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Written in 1896, The Island of Dr. Moreau is one of the earliest scientific romances. An instant sensation, it was meant as a commentary on Darwin’s theory of evolution, which H. G. Wells stoutly believed. The story centres on the depraved Dr. Moreau, who conducts unspeakable animal experiments on a remote tropical island, with hideous, humanlike results. Edward Prendick, an Englishman whose misfortunes bring him to the island, is witness to the Beast Folk’s strange civilization and their eventual terrifying regression. While gene-splicing and bioengineering are common practices today, readers are still astounded at Wells’s haunting vision and the ethical questions he raised a century before our time.

Fantastic Fiction

The Island of Dr. Moreau

Published by Bantam Classics
ISBN-10: 553214322
ISBN-13: 978-0553214321

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14 Responses to “The Island of Dr Moreau by H G Wells”

  1. Rachel Says:

    After Darwin’s theories of evolution were published, Victorians had to come to terms with the fact that they were descended from apes rather than angels – could they take a step down the evolutionary ladder as easily as they stepped up? This idea of reversion is obvious in Dr Moreau.

    Wells explores degeneration and reversion – devolution rather than evolution perhaps? He also seems to recognise man as animal only removed from the ape by evolution and moral training. How easy would it be for man to allow his bestial traits to conquer the rational?

    Malcolm Reply:

    I make much the same point in my comment re the descent of humans from apes. However I do not think Wells is working with Darwin’s “evolution”. Darwin used the phrase ” modification with descent”. Evolution can imply progress but not in a Darwinian sense. Hence your term devolution as a process of degeneration cannot be derived from a proper understanding of Darwin. Moreau’s creations are not Darwinian evolution or devolution and Wells has very little to say in the book about the offspring of Moreeau’s beasts. It may be that Wells completely misunderstood Darwin and that his ideas on evolution were a complete mix of Darwin, creationism, Larmark etc. I think the core idea and the horror in the book is, as you say, the recognition that humans, apes and all animals are close and that bestial traits may conquer the rational.

  2. sue Says:

    It would be difficult to argue that H G Wells was not inspired by Darwin’s writing. When he considers Dr Moreau’s work and says ‘After all what is ten years? Man has been a hundred thousand in the making’. He almost quotes Darwin with these words ‘ I never yet heard of a useless thing that was not ground out of existence by evolution sooner or later’. Is this story just a cruel fantasy or could Wells predict the dangers of medical science to follow and is voicing his fears?

  3. Malcolm Says:

    I enjoyed reading this “ripping yarn” and I liked the way Wells used his scientific education and background to provide the context – the new sciences of geology and biology providing snail radula, epiphyte, prognathous, fumeroles etc. This gives the tale a modern and authentic tone. I liked the way that blood and blood transfusions were given strange associations as Darwin himself tried very hard to show that it was blood that carried the inheritable characteristics from one generation to another. Vivisection was also an issue that Darwin was involved in.

    However I think that the most important use of Darwin’s work by Wells is simply the fear that many felt that if Homo sapiens was “only” an ape then beastly behaviour, lack of morals etc would undermine Victorian and civilized society. Wells uses Moreau to create the human beasts by vivisection (if he was writing now he would use GM) and gradually builds towards a terrifying end.

    I don’t think Wells had much to say in this tale – except that in the last paragraph he tells us that we may be close to beasts but “that whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope.”

  4. Sally Says:

    Wells seems to be exploring the biblical story of creation too. Dr Moreau plays ‘God’, creating life forms in his own image, that of man, on an island that represents the garden of Eden perhaps. He expects obedience of his creations. They chant ‘laws’ & regard him as their Master. Without him, they revert to their animal instincts & evil ways. Is Wells commenting that Life forms are not made but evolve slowly over time.

  5. Clare Cambridge Says:

    This novel really caught my attention and I enjoyed it even though I wasn;t quite sure of the author’s purpose . H.G. Wells is masterly at setting an atmosphere of mystery and strange circumstance – there are overtones of Rider Haggard and even a bit of Conrad in the exotic setting with “Fallen from Grace “ characters – the drunken sot of a sea-captain, the debauched medical student who can “never go back” to civilisation.

    There are overtones right through of novels of Empire – the White man “going native” when he is too far from England. That is an obvious allusion but maybe the novel is also hinting at social engineering. How far are the gross experiments of Dr Moreau from the experiment of Professor Henry Higgins in changing a London flower-girl into an aristocrat? The idea of educating the masses so that they could better “Fight Life’s struggles” was very prevalent at the time with little idea that anything much could be learnt in return from “The Lower Orders”. I felt this in the novel. You do get a feeling that the Beast Folk are another race of people with their own civilisation – just like some of the native people of the islands ruled by the British Imperial system. Well individualises them by giving them names – the Hyena Swine, the Leopard-Man and the Little Sloth Creature who seems like a child, at one stage trying to hold Prendicks hand. They have their own little plots and factions as is obvious when the scientist accuses one of “drinking blood” but Prendick knows that others have been involved. The reader cannot help feeling pity for these poor creatures – flayed, cloned, their tongues split to make them speak with Moreau tossing ethics aside in a way that presages the experiments of Josef Mengele in Hitler’s concentration camps.

