Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Are we not Men?

Crossposted at Bookworm

I wonder what Darwin would have thought of The Island of Dr. Moreau? That giant of science who showed, among other things, that humans share a common ancestry with "lower animals," might have been interested in a novel about the boundaries between ourselves and our animal cousins. As a nature-lover myself, the idea of being akin to all the wonderful animals on this planet is far from disturbing. I see no malice in predators, as Prendick the unfortunate castaway does, and no shame in an animal's fear of pain, as Moreau the pitiless vivisector does. But reading this book makes me think that a generation after The Descent of Man, English society was still deeply troubled by the thought that they might be of the same substance as creatures they had thought of as soulless, inferior, and created solely for our own use and benefit.

The book gives us three different perspectives on animals. Dr. Moreau, the real monster of the story, clearly possesses a deep hatred for animal qualities, so much so that he is willing to endure exile to continue his horrific experiments.

Each time I dip a living creature into the bath of burning pain, I say, This time I will burn out all the animal, this time I will make a rational creature of my own.

Montgomery, Moreau's right hand man, represents the other extreme. He does not try to control his urges, he befriends and sympathizes with Moreau's creatures, and in the end destroys himself by instigating a sort of anti-human Bacchanalia. Prendick observes:

I felt that for Montgomery there was no help; that he was in truth half-akin to these Beast Folk, unfitted for human kindred.

Prendick represents the middle road between having contempt for animals and becoming one. He shares some of Moreau's scientific curiosity and is not categorically against animal experimentation but, English gentleman that he is, he has his limits. Though he feels the animal in himself rise up in moments of crisis, he is still disgusted by the mixture of animal and human in Moreau's experiments. He does develop some sympathy for the plight of the Beast People, and ends up living with them for a while, but is never truly comfortable around them. He doesn't try to dominate them as Moreau did, but neither does he see them as fit companions for a man, as Montgomery did. When he finally escapes the island and returns to England, he is haunted by the irrational fear that the people around him are not entirely human, especially those of the lower classes. If anything, he clings to the distinction between human and animal even more strongly after his experiences on Dr. Moreau's island.

And what are those distinctions? Two aspects in particular, one mental and one physical, are prominent in the book. The mental distinction is, not surprisingly, rational thought. Though the Beast People do achieve a certain level of intelligence and culture, they eventually revert to their animal nature and instinct reclaims their minds. The physical hallmark of humanity in this book is the human hand. Moreau's only, and surprisingly willing, deference to the pain of his subject is with regards to hands:

…often there is trouble with the hands and claws—painful things that I dare not shape too freely.

Only the Ape Man naturally has five digits, a fact which he takes great pride in as proof of his humanity. Moreau is described as having long, dexterous fingers, with which he performs his surgeries, and which are part of the Beast People's religious litany:

His is the House of Pain
His is the Hand that makes
His is the Hand that wounds
His is the Hand that heals

When he is finally killed by one of his creatures, one of his hands is found nearly severed at the wrist. His companions hands are mentioned too. Montgomery is described as dexterously bandaging Prendicks's arm after it is broken by the escaping Puma Man. Later, Prendick gains respect among the Beast People with the weapons he wields in his hands—a hatchet and stones. They have a deeper bite and longer reach than their natural weapons, teeth and claws. Finally, after returning to England, Prendick takes solace in books, objects that are completely and unalterably human, the work of human hands.

I have withdrawn myself from the confusion of cities and multitudes, and spend days surrounded by wise books, bright windows, in this life of ours lit by the shining souls of men.

Though I don't share the book's views on animal nature, I greatly enjoyed the book itself. This was not my first acquaintance with the story—I saw the 1996 film adaptation recently—so I was not in suspense about the general outline of the story. [MOVIE SPOILER WARNING!!!] There was a significant thematic difference between the book and the movie version I saw. In the film, Moreau's goal is not "to find out the extreme limit of plasticity in a living shape" but to improve the human race by splicing in strong, animal characteristics. This was done more by biochemical than surgical means, as befits today's technological environment. This shifted the story's concern away from the fear of the animal in us to the ethical aspects of genetic engineering. In the film, Moreau's abomination was not miscegenation but playing God. It actually left me with more to think about than the book did. [END OF SPOILERS]

I greatly enjoyed Wells' clear, precise, evocative, and impeccable English. I suspect many readers might find it a bit dull, but it is a natural fit for my scientific mind. Only on one occasion did I find a sentence that didn't just roll off the page. For those who haven't read the book, here is a sample of his style, describing the moment when Prendick fully appreciates what Moreau has done:

Poor brutes! I began to see the viler aspects of Moreau's cruelty. I had not thought before of the pain and trouble that came to these poor victims after they had passed from Moreau's hands. I had shivered only at the days of actual torment in the enclosure. But now that seemed the lesser part. Before they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence began in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau—and for what? It was the wantonness that stirred me.

I haven't read any other Wells so I don't know if he adopted this style because the narrator was an amateur scientist, or if that is always his way of writing, perhaps reflecting the fact that he himself had studied biology for a time. I shall find out as I intend to read more of his work. For now it's off to the Slaves of Golconda blog and the MetaxuCafé forum to see what other readers thought of this scary little gem.

By the way, did anyone read the 1996 Modern Library edition of the book? Isn't it lovely? This is for colophon fans (I know you're out there!):

The principal text of this Modern Library edition was set in a digitized version of Bembo, a typeface based on an old-style Roman face that was used for Cardinal Bembo's tract De Aetna in 1495. Bembo was cut by Francisco Griffo in the early sixteenth century. The Lanston Monotype Machine Company of Philadelphia brought the well-proportioned letter forms of Bembo to the United States in the 1930's.


Dorothy W. said...

Very nice reading of this book! I like the way you chart the relationship of the three main characters to animals -- that makes the outline of the novel quite clear.

Quillhill said...

Interesting observation about the hands. I also like the idea of prendick being the man between two extremes, and as a representative of the common Englishman.

Stefanie said...

I like what you say about the hands too. I remember the five-finger thing, but all the other hand-y details I missed.

Sylvia said...

Thanks. Yes, I thought Prendick was a sort of Everyman, or at least, Everygentleman.