Paul Spalding-Mulcock, Features Writer

The Island Of Dr Moreau

Edward Prendick, the narrator of this still controversial early science fiction novel written by H.G. Wells (1866-1946) and first published in 1896, was not quite as fortunate as Robinson Crusoe. Though Daniel Defoe’s eponymous character referred to his enforced home of just over twenty eight years as “the island of despair”, poor old Edward definitely got the short end of the desert island stick. Never a huge fan of horror and likely to faint at the mere suggestion of surgery of any description, the undertow of my adoration for the Wells canon, inexorably pulled me towards The Island Of Doctor Moreau. Initially uncertain about this turn of events, I can now report that my visit was profoundly disturbing and a serendipitous delight, despite my squeamish disposition. Now safely back amongst civilised society, I think that exploring the context within which this work was written and received intensifies its power to both entertain and serve as a minatory shocker.

“Scientific Romance” appeared as a term to describe a new type of literature in the 1880’s. By the beginning of the 1890’s, H.G. Wells had definitely given the genre substance. The Time Machine appeared in 1895, the The Island Of Doctor Moreau in 1896 and The War of the Worlds followed in 1898. Moreau is by far the most shocking and possibly controversial of the triumvirate. Sir Peter Chalmers, the Secretary of the Zoological Society of London from 1903-1935, was not a fan and wrote upon its publication, Wells “has put his talent to the most flagitious usury”. He, like myself, did not enjoy the copious amounts of blood, vivid descriptions of pain and relentless horror of the story. The Daily Telegraph went further, describing the book as “a morbid aberration of scientific curiosity”. Wells himself, in his introduction to The Scientific Romances of H.G. Wells ( 1933), referred to it as “an exercise in youthful blasphemy”. So, why all the fuss?

Wells had been trained in biological science and wrote scientific journalism in the 1890’s. He was well placed to observe humanistic and religious concerns regarding scientific advancement. Without being reductive, this book featured vivisection at its core and this practice was both new and deeply shocking. The first English guide to the subject, Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory appeared in 1873. For many this perverse use of “continental“ science represented a genuine moral contagion. In 1875, Emmanuel Klein, an Austrian medic working at Barts Hospital in London appeared before a Royal Commission. His testimony revealed his utter disregard for the suffering of animals and the fact that his experiments upon them did not warrant the use of anaesthetic. Such was the repulsion generated by this widely reported story, that many within the medical community feared that experimental medical science would never be established. The eponymous Doctor Moreau and his “house of pain“ are jarringly reminiscent of this type of vilified practitioner. The National Anti-Vivisection Society was formed in 1875 and campaigned vigorously against the practice.

H.G. Wells, by George Charles Beresford
H.G. Wells, by George Charles Beresford
So, against this backdrop, Wells having shocked his public with two disturbing scientific romances, let them have Doctor Moreau. In 1888 Edward Prendick, a shipwrecked private gentleman is rescued from a small dinghy and deposited along with a consignment of wild animals, on a small desert island, latitude 5 degrees South and longitude 105 degrees West. During his time on this seldom visited volcanic islet, Prendick suspects and then witnesses the disgraced vivisectionist, Dr Moreau, torturing live animals in his grotesque pursuit of making a hybrid species of human-like animals. Prendick spends time amongst these mutated creatures, learns much about them and their creator and, half insane by the end of his time on the island, returns to civilisation with a deep mistrust of his fellow man and a semi-feral mindset, partially demented by dint of exposure to the Frankenstein-esque misdemeanours of Doctor Moreau. Along the way, Wells treats the reader to the screams of a puma lashed to a crude upright operating table and countless scenes of barbaric cruelty, butchery and savage violence, all in the name of scientific advancement. Perhaps it’s not such a surprise that the book received mixed reviews and is unlikely to have been a popular bedtime story!

Philosophically, the novel gains its power from the theory of degeneration, a construct which both fascinated and disturbed the minds of the fin-de–siècle intelligentsia. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) had sent shock waves through mid-Victorian Britain. For those falling into apoplectic shock, the work did at least conclude with the optimistic prognosis that man was evolving towards perfection. Wells would have been divided on the issue. Believing that scientific habits of mind were a sine qua non of establishing a rational world political order, he had also been influenced by the beliefs of Edwin Ray Lankester, who had been one of his zoology tutors. Lankester reasoned that if it was possible to advance up the evolutionary scale, it was equally possible to decline from the complex towards the simple. This simple concept resonated with the moral panic informing the public zeitgeist of the time, amplified by the tangible evidence of the decline and eventual fall of the British Empire.

The novel, for all its gothic overtones, etiolated medical ethics, and the recidivist megalomania of the Doctor himself, romps along relentlessly to its denouement. The master storyteller conjures up a purgatorial nightmare, which never leaves the reader anything less than fully immersed and utterly gripped. As with most of Wells’ scientific romances, credibility and fantasy waltz together seamlessly allowing the story to insidiously worm its way into the reader's psyche, steadily growing in force as the plot develops. It’s not a book that can easily be put down, despite its graphically descriptive energies and profoundly unsettling themes. The pace of the narrative, in combination with the ratcheting up of moral tension, propels the ever more uncomfortable reader onwards. Wells does not allow us to look away, indeed he uses every device at his considerable disposal to ensure we stay to the end.

Thematically, of course, the book deals with vivisection and its moral ambiguities. It also explores moral responsibility, pain and ruthless cruelty, the interface between Man and Nature and the fundamental essence of human identity. Ultimately, the Beast-Men do regress. Without their creator to maintain the unnatural order of Lear’s imagining, they degenerate from a quasi human state back to their primal animal drives. I find this last note the most chilling. In addition to revealing the capacity for science to serve mankind, and yet simultaneously being the conduit through which his worst inclinations may be realised, Wells leaves his reader with a cold truth. Man is after all an animal and capable of degeneration. The use of science fiction as a genre is often minatory, usually entertaining and frequently provocative, as didactic as it is occasionally disturbing. Mirabile dictum, I have recovered from my time on Dr Moreau’s Island, though sometimes at night I can hear the cries of the puma. I really must dig out my copy of 'The Truth About Pyecraft' ( H.G. Wells, 1903, The Strand Magazine ).

The Island of Dr Moreau was originally published by Heinemann in 1896.