H. G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau

The Island of Dr. MoreauThe Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Island of Doctor Moreau is H. G. Wells’s second “scientific romance” after The Time Machine. The genre of prose fiction that predates the realist novel, romance is a narrative of enchantment and adventure; Wells updates the romance—so that it can postdate the realist novel—by grounding its marvels in the scientific facts disclosed by the 19th century. Now we just call it science fiction.

Given both romance’s immemorial investment in symbolism (think of the Grail quest) and Wells’s ultramodern desire to provide social commentary by extrapolation from present knowledge, it’s no surprise that science fiction is often allegorical. We can tell this novel is allegorical from the names of the boats given in its ungainly second sentence:

On January the Fifth, 1888—that is eleven months and four days after—my uncle, Edward Prendick, a private gentleman, who certainly went aboard the Lady Vain at Callao, and who had been considered drowned, was picked up in latitude 5° 3′ S. and longitude 101° W. in a small open boat of which the name was illegible, but which is supposed to have belonged to the missing schooner Ipecacuanha.

Human vanity is Wells’s theme, and nausea (implied by the schooner’s name, which refers to an emetic plant) his book’s dominant affect.

After the faux-documentary introduction, the novel is cast as Edward Prendick’s account of the year he spent while supposedly lost at sea. Prendick is an English gentleman, a dabbler who “had taken to Natural History as a relief from the dulness of [his] comfortable independence.” When his ship, the Lady Vain, goes down in the Pacific, he finds himself in a dinghy with two other men who ironically end up killing themselves in their struggle for survival after one—with Prendick in agreement—proposes cannibalism.

Then he is rescued by another ship, the Ipecacuanha, captained by an abusive drunkard and mysteriously carrying a cargo of animals, including a puma. In his convalescence, Prendick is attended by a physician named Montgomery who reminisces of his own days as a London medical student. Prendick notes without comment what must from the Victorian viewpoint be regarded as Montgomery’s unpropitious physiognomy:

A youngish man with flaxen hair, a bristly straw-coloured moustache, and a dropping nether lip, was sitting and holding my wrist. For a minute we stared at each other without speaking. He had watery grey eyes, oddly void of expression.

But much more alarming is his attendant, “a misshapen man, short, broad, and clumsy, with a crooked back, a hairy neck, and a head sunk between his shoulders,” not to mention “a black face” and eyes that grow green in the dark. When the drunken captain maroons Prendick on the island of Montgomery’s final destination, he encounters still more men of strange and disquietingly subhuman appearance.

These hints of the animal in a human face and deportment, or of the human’s falling short of an ideal, both suggest what late-Victorians, spooked by Darwin and psychologically insecure even in their imperial dominance over those they considered “lesser breeds” (per Kipling), feared as “degeneration.” Wells literalizes this anxiety when Prendick gradually finds that his new island home, presided over by the white-haired Dr. Moreau, is menaced by animal and human cries and by weird creatures that stalk him in the dark.

Wells’s effectively-paced thriller gradually mounts to its central revelation, disclosed at its midpoint: Dr. Moreau is an obsessed vivisectionist (another fin-de-siècle concern) who has come to this remote island to perform experiments undeterred by the squeamish ethics of his London colleagues. Wells leaves the details vague, but the upshot is that he creates surgical hybrids of animal and animal and of animals with human characteristics, from bipedalism to speech. Moreau’s intellectual drive—he dismisses not only morality but even sensation—takes him beyond human and animal, beyond good and evil, to a god-like identification with nature itself:

“Oh, but [pain] is such a little thing! A mind truly opened to what science has to teach must see that it is a little thing. It may be that save in this little planet, this speck of cosmic dust, invisible long before the nearest star could be attained—it may be, I say, that nowhere else does this thing called pain occur. But the laws we feel our way towards—Why, even on this earth, even among living things, what pain is there?”


“Then I am a religious man, Prendick, as every sane man must be. It may be, I fancy, that I have seen more of the ways of this world’s Maker than you,—for I have sought his laws, in my way, all my life, while you, I understand, have been collecting butterflies.”


“To this day I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter,” he continued. “The study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature.”

For the education of his charges, Moreau believes not in reason, morality, or the soul, but rather in what Wells’s contemporaries in the nascent psychological sciences called conditioning; he accordingly tortures his creatures—who call his school “the House of Pain”—into a culture based on law:

“Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

“Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

“Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

“Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

“Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?”

Being “men,” however, is no guarantee. Montgomery the man asks the more pertinent existential question, “What’s it all for, Prendick? Are we bubbles blown by a baby?”

In the novel’s second half, Moreau’s fragile order breaks down. He is killed by the creature he attempts to sculpt from the puma Prendick had encountered on board the Ipecacuanha at the beginning. Montgomery sinks into alcoholism, and (in what Wells portrays as a parallel process) the beasts regress, despite—in the narrative’s most brilliant moment—Prendick’s spontaneous invention of religion when the Beast Folk inquire if the law has died with Moreau:

“Children of the Law,” I said, “he is not dead!” M’ling turned his sharp eyes on me. “He has changed his shape; he has changed his body,” I went on. “For a time you will not see him. He is—there,” I pointed upward, “where he can watch you. You cannot see him, but he can see you. Fear the Law!”

