Sunday, 4 October 2015

Penguin no. 571: The Island of Dr. Moreau
by H.G. Wells

Though I do not expect that the terror of the island will ever altogether leave me, at most times it lies far in the back of my mind, a mere distant cloud, a memory and a faint distrust; but there are times when the little cloud spreads until it obscures the whole sky. 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 were surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale.

It was generally believed that Edward Prendrick had been drowned when the Lady Vain sank after its collision with an abandoned vessel, but he turned up adrift in a life boat, still alive, eleven months later. No one could believe the account he gave of his adventures during those intervening months, and it was widely suspected that his mental faculties had been addled by his term of solitude. He therefore decided to keep quiet, committing his story to paper but telling no one else about it. The Island of Dr. Moreau purports to be the account of those missing months, apparently found amongst his papers after his death, and brought to the awareness of the public by his nephew.

Of those who had taken to the dinghy after the wreck, Prendrick alone survives long enough to be rescued after his companions fall overboard during a tussle. He is rescued by a ship which chances to pass, and a messenger with some medical training, who chances to be aboard, saves his life by nursing him back to health. Prendrick then finds himself abandoned a few days later by the enraged captain of the rescuing vessel, and adrift once more, this time without any means of manoeuvering his craft or any provisions to sustain his life. He is saved a second time, albeit reluctantly, by Dr. Moreau who is moved by the desperateness of his situation, and who allows Prendrick the sanctuary of his island. This act of compassion is to bring about Moreau's downfall, along with that of his companion Montgomery.

The idea that a person's fate is entirely subject to the vagaries of chance events is a recurring theme in The Island of Dr. Moreau. It is through a series of unlikely events that Prendrick survives the ship wreck and the predations of his companions in the dinghy, and that he is nursed back to health and rescued a second time. It is through happenings no less likely that he is in time able to leave Moreau's island and return to London to commit his tale to paper.  But the randomness of fortune is presented as an oppressive and bleak reality, for when the course of all lives, and the existence of humanity itself, is simply a matter of chance, nothing has any meaning.

It takes some time for Prendrick to work out the secret of Moreau's island, and the explanation for the bizarre human-like creatures which reside upon it. In time he learns that Moreau is an unashamed vivisectionist whose life's work has been focused on perfecting various surgical and psychological techniques which can be used to transform animals from their natural state into something which simulates human form, in an accelerated mimicry of evolution. Moreau is forced to undertake his research far from civilised society, because the concept is an outrage to his contemporaries.

And in this there seems a critique of the contemporary scientist, for Moreau - just like the process of evolution - is indifferent to the fate of those upon whom he experiments. Nothing matters but the pursuits of his research, and this includes the suffering endured by the inadvertent victims of the process he is attempting to perfect, and the difficulties they face in living with the altered conditions. For Moreau, every failure is an abhorrence, and something he turns his mind from: he has no compassion for them, and no concern for what becomes of them, but his island is there to provide a home to the rejected outcomes of his interventions.

In The Island of Dr. Moreau Wells explores the implications of the concepts which underpin the theory of evolution, both the idea of chance as an indifferent driver, and what it means if no distinct boundary exists between animals and humans. It is a well-told and fast-paced story, but also a bleak one, and Prendrick's obtuseness in working out what is going on can be frustrating.

First published by Heinemann in 1896. A film version by Paramount Pictures appeared in 1932. First published as a Penguin Book in 1946.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 151: The Invisible Man
Penguin no. 335: Kipps
Penguin no. 572: Love and Mr. Lewisham


  1. i understand that wells became increasingly depressed as WW2 approached; despairing about the future of the human race. i wonder whether "moreau" was one of his later works... nice to see another post by the weekly penguin!

  2. It's not that late as it was first published in 1896. And thanks for the welcome back - it has been a challenging year.

  3. Hi Karyn
    Nice to see that you are back on your horse!

    I liked the review and I do find the book very interesting. I think in part it is about Well's struggle with the mixed messages about Eugenics that were present at that time in the Fabian movement members. I also think that there interesting parallels between The Island of Dr Moreau and Shakespeare's The Tempest. Indeed, I think that Wells was deliberately 'referencing' the Tempest in his scenario for the book.

    Looking forward to the next review.

    Best wishes

  4. This is one Wells I've not read--yet. The movie was a favorite back in the days I stayed up long enuf to watch the Midnight Horror Hour.



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