Set in the Victorian age of new scientific discovery and experimentation, H. G. Wells’ novel is introspective and thought-provoking. It was received in a similar way to Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – the two books were published about a decade apart – and deals with much the same themes: how far new scientific progression was acceptable and whether it challenged the moral and ethical codes of the day.
The narrator, Edward Prendick, is stranded on the island after being thrown off his ship by a drunken captain, and finds himself in the company of vivisector Dr Moreau and his assistant Montgomery. Prendick discovers a strange race of Beast People which live on the island, a group made up of part-human, part-animal beings created by Dr Moreau in his laboratory. Prendick’s arrival on the island catalyses a fatal chain of events which results in disaster as the Beast People begin to regress into animalistic tendencies. This is of course reminiscent of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies, which explores atavism and animal instinct within humankind. Like Golding’s book, it compares animal and human nature, and how simple it is for the two to become one and the same in particular (and usually extreme) circumstances.
It’s also significant that these, among other novels, share the desert island setting. Wells fully capitalises on this, as with no means of escape Prendick and the other characters have to face up to the dangers of the island and respond to the horrors created by Dr Moreau, who had been thrown out of London Society after his creatures became too much for the community to comprehend. The comparative freedom of the island enables him to carry out his questionable experiments as he wishes, but also removes the chance of help from others when problems arise. Along with Prendick, we as the reader feel initially repulsed by the horrific descriptions of the ‘research’, then begin to understand as Moreau explains himself. But Wells brings back the initial horror when we see the physical and psychological trauma suffered by the creatures, some half-finished, some malformed beyond description. It’s a story which makes you reconsider your stance on science’s use of animals.
The book certainly retains relevance today, with animal rights and experimentation a popular topic for activists and scientists to discuss. Ultimately, Moreau’s curiosity and creations leads to his downfall; Wells is showing the possible dangers of too much scientific experimentation whilst making the reader understand why people feel the need to investigate how humans and animals work on a genetic level. The Frankenstein creations are the products of human curiosity – a necessity to ‘play God’ and exercise the power we have. The new, disturbing phrase from Victorian science sums it up: ‘we are up from the Ape, not down from the Angels’.
Above all, though, The Island of Doctor Moreau is a great read, mysterious enough to act as a thriller while simultaneously addressing serious contemporary issues. I would definitely recommend it, especially for those who have enjoyed Lord of the Flies or The Coral Island. It is much more than the ‘youthful exercise in blasphemy’ critics labelled it as: it is a shocking, analytic novel which was in many ways ahead of its time.
Words by Annabelle Fuller