The Island of Dr. Moreau

The Island of Dr. Moreau Study Guide

Published just two years after The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) was the second in H.G. Wells's great science fiction quartet. It validated his presence on the international literary scene. Many writers, "private gentlemen" like Wells's protagonist Prendick, saw him as a snot-nosed little upstart, but with the success of this second novel they were more or less forced to concede his talent.

The real source of Wells's success, however, was not necessarily in his incisive societal commentary but more likely in his resonance with the growing public interest and controversy concerning the possibilities and limits of science. By 1896, England was well into the Second Industrial Revolution, and it had developed a strong confidence in science's ability to solve problems. Darwinism had proven to many that humans and animals were not finished, immutable products but were flexible subsets of a constantly evolving biosphere. With this realization came the dreams of eugenics, of perfecting humans and animals by way of the laboratory and the surgeon's hand.

This movement did not lack for opponents, however, and vivisection was one of the more commonly touted "horrors of science." As England neared the turn of the century, many readers were becoming increasingly aware of the ethical and moral issues surrounding the new scientific and technological practices. With his story of grafting animals into men, Wells was able to tap into this fear, both championing and exploiting it. Dr. Moreau typified the image of the cold, calculating surgeon who performed atrocities with objective distance and unsympathetic indifference to the feelings of his subjects. As he tells Prendick, "Pain and pleasure--they are for us, only so long as we wriggle in the dust." Still, Wells is careful not to turn Moreau into a mere monster; he is not as his creations. Rather, Wells labors to portray him as a man consumed by intellectual curiosity, a man who wishes to test at all costs the limits of what can and cannot be done. This is perhaps the universal theme of science fiction.

The Island of Doctor Moreau was also in part a continuation of the social critique Wells had begun in The Time Machine, featuring a somewhat useless, aristocratic protagonist who finds himself woefully unequipped to deal with his circumstances and who often must subject himself to the mercy of the common Beast Men. Beyond playing with class barriers, the novel also included many unsubtle parodies of organized religion (the recitation of the Law, the deification of Moreau, and so on), which engendered a small flurry of outrage. Yet, in the face of its immense popularity, these objections remained more or less subdued.

In 1996, a movie named The Island of Dr. Moreau was released by New Line Cinema, starring Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. Although it flopped, the film is a testament to Wells's ingenuity and lasting impression on modern culture. It would seem that his investigations into the nature of humanity and the barrier between men and animals are as relevant for contemporary readers as they were for Victorian readers.