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

Written by Nicholas Barham

Hi, Nick here. I thought it’d be a cool idea to have a special limited-feature blog where I review a classic fiction novel. There is a vast ocean of classic literature out there that is not only entertaining, but can also teach us something about the early days of particular genres like sci-fi and horror. In my view, classic novels do not get enough attention and are generally ignored, so with this blog I hope to persuade at least some people to pick up a classic and read it.

For today’s review I will be looking at The Island of Doctor Moreau, a classic sci-fi written by none-other than H. G. Wells -an important founder in the sci-fi genre- and published in 1896.

1st Edition Cover (1896) and H.G. Wells

The island of madness

Edward Prendick, the sole survivor of a shipwreck, is picked up by a passing schooner. Here he meets Montgomery who tells him that they’re headed towards an island, but we soon learn that there is something more sinister lurking beneath the surface. The ship is packed with a menagerie of animals, Montgomery is accompanied by a strange assistant with a dog-like face, and Prendick is tossed off the ship and forced to make shelter on the island.

Being a shorter novel, the reader is introduced to the creepy undertones pretty quickly. There is a growing sense of mystery, suspense, and dread as we are introduced to all the strange sights on the island: bestial looking boatmen, secretive vivisections performed behind closed doors, strange creatures encountered in the forest, and more. Prendick has been saved from the shipwreck but then finds himself in danger once again.

Like a slow-burn horror film things start normal but get progressively stranger and stranger, the dread and suspense build to a climax and then it all comes crashing down.

Dr Moreau (from the 1996 film adaption)

We learn that the island is lorded over by a crazed scientist – Dr. Moreau – who performs experiments on animals, turning them into half-human half-animal creatures. These creations have a limited ability to speak and reason, but they’re also gifted a moral code by Dr. Moreau, which consists of rules like ‘not to walk on all fours’, and ‘not to eat flesh’, the latter of which is quite eye-opening when you learn that many of the beast-men are carnivorous in nature. From dogs, to pumas, to leopards, and more. An exception is the presence of a cute sloth creature, which I found quite amusing.

The Leopard beast-man (from the 1996 film adaption)

When Prendick begins to unravel the mystery of the island he becomes horrified and attempts to escape from his captors. There are daring chases across the island as Prendick is hunted by Montgomery and Moreau. It is during all of this that Prendick finds a society of beast-men living on the island, and when the truth of these creatures is revealed, his horror is quite justified.

There is then an inciting incident on the island that starts the downward trend of the plot into its devastating conclusion. It is found that one of the beast-men has killed a rabbit, hence violating the law set forth by Moreau. It seems that the beast-men cannot remain human-like forever, and that their inner nature will emerge and threaten all who reside on the island.

I will not spoil the ending of the story, but I will say that after the death of the rabbit things go downhill.

Progress or destruction?

Science as a means of destruction or progress?

Like any classic, this story has been picked apart by academics in order to decipher the themes. The Island of Dr. Moreau deals with such elements as religion, human identity, the cruelty of vivisection, etc.

A recurring theme in science-fiction is the idea of scientific and technological progress gone awry. Take Frankenstein’s monster, a being created by a mad scientist with no thought as to whether mankind has any business in the revivification of the dead. Or even iconic pop-culture movies like The Terminator series, where an AI known as Skynet is created and proceeds to take over the world. Or the more recent Sci-fi series Dark Mirror, where many of the episodes revolve around some key piece of technology which causes the characters nothing but pain and anguish.

In likeness, the Island of Dr. Moreau revolves around a scientist who seeks to play God; he creates a technique that turns animals into humans without any thought as to whether he has any moral right to do so. The story takes the idea of science playing God a step further when Moreau sets himself up as a messianic figure bringing “the law” to the beast-men, a moral code similar to the ten commandments.  In short, the story is the perfect example of that classic science fiction idea of the need to include the guiding light of morality in conjunction with scientific progress, least we cross a line that should not be crossed. Dr. Moreau has no thought of the consequences of his research, he throws morality out the window to focus entirely on progress for progress’s sake, assuming the role of ‘God’. In the end his arrogance and lack of forethought leads to an unsurprisingly negative conclusion. In creating these new beings and forcing them to submit to Moreau’s moral code, the beast-men struggle with an internal conflict between their animal and human half.

Now look, I’m not some AnPrim suggesting that we should abandon modern science, destroy all the industrial and technological progress we’ve made, and return to the wild to live out our lives in a primitivist setting. But stories like The Island of Dr. Moreau do give you pause. Indeed the 20th century is littered with examples of science being used as a means to inflict pain and suffering: the atomic bomb, biological warfare, mustard gas etc.  

Accessibility to the modern reader

One question you may ask is: is this book easy to read? Considering it was written during the late 1800s, the language used is at times anachronistic, long winded, and strange to the modern ear. But compared to other 19th century novels I found it a relatively smooth read. In my experience H.G. Well’s work is generally quite accessible and accommodating to the modern reader. So, if this is your first time diving into 19th century literature, I would highly recommend you start with his work.

Final Verdict

The Island of Dr. Moreau is rightly considered a classic sci-fi novel. The story is suspenseful and mysterious in nature, pulling the reader along to the thrilling climax. It is well-written and thought provoking, compelling us to question the nature of scientific progress and the idea of human interference in nature. Considered controversial at the time, H.G. Wells called it an “exercise in youthful blasphemy”, a tale that questions the boundary between man and beast. The beast-men within the story are well written. I even found myself empathising with M’ling and the others.

Overall, I would highly recommend reading this book if you have an interest in science fiction. It is a classic that belongs in any readers personal library.

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