Catching Up on the Classics is a new feature on the blog where I’ll be doing some much needed catching up on classic novels.
A shipwreck in the South Seas, a palm-tree paradise where a mad doctor conducts vile experiments, animals that become human and then “beastly” in ways they never were before — it’s the stuff of high adventure. It’s also a parable about Darwinian theory, a social satire in the vein of Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), and a bloody tale of horror.
As H. G. Wells himself wrote about this story, “The Island of Dr. Moreau is an exercise in youthful blasphemy. Now and then, though I rarely admit it, the universe projects itself towards me in a hideous grimace. It grimaced that time, and I did my best to express my vision of the aimless torture in creation.”
This colorful tale by the author of The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds lit a firestorm of controversy at the time of its publication in 1896.
Year Published: 1896 (120 years ago)
- Vivisection – England was fearful of vivisection – a Continental experimental science, and Wells included this horror in his novel (source).
- Evolution/Darwinism – It was believed at this time that in the same way it was possible for simpler organisms to evolve into complex ones, the reverse is possible too (source).
- Religion – Wells hated God and the hypocrisy of creation (source)
“There is, though I do not know how there is or why there is, a sense of infinite peace and protection in the glittering hosts of heaven. There it must be, I think, in the vast and eternal laws of matter, and not in the daily cares and sins and troubles of men, that whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope.”
I’d been reading books inspired by Doctor Moreau, and bunch more literary horror novels and realized that it was about time I read the original, if for no other reason than to understand the references. I thought that I wouldn’t find the story all that exciting after knowing so much about it, but was surprised by how fascinating and chilling the story is even after so many years.
The island setting feels creepy and claustrophobic, it’s inhabitants unnatural and revolting. From the shipwreck to the decline of the island, its a wonderfully thrilling tale best read with the lights on.
Yet, the morals of the story are what I found most interesting. The novel comments on the lengths to which scientists should be allowed to go to pursue their inquiries, and whether the suffering of a few is justified for the greater good. Then there’s the discussion on the ethics of creating life and whether one should be allowed to play God. But at the same time, Wells is mocking God and questioning the supposed perfection of divinity. On the island Moreau is god, worshiped by his creations. Yet, Moreau is no better than them, no less ruled by passion, no more rational. So while at first Moreau’s twisted creatures are appear mere caricatures of men, Prendick quickly realizes that the line between humans and animals is exceptionally hard to draw. Humans are also ruled by urges and instincts, we are just much better at hiding them most of the time. Yet, with some drink, or other carnal pleasure, the beast is quick to resurface. And perhaps, with our trickery and deceit we are in fact worse than animals?
I was also surprised at how Moreau’s quest to create a creature unbound by instinct who is purely rational and the ethics of creating a ‘person’ mirror modern day conversations about AIs. Are we too, by striving to create artificial intelligence, not a little like Moreau?