    The novel raises echoes of Darwin – there are times when Prendick becomes so used to the beast folk that he almost thinks them normal – particularly the females who shroud themselves in white robes. When the medical student has his “Bank Holiday” (which leads to total collapse), he goes to join a trio of beast folk down by the sea-shore with some lissom white –shrouded figures among them. You do get the feeling of “Class” and “Caste” and “Hierarchy”

    Malcolm Reply:

    Neither Moreau’s surgery or Professor Higgins work are “Darwinian”. They are about changes to an individual – Darwinian evolution is about accumulating changes from generation to generation by descent. A body builder does not pass on big muscles to his/her children. Therefore if Wells was trying to use Darwin’s ideas he was confused. Also “class” , “caste” and, in human societies at least, “hierarcy” are not Darwinian but products of unequal access to resources – products of a non egalitarian social system. To say otherwise leads to some very dark places and revisits Germany in the 1930s.

  6. Michael D. Barton Says:

    Clare said “The novel raises echoes of Darwin.” Indeed.

    ———-

    In the introduction: “There is at least this much in its behalf: my uncle passed out of human knowledge about latitude 5°s. and longitude 105°e., and reappeared in the same part of the ocean after a space of eleven months.”

    While the editor of the version of Moreau I have notes that the coordinates are near the Galapagos Islands, this is incorrect. Look them up and you will see it falls in the eastern part of the island of Sumatra (in present-day Indonesia), in a region that Alfred Russel Wallace (the co-discoverer of natural selection) traveled and collected natural history specimens. Interesting.

    ———-

    Invoking the naturalistic nature of life (chance, randomness) in chapter 4 (At the Schooner’s Rail):

    “If I may say it,” said I [Prendick], after a time, “you have saved my life.”

    “Chance,” he [Montgomery] answered. “Just chance.”

    “I prefer to make my thanks to the accessible agent.”

    ———-

    Materialism (man is just an animal, just body, no soul) in chapter 5 (The Man Who Had Nowhere to Go):

    “Hunger and a lack of blood-corpuscles take all the manhood from a man.”

    ———-

    It’s interesting to note that Wells attended the Royal College of Science in 1884 under Thomas Henry Huxley, better known as Darwin’s Bulldog.

    ———-

    Island biology in chapter 6 (The Evil-Looking Boatmen), invoking Malthusian principles maybe:

    ” ‘Increase and multiply, my friends, ’said Montgomery. ‘Replenish the island. Hitherto we’ve had a certain lack of meat here.’ ”

    ———-

    In chapter 9 (The Thing in the Forest):

    “Each of these creatures, despite its human form, its rag of clothing, and the rough humanity of its bodily form, had woven into it–into its movements, into the expression of its countenance, into its whole presence–some now irresistible suggestion of a hog, a swinish taint, the unmistakable mark of the beast.”

    Darwin, in the Descent of Man (1871): “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”

    ———-

    I have yet to finish this book (and it’s July already), but I wanted to share these bits from the book that struck me in a Darwinian fashion.

  7. Clare Says:

    Reading the Island of Dr Moreau made me think of other books published around that time in which animals became ” characters”. It does seem that Malcolm’s quote about “..the unmistakeable mark of the beast” did begin to influence much popoular literature. Does anyone think that Beatrix Potter have been said to have been influenced in some ways by the ideas of Charles Darwin? She published her stories before the First World War and had worked on them for years before publication. We know that she was well-educated and the daughter of an MP so most likely Darwin’s ideas would have been discussed in her home. We are all familiar with her illustrations of animals dressed in human clothing. However it is worth pointing out that the animals in her stories progress to be steadily more human and to interact more with mainstream human life. Her first animal characters like Peter Rabbit a Fierce Bad Rabbit and Mrs Tiggywinkle are clearly depicted in an animal setting – living under the roots of trees or in holes in the ground and their activities are carried on somewhat furtively even though they wear clothes and have human sensitivities. However domesticated animals like pigs are shown as much closer to the boundaries of humanity. In The Tale of Pigling Bland the pigs go off to find apprenticeships at market and interact with humans throughout. They are given papers to show to a policemen and they are treated by society rather like children – spoken to by tradesmen and taken into houses to spend the night. Bland performs chores for his host, covers him up when he falls asleep drunk and very much behaves as a young apprentice-boy. A female pig in the story even sings and dances. Potter is obviously using her animal stories as “instructive tales” to warn children of various dangers – in this story abduction – and the very idea that animals could be used to depict human dilemmas is interesting.. Does anyone agree that these stories and pictures could show the influence of some of Darwin’s ideas?

  8. Michael D. Barton Says:

    Interesting write up on the Linnean Society’s website about Potter’s interest/work in science:
    http://www.linnean.org/index.php?id=104

    Clare Reply:

    Thank you Michael for finding this link! I shall read it more closely but am glad that my hunch that Beatrix Potter was more interested in palaeontology and the natural sciences than you might think, was right.

  9. Malcolm Says:

    No. Well you did ask!

    Clare Reply:

    OK – well is anyone interested in how a novelist like Charles Dicken might have been influenced? How about “Great Expectations” for an example of the lower orders fighting life’s battles and rising to the top? Both Pip and Magwitch the convict are examples of this. And what about Estella and the way Miss Havisham uses Estella’s beauty to attract men and then cruelly rebuff them? I’d like to hear if anyone sees echoes of Darwin this this novel or any others of Dickens…

  10. Malcolm Says:

    Clare. Again no!Nothing to do with Darwin.
    Can’t remember what happened to Pip but Magwitch may have fought life’s battles well and risen to the “top” but he had no progeny so a complete Darwinian failure. The individual organism does not enjoy success in life except by the ability to produce many successful descendents – that pass on the genes.