1.Doctor Moreau, though his name figures in the novel’s title, is largely absent from the book and features dominantly in only a few chapters. His role ends with his death at the hands/paws of the puma, long before the novel ends. Characterize the doctor, and contrast his understanding of the work of science with what you can glean of Prendick’s opinions on that subject.
Many readers perceive Moreau as a god-like figure. From the moment of Prendick’s arrival on the island, Moreau has the power to end his unwanted guest’s life by refusing him sanctuary and setting him back in the sea. He certainly seems tempted to do so, and his power over Prendick is clear when he locks the man into a small room and refuses, despite Montgomery’s advice, to explain what is going on in the enclosure. Moreau is also god-like in that he refuses to have his actions questioned, even by someone who does have the expertise to understand his work. (And Prendick, though repulsed by the extent of Moreau’s labors, admits that he shares some of Moreau’s questions about the limits of plasticity.) In addition, Moreau has found an effective way to control his creations by setting himself up as the god of their religion, the Law: His is, as the beast folk intone, the hand that harms and heals. Yet unlike Prendick, who shows mercy and pity (mingled with fear and disgust) toward the beast folk, Moreau rejects the idea that he bears responsibility for his creations. If he is god-like, he is a negligent deity who casts aside his “people” nonchalantly once they no longer serve his purposes; and he thinks little of his status as human, readers see, because his choice of the form was not made to ennoble the animals but simply because it seemed useful. Ironically, Moreau’s playing at god results in Prendick’s inability to overlook the animal in every person he encounters after his return to England.
2.Wells rejects, in much of his writing, Victorian conventions of sexuality and presents in its place a more liberated view of sexuality—such as would be common to writers of late twentieth-century works. Yet his personal views do not seem to be shared by his narrator, Prendick. The only female characters in the novel are among the beast folk. How, in Prendick’s opinion, do the female beast folk differ from the males? In what ways do the females fall in line with—or violate—conventional Victorian stereotypes of women?
Readers might note two points on this question. First, society among the beast folk is stratified such that the males have the power. The Sayer of the Law is male; the powerful beast folk who pose a threat to the humans on the island are male. The females that Prendick describes seem passive, shrinking, fawning, and pink—the sloth-like creature comes to mind. The disgust he feels at the sight of the beast folk is stronger when he sees a female; something about the perversion of the female form repels him more deeply than the twisted male forms he sees. He hates the “old woman made of vixen and bear” more than the other beast folk, and he notes among the females “an instinctive sense of their own repulsive clumsiness” and therefore worried greatly about “the decency and decorum of extensive costume.” In addition, when the beast folk begin to revert, it is the females who are “the pioneers” in rejecting decent behavior. In each of the cases, the males among the beast folk are more “evolved,” more authoritative, and more able to clasp the dwindling shreds of humanity and to feel shame during their reversion. In this sense, the perception of woman as “the lesser man,” as one Victorian poet put it, is in keeping with conventional nineteenth-century attitudes.
However, readers might also note that it is a female that destroys Moreau. The puma, which he expects to be his greatest creation, his most perfectly transformed creature, is the engine of Moreau’s demise. She proves too strong for him, tearing the bolts from the walls of the laboratory. In her wounded state, she yet outruns her tormentor for a day, and when she turns on him, she kills him with the manacles he had bound her with. Given that the novel has a satirical undertone, there may be an intended sting in Moreau’s destruction: He wanted to create a perfect female form. As with other fictional characters who have attempted such a feat, his efforts undo him.
3.Wells was a futurist, some of whose works predict a bright future for humankind, though others, especially those written later in his life, are gray with pessimism. The Island of Doctor Moreau was published early in Wells’ career. Is the novel optimistic or pessimistic about human potential and history?
Some readers will find the novel generally pessimistic. In attempting to explore physical plasticity, Moreau makes it possible for creatures considered by many in Wells’ day “lower” to rise up, in a sudden and artificial evolution, and tenuously grasp the privileged form of life—human. Yet the society that the beast folk establish is held together by awe and fear of the Law and its giver, not by ideals of empathy, ethics, or creativity that are widely considered the high achievements of human thought. In fact, readers do not encounter sterling examples of humanity anywhere in the book. Montgomery is a lisping drunk; the sailors Prendick encounters are vicious and ready to throw him overboard; Moreau has left humane compassion behind in his quest, which Prendick critiques as having no “intelligible object” to justify the suffering it entails. To clinch the case, when Prendick returns to England, he is so deeply aware of the “lower” tendencies lurking in each person he meets that he cannot bear their company and must retreat into a solitude shared only by books and the distant stars.
