"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 13, 2014

"The Island of Dr. Moreau" by H.G. Wells (The Art of the Novella 22)

Early in his career H.G. Wells wrote the six "scientific romances" for which he today is known in the first place - his later, realistic novels are all but forgotten, as are his short stories (in both cases, this is at least in part unjustified). But in fact, many of these early SF novellas carry strong political or sociological messages, like his later work that was often inspired by socialism. They are not the pure entertainment or escapism that Hollywood makes of them in its many empty movie versions. In The Time Machine, for example, Wells is not so much interested in the time machine in itself (or how it works), but he wanted to show his readers how the industrial relations of his day - with haves and have-nots - could in the future very well develop in two different races of man, the "lower" one literally living below the earth. It was his originality to bring a time traveler on stage to show that future.

[H.G. Wells - Photo Wikipedia]

It was not the scientific argument that is important to Wells, he was not interested in connecting the lines of technological development towards the feature, but he used his romances in the first place for political and sociological commentary, or to try out a philosophical hypothesis: what would happen, if... This in contrast to Jules Verne, who did make future scientific developments the focus of his books (although Verne's "science" is often quite faulty). Happily, Wells also could tell a good story and he was never preachy.

The best and most genuinely horrific of these early novellas is in my view The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), because here the message is more generalized: a warning against scientific hubris and a parable on Darwinian theory.

The problem that Dr. Moreau tempted to solve was: "Can we by surgery (vivisection) so accelerate the evolutionary process as to make man out of a beast in a few days or weeks?"

The narrator, Edward Prendick, is shipwrecked and rescued by a passing boat that carries a very unusual cargo - a menagerie of savage animals. Their keeper Montgomery nurses him back to health, but Prendick is worried by Montgomery's weird servant, who seems to have animalistic qualities. Prendick is taken to the ship's destination, an uncharted Pacific island, where he is introduced to Montgomery's master, the sinister Dr. Moreau - a questionable scientist earlier chased out of England for torturing animals in notorious experiments in vivisection. As Prendick now gradually learns, Dr. Moreau has perfected surgical techniques by which he can accelerate evolution. Under Dr Moreau's Darwinian scalpel, animals are painfully raised to quasi-humanity. With the assistance of Montgomery, who is an outlawed medical student, Dr Moreau has succeeded in producing some creditable parodies of humanity by his operations on pigs, bulls, dogs and even panthers. These hyena-swine and mutant ape-men walk on their hind legs, have mastered rudimentary language, and can even be taught to do simple work as servants. But when Prendick sits in the room to which he has been confined, he hears the most terrible cries of tortured animals from the doctor's lab. Not able to sit still, he ventures outside the compound, although that has been strictly forbidden as too dangerous.

In the jungle, Prendick stumbles upon a colony of the beastly creations of the sadistic doctor: the cut up and remolded creatures (Dr. Moreau fits parts of different animals together) somehow have the appearance and intelligence of humans, but are unstable in the sense that they have to be maintained at that level by the exercise of discipline and the constant recital of "the Law" (a sort of Ten Commandments forbidding animal-type behavior). When they are completely left to themselves they gradually revert to the habits and manners of the individual beasts out of which they have been carved. They may never drink blood, as that would make them revert immediately to animal status. If one of them happens to show animal behavior, the poor beast will be carried off to Dr. Moreau's lab, something which they fear very much because of the sadistic infliction of pain that takes place there. The doctor on purpose performs his painful operations without the use of anesthesia - a way of keeping his creatures in check by making them afraid of pain. In other words, this hybrid race is being kept in check by fear... and as happens in dictatorial situations, they worship Doctor Moreau like a god - their cruel God.

Of course, one day things go wildly wrong - Dr. Moreau is killed by a puma he is operating on in particularly cruel way, the prohibitory laws are disobeyed, the difficult equilibrium breaks down, and in open rebellion the hybrids revert to their original nature.

This is a haunting tale, where also the doctor's strange creations are not simply monsters, but in the first place victims and where even the mad doctor is not so much a through-and-through bad guy as a misguided scientist whose technology runs ahead of morality. That is something that still happens today, making Well's story with its moral that technology itself can be problematic, still valid for us. And above all the story poses the important question what it means to be human - and shows us how inhuman it is to use violence on animals. To close with a quote from another author, Milan Kundera:
"...animals have accompanied human life since time immemorial. Facing his neighbor, man is never free to be himself; the power of the one limits the freedom of the other. Facing an animal, man is who he is. His cruelty is free. The relation between man and animal constitutes an eternal background to human life, a mirror (a dreadful mirror) that will never leave it."   [From Encounter, Essays, by Milan Kundera, p. 177, published by Faber and Faber] 
P.S. By the way, two years after the publication of The Island of Dr. Moreau the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection was founded.
Read The Island of Dr. Moreau on the internet, or download it in epub or kindle format. There is an edited and annotated edition available in Penguin Books.