Title: The Island of Dr. Moreau
Author: H.G. Wells
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services LLC, Kindle Edition
Device: Kindle Fire
For a plot summary
These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes. To that, to the study of the plasticity of living forms, my life has been devoted.[i]
There are so many ways to approach this novel: as a horror story, an adventure story, a scientific experiment gone bad. But it is definitely a novel about morality and the biblical idea of man’s dominion, or some would say, responsibility, over animals. And does that extend to our medical interference with their nature: we have the techniques, but do we have the right?
The story is told by Edward Prendick, who is lost at sea and discovered by a passing ship. He is taken under the wing of a passenger named Montgomery who with his strange assistant is taking an odd assortment of animals to an undisclosed location. Prendick’s situation as extra baggage on the ship gets him in hot water with the captain and after a harrowing struggle not to be thrown overboard he winds up in Montgomery’s party and disembarks with them on an island.
The island is off the charts and secluded for reasons made clear right away. It turns out it is a laboratory run by infamous vivisector, Dr. Moreau who was run out of London for doing what he is doing here: conducting torturous experiments on animals by changing their physical body as well as their minds into half men, half beasts and keeping some animals alive for weeks as he cuts and modifies and grafts parts of them from one to another. He justifies his work as science, for the greater good to humans that the established scientific profession is too afraid to consider. From Prendick’s days as a biology student, the name ‘Moreau’ brings back the memory of the scandal that caused him to be hounded out of London.
It dawned upon me to what end the puma and the other animals…were destined; and a curious faint odour, the halitus of something familiar… suddenly came forward into the forefront of my thoughts. It was the antiseptic odour of the dissecting room. I heard the puma growling through the wall, and one of the dogs yelped as though it had been struck.[ii]
After an uneasy sleep, Prendick’s first morning on the island is disturbed by a sharp, hoarse cry of animal pain coming from the locked door of the laboratory. Its depth and volume sounded like the puma. Throughout the morning as he eats his breakfast then tries to read the sounds of screaming and agony coming from the laboratory continue in intensity,
as if all the pain in the world had found a voice. It is when suffering finds a voice and sets our nerves quivering that this pity comes troubling us.[iii]
He is terrified and the puma’s cries force him from his room.
The emotional appeal of those yells grew upon me steadily, grew at last to such an exquisite expression of suffering that I could stand it…no longer.[iv]
A short distance from the laboratory enclosure he has his first meeting with what he believes is an inhabitant of the island, but cannot figure out what it is. He initially thinks it a man, but does not understand why it is walking on all fours and is the color of copper with black hair and of a ‘grotesque ugliness.’ He comes upon an open space.
Before me, squatting together upon the fungoid ruins of a huge fallen tree and still unaware of my approach, were three grotesque human figures. One was evidently a female; the other two were men. They were naked save for swathings of scarlet cloth about the middle; and their skins were of a dull pinkish-drab colour, such as I had seen in no savages before. They had fat, heavy, chinless faces, retreating foreheads, and a scant bristly hair upon their heads. I never saw such bestial looking creatures.[v]
[One] seemed to me to be reciting some complicated gibberish…and spreading his hands he rose to his feet….I noticed then the abnormal shortness of the legs, and their lank, clumsy feet…The three creatures engaged in this mysterious rite were human in shape, and yet human beings with the strangest air about them of some familiar animal—some now irresistible suggestion of a hog, a swinish taint, the unmistakable mark of the beast.[vi]
Prendick confronts Dr. Moreau about all he has seen. Moreau justifies what he is doing as benefiting science and mankind.
You forget all that a skilled vivisector can do with living things. For my own part, I’m puzzled why the things I have done here have not been done before. Small efforts, of course, have been made, amputation, tongue-cutting, excision….You have heard, perhaps of a common surgical operation resorted to in cases where the nose has been destroyed; a flap of skin is cut from the forehead, turned down on the nose, and heals in the new position. This is a kind of grafting in a new position part of an animal upon itself. Grafting of freshly obtained material from another animal is also possible,–the grafting of teeth, of skin and bone is done…[vii]
But the possibility of vivisection does not stop at a mere physical metamorphosis. A pig may be educated. The mental structure is even less determinate than the bodily. In our growing science of hypnotism we find the promise of a possibility of superseding old inherent instincts by new suggestion, grafting upon or replacing the inherited fixed ideas. Very much of what we call moral education, is such an artificial modification and perversion of instinct.
To this day I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter.[viii]
However, Moreau IS troubled by his inability to keep these creatures from falling back into their animal state after he has physically and mentally trained them up to a certain level of ‘intelligence.’ They have rudimentary speech and behavior. But they are more like children, who have learned to live their life through fear (of Moreau and his House of Pain). They are given a set of Laws* recited by the Sayer of the Law, which they repeat back with the refrain: Are we not Men? But alas they aren’t. To Moreau’s frustration, no matter how much or how many times he makes adaptations that allow for a certain level of higher function, his creations always revert to their ‘bestial ways.’
*I* am troubled by a scientist gone rogue whose perversion of his profession has out-weighed his moral conscience. Moreau’s only concern is his experiments, his ‘creations’ and how this will garner him attention from contemporaries who think he is only a madman. He doesn’t care that the price for this infliction of pain and torture is on sentient beings, who cannot give consent or protect themselves against this infringement on their life and liberty. In Wells’s day vivisection was approved by the British medical establishment if it was used to benefit human diseases and conditions.
In the 21st century, we also accept that medical science has the right to experiment in order to help heal and cure diseases in humans. But as regards to using animals in this way, it is tempered with the moral injunction against causing them harm and pain. In fact, many researchers and scientists, sensitive to animal suffering or who have moral objections against their use in science, have spoken against using animals in experiments. Computer models with data gathered from the past is sufficient, they say, and that ultimately, a procedure or medication has to be tested on humans anyway, who CAN give consent.
I have spent this week contemplating many of the ideas of this book. On a personal note, I was a little taken aback when Moreau mentioned working on skin grafts and skin flaps. Both are well-respected procedures that have been in use, for example, for skin cancer procedures in which the initial operation has removed a lot of skin with the cancer leaving a hole that must be closed. I benefited from a skin graft procedure on my face for basal cell skin cancer. I was grateful that such a procedure was possible. But I will forever look at it differently, wondering if some poor animal had to suffer for it.
Ack. I read to be entertained, but I also read to learn. Now I just have to figure out if this particular learned thing was worth it!
* Here is the infamous Law Moreau taught to one of his more astute creatures in order to control behavior and to point out the hierarchy (some say to point out Moreau’s divinity) on the Island. All are to repeat each line after he says it. When Prendick stumbles upon them, the first thing they say is he has to know the Law.
It is a man. He must learn the Law. Say the words:
Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
His is the House of Pain.
His is the Hand that makes.
His is the Hand that wounds.
His is the Hand that Heals.
His is the lightning flash.
His is the deep, salt sea.
His are the stars in the sky.
Eat roots and herbs; it is His will.
Some want to follow things that move, to watch and slink and wait and spring; to kill and bite, bite deep and rich, sucking the blood. It is bad. ‘Not to chase other men; that is the Law. Are we not Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to eat Flesh or Fish; that is the Law. Are we not Men?[iv]
[i] p. 59.
[iii] p. 31.
[iv] p. 30.
[v] p. 34.
[vi] p. 34.
[vii] p. 59.
[viii] p. 63.
[ix] p. 49-51.