Posts Tagged ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’

The thing about H.G. Wells’ novels – the great ones, the ones that everyone knows and remembers – is not necessarily that they are classic novels as the term is generally understood. They tend to have fairly simple plots, they are not over-burdened with characters, those who do appear are generally not drawn with much in way of depth or complexity, the dialogue rarely sparkles. And yet it would be odd if they were formed in any other way. Someone I’ve been unable to track down once said that the main character of an SF novel should be an idea, and I think there is more than a little truth in that.

I’ve just re-read The Island of Doctor Moreau, written by Wells in 1896 (after The Time Machine but before The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds), and it would be amusing to imagine the results were the typical novel-writing coach to get their hands on it. Anguished shrieks – the protagonist doesn’t do enough, there’s virtually no plot, it takes too long to get going, the story would happen even if the protagonist wasn’t there, and so on. And all of these things are true.


Obligatory capsule-synopsis begins. The narrator, a shipwrecked biologist, finally ends up on the titular landmass after being rescued by Montgomery, a mysterious, dissolute figure. Montgomery is accompanied by some caged animals he is transporting and a grotesque, unsettling servant. In turns out Montgomery is in the service of the eponymous doctor, who for the previous ten years has been…

Well, the three men are not alone on the island. Moreau has been busy with the animals Montgomery has provided for him. Using surgery and other, more obscure scientific means, he has given the beasts the semblance of human appearance, human speech, and human thought, and provided them with a pseudo-religious moral framework to govern their actions. But Moreau’s creations always deteriorate, revert back towards their original bestial state, and the dominance of the human beings is built on a fragile foundation…

So: while Moreau himself is a barely two-dimensional character, and not in the book much, by far the biggest issue with this book, in a structural critique-your-novel sense, is that the narrator has no real agency. None of his choices impact the development of the story, which would – we may assume – have developed in a virtually identical manner had he not been there. (Curiously enough, one may note that the makers of the now-rather-obscure 1977 film adaptation, starring Burt Lancaster and Michael York, seem to have come to an identical conclusion, for their own corrective surgery on the story rectifies just this issue – in addition, of course, to providing a role as love interest for Barbara Carrera, who if memory serves gets her kit off at one point somewhat gratuitously.)

And yet none of this matters. The narrators of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds have equally passive, onlooker-ish roles in those books. What The Island of Doctor Moreau shares with them is an astonishing capability to crowbar open your brain and insert extraordinarily vivid and imaginative ideas and images there: there’s a reason why other writers, especially in the mainstream, have been patiently ripping Wells off over and over again for the last century.

What makes The Island of Doctor Moreau different to those other books is that, with The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, it’s relatively straightforward to decipher what those books are actually about – The Time Machine is a fable which satirises the British class system, while The War of the Worlds is, on some level, an allegory about the development of the British Empire. With The Island of Doctor Moreau, if there is a particular subtext to the story, it’s not immediately clear what it might be.

Not that there are any shortage of candidates. Like The Time Machine or the best works of H.P. Lovecraft, it’s impossible to read this book and not be struck by a sense of a generation of intelligent, thoughtful men struggling to come to terms with the question of humanity’s place in the universe, post-Darwin. The book suggests that there is nothing privileged or unique about this – by the conclusion the narrator finds he can no longer truly distinguish between Moreau’s beast-men and the genuine kind in any meaningful way. Beasts can become people, and vice versa.

Of course, the book works as science fiction of the purest kind, about a scientist with questionable ideas misusing his power – a cautionary tale, whether it’s about vivisection or genetic engineering or any other form of uplift. But, given Wells’ interest in British society, another, slightly uncomfortable interpretation is also available, what I suppose I would have to call the post-Imperial reading. The Europeans have seized upon the animals and remade them into something approaching a more civilised state, but at the same time they are only too aware of the precariousness of their own position: at one point Montgomery stresses the importance of their remaining dignified at all times, lest they lose the respect of the beast-men.

It reads all too much like one of George Orwell’s pieces about the last days of the British Empire, and the problem, of course, is that this reading – Moreau’s transmogrification of the animals into something approaching human as an allegory for the ‘civilisation’ of indigenous people by the empire – seems incredibly racist to someone today. It equates non-Caucasians with animals (several of the beast-people are explicitly described as ‘negroid’), and suggests that the ‘civilised’ state is only a veneer which will inevitably crumble sooner or later. That Wells implicitly objects to Moreau’s project and is, by and large, sympathetic to the beast-people is really neither nor there.

As I said, this is a really uncomfortable reading of the book – everyone by now surely knows that Lovecraft was grotesquely racist, so we’re used to that, but you kind of expect better from someone like H.G. Wells, don’t you? I usually baulk at judging works and people from so long ago by modern ethical standards, but even so. That said, I think Wells redeems himself and the book by making it clear this is not solely a book about the empire and race, in that sense at least. The only race he’s interested in is the human variety, undifferentiated, and the nature of our own society.

He spends a lot of time detailing the Law under which the beast-people live – they have their own mock-priest, and various of the injunctions placed upon them (to keep their animal nature in check) are detailed. Impulsive creatures descended from animals whose baser instincts are supposedly controlled by a spurious religion…? One gets a strong sense of yet another level of satire going on here.

Wells was one of those people who would probably describe themselves as ‘spiritual, but not religious’ – organised religion and its representatives often come in for a kicking in his books, and this one seems to me to be no exception. And the satire here is general enough for us to suppose it is not limited to adherents of those religions off in those funny other places, but to the good folk of the C of E and other faiths closer to home. The closing section of the book, thankfully, reinforces this more generalist view – on his return to civilisation, the narrator finds himself unable to live around other people any more, for he has become uncomfortably aware of the bestial nature they all share. All people, everywhere: the nameless island is, after all, described as ‘the whole balance of human life in miniature’.

Perhaps it’s slightly odd that the subtext you would expect to find in The Island of Doctor Moreau – one about animal rights, and the destructive impact of humanity upon nature – is the one that isn’t really there: Wells’ narrator expresses outrage and horror at the suffering undergone by Moreau’s animal subjects, but you never get the sense that this is what the book is in any way about. Wells seems to have been more interested in people than in beasts – although it may equally be the case that the lack of a meaningful distinction between the two is really what the book is about. There are many choices; that’s one of the things that makes this book so great.

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