The Island of Dr Moreau

New post for the Wordsworth Editions Blog…

Although Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) sent shockwaves through the Victorian scientific and religious establishments (until then unproblematically linked), the book’s conclusion is remarkably optimistic:

…from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Life on Earth and, by implication, humankind, is always evolving upwards, towards perfection. This was not a view shared by the visionary British author H.G. Wells (1866–1946), who explored the theory of Natural Selection in both his fiction and his nonfiction, arriving at a somewhat bleaker conclusion. In his breakthrough novel, The Time Machine (1895), the unnamed traveller finds in his hoped-for Utopian future a human race in which ‘The too-perfect security of the Overworlders had led them to a slow movement of degeneration, to a general dwindling in size, strength, and intelligence.’ In The War of The Worlds (1898), meanwhile, the highly advanced Martians were possessed of ‘intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic’, soulless, sadistic and without compassion, much like the psychopathic Invisible Man (1897) who preceded them. And before these iconic novels, Wells wrote his most controversial parable upon the subject: The Island of Dr. Moreau.

While not as well-known nowadays as its more famous companions – although equally best-selling at the time – The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) is no less philosophically deep. It is also, like the other novels, a page-turning adventure with a crisp and vivid style giving it a strikingly contemporary sense of narrative pace. As a ‘scientific romance’, it stands on the shoulders of Frankenstein while engaging with the key scientific debates of its own day. And like all the best science fiction, it anticipates breakthroughs in human knowledge that were at best speculative but which in our own time are present and prescient. Wells always had an uncanny gift for predicting ‘things to come…’

Like much of Well’s fiction, the premise of The Island of Dr. Moreau was an extension of his scientific journalism. In 1895, the year of The Time Machine, Wells had also written a short essay entitled ‘The Limits of Individual Plasticity’ in which he speculated that the physical form of a living creature could be surgically or chemically altered, although these changes would not be passed onto its offspring as the genetic blueprint would remain unchanged. This piece reflected contemporary advances in plastic surgery and the ongoing debate concerning the ethics of vivisection. In the novel, this idea becomes reality as mad scientist Moreau carves beasts into men: ‘to the study of the plasticity of living forms – my life has been devoted,’ he tells Prendick, the story’s protagonist. Although Wells was a prolific writer across genres throughout his long life, The Island of Dr. Moreau belongs to a period of particularly remarkable creative production in which he became, in the words of his disciple Brian Aldiss, ‘the Shakespeare of science fiction’. Between 1895 and 1901, Wells defined the genre with The Time Machine, Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, The Sleeper Awakes, and The First Men in the Moon. He also found time for The Wonderful Visit, a fantasy about an angel visiting contemporary England; The Wheels of Chance, a comic novel about cycling in the manner of his friend Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat; and the semi-autobiographical ‘coming-of-age’ novel Love and Mr Lewisham.

The Island of Dr. Moreau is presented as a found manuscript, introduced by the author’s nephew and heir (a framing device later pinched by Edgar Rice Burroughs in A Princess of Mars, 1911), being the unpublished account of the ‘lost year’ of his late uncle Edward Prendick, between his shipwreck at the beginning of 1887 and his rescue in January 1888. Prendick, we are told, had always claimed to have no recollection of what occurred between the wreck of the Lady Vain and being picked up a year later in an open boat belonging to another lost ship, the Ipecacuanha; although when he was found he had initially given ‘such a strange account of himself that he was supposed demented’. The editor then teases us by noting that although the Royal Navy visited what may have been Prendick’s mysterious island and found nothing, other odds and ends of maritime evidence perfectly tally with the account, introducing a frisson of gothic uncertainty to the narrative: is what follows the ravings of a man driven mad by shipwreck and isolation, or did it really happen to him? The first-person account brings a sense of immediacy and authenticity to the narrative, the protagonist frequently apologising for his lack of literary finesse. (He also has a notable ‘crutch’ word – ‘grotesque’ – which is used 16 times to describe the inhabitants of Moreau’s island.) The narrative follows Wells’ preferred method of fantastic composition, that such a story should have only one extraordinary element. This he explained in his introduction to his collected works in 1934:

As soon as the magic trick has been done the whole business of the fantasy writer is to keep everything else human and real. Touches of prosaic detail are imperative and a rigorous adherence to the hypothesis. Any extra fantasy outside the cardinal assumption immediately gives a touch of irresponsible silliness to the invention.

Science fiction readers and writers call this ‘Wells’ Law’, and it’s well worth remembering if you aspire to write in this genre. Admirer Joseph Conrad dubbed him: ‘O Realist of the Fantastic!’

When the Lady Vain strikes a derelict ten days out of Peru, the English traveller Prendick finds himself in an open boat with two sailors and very little food and water. In the tradition of shipwreck stories, both real and imagined (such as the account of the loss of the whaler Essex by the first mate Owen Chase), the starving survivors end up drawing lots to see who’ll be sacrificed (eaten) to save the others. In the first of many examples of brutal Darwinism, the strongest sailor draws the short straw and refuses to accept the outcome leading to a fight that leaves Prendick alone on the boat. Near to death, he is picked up by the drunken captain of the Ipecacuanha, transporting animals to a nearby unnamed island, overseen by the seedy medical man Montgomery and his ‘grotesque’ manservant, M’ling, who is despised by the crew. Montgomery saves his life, but admits that this was ‘Just chance,’ and could easily have gone the other way:

‘Thank no one. You had the need, and I had the knowledge; and I injected and fed you much as I might have collected a specimen. I was bored and wanted something to do. If I’d been jaded that day, or hadn’t liked your face, well—it’s a curious question where you would have been now!’

Montgomery is in his own words ‘an outcast from civilisation’ because of an unspecified indiscretion in London that happened on a foggy night and involved strong drink. But Prendick is not out of the woods yet. Montgomery explains that he can’t stay on the island, but the ship’s captain refuses to let him remain onboard either, as Prendick had insulted him when trying to diffuse a fight between the uncouth drunk and the volatile Montgomery. Montgomery’s superior, a large, white-haired man, is indifferent to Prendick’s plight and he is once more cast adrift until Montgomery takes pity and rescues him for the second time. The strange man, who Prendick recognises as Moreau, a notorious vivisectionist driven out of England some years before by a media-driven moral panic, takes an interest in the new arrival when he learns he studied biology under Darwin’s champion T.H. Huxley at the Royal College of Science, as did Wells.(Also, like Wells, Prendick does not drink.) Prendick is given a hammock in a compound on the small volcanic island, but no access to the main part of the building. He observes several ‘grotesque’ native servants, who he finds disconcerting without quite knowing why, and soon becomes aware (from the screams) that Moreau is conducting cruel experiments on the animals from the Ipecacuanha. Montgomery clearly finds this distressing. To get away from the endless agonised cries of a female puma, Prendick explores the island, noting some odd, caveman-like inhabitants and then being stalked by some sort of creature that is dressed like a man but behaves like a predatory animal. Terrified that Moreau is vivisecting human beings and that he’s next, Prendick flees the compound, after which things get really weird…

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