Other readers may find more optimistic perspectives in the novel, however. The suggestion that “lower” animals could, through extreme means, become more human—able even to speak and learn, as M’ling does—might imply a parallel suggestion that, with time and effort, humans could make a commensurate leap forward, leaving ever further behind all that is predatory and beastly in their natures behind them. At the close of his narrative, Prendick takes great comfort in “wise books,—bright windows in this life of ours, lit by the shining souls of men,” indicating that he continues to believe in human potential.
4.A recurring concern in Wells’ work is the frustration of the desires, abilities, and needs of the lower and lower-middle classes. In his comic novels, Wells chooses as heroes characters of little means; his nonfiction writing pursues a socialist and humanitarian agenda. How does this concern surface in The Island of Doctor Moreau?
Wells’ concern for the people who inhabit the lower social classes is transmuted in the novel into the plight of the beast folk. Moreau, Montgomery, and Prendick all come from a higher, educated class; Prendick is particularly wealthy and tells Montgomery early in the novel that he studies “Natural History” (science) to escape the boredom of his “comfortable independence.” Moreau, with the somewhat willing assistance of Montgomery, holds the beasts, both transformed and in their original stay, entirely in his power until the puma’s revolt. He assigns them their fates, subjects them to his needs at their own great personal expense, and dismisses them from the enclosure when he no longer needs them—surely an allegory for a society in which the many of the lower classes serve the needs of the few in the higher classes. Prendick describes the fear and pain of the puma in detail, from its captivity in the crate to its tortured days in the lab. He can hardly bear the sight or sound of its sufferings because, despite his privileged existence, he sympathizes (as did Wells) with its lack of control over its destiny.
Within the community of the beast folk, too, readers perceive an expression of sympathy for these lower-class inhabitants of the island. Suited neither to survival as the animals they once were nor to truly human existence, the beast folk live in squalor, always mindful of the Law, always yearning both to break it and become what they once were and to live up to it and become fully human. Various beast folk take pride in their more human characteristics—having five fingers, for example. They strive upward, yet it’s clear to Moreau, Montgomery, and eventually Prendick that they will fail because the scaffolding they require to leave their “class” behind is not available to them. Both Montgomery and, to a lesser extent, Prendick sympathize with them, but neither man knows how to remove the barriers that prevent them from climbing out of their class. Analogically, the beast folk stand in for humans trapped at the bottom because of social laws and customs.
5.Review the chapter “Doctor Moreau Explains.” Then consider to what higher authority Moreau, supreme egoist though he may be, implies allegiance. What does this chapter suggest about Moreau’s motivations?
In this chilling chapter, Moreau—aggravated that he must explain himself and resenting the intrusion on his work time—sets out his project “in the tone of man supremely bored”, not for Prendick to judge but merely to calm his unwanted guest, who understandably believes himself to be in danger. Readers, however, are free to judge Moreau’s motivations. Waving aside his previous experiments as “trivial cases of alteration,” Moreau states that his ultimate goal is to understand natural laws; to do this, he must become “as remorseless as Nature.” As he works and reworks his experiments, he tells himself, “This time I will burn out the animal; this time I will make a rational creature of my own!”—all in pursuit of understanding the natural laws that drive animal development. In Wells’ time, an understanding of evolutionary biology was gradually emerging, but the mechanism that drives it (the genome) was not yet known. Hence Moreau must mechanize the process the artificial and clumsy transformations of surgery. His greater goal, readers perceive, is not just to leave the beast behind but to outgrow what he calls “the mark of the beast from which [humans] come,” that is, “pain and pleasure,” which force humans to “wriggle in the dust.”
Moreau, then, takes as his higher authority the belief evolutionary processes. These, he believes, will free humans from the base drives of avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. Ironically, the beast folk’s lives are bound by pain. If they follow the Law, they will avoid the House of Pain and the Hand that wounds. They are motivated by the very drives that Moreau sees as holding back humans from what they might become—that constrain Moreau himself. Moreau attempts to ignore pain’s effect on his own body, working without rest, eating little (readers remember that he has contempt for Montgomery’s desire to eat meat), even demonstrating his disdain for pain by stabbing himself in the leg. He certainly, in his self-imposed exile on the primitive island, does not allow pleasure-seeking behaviors to guide his actions. He is a disciple of the belief that he can, if he persists, push himself and others past the biological realities that hinder development. In this sense, he is, though monstrous, also a fit object for readers’ pity—a quester after a prize that is out of his reach, the novel reveals.