As we know from the introduction, Prendick does in the end escape. In a conclusion Wells borrows from Gulliver’s Travels, Prendick’s sojourn among the beasts has made him unfit for human life:

My trouble took the strangest form. I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another Beast People, animals half wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert,—to show first this bestial mark and then that.

As a summary of the novel’s moral, though, this is unreliable. Prendick is neither Wells nor Wells’s spokesman, as we might infer from his status as gentleman amateur—which gives him a very different class experience and cultural outlook from that of Wells’s own petit bourgeois origins and literary professionalism.

Despite Henry James’s censure of Wells’s indifference to niceties of form and composition, a pattern of imagery in this novel tells the real story: “I gave a wild cry, and redoubled my pace,” Prendick reports of his actions while a Leopard Man is pursuing him; later, again in the context of a chase, “I felt more than a touch of exultation too, at having distanced my pursuers.” If he runs with the beasts and feels the natural transports of the hunt, the beasts themselves recall humanity to him:

I would see one of the clumsy bovine-creatures who worked the launch treading heavily through the undergrowth, and find myself asking, trying hard to recall, how he differed from some really human yokel trudging home from his mechanical labours; or I would meet the Fox-bear woman’s vulpine, shifty face, strangely human in its speculative cunning, and even imagine I had met it before in some city byway.

The inability truly to differentiate human from animal, the flickering of animality across the human consciousness and countenance, the hints of humanity in animal gestures and needs—this, not a Christian gentleman’s lament over our beastly side’s incorrigible recidivism, is Wells’s real concern. Moreover, while the novel, or at least the narrator, occasionally puts the predictable late-Victorian racist spin on the central conceit, its ultimate if implied thesis is that hierarchies among the whole continuum of sentient life are untenable—so where does that leave hierarchies among humans? Wells looks back to Gulliver’s Travels but also forward to Never Let Me Go.

To give Henry James his due, this novel, for all its philosophical richness, is commercial fiction, is in fact one of the books foundational to commercial fiction in its modern form. The prose throughout is consequently functional, uninteresting, and, at times, clumsy. This may be in character for Prendick (he even apologizes: “my inexperience as a writer betrays me”), but that doesn’t it make it more fun for the reader. Like all commercial fiction with a serious point to make, The Island of Doctor Moreau holds up that point to spend pages at a time on tedious action sequences, presumably required to entertain the masses. This mix of brute sensationalism with abstract ideology might be the formal corollary of Wells’s post-Darwinian theme that we can’t reliably distinguish angel from ape, but still, I kept wanting a writer like Conrad to bestow his masterful descriptive gift on the Beast Folk! The whole narrative qua narrative is so well-designed, though, that we can understand why Vladimir Nabokov, an even more exacting novelist-critic than James, called Wells “a great artist.”

Another distinguished critic, V. S. Pritchett, relishes (in his Complete Collected Essays) Wells’s scientific romances for their boisterous lower-middle-class Englishness—

No Frenchified or Russianised fiction this, but plain, cheerful, vulgar, stoic, stupid and hopelessly romantic English.

—as well as for the traditionalism detectable beneath their supposed novelty:

[I]n his best narratives Wells does go back to the literary traditions of the early eighteenth century, the highest traditions of our narrative literature.

Pritchett promotes the Wells of Moreau over his late-Victorian contemporaries (“This is the book of a wounded man who has had a sight of sadism and death”) when he praises the novel’s rigorous statement of our inescapable existential dilemma over the imaginary solutions favored by George Bernard Shaw (socialism), G. K. Chesterton (Catholicism), and Rudyard Kipling (proto-fascism)—which, plus ça change, also happen to be the main expedients proffered by today’s intellectuals for our problems. Yet Pritchett finds Wells, along with his contemporaries, wanting in comparison to Swift:

We turn back to our Swift and there we see a mad world also; but it is a mad world dominated by the sober figure of the great Gulliver, that plain, humane figure. Not a man of exquisite or adventurous spirituality; not a great soul; not a man straining all his higher faculties to produce some new mutation; not a man trying to blow himself out like the frog of the fable to the importunate dimensions of his programme; but, quite simply, a man. Endowed with curiosity, indeed, but empowered by reserve. Anarchists like Wells, Kipling, Shaw and the pseudo-orthodox Chesterton had no conception of such a creature. They were too fascinated by their own bombs.

Pritchett makes the Wells/Swift distinction about ideology, but I wonder if it doesn’t have more to do with the form of commercial fiction in the age of mass markets: its impatience with reflection, its formulaic plotting and action, its rote sensationalism. More than ideology, this artistic diminution of the human element in deference to a mechanical calculus of popularity makes the difference between Wells and Swift. In Wells’s bestseller and in bestsellers thereafter, in the elevation of entertainment over art, we find not a lapse from human to animal, but rather a transformation of man into machine.