Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) by H. G. Wells

   The Island of Dr. Moreau is one of those novels that, once read, stay with you all your life. This book will creep into your soul and haunt you years after you have read it. What Wells, in his later years, called "a youthful exorcise in blasphemy" is of course so much more than that. It is one of the most disturbing novels of the nineteenth century. The book is a dark meditation on the moral worth of human beings, one in which we do not come out well. While The Time Machine, dark as it was, at least showcased the wonders science might produce, The Island of Dr. Moreau focused solely on its potential for cruel misuse. With this book Wells wrote an early science fiction classic to be sure, but really, at heart this is a horror novel.
   The story begins as a shipwreck survivor, Edward Prendick, is rescued and brought aboard a wretchedly dirty boat filled with caged wild animals. He is nursed to health by an odd man named Montgomery, an outcast with a shady past. While convalescing Pendick encounters Montgomery's creepy, hairy servant who fills Pendick with dread. Later Pendick offends the ship's drunken captain and is marooned on the boat's destination, a small island under the control of the mysterious Dr. Moreau. The island is peopled by frighteningly malformed people who all seem terrified of Moreau. Moreau is not thrilled by Pendick's presence but Mongomery, who works for Moreau, talks him into tolerating the castaway. Pendick is brought to their compound.
   In a locked laboratory Moreau, who has identified himself as a biologist, begins to experiment upon a captive puma. The poor creature seems to be undergoing torture, and its horrific screams are too much for Pendick. He leaves and takes a walk through the woods, where he encounters one of the animal-like inhabitants. This creature stalks Pendick and he barely gets away with his life.
   The mysteries of what these creatures are and Dr. Moreau's identity, are rapidly revealed. Dr. Moreau is a disgraced scientist who has isolated himself on the island to further his own ghastly research. He has used his uncanny skill of vivisection to transform various animals into the semblance of human beings. These sad creatures live in their own ramshackle settlement and are kept under control through "the law." Any creature who breaks the law is brought to "the house of pain," and tortured by Moreau. Eventually Moreau is killed by one of his own experimental monsters and everything goes to hell. After further disaster, Pendick is left alone to somehow survive on an island full of beast-men.
   The Island of Dr. Moreau was written at a time when Britain's scientific community were grappling with the moral implications of animal vivisection. The loathsome Dr. Moreau cares nothing about the suffering he causes, all he cares about is furthering his own twisted research. Sadly, this problem of abusing animals for our own purposes is still with us over a hundred years later. We still look past the suffering we cause animals and perhaps that is part of why this novel is so disturbing even now, as it reminds us of something we would rather not think about. We go about our daily business while everyday animals are tortured and killed on an nightmarishly epic scale, all the time ignoring their suffering and emotionally distancing ourselves from their pain.
   The last chapter of this novel is its most haunting. Pendick has been rescued and is back in Britain, but he can't stand to be around people. After his experience he can only see the beast in them;

   "I see faces keen and bright, others dull or dangerous, others unsteady, insincere; none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale."

   Perhaps Pendick was not far wrong.

1 comment:

  1. This tale has influenced so many other stories to come after it. SciFi TV series Stargate SG1 has several episodes whose storylines are directly influenced by Dr. Moreau's island, so much so that the novel is named on several instances within the series. There are countless other tv series and later novels that were directly inspired by Wells' horrific masterpiece.

    *Pendick, an unfortunately-named character.