Brad Hodges's Reviews > The Island of Dr. Moreau

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells
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Mar 09, 2012

really liked it
Read from March 09 to 17, 2012

One my literary projects this year is to read the science fiction novels of H.G. Wells. A few of them I've read before, but I hadn't read The Island of Dr. Moreau, published in 1896. It is a somewhat overly sensational but interesting commentary on the nature of man as an animal, and on the existence of God.

Wells called the book "an exercise in youthful blasphemy." Indeed, a devout believer could have problems with this big, which suggests that God the creator is not necessarily supernatural, but instead is relative.

The tale is told by a seaman, Pendrick, who survives a shipwreck. He's picked up by a passing boat, which contains a man named Montgomery, his beast-like assistant, and a menagerie of exotic animals. They are let off on a remote island, but the captain of the ship demands that Pendrick leave, too. Montgomery won't take him ashore, so Pendrick is stranded in a dinghy. Eventually Montgomery pities him and takes him ashore, where he meets Dr. Moreau, who is not pleased to host him, and tells him that ships only come by once a year.

"We are biologists here. This is a biological station--of a sort," Moreau tells Pendrick. Eventually he will see things that defy his notions of what man and animals are. Creatures that are humanoid, but bear unmistakable resemblances to animals. "There were three Swine-men and a Swine-woman, a mare-rhinoceros-creature, and several other females whose sources I did not ascertain. There were several wolf-creatures, a bear-bull, and a Saint-Bernard-man. I have already described the Ape-man, and there was a particularly hateful (and evil-smelling) old woman made of vixen and bear, whom I hated from the beginning."

Moreau explains that these are not men turned into animals, as Pendrick fears (he thinks he will be next) but animals turned into men, through vivisection. (This was a big cause at the time, as many more humane people sought to ban the scientific practice). The animals undergo severe pain, as Moreau tells Pendrick that without alteration, they will revert to their animal tendencies. "Through an open doorway beyond, in the dim light of the shadow, I saw something bound painfully upon a framework, scarred, red, and bandaged; and then blotting this out appeared the face of old Moreau, white and terrible."

Moreau keeps the animals in line by instilling in them a law, which includes not tasting blood, not walking on all fours, and not drinking like an animal. They can all speak English (I'm not sure how this is accomplished), and consider Moreau their creator, which he is, of course. But eventually a few "beast folk" go rogue, and Moreau is killed. Pendrick must improvise to save his skin: "'For a time you will not see him. He is--there,' I poined upward, 'where he can watch you. You cannot see him, but he can see you. Fear the Law!'" If that isn't a nice nutshell version of theism, I don't know what is. Pendrick later notes, "An animal may be ferocious and cunning enough, but it takes a real man to tell a lie."

The book has it's pulp aspects, including overly florid language, but touches on a lot of interesting subjects, such as what separates man from animal, and whether the notion of God is just a con to keep us all in line. Wells wasn't an out-and-out atheist (he was also, as I read about him, a supporter of eugenics and anti-Zionist, so he wasn't exactly a forward thinker in all respects) but he had his doubts, and The Island of Dr. Moreau expresses them vividly.
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