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The tale begins with a shipwrecked man who lands on a mysterious island filled with half human and half animal type creatures. From this, the novel seems a little ridiculous and even simplistic. But in actuality, H.G. Wells’ novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, can be read as a story dealing with serious issues like religion and themes regarding power, moral deterioration, and external appearances. The island is home to Dr. Moreau, a previously renowned physiologist in London who had engaged in gruesome vivisection experiments and was forced to flee to the same island that a man named Edward Prendick now discovers after being shipwrecked. It is on this island that Moreau is able to continue carrying out his animal experiments.
Vivisection, in the novel, involves the dissection of live animals. Historically, vivisection was done as a way to learn about and see the various organ systems in action.1 By the time The Island of Dr. Moreau was published in 1896, there was already an anti-vivisection sentiment regarding the ethics of the practice.2 This is reflected in the novel as Moreau, an eccentric individual, had been banished to the island as a result of his questionable experiments.
Over the years, Dr. Moreau has learned to splice together parts of one animal to another, having made it his mission to transform animals to humans. He glorifies himself to Prendick, saying he is the only one who has attempted to gain knowledge in this field. In doing so, Moreau pushes the boundaries and blurs the distinction between animal and human. The island also takes on a sort of Garden of Eden role, as it is the backdrop where creation takes place under Dr. Moreau and where he plays the role of God. The title of the novel also reinforces Dr. Moreau’s ownership and control over the beings of the island. This is evident as the hybrid creatures, built by Moreau and known as Beast Folk, engage in a ritual recitation of a litany that outlines the expected rules of behavior and glorifies Moreau. Some of his decrees state that one is “not to go on all fours,” “not to eat flesh nor fish,” and “not to chase other men.”3
Should man have this type of power as typified by Moreau? The novel seems to say no. Dr. Moreau is after all killed by one of his creatures. It is as if he is punished for attempting to be like God. After Moreau’s death, there is great uncertainty about the leadership on the island, and the Beast Folk question whether the laws they recite need to be upheld now that their creator is now gone. To whom then does the island now belong?
Ideas about manipulation and control are prevalent throughout the novel. On the island, Moreau never succeeded in creating humans from animals despite his many attempts at detaching and reattaching different parts of animals to other animals. The beings Moreau created always revert back to their animal state, since “first one animal trait, then another, creeps to the surface,” something that Moreau has no control over.3 The novel then delves into the question concerning what it means to be human. It is something that Moreau cannot replicate despite his belief that most of “what we call moral education is such an artificial modification and perversion of instinct.”3
Another form of manipulation is manifested when after Moreau’s death Prendick tries to convince the Beast Folk that the laws still need to be followed, that Moreau is still alive, and that Moreau’s influence is still present despite his physical body no longer being functional. Prendick then states that “an animal may be ferocious and cunning enough, but it takes a real man to tell a lie” and so there is not only physical manipulation as conducted by Moreau but also the construction of stories to achieve a particular end.3 In this case, Prendick wants to ensure that order is maintained so that the Beast Folk will not kill him. How power is acquired and maintained then becomes a significant aspect of the novel. What also becomes critical in the novel are the parallels that are drawn and the mirror type imagery that is employed. Although Moreau attempts to construct humans from animals, it seems that he becomes more animalistic himself. He does not recognize the pain he inflicts on the animals he experiments on as significant, instead ignoring the animals’ plight so as to satisfy his curiosity. Moreau’s quest to build humans out of animals seems only to be a personal challenge, not an aid in curing diseases or mitigating afflictions of either human or animal origin. Moreau is engaging in animal experimentation because he has the power to do so, without regard for the consequences of his actions. This is primitive and is what dehumanizes Moreau.
The other interesting parallel occurs when Prendick mistakenly believes at first that Moreau has been involved in human vivisection. After encountering several half human and half animal beings, Prendick concludes that Moreau has been dissecting humans and dehumanizing them into bestial forms. He thinks these hybrid creatures were once humans, when in actuality, Moreau begins with animals and then tries to humanize them. Once again, there is the blurring of lines between what is human and what is animal. This interchangeability is one of the core themes explored by the novel as well as the idea of appearances and things not being what they seem.
Although Prendick is able to escape the island, he becomes entrapped on his own island while back home in England. Prendick admits that he “was almost as queer to men as [he] had been to the Beast People. [He] may have caught something of the natural wildness of [his] companions.”3 Prendick resides in an intermediate state, feeling he belongs neither on Moreau’s island nor back in human society. He is also not able to publicize his experiences on the island for fear that people will think him mad. In talking about the people he sees back home, he says that he feels “as though the animal was surging up through them.”3 Although Prendick could simply be haunted by his experiences on the island, he is also cautioning us about the inherent ability of man to revert to his animalistic instincts. Because of this fear, Prendick withdraws from society and instead takes pleasure in studying chemistry and astronomy in solitude, paralleling life in a monastery.
Written over a century ago, the novel makes us question the ethics involved in research and experimentation on both animals and humans and the role that the experience of pain has in defining these boundaries. While it might even be considered admirable that Moreau has undertaken the monumental task of transforming animals into humans, what will this really accomplish? Likewise, in research being conducted today, what are its unforeseen results and its associated expenses? Will there be parties who suffer as a result of the undertaking? Research on vulnerable populations, such as minorities, children, and the mentally ill, highlight the complexities regarding power and dehumanization, issues that are manifested in the peculiar, curious, yet intriguing character that is Dr. Moreau.
- Encyclopedia Britannica Online, “Vivisection,” accessed December 29, 2014, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/631461/vivisection
- Michael Finn and James Stark, “Medical science and the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876: A re-examination of anti-vivisectionism in provincial Britain.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 49 (2015): 12.
- H.G. Wells. The Island of Dr. Moreau. (New York: Signet Classics, 2005), 91-204.