My Take: “The Island of Dr. Moreau” by H. G. Wells

Title: The Island of Dr. Moreau                                                                  My rating: 4.5

Author: H. G. Wells                                                                                      Amazon.com: 4.1

Genre: Science fiction                                                                                 Goodreads: 3.7

Print length: 104

The story is told by a man named Edward Prendick who is the only remaining survivor of the Lady Vain boat crash. Prendick is picked up by the Ipecacuanha, a trader ship which happens to have a medical passenger on board named Montgomery.

H. G . Wells was an English writer highly regarded as one of the fathers of science fiction. Though he wrote among many other genres, he is best known for his novels
H. G . Wells was an English writer highly regarded as one of the fathers of science fiction. Though he wrote among many other genres, he is best known for his  sci-fi novels “The Time Machine”, “The Invisible Man”, “War of the Worlds”, and “The Island of Doctor Moreau.”
The last of these titles was published in 1896 and continues with Well’s exploration of the ethics and consequences surrounding the use of advanced technology.

Montgomery is a mysterious man with a cargo of strange animals. He takes it upon himself to nurse Prendick back to health with his own equipment and medicine. He has an attendant with him named Mling, an even stranger man than Montgomery, and Pendrick notes that Mling has a repugnance and odd familiarity to him. In a few days time, the Ipecacuanha arrives near an island which Montgomery explains is his destination. The captain insists Montgomery takes his recovered castaway with him. Montgomery refuses, and is received by a small boat from the island. Since neither want to keep Prendick, the captain orders him into a dingy and abandons him miles from the island.

Taking pity, Montgomery orders the small boat who received the cargo from the Ipecacuanha to turn around and rescue Prendick. Prendick accompanies the strange cargo, Montgomery, and a group of strange islanders to the shore of the nearby island.

Another man of medicine inhabits the island. His name is Moreau. He takes a kind of fancy to Prendick, knowing he has studied medicine as well, but keeps him locked out of certain huts on the island. Prendick learns that all of Moreau and Montgomery’s attendants live in a village on the other side of the island, and save for Mling, they do not bother the compound of huts where Moreau and Montgomery work.

The strangeness of the islanders and the secrecy surrounding Moreau’s work intoxicates Prendick with curiosity. One day when Moreau leaves a door to one of the huts unlocked. Prendick walks in and witnesses a puma undergoing vivisection by Moreau’s hand. There is blood everywhere and Prendick realizes the poor mutilated puma is the source of the cries of pain he has heard since he arrived at the island. It does not take Prendick long before he connects the strange proportions, odd sauntering, and hairy faces of the islanders with Moreau’s laboratory.  In fear of becoming part of Moreau’s next creation, Prendick takes flight to the other side of the island.

Prendick is pursued by Montgomery and Moreau who carry whips and guns. Prendick comes upon many of Moreau’s Beast People. They invite Prendick into their village of dens and marvel in broken sentences that he is a five-fingered man. They believe he is a creature such as themselves made by Moreau. They invite him to live among them but tell him he must learn and recite the Law:

“Not to go on all-Fours; that is the Law. Are we not men?
Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not men?
Not to eat Flesh or Fish; that is the Law. Are we not men?
Not to claw Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

His is the House of Pain.
His is the Hand that makes.
His is the Hand that wounds.
His is the hand that heals.”

Prendick learns quickly from the sayings of the Law that Moreau taught each man-beast this recitation which would subjugate and control them. It is while he is among the Beast People that Moreau appears and orders they restrain Prendick. Again, Prendick runs for his life. Finally when he is on the brink of exhaustion, he wades out into the water and threatens to drown himself. It is only when Moreau and Montgomery lay their guns on the edge of the water and retreat back into the brush that Prendick is coaxed from the water.

He follows the two unarmed men back to their huts. Here Moreau explains his medical ambitions. He reveals that he does not do vivisection on any human beings, rather his attempts are to transform animals into human forms with more sophisticated minds. The Law is in place to keep the animals from reverting to their animal instincts of hunting and savagery. It is soon clear how unhappy Moreau is with his progress and finds himself mocked by the mere existence of his creations. Prendick realizes that Moreau is driven only by his thirst for discovery and creation, and Montgomery, having been on the island for ten years, does not question Moreau, but in fact finds a strange comfort among some of the Beast People.

Things begin happening that suggest the Beast People are not abiding by the Law. Things that pose a danger to the three human men. The story comes to a climax when Moreau’s current experiment gets loose. He chases the beast out into the island’s thickets, and Montgomery and Prendick are forced to follow. The men are subject to the island at night, when the Beast People revert most to their animal instincts. With Moreau’s creations slipping out from his control, and the declining presence of humanity, Prendick finds himself facing the ethical and moral implications of Moreau’s wretched works, and the catastrophes that ensues will forever maim Prendick’s ability to distinguish between the sophisticated intelligence of humanity and the depravity of animal instinct.

My Take

The thing I found the most fascinating with this story is the element of the Law and the divine regard in which Moreau is held. Though the Beast People have their own society, it is wholly dictated by human guidelines. The animals were constantly battling their own desires and instincts to uphold the Law. As Moreau was their creator and judge they revered him as a god figure. When the Law was broken they went “back to the house of pain.” Their intelligence, or lack thereof, was constantly used for whatever profited Moreau. He harnessed their humanity to guilt and shame them into following the Law, but then used their animal ignorance to corral them together to do his bidding. Upon Moreau’s demise, even Montgomery finds it difficult to accept that Moreau could ever lose what he had worked so hard to build.

Moreau and Montgomery have both been wildly affected by the darkness of their scientific exploration and the dreadful island where they live. Prendick, the outsider with a fresh perspective, struggles to define the line between pity and hatred for the Beast People, seeing them as both victims and monsters. My favorite quote from the book depicts his feelings towards them.

“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? It was the wantonness that stirred me.”

Well’s novel confronts many of the same fears that our modern post-apocalyptic genres do now. Written nearly 120 years ago, “The Island of Dr. Moreau” raises many questions about the science of biomechanical engineering, a practice Wells predicted over a century prior to its commonplace practice today.

I have given this 4.5 stars because of Well’s ability to capture so many timeless truths about humanity while bringing up important ethical questions regarding divine creation, culture, and the reaches of science.

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