Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

18 Nov 2011

(Novel) The Island of Doctor Moreau by: H.G. Wells

(Reaction) Paradise Horribly Lost by: Jose Angelo Singson

View other reactions on works by Wells.

The novel The Island of Dr. Moreau is similar to H.G. Wells's other science-fiction classic The Time Machine in that both are cautionary tales. The similarities pretty much end there though. The Time Machine is a largely socio-political commentary and socialist bit of propaganda while The Island of Dr. Moreau is a commentary about the nature of man and a warning about the dangers of scientific progress that is not kept in check by ethics and morals.

After having read the novel again I found myself comparing this body of work more to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in that they both deal with men that have decided to boot God out of the equation of life and take that position for themselves... with disastrous results. Throughout the novel Wells' constantly asks and tries to answer the questions what makes man a man? and what separates man from beast?

The author, through his character Prendick, constantly labels the Beast Men as travesties and mockeries of humanity, implying that no matter how much Dr. Moreau; or anyone else for that matter, modifies them, they will still remain animals---i.e. lesser creatures.

(On a medical side note though it is interesting that Dr. Moreau makes use of vivisection, or in simpler terms, surgeries to modify his animal subjects to make them more human. Medically speaking (although I am not a doctor/vet myself) surgically modifying an animal to look cosmetically human might be possible but at most one may end up with a very short, very ugly person that could only pass as human under very bad lighting and the < q>person in question would of course still have the uncontrollable urge to drink from the toilet and sniff at his own genitals, but I digress...)

Through Prendick's depreciating remarks of the Beast Men the author stresses that the condition of being human is more than just a question of aesthetics; that is that there is a much richer, much deeper metaphysical border that makes man distinct from beast.

This may also be read as a direct critique of Darwin's theories. During the time of this novel's writing Darwin's theories had only begun to gain in popularity and notoriety. His theories essentially challenged this esoteric divide between man and beast; suggesting that humans were nothing more that exceptionally well evolved and supremely adaptable animals. It would seem that the author is trying to champion humanity's position as the pinnacle of creation through the writing of this novel.

Another matter of particular interest to me is the single redeeming factor that Prendick/Wells observes in the Beast Men: an unmistakable humility that stems from the overwhelming recognition of their insufficiency and imperfection. They are constantly aware of how far they are from the human ideal and in the very core of their being they know that this ideal may be too far to reach. This recognition makes the Beast Men a self-effacing but morose, dour lot.

Perhaps the most pervasive theme within the novel is the call for caution and prudence in scientific advancement, that is, that scientific progress should never be without proper moral and ethical guidelines. Although Dr. Moreau's actions are clearly cruel and obviously skirting the border of madness, Wells did not create an unsophisticated, stock antagonist; rather he is driven by scientific, but twisted, curiosity.

As such Dr. Moreau carries out his experiments with considerable lack of compassion, reminiscent of the notorious and much maligned human vivisections carried out by Josef Mengele. His cold, scientific objectivity is within reasonable limits but one would be hard pressed to defend its lack of humanity. However as one reads through the novel one slowly begins to realize that his actions are not as purely scientific as it seems; in fact the opposite is true: the impetus to create life doesn't stem from an irresistible urge to champion the cause of medicine and create scientific progress and his motivation more sinister than a mere desire to inflict pain on lesser being.

Wells was voicing out the common concern of his age through the novel and that concern was that the increasing cadence of the march of progress was being driven without a proper heart or soul. This lack of morals presented the danger of defiling the sensibilities of people with the promises of ease, comfort, wealth and that specter of perfection that they constantly chased after.

In fact the novel was written at a time when many were seriously concerned about man crossing the boundary and thought of as violating the authority of the divine: Darwin's theories were gaining ground. Eugenics had begun to gain popularity, and so on... Through Moreau's vivisections, Wells articulates the dangers of science and technology. Dr. Moreau's response to Prendick in defense of his experiments gives us a clear idea of what goes on in his mind: as a scientist he asserts that pain and pleasure are irrelevant, and if one were to boil down even further it may be read that the patient's sentiments are of no value to Dr. Moreau at all, period. A truly chilling prospect if you ask me.

There are many twisted Biblical references through out the novel. These unflattering parallelisms of the Christian faith may be read as a deliberate farcical reflection of Wells sentiments towards any form of religion. All too often it seems organized religion has been a terribly effective tool of social control and through the novel Wells' takes his stand against it.

In the novel, the Beast-Men are led by a silvery-grey beast-man to recite a litany of prohibitions known collectively by the Beast-Men as The Law. The near constant recitation of The Law is intended to 1. Remind the Beast-Men whatproper human behavior is supposed to be and how it should manifest in their daily lives 2. Deify Dr. Moreau and cement his authority upon his creations.

The Law therefore embodies religious commandments. The Beast-Men, Montgomery and Dr. Moreau are Biblical analogues. Dr. Moreau, for example, has come to represent God in the novel; a very flawed, mad god but clearly an allusion of the Almighty. Even his physical appearance mimics the stereotypical depictions of God, i.e. white hair and beard.

