Book Reviews

Review: The Island of Dr. Moreau, by H.G. Wells


The Island of Dr. Moreau

By: H.G. Wells

Published: 1896

The Rundown: Edward Prendick, a gentleman and a scholar, is shipwrecked upon an island run by the scientist Dr. Moreau.  Moreau is an accomplished vivisectionist who performs ghastly experiments on a variety of animals.  He and his alcoholic assistant, Dr. Montgomery, are the only normal people there.  The others are strangely bestial, with deformed hands and sharp teeth.  Just who are these people?  And what is Dr. Moreau doing to the animals in his laboratory?

Don’t Get Strung Out by the Way I Look: The cover shows an island with waves below and sickly orange clouds above.  The brown background is unpleasant to look at.  The cover communicates very little information to the reader about what type of book they are picking up.  We already know it takes place on an island because the word “island” is in the title.  By providing so little insight, they make it seem like it’s just a Robinson Crusoe rip-off.  Then again, perhaps they were not all that concerned with cover art in 1896.

The Good Guy: Prendick is a wealthy gentleman who studies biology as a hobby, in contrast to Montgomery, who is a scientist because he needs the money.  As a result of his status among the British elite, one would expect him to be far removed from the animalistic Beast Men.  At first, it seems like he is.  While stranded on a lifeboat, he chooses starvation over cannibalism.  However, when he reaches the island, he runs like a frightened animal when he realizes Moreau is dangerous.  He is also incapable of taking any meaningful action, instead being buffeted about by circumstance and the will of Moreau.

The Bad Guy: Moreau is a renowned vivisectionist whose cruel experiments caused outrage after they were exposed by an undercover journalist.  Ostracized by the scientific community, he traveled to a private island where he could continue his research.  Moreau acts as a god, a cold-hearted Creator who commands the creatures who live on his island.  He is also the only human character with any agency.

What a Wonderful World: The world of Dr. Moreau is fatalistic and bleak.  The human characters, with the exception of Moreau, are animalistic.  Montgomery is an alcoholic who identifies more with the Beast Men than with humanity.  Jack Davis (the captain) is a brute and a drunk.  The two men whom Prendick is stranded in a lifeboat with are quick to resort to cannibalism to survive.  Even Prendick, who ostensibly is above it all, is prone to mindless fear and is incapable of agency.  Prendick’s dreary view of humanity at the end of the novel is understandable and inevitable.

For Science: An interesting aspect of this novel is that it can be read as both a criticism of science and of religion.  Moreau is described as physically resembling the Christian God.  He sets himself up on an island—his own personal Garden of Eden—and creates a new race of beings called Beast Men.  He gives the Beast Men rules that they must follow in order to be human: “Not to go on all fours,” “Not to suck up Drink,” “Not to eat Fish or Flesh,” etc.  These laws resemble Commandments.  The ultimate fate of Moreau and his Beast Men can be read as a warning of what will happen if scientists become too arrogant and assume the role of God.  It can also be read as an indictment of God himself.  If men are by nature bestial, is it not an act in futility to try to change them via Commandments?  Are they not better off left alone and allowed to behave as they were meant to behave?  Would a God who attempts to change them, to twist them into something new, be an evil God?  No wonder this book was controversial when it was first published.

Inevitable Decay: When The Island of Dr. Moreau was written, vivisection was still widely practiced by scientists.  Given the Victorian knowledge of science (or lack thereof), it was not a stretch of the imagination to consider the possibility of using vivisection to splice living beings and sculpt them into the human image.  Unfortunately for Wells, contemporary understanding of biology renders suspension of disbelief difficult.  For instance, it’s common knowledge that animals do not have the brain function for speech, yet the Beast Men talk.  The closest contemporary version of Wells’ ideas would be Splice, where geneticists spliced the DNA of different animals to create a new creature.  Even that film, however, was pretty far-fetched.

Does it Represent…

Women: The female Beast Men are described as becoming aggressively sexual when their society begins to decay.  This could represent the Victorian fear that female sexuality would run wild if unchecked by social mores.  Wells was an outspoken feminist though, so it’s probably best not to read too deeply into this as an indication of his personal views.

People of Color: Moreau’s first experiment is on a gorilla.  When he finishes operating on it, he describes it as basically being indistinguishable from a “Negro.”  Yeesh.


The Disabled: No.

Memorable Quote: “But there are times when the little cloud spreads, until it obscures the sky.  And those times I look around at my fellow men and I am reminded of some likeness of the beast-people, and I feel as though the animal is surging up in them.  And I know they are neither wholly animal nor wholly man, but an unstable combination of both.”

Recommended for: People with a fatalistic view of human nature.  Optimists beware!

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


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