down oppression of a people seen as grotesque and beneath their British owners by a series of rules they did not vote upon, and the sympathy expressed on the part of Moreau’s creations all encourage readers of the time period to examine how they view and treat others in faraway lands. Darwinism and the theory of evolution were used at the time to justify colonialism so why can’t it be used to justify vivisection and creating hybrid beings?

As for the whole reason why I read this book in the first place, no, I didn’t find much in the way of spoilers for the upcoming season of “Orphan Black”. The novel and the show have a singular theme in common — how science can be misused and release (so-called) blasphemous creations on the world — but the similarities appear to end there. Of course, knowing how well the show keeps viewers on their toes, it’s hard to say for certain that Dog-Man and Hyena-Swine aren’t being held in the bowels of the Dyad Institute.

One comment

  1. Sadly I’ve read very little of HG Wells (except War of the Worlds), but I have a few on my shelf. I keep meaning to read The Time Machine and I think I started The Invisible Man but had to put it down for something. You make a great point about the horrors of these types of books in Victorian eyes versus our modern eyes. I should be better about putting myself into the times when reading classics to get the full effect. I remember being a bit disappointed in Frankenstein, but it could have been a completely different read with a different perspective.


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