Review: The Island of Dr. Moreau

‘The study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature.’

The Island of Dr. Moreau
is a relentlessly disturbing novel—and likely more disturbing to a modern reader (given our dubious ‘progress’ in the fields of genetic modification, cloning, etc.) than to its initial audience of 1896. Like Brave New World, the sheer plausibility of The Island of Dr. Moreau lends the novel a layer of social relevance that is difficult to ignore; for this is much more than run-of-the-mill science fiction or Gothic horror masquerading behind the veneer of quiet plausibility: it is a searing exploration of nothing less than the very essence of what makes a human being a human being, a more somber examination for 21st Century readers (given our general familiarities with authoritarianism, too-flexible ethics, and racial strife) than it was, perhaps, for the thrill-seeking readers of the fin de siècle. H. G. Wells has always been considered something of a visionary, but his politics are often overlooked by readers of The War of the Worlds or The Invisible Man: but not so The Island of Dr. Moreau: from the very beginning, it seems, any serious discussion of this novel has also included an analysis of the theories expounded within, from reproach of a caustic hierarchy of social (especially racial) interactions to a deep questioning of the cold justification of what we might call ‘science for science’s sake.’

The plot of The Island of Dr. Moreau involves a man named Prendick who has, at novel’s start, been shipwrecked. He is taken aboard a passing vessel and eventually finds himself isolated on the private island of a scientist named Moreau who has been experimenting with animals: namely, dissecting the creatures and ‘reassembling’ them, giving them the semblance of men (in both intellect and physical form). His experiments in vivisection, questionable though they are, seem to be a kind of horrific success…until the ‘men’ begin to devolve into their former bestiality. Up until the beginning of what is to become an absolute mess, the Beast Folk (as Moreau has termed them) have retained their ‘humanity’ through a semi-elaborate system of what are half Moreau-imposed and half self-imposed laws: not to eat flesh or blood, not to bend down like an animal to drink, etc. As the delicate veil of humanity commences to rend under the inherent predilections and instincts of the Beast Folk’s natures, however, things begin to spiral out of control. I won’t ruin the conclusion of the novel—for it is a very thoughtful one—but needless to say, nobody emerges from this story quite unscathed (and how could they?).

It is easy to imagine all this talk of sub-humanity and slippery scientific rationalization as a kind of moral parable, and that is because this is precisely what The Island of Dr. Moreau is: as much as examinations of the ethical concerns regarding chemical warfare or nuclear proliferation remain popular within the science fiction of today, The Island of Dr. Moreau was equally prescient regarding the moral dilemmas of its own day. That there are laws in many countries restricting the practice of vivisection and related sciences is due in no small part to the impact of this novel and the credence it lent to common criticisms of what was, and is, a repulsively callous discipline. What we leave The Island of Dr. Moreau with, however, is not solely a definite condemnation of the scientific ego run amok, but also an uneasy correlation between the story of ‘created men’ living under the ironically dehumanizing control of their creator and the status of cross-cultural relations as practiced under the imperialistic system present at the time of Wells’ writing.

The idea of reforming through ‘civilization’ the ‘savage’ lies at the heart of the notion of Empire—from the British Raj to the concept of Manifest Destiny; and it is the timelessness of this social quandary that continues to render The Island of Dr. Moreau one of the more important pieces of science fiction written in the last two centuries. It is to be read and reread, both for entertainment’s sake and more pressing examinations; the novel seems to demand each of the two approaches: the first to lay a foundation for its expositions and the second to nail home several very lucid and unavoidably practical arguments. In my opinion, this is the strongest of Wells’ fictions—engaging and germane, grotesque and nightmarishly thorough in its examination of the darker shades of the human instinct to go ‘where no man has gone before.’