Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Cross-posted at So Many Books

What a horrible book! That's horrible as in causing horror, not as in the glib way we use it to mean something is bad. The Island of Dr. Moreau made my stomach turn at times. The cries of the puma being vivisected, "such and exquisite expression of suffering," almost made me stop reading, so clearly could I hear them in my head. Prendick's reaction, to escape the cries rather than to do something to stop the animal's suffering, made me so angry I wanted to do something to hurt him, after, that is, I stormed Moreau's fortress, set all of the suffering animals free, and hung Moreau by his toes from the highest tree. What a horrible, excruciating, gut-wrenching book!

The book has a sort of Heart of Darkness feel to it for me. But instead of Kurtz being worshipped by the natives, Moreau makes his own to worship him. Moreau is God on his little island, molding animals into the semblance of humans, giving them The Law, and meting out punishment to those who break The Law. Moreau's level-headed explanation to Prendick of what he is doing is seductive in its cool, scientific reasoning. That Moreau thinks he can, by "dip[ping] a living creature into the bath of pain [...] burn out all the animal" and be left with a rational creature reveals his madness. What is even more frightening is that Moreau has no purpose for his work other than personal. His intentions are not to improve the lives of animals or humans. He wants, but I am not entirely sure what he wants, maybe only to marvel in his own power. He is the scientist we all fear, the one who lives in a self-created, self-driven universe where ethics and morals do not have a role. He is the doctor we are afraid will experiment on us just to see what happens; the scientist who would clone a human being or create a toxin without an antidote. This being a book, we have the satisfaction of Moreau getting what he deserves. The book plays on our fears of science in such a way, however, that I am left with a creepy feeling that there are real-life Moreaus who are, at this moment, far away from justice.

Wells's writing style is reporterly and unadorned. Here are the facts and just the facts. We are not told how we are to think or feel about what is going on. It is like the reader is a jury and the text presents the various sides of the case for our consideration. Everyone gets a turn to speak, Moreau, his assistant Montgomery, Prendick the narrator, even the "beast people." We do not get to decide their fates, they take care of that themselves. We only get to decide their guilt.

The book also asks us to think about what is human. When the book was written, Darwin's theory of evolution was turning society upside down. No longer could we be so certain that we were created by God. Nor could we say for sure that we were not animals. Even in the twenty-first century the repercussions of Darwin continue to play out. What is animal? What is human? When once we were certain we were the top of the pyramid, with evolution we are only one more step in the development of the species and we don't know what is in the future. So what do we do? Do we abdicate, and become animals? Or do we become Moreau-like and attempt to turn ourselves into gods? Wells does not try to suggest an alternative to either and I am glad he didn't, it would have given the novel a false note and tempered the horror. Instead we are forced to look in the mirror and try and answer some tough questions.

Everyone is welcome to joine the Slaves of Golconda discussion of this book at MetaxuCafe


Quillhill said...

The cries of the puma are indeed frightening. Imagine hearing something like that for yourself and not knowing what was happening. Though I've never read Heart of Darkness, I had that feeling of similarity you mention based on common knowledge I guess. Or is a heart of darkness/island of Moreau archetypal in man's subconscious?

Stefanie said...

I think it must have some archetypal-ness to it. Dorothy mentions Young Goodman Brown and I am also reminded of Lord of the Flies. It's our seemingly forever need to work out what it is to be human I think.

Quillhill said...

Lord of the Flies is a good example of similar theme--the beast in all of us, even children.

Rebecca H. said...

I like what you say about Moreau being God, and I find it interesting that Prendick begins to play God too, trying to keep the human/beasts under control. I'm not sure what I think about Prendick -- what we're supposed to make of his attitudes and actions.

Mike B. said...

I'm torn Stefanie because I don't know whether to despise Moreau or not. I don't know if he was trying to be God. And if he was, then I think a lot of people, doctors and scientists especially, that practice today, would also have to be considered the same.

I think he was heartless, but I think Wells was maybe trying to show us the foils of science and how we are always trying to prove something.