Background

H(erbert) G(eorge) Wells was born to working class parents in 1866. In 1884, he received a scholarship to attend the Normal School of Science in London, where he encountered TH Huxley, who influence Wells deeply with his views on evolutionary science. He worked for some time as a teacher, began writing essays in the late 1880s, and wrote his first “science romance,” The Time Machine, in 1895, causing him to become a celebrity overnight. He wrote The Island of Dr. Moreau in 1896. 1

Wells described Dr. Moreau as “an exercise in youthful blasphemy.” When it was first released, reviewers found Wells’s narrative to be revolting.

Plot Summary

The Island of Doctor Moreau is the account of Edward Prendick, an Englishman with a scientific education who survives a shipwreck in the southern Pacific Ocean. A passing ship takes him aboard, and a man named Montgomery revives him. Prendick also meets a grotesque bestial native named M’ling, who appears to be Montgomery’s manservant. The ship is transporting a number of animals which belong to Montgomery. As they approach the island, Montgomery’s destination, the captain demands Prendick leave the ship with Montgomery. Montgomery explains that he will not be able to host Prendick on the island. Despite this, the captain leaves Prendick in a dinghy and sails away. Seeing that the captain has abandoned Prendick, Montgomery takes pity and rescues him. As ships rarely pass the island, Prendick will be housed in an outer room of an enclosed compound.

The island belongs to Dr. Moreau. Prendick remembers that he has heard of Moreau, formerly an eminent physiologist in London whose gruesome experiments in vivisection had been publicly exposed, and who fled England as a result of his exposure.

The next day, Moreau begins working on a puma. Prendick gathers that Moreau is performing a painful experiment on the animal, and its anguished cries drive Prendick out into the jungle. While he wanders, he comes upon a group of people who seem human but have an unmistakable resemblance to swine. As he walks back to the enclosure, he suddenly realises he is being followed by a figure in the jungle. He panics and flees, and the figure gives chase. As his pursuer bears down on him, Prendick manages to stun him with a stone and observes the pursuer is a monstrous hybrid of animal and man. When Prendrick returns to the enclosure and questions Montgomery, Montgomery refuses to be open with him. After failing to get an explanation, Prendick finally gives in and takes a sleeping draught.

Prendick awakes the next morning with the previous night’s activities fresh in his mind. Seeing that the door to Moreau’s operating room has been left unlocked, he walks in to find a humanoid form lying in bandages on the table before he is ejected by a shocked and angry Moreau. He believes that Moreau has been vivisecting humans and that he is the next test subject. He flees into the jungle where he meets an Ape-Man who takes him to a colony of similarly half-human/half-animal creatures. Their leader is a large grey unspecified creature named the Sayer of the Law who has him recite a strange litany called the Law that involves prohibitions against bestial behavior and praise for Moreau.

Suddenly, Dr. Moreau bursts into the colony looking for Prendick, but Prendick escapes to the jungle. He makes for the ocean, where he plans to drown himself rather than allow Moreau to experiment on him. Moreau explains that the creatures called the Beast Folk were not formerly men, but rather animals. Prendick returns to the enclosure, where Moreau explains that he has been on the island for eleven years and has been striving to make a complete transformation of an animal to a human. He explains that while he is getting closer to perfection, his subjects have a habit of reverting to their animal form and behaviour. Moreau regards the pain he inflicts as insignificant and an unavoidable side effect in the name of his scientific experiments.

One day, Prendick and Montgomery encounter a half-eaten rabbit. Since eating flesh and tasting blood are strong prohibitions, Dr. Moreau calls an assembly of the Beast Folk and identifies the Leopard-Man (the same one that chased Prendick the first time he wandered into the jungle) as the transgressor. Knowing that he will be sent back to Dr. Moreau’s compound for more painful sessions of vivisection, the Leopard-Man flees. Eventually, the group corners him in some undergrowth, but Prendick takes pity and shoots him to spare him from further suffering. Prendick also believes that although the Leopard-Man was seen breaking several laws, such as drinking water bent down like an animal, chasing men (Prendick), and running on all fours, the Leopard-Man was not solely responsible for the deaths of the rabbits. It was also the HyenaSwine, the next most dangerous Beast Man on the island. Dr. Moreau is furious that Prendick killed the Leopard-Man but can do nothing about the situation.

