H. G. Wells is perhaps best known as the author of the science-fiction classics “The War of the Worlds” and “The Time Machine.” Like his later counterpart Michael Crichton, Wells envisioned fantastical technology run amok, leading to widespread devastation and catastrophe. Up until this past week, my experience with Wells’ work was limited to his more popular titles – I’d never read his lesser-known work “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” Surprisingly, this dark tale of scientific curiosity gone awry is one of the most compelling and thought-provoking novels I’ve read in quite some time.
(Note: In order to discuss this novel’s underlying themes, the following review contains spoilers.)
The narrator, Edward Prendick, is shipwrecked at sea and cast adrift. He is rescued by a mysterious ship carrying a cargo of exotic animals, and saved from illness by the enigmatic Dr. Montgomery. Montgomery proceeds to take him to a jungle island in the middle of the ocean, warning him not to leave the gated compound at the island’s center. Edward learns that the island is the home of the eccentric surgeon Dr. Moreau, who is conducting strange experiments in his locked laboratory.
Aroused by screaming in the middle of the night, Edward bursts into Moreau’s operating room. A misshapen humanoid creature is lying on the table, covered in blood. Horrified at what he believes he has witnessed – a living human being transformed into a beast-man – Edward flees into the jungle. He is almost immediately attacked by the monstrous creatures dwelling in the forest – grotesque hybrids of human and animal with an appetite for blood. A nightmarish chase ensues, and Edward is almost killed before he manages to reach a colony of “civilized” beast-men.
These beast-men hold to a single “Law” – a code of ethics that separates them from the inhuman creatures at their doorstep. This Law includes such injunctions as “thou shalt not travel on all fours” “thou shalt not eat meat” and “thou shall not drink water directly from the river.” While the beast-men still display animalian traits, they are obviously struggling to overcome then. Moreau eventually arrives and explains the situation to Edward. He has not been transforming humans into animals, but rather molding beasts into beast-men. He acknowledges the initial difficulty of this process – noting the difficulty of overcoming their animal instincts – but obviously takes pride in his accomplishment.
Unfortunately, all is not well in Eden. When one of Moreau’s human servants is killed in an attempt to subdue a renegade beast-man, Moreau and his followers lose their aura of “immortality.” The beast-men begin to rebel, and the island is plunged into bloody conflict. Edward manages to survive the carnage, eventually even taking up residence with the beast-men. Over time, as the shadow of Dr. Moreau becomes merely a distant memory, the beast-men begin to revert to their original forms…both mentally and physically.
Edward is eventually delivered from the island and returns to human civilization. But as he walks among his own kind once again…he cannot help wondering if he is looking into the eyes of rational men, or of savage beasts in human form. On that chilling note, the novel ends.
“The Island of Dr. Moreau” is both a gripping science-fiction story and a dark parable for modern times. Wells brilliantly depicts the conflict between our civilized impulses and our bestial tendencies, weaving spiritual complexity into an haunting novel of mystery and horror. Moreau is clearly the novel’s “God” figure – a brilliant creator with generally benevolent intentions, forced to watch his creations stray from the path of righteousness. When Moreau is killed, the fragile society of the beast-men starts to fragment – illustrating the inability of a civilization to function without the recognition of divine authority.
As the beast-men begin to reassume their animal forms, they are simultaneously losing that which made them “human” – namely, their rational minds and their adherence to an ethical code. Even Edward, the narrator, finds himself growing more and more “wild” as the story progresses…so that when he returns to the company of men, he can no longer tell the difference between man and beast-man. This illustrates a fundamental spiritual truth: humans are by nature corrupt, and apart from God, they will naturally begin to deteriorate. While Wells was a deist, and did not adhere to an established religion, he clearly recognized the importance of divine law in the makeup of a civilized society. The “Law” of the beast-men reflects this. Even though Dr. Moreau is not directly present among them, the beast-men recognize his rules and expectations as the only thing separating them from wildness. By the end of the book, Edward recognizes that the same “evil” lurking in the beast-men’s hearts also dwells within his own.
Objectionable content? The book does contain strong violence throughout, particularly during the beast-men’s revolt. It’s grim enough that I wouldn’t recommend it to sensitive readers, but it’s an unforgettable object lesson: we are by nature fallen, and capable of incredible evil. It’s a little reminiscent of “Lord of the Flies” although nowhere near as graphic.
“The Island of Dr. Moreau” is certainly worth your time. It’s creative, suspenseful, and thought-provoking – a must-read for fans of the science fiction genre. But on a deeper level, it’s an intriguing view of the nature of man and the foundations of social order. Highly recommended.
A tense, brilliantly conceived blend of science fiction and incisive social commentary.