As science ﬁction cultivated something of an idiosyncratic literary character throughout the twentieth century, writers followed the trails Wells had blazed, and their imaginations were tutored by the great sequence of early Wellsian narratives: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), The First Men in the Moon (1901), and multitude of richly composed short stories. Some months back, we subjected one such tall tale, ‘The Country of the Blind’, to our collective examination. Now we do so again with a more substantial tale, The Island of Dr. Moreau. The abundance and originality of Wells’ ideas, the power and descriptive splendour of his imagination, the extravagance of his mind as it turned on scenarios and themes most probably undreamt of before that point in time are what Wells brought to the new literary form that he, more than any other, helped create. His most important and certainly most famous contributions to what can be suitable described as ‘scientiﬁc romance’ were composed within his first years as a professional writer and straddle last years of the nineteenth-century and the first of the twentieth.
One hundred and fourteen years since its composition, HG Wells’ classic tale has not yet failed to stir imaginations. The rather unemotional first-person recounting of a lone survivor’s long journey home – though somewhat different from that of Odysseus – can be read in more than a few ways. How far we should consider Wells to be the successor to RL Stevenson is worth considering.
Moreau is a worthy successor to Treasure Island in that it takes the story of shipwreck, exotic island, strange encounters, character transformation and psychological struggle that one step further. Similarly, Rider Haggard’s shipwreck romance, She combines those themes with the phantasmagorical. Moreau is a culmination of past and present.
That ‘present’, of course, was Wells’ present, not ours. Where we now class Moreau as ‘science fiction’, Wells had no conception of such a categorisation, not making its entry into fiction classifying until the 1920s and then the 1930s. (I personally like the description that J.-H. Rosny aîné gave to his own work: “le merveilleux scientiﬁque.”) Wells thought in terms of the ‘Scientific Romance’. That ‘science’ is central to both understandings is a point to ponder. What did Wells understand by ‘science’? Clearly, if Wells interpreted the term as ‘that which is known’, then there is little science in his ‘scientific romances’ for he paid scant, if any attention to such boundaries. Jules Verne complained about Well’s science, ‘Il invente!’. Wells’ ‘science’ is more clearly derived from a studying of Darwinian principles and is preoccupied with the nature of man. The Island of Dr. Moreau deals quite clearly with the Darwinian moment and begs questions of morality, humanity and blasphemy. It begs that old dictum of ‘just because we can, doesn’t mean that we should.’ Darwinism is central to this tale.
Moreau makes brief allusions to texts as highly-esteemed as Homer’s Odyssey and Milton’s Comus. There is also implicit reference to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. But Wells is not so much emulating these works than criticising them as wrong or ill-informed. Both Circe and Comus threated to turn men into beasts, and this is what Wells’ central character, Prendick, thinks that Dr. Moreau is doing. It transpires that Moreau is working in the opposite direction by attempting to transform beasts into men. Prendick’s relief, although slightly tenuous at first, is proven misplaced as he comes to realise that whilst he personally is not at threat (from Moreau)the vivisectionist is actually a far more serious threat to humanity as a whole. The implication of Moreau’s work is that if beasts might be turned into men then there is little or no significant difference between humans and animals ... little or no difference between humanity and the “animal kingdom.” Moreau’s work casts him directly against God (or, at least, ‘God’ as conceived by Wells’ predominantly Christian audience) for he usurps the role of God ‘the creator’. He usurps God’s creation of ‘man in His own image’ by creating his own ‘man’ in whatever image he arbitrarily wishes to experiment with.
Dr. Moreau, for the benefit of his slightly unwelcome guest, details the various techniques, the failed experiments and the intense physical suffering designed to “burn out all the animal” and make a creature. The ‘humanised animals’, those ‘triumphs of vivisection’, to Prendick, are merely ‘monsters manufactured!’. [See chapter XIV] Worse, for Moreau, is that his creatures fail to remain as he made them. The question here is whether they revert as Prendick suggests or whether it may be the case that they continue to evolve ... either way, normal Darwinism reclaims them. In my estimation, Darwin was a far larger argument to the Victorians of Wells’ day than is the case today. The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man were both a profound shock to the Victorian belief system. Millions of years of evolution replaced ‘seven days’ of God; the kindly ‘Mother Nature’ described by Wordsworth was derailed by Tennyson’s ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’.
So, Moreau, for all his usurpation, isn’t a real God. He does not so much ‘create’ as imitate. But he is, at least, cast in a god-like form: a male figure, solitary, strong, arbitrary ... even the white hair and beard go some way to that end. Similarly, he is surrounded by biblical – or semi-biblical – language. He is the lawgiver of the island; he is the judgement; he is punitive. But still, he is not quite a god – he is still an imitator and not even a good one at that. Similarly, whilst God is omniscient, Moreau’s ambition is knowledge – he knows that he knows not. But then, in this role, his inquisitiveness is his sin. Who does he sin against, Darwin or God? If Moreau can be seen as a creative god, then he can be adjudged to have done a pretty bad job of it. But then, if God can be seen within a Moreau mould in that Moreau is to his ‘animals’ as God is to man, then He too might be accused of indifference ... and cruelty.
Now, I'm going to leave it at that. There are an abundance of possible talking points for this wonderful work. Let's see how many we can cover.
Indeed. This was actually the very sentence that I was going to use to open the thread - but then I changed my mind and went with the religious angle. Have you read The Time Machine? It was written the year before Moreau and I can't help thinking that there is a connection there between the theme you mention and the dichotomy created by the existance of the Eloi and the Morlock in the earlier tale. Prendick strikes me as being similar (though not exactly) to an Eloi whilst Moreau is similar to the creative and practical Morlock (even the name is similar) ... and like the Morlock he has an appetite that threatens to contradict that creativity.
I haven't read Wells in a long time, having read the time machine in my youth. It was very well done, very suspenseful. The whole theory, of lower animals having latent human characteristics reminds me of Plato, who believed that we had knowledge in our minds that could be brought out with proper interrogation.
Wells showed a grasp of evolutionary theory and his protagonist was a student of one of Darwin's disciples Huxley. Dr. Moreau was a vivisectionist and I know there was a controversy abut that at the time in England. I myself, feel pain in this realm as I worked on live, but anesthetized animals with physiology experiments in school, dogs actually. I hadn't ever had a dog of my own before that but have had many now. I couldn't have gone through those experiments now with my knowledge of the loyalty and beauty of canines. I find it fitting that the main ally that the Protagonist had after Moreau's death was the dog-creature who sought him out and became his constant companion.