Much like God, Moreau has all-encompassing authority, namely the ability to make new creatures. He further works hard at his function as dispenser of rewards and punishments. It is very clear though that he is not a true Creator in the biblical sense in that, try as he might, he can never manage to perfectly replicate the human form or the human dignity.

Dr. Moreau dearly aspires to be like God in trying to create life but in the end only manages to birth monsters. Ironic given that the Beast-Men strive so hard to reach the human ideal and keep failing and they are fully and painfully cognizant of this failure. Dr. Moreau on the other hand, strives just as hard as the Beast-Men to reach thedivine ideal and keeps on failing. He, however, seems to be completely oblivious of his constant failure to meet his ideal.

Dr. Moreau's right-hand man, Montgomery, ironically fills the niche for a Christ-like persona on the island. He is the bridge in the religious order, the go-between of Beast-Men to Dr. Moreau. Physically, he possesses a gentle appearance, even described in the book as a sheep-like face, again an allusion to the Lamb of God (a common Christian title for Jesus). He also possesses a certain maudlin fondness for the Beast Men and regular men.

Montgomery even has warped messianic tendencies as well. A clear example of this is his attempt at finishing Moreau's work (an attempt to humanize the Beast-Men) by giving the Beast Men brandy to drink. In fact, one could probably even read this as a perverted sort of communion.

This attempt to humanize/socialize with the Beast-Men with alcohol ends in tragedy of course, again another Biblical allusion, in this case The Last Supper or I guess more correctly put The Last Drinking Binge. There is even a serpent of Eden-like character in the novel. Moreau's describes a serpentine failed experiment that ravaged the island before Montgomery managed to destroy it, another clear nod to the prophetic writings of the Bible where Christ is the one to crush the serpent's head.

Although not as clearly stated I believe the most unifying theme of the novel is that of accountability, especially for one's creations, and the utter lack of it. Being on a remote island, far from authorities and critics, Dr. Moreau enjoys a vast amount of autonomy which rather than breeding caution fills him with an arrogant disregard for life and poisons his scientific curiosity with the idea of absolute authority over his creations.

His initial purpose for having set out on his experiments is now completely and irrevocably lost. Sadly, Dr. Moreau now creates (or rather re-creates) life simply because he can; no longer because he seeks to use the information he discovers from his experiments for the betterment of all. Moreau has, for all intents and purposes, become a mad god. He creates life without purpose, creatures born but without a greater meaning or role to fulfill.

This more than anything I think is the reason for the over all sadness that permeates the lives of the Beast-Men. They are parodies of mankind, created with full capacity for thought and a broad range of emotions but constantly bombarded with a litany of do not's without plausible explanations and worse; The Law they are forced to adhere to goes against all the natural inclinations that they had already been initially created with.

They are born into monstrous forms but given the unfortunate Sisyphean goal to behave as man-like as possible. It would seem that the Dr. Moreau has cruelly created the Beast-Men really for two purposes: 1. to boost his ego, i.e. as living testimonies that he too can create intelligent life and 2. to fail...

This is the saddest realization of all. They are literally set up/born/created to fail. They fail at trying to become men, constantly battling against their natural inclinations (predatory animals suppressing the urge to hunt and eat meat, or digging animals suppressing the desire to claw at the earth) and are sadistically punished for merely doing what they were originally meant to do should they fail to live up to the standards of The Law.

From their very conception they are failures. In order to achieve the human ideal animals are surgically altered, often diverging radically from their original design. They are cruelly kept in check by a combination of the threat of bodily harm and the near total subjugation of their will by propaganda (of course made easier by their considerably less capable animal brains). The Beast-Men live out their miserable days literally chasing after the wind.

The novel ends with the deaths of Dr. Moreau and Montgomery and with Prendick leaving the Beast-Men to an uncertain future on the island. Interestingly although Prendick has left the island it seems that the island has never fully left him. He is afflicted with a type of post-traumatic stress disorder where he thinks the people that surround him are in truth better-built beast-men who are in his words tainted with an animal influence and always in danger of a sudden reversion...

Review:

Overall I enjoyed The Island of Doctor Moreau more than any of Wellss' other works because of the more tightly written, generally more action-packed script. I have always enjoyed writers that had a knack for a wise economy of words and it would seem that Wells's finally got it in this book.

Although primarily written as a reaction to the questions raised by scientific practices of his day, the book of course is still heavily flavored by Wells's communist-socialist inclinations but considerably better veiled than say The Time Machine and as a result less preachy than the former.

I often think about how Wells would react if he were still alive today. We have progressed so much in the fields of medicine and the biological sciences. How would Mr. Wells have reacted to genetics, biological weapons, to cloning and to recombinant gene therapy? Would he have applauded us for our achievements or would he go to the nearest firearms shop to purchase a revolver to kill himself with? I guess we'll never really know but it does beg the question: has our humanity caught up with our technology? Well... I guess we'll never know either...

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