Unlike the other most prominent early writer of science fiction, Jules Verne, who focused his fiction primarily on courageous adventure, scientific discovery, and multifaceted characters like Captain Nemo, H.G. Wells’ fiction often focused on dark themes, political allegory, and social commentary. For this reason, the most widely read of Wells’ fiction among modern audiences are those which allegorize situations or possibilities that seem most relevant today, such as The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man.
But my favorite work by the man, and one of my favorite books overall, is one which is more often regarded for its potential in the horror genre than for its literary content: The Island of Dr. Moreau. A number of films have presented The Island of Dr. Moreau as horror or action, and it even had a segment in the The Simpsons‘ thirteenth “Treehouse of Horrors” episode. The film adaptations (all quite loose) are almost universally regarded as terrible, or else are enjoyable primarily for their B-movie charm and missteps. But the book is a truly remarkable one, and tugs at anxieties that many of us will understand far too well.
The Island of Dr. Moreau is an exercise in seeing something that can not be unseen, and in learning something of which you would rather have remained ignorant. In order to make the book’s project more clear, it will be useful to situate the book historically. Very near to the end of the Victorian period, this book comes at a time when the initial flurry over Darwin’s ideas had subsided, and been replaced by growing unease that, no matter what Darwin proposed in The Descent of Man concerning human supremacy, humanity’s control over the planet and over other animals seemed suddenly tenuous. Loaded words like ‘atavism’ and ‘degeneration’ lurked in the fears of many social philosophers and writers of the period.
People were feeling that, ultimately, there might be nothing particularly special about humanity, except that human beings became the apex predators to end all apex predators. Along with these worries, there was a growing consideration of the ethical repercussions of evolutionary biology, as regards the treatment of animals in research. In particular, there was a push to outlaw vivisection. Vivisection, the reader quickly learns, is a central concern of The Island of Dr. Moreau, but the malleability of animal bodies—which the book uses vivisection to present—leads back to the prior concern of humanity’s position in the world.
The protagonist of The Island of Dr. Moreau, Edward Prendick, is changed by what he encounters on the island, changed by perceiving the familiarity and fervent sincerity of the island’s inhabitants. Prendick’s host, the eponymous doctor, has set out to demonstrate the feasibility of an unnerving proposition which Wells himself had presented in earnest, and to do so in the name of scientific progress.
As usual in the case of adaptations, the book is far more about the interior progress of its characters than about the striking images and horrors to be found on the island—which the movies have favored. Mapping the philosophies of Prendick and Moreau (and one or two other notable players) leads one down a path toward one’s own convictions about humanity’s place in the world and about the reaches and responsibilities of scientific endeavors. Still, it is true that several distinct, bizarre scenes from the latter half of the book stick in my mind even now, years after first reading it through.
I have tried my best to write about the plot of The Island of Dr. Moreau in vague terms here, specifically so that much of the mystique and discovery of reading the book is preserved. And all of that mystique and discovery pays off in a stirring and haunting final chapter. In reading that ending for the first time, I had the distinct feeling that, somehow, anachronistically, its writer understood me. And all that had taken place in the book returned to my mind like the compositional elements of a musical fugue which had built to this perfect series of emotional notes played with talent, but without tact. I can certainly not guarantee that The Island of Dr. Moreau will speak to all of its readers as it spoke to me, but to those like me, who have looked at themselves, their society, and their species, and seen all three as something perhaps permanently ignoble, it just might.
Wells was no artisan of beautiful prose, but he was an avid and compelling storyteller. Regardless of your response to the author’s many polarizing political beliefs, his fiction is always interesting, and at every turn provides equal parts suspense and wholesome food for thought; The Island of Dr. Moreau is no exception.
Coping with Scientific Understanding: