The Island of Doctor Moreau

The Island of Doctor Moreau
By H. G. Wells

The Island of Doctor Moreau is a novel that set up shop in my head as a kid when I purchased the cheap paperback tie-in to the 1977 film version, and it’s gone on to be the work by Wells that I most often return to. It’s so simple in outline and yet so ambiguous.

The narrator, Edward Prendick, is both an upper-class lightweight and the island’s sole survivor. He’s also a paradoxically spiritual materialist, seeking at the end of the book to transcend through science a humanity that now disgusts him. Dr. Moreau, at least in his own estimation, has more of an “artistic turn of mind,” being a sculptor of living flesh who is seeking “to find out the extreme limit of plasticity in a human shape.” He wants to transcend humanity as well, but not for any utilitarian purpose or “intelligible object” (an “unspeakable aimlessness” which is what upsets Prendick the most about his experiments). No, the cruel doctor carelessly and irresponsibly pursues art for art’s sake, and in ways that go far beyond vivisection. He knows a creature’s “mental structure,” including its psychology and morality, can be shaped as well. A humanist Prospero then? A tyrannical Kurtz, much like Kipling’s Dravot or Nuñez in Wells’ own later story “The Country of the Blind”? Or just a colonial loser, another popular character type of the time?

And finally what is the state of nature that everyone, not just the Beast People, is in danger of reverting to? Because the Ipecacuanha is hardly an ideal state, Montgomery dies a miserable, drunken sot, and Prendick’s going native is foreshadowed from his first night on the island, long before he becomes one with the creatures that both sicken and terrify him. It’s hard to read his signing off “in hope and solitude” as anything other than a failed attempt to cheer himself up. He’s looked into the hellish abyss of the Beast People’s shantytown and seen “the whole balance of human life in miniature.” Not our evolutionary past then, but our future.

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