As time passes, Prendick becomes inured to the grotesqueness of the Beast Folk. However one day, the half-finished puma woman rips free of her restraints and escapes from the lab. Dr. Moreau pursues her, but the two end up fighting each other which ends in a mutual kill. Montgomery breaks down and decides to share his alcohol with the Beast Folk. Prendick resolves to leave the island, but later hears a commotion outside in which Montgomery, his servant M’ling, and the Sayer of the Law die after a scuffle with the Beast Folk. At the same time, the compound burns down because Prendick has knocked over a lamp. With no chance of saving any of the provisions stored in the enclosure, Prendick realizes that during the night Montgomery has also destroyed the only boats on the island.

Prendick lives with the Beast Folk on the island for months after the deaths of Moreau and Montgomery. As the time goes by, the Beast Folk increasingly revert to their original animal instincts, beginning to hunt the island’s rabbits, returning to walking on all fours, and leaving their shared living areas for the wild. They cease to follow Prendick’s instructions. Eventually the Hyena-Swine kills Prendick’s faithful companion, the Dog-Man created from a St. Bernard, and helped by the Sloth Creature he shoots the Hyena-Swine in self-defence.

Prendick’s efforts to build a raft have been unsuccessful, but luckily for him, a lifeboat that carries two corpses drifts onto the beach (perhaps the captain of the ship that picked Prendick up and a sailor).[6] Prendick uses the boat to leave the island and is picked up three days later. When he tells his story he is thought to be mad, so he feigns amnesia.

Upon his return to England, Prendick is no longer comfortable in the presence of humans, all of whom seem to him to be about to revert to an animal state. He leaves London and lives in near-solitude in the countryside, devoting himself to chemistry as well as astronomy in the studies of which he finds some peace. 2

Notes & Quotes

  • Dr. Moreau represents Darwin’s theory of evolution through the gothic mode. Dr. Moreau and his assistant Montgomery work on a secluded island to create an artificial sort of evolution, in which animals are made to look, speak, and behave like humans (or like the strange monsters created by Moreau, like the satyr). This sort of false evolution is made monstrous by the pain inflected on the animal body, as well as the body’s unnatural state. In fact, the evolution created by Moreau always includes an inevitable de-evolution, in which the animals revert to their earlier status. When Prendick returns to London, the veil has been lifted, and he looks at his fellow man with horror. He now sees man not as a rational being with a soul, but as one of Moreau’s beast-men, the result of evolution. He is terrified at this knowledge and at the fear that at any moment, their process of de-evolution could begin:
  • My trouble took the stranger form. I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another Beast People, animals half wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert,- to show first this bestial mark and then that. But I have confided my case to a strangely able man,- a man who had known Moreau, and seemed half to credit my story…though I do not expect that the terror of that island will ever altogether leave me… Then I look about me at my fellow-men; and I go in fear. 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. I know this is an illusion; that these seeming men and women about me are indeed men and women,- men and women for ever, perfectly reasonable creatures, full of human desires and tender solicitude, emancipated from instinct and the slaves of no fantastic Law…”

  • I also think that Dr. Moreau is another great example of fin de siècle British gothic fiction that may have been influenced by John Ruskin’s vision of gothic architecture. While Ruskin presented a positive version of the gothic mode (he linked its imperfections and designs as evidence of the “fierce” “wolfish life” of the builders), most gothic writers of the time following Ruskin’s Stones of Venice in a more negative light. Here, for example, Dr. Moreau’s animals must force their more “animal” self to obey their prudish set of laws once they are given a human body. Much like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the monster is located within the self, and the monster is a more free and liberated individual. Dr. Moreau also represents an inner liberated animal self, as he once tried to perform his experiments in England, under their laws, but eventually found that it was difficult to perform vivisections under these social laws. He therefore moves to an uncivilized island, where he is free to perform whatever sort of experiments he desires, no matter their possible immorality.

Poor brutes! I began to see the viler aspect of Moreau’s cruelty. I had not thought before of the pain and trouble that came to these poor victims after they had passed from Moreau’s hands. I had shivered only at the days of actual torment in the enclosure. But now that seemed to me the lesser part. Before, they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence, begun in agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau-and for what? It was the wantonness of it that stirred me.

 

  1. From Sutherland’s Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction 666.
  2. Summary from Wikipedia.

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.