According to Charles Edward Prendick, the nephew of the protagonist, a ship named the Lady Vain collided with a derelict and resulted in the deaths of all crew and passengers with the exception of his uncle, "a private gentleman" named Edward Prendick. His uncle was then found eleven months and four days later adrift in a boat belonging to a missing ship named the Ipecacuanha. Although at first he gave a fantastic account of the eleven month interim, he later claimed to have no memory of it.
Charles Edward then attempts to establish a factual background for the story, noting that Noble's Island, an uninhabited volcanic inlet, is in the vicinity of where his uncle had been picked up. Furthermore, he observes that the Ipecacuanha did actually leave port carrying a variety of animals and under the command of a drunken captain John Davis, and that it disappeared at a time that fits his uncle's story.
Chapter I-IN THE DINGHY OF THE 'LADY VAIN'
Edward Prendick now narrates, and he explains that he is one of the four men thought to have made it to a lifeboat after the Lady Vain sank, although he asserts that there were in fact only three men; the fourth drowned attempting to join them.
They drift for six days until they can stand the starvation and thirst no longer, and one of them, Helmar, broaches the subject of cannibalism. Although the sailor agrees to draw lots for it, Prendick steadfastly refuses until the morning of the seventh day. He finally concedes, and the lot falls on the sailor, who reneges and wrestles with Helmar. The two of them fall overboard in the struggle.
On the eighth day, a ship rescues Prendick, who by this point is so addled that he no longer remembers any particulars of the incident. What he can recall, however, are the faces of the captain of the ship and M'ling (although he does not as yet recognize either of them).
Chapter II-THE MAN WHO WAS GOING NOWHERE
Prendick awakens in a cabin to find a young man tending to him, who he learns is named Montgomery. He gives Prendick some "scarlet stuff, iced" that "tasted like blood, and made [him] feel stronger." Montgomery explains that he is a medical man and that he and Prendick are aboard a small trader named the Ipecacuanha, captained and owned by a "silly ass" named John Davis. Montgomery offers some mutton and then asks Prendick how he came to be alone in the dinghy, implying that Montgomery suspects Prendick may have eaten or killed other passengers. Upon hearing a howling sound, however, Montgomery swears and leaves the cabin.
He and Prendick chat further upon his return, and the reader learns that Prendick has taken to natural history as a diversion from his "comfortable independence." Montgomery is also a man of science, having studied biology at a university, and he eagerly questions Prendick about London and England, not having been there in some time, apparently. He is very vague about his past, saying only that he "made a young ass" of himself.
A day of sleeping and eating renews some of Prendick's strength, and he asks Montgomery his destination. Montgomery says rather vaguely, "an island...Where I live," and refuses to elaborate.
Wells provokes the reader's suspension of disbelief through a subtle method of validation. Through the voice of Charles Edward, he implies that the story is true without explicitly saying so. By giving circumstantial evidence for the story, even if it is also fictional, he almost challenges the reader to disbelieve the story.
Furthermore, the introduction connects the story with a number of literary antecedents by establishing the shipwreck theme. Isolation on an exotic island allows certain associations and contextual backgrounds to pervade the story, recalling Shakespeare's The Tempest and the more recent Robinson Crusoe.
The description of Prendick as a "private gentleman" is also significant, since it places him quite clearly in the upper class and sets the framework for later development of class and social themes. Similarly, naming the ship the Lady Vain is most likely a commentary on the snobbery and arrogance of upper class gentlemen like Prendick. Wells was known for his criticism of the British social structure, and many of his books (The Time Machine in particular) reflected these opinions. Moreau's island can thus be seen as a social experiment of two classes and very critical of monarchic government.
Shipwreck was a common theme in Wells's era, and when Prendick cites the "Medusa case," he refers to an actual event in which only 15 of 100 passengers survived. Furthermore, in the 1884 case of Regina v. Dudley and Stephens, a court did not excuse two sailors who had resorted to cannibalism after being stranded by shipwreck. It was a real fear for many of Wells's readers, and he knew it.
Chapter I also introduces the theme of animalism in people, exemplified by the survivalist barbarism of Prendick's shipmates. Also worth noting is that Prendick remembers only the faces of the drunken captain and M'ling, two characters linked by a comparable lack of the dignity and elegance that Dr. Moreau strives to reproduce. The alcoholism of the captain will also become an important reference later in the book, echoed in Montgomery's ill-fated attempt to share his brandy with the Beast Men.
Prendick develops in this early chapter as well, displaying a certain lack of practicality or, depending on interpretation, nobility in his refusal to allow cannibalism. His admitted delirium toward the end of the drifting and during his rescue is also significant, since it can represent a mental break and therefore supports the hypothesis that the entire episode could just be a figment of his parched brain. The fact that most chapters begin with him waking and end with him falling asleep also seems to fit that interpretation.
In Chapter II, Prendick's consumption of a blood-flavored liquid and mutton represents a somewhat perverted Communion, and it thus establishes some of the religious undertones of the story. Montgomery is, in a sense, initiating him into the world of Moreau and the Beast Men.
The friendship of Prendick and Moreau begins in this chapter, and their common bond is demonstrated through similar educational and regional backgrounds. A class separation is present, however, because it seems that Prendick took up science merely as the whim of a bored member of the elite, while science is and has been Montgomery's living.
The suspense that will later drive the story also begins here, with Montgomery's past and the island destination mentioned but left unexplained.