Edward Prendick begins his first-person narration by saying that he has nothing to add to what has already been written about the demise of the Lady Vain: The story of the privations of the survivors is already well known. He wants to add a new story, “possibly as horrible and far stranger,” of what happened to three men who escaped the wreck in a dingey, of whom he was one. (Another man tried to reach the relative safety of the dingey but failed.) They had just a little water and some wet biscuits, and they soon drifted away from the longboat and its survivors.
In the dingey were the narrator, a seaman whose name he never learned, and another passenger, Helmar. For eight days they drift, becoming more desperate till Helmar suggests a solution to their lack of supplies that Prendick will not name. Prendick at first refuses to draw lots but then agrees to do so in the morning. The seaman loses; then he and Helmar struggle, fall overboard, and sink “like stones.” Prendick, to his astonishment, can only laugh. He thinks of drinking seawater to hasten his own death, but soon he sees a ship, “with no more interest than if it had been a picture.” He thinks that he has died: “what a jest it was that they should come too late by such a little to catch me in my body.” All he recalls of the rescue was a dark face with “extraordinary eyes” and being given something to drink.
The narrator’s first chapter establishes some traits of his character: He is a decent man with standards of behavior that he is unwilling to abandon even in dire circumstances. He is also eminently rational, accepting facts for what they are. The events in the dingey constitute a kind of death and rebirth for him; the name of the ship on which he had been a passenger, however, suggests that standards of behavior, survival and loss, are all vain.
II. The Man Who Was Going Nowhere.
Prendick wakes in a small, messy cabin. A “youngish” man with “flaxen hair” and “a dropping nether lip” sits by him checking his pulse and regarding him with “watery grey eyes, oddly void of expression.” This is Montgomery, formerly a medical student in London; his specialized medical knowledge allows him to save Prendick by giving him injections. Montgomery mentions that the dingey had the name Lady Vain on its bow—and spots of blood—but Prendick doesn’t wish to recall “all the business of the boat.” Montgomery explains that the ship they are on is the Ipecacuanha, captained by a drunk, John Davies, who has lost his certificate. They set out from Africa. As they talk, they are interrupted by growls and barking; “Damn that howling!” Montgomery complains.
Montgomery brings Prendick food, and he tells him his story. Prendick identifies himself as a natural historian traveling for “relief from the dulness of my comfortable independence.” He and Montgomery compare notes about London, a city that Montgomery clearly misses.
After another day of rest and food, Prendick feels well enough to move about the ship, which is headed to Hawaii after it makes a stop at a nameless island to drop Montgomery off. At this, Montgomery looks “so wilfully of a sudden” that Prendick knows better than to inquire further.
In this chapter, Prendick moves from one ship to another—named after a plant that, when consumed, is a powerful emetic or purgative. The ship has made a stop in Peru to pick up a load of guano. The symbolic names of the ships—vanity in one case and vomit and excrement in the other—suggest to readers that Wells is injecting satire into the narrative.
The introduction of Montgomery, who is described in such unflattering and, for Wells’ day, effeminate terms also injects mystery into the narrative. Why did he leave London, and why is he hesitant to speak of the island?
III. The Strange Face.
The first person Prendick sees after leaving the cabin shocks him by his appearance: He is “misshapen,” with “a crooked back, a hairy neck, and a head sunk between his shoulders.” His face seems deformed in a way “suggestive of a muzzle,” and he moves with “an animal swiftness.” Prendick lifts a hand to defend himself against this dark man, but Montgomery merely curses him and orders him to get out of the way. The man cowers and complains, in a “queer, hoarse” voice that the sailors won’t tolerate his presence. Prendick and Montgomery proceed to the ship’s deck, which stinks of “scraps of carrot, shreds of green stuff, and indescribable filth.” Prendick sees staghounds muzzled and chained to a mast, a puma contained in a tight cage, hutches with rabbits, and a llama—an “ocean menagerie” that puzzles him. A “gaunt and silent sailor” is at the wheel, the lone human in sight till the deformed man comes on deck. His mere presence elicits frenzied barking from the hounds.
A red-haired man comes on deck and strikes the dark man down, laughing in triumph till Montgomery steps in. The captain, John Davies, is drunk and furious when Montgomery acts as if he has authority. “My ship,” he protests, “was a clean ship. Look at it now!” Montgomery reminds Davies that he agreed to ferry the animals, but the drunken captains wishes he had “never set eyes on your infernal island.” Prendick steps in to prevent a fight between the two men.
Davies may be drunk, but his disgusted reaction to the animals, their filth, and the dark man that he calls “a mad devil” are stronger versions of the alarm and confusion that grip Prendick as he tries to divine the meaning of the scene on deck. Davies complains that neither he nor any of his crew can abide the presence of the deformed man whom Montgomery protects. His aversion to the man is so strong that he threatens to “cut out his blasted insides” if he comes on deck again. The animals and the dark man, all under Montgomery’s care, deepen the mystery of Montgomery’s purposes, and he says nothing to explain the situation.
IV. At the Schooner’s Rail
That night, they sight the island. Montgomery has nothing to say to Prendick about it or about the animals. Standing by the ship’s rail, they smoke and discuss Montgomery’s happier days in London. Prendick wonders why Montgomery left the city. When Prendick expresses his gratitude for Montgomery’s medical attention, which saved his life, Montgomery shrugs the actions off: “I was bored and wanted something to do.” Besides, he argues, all is chance—if eleven years ago he hadn’t “lost my head for ten minutes” in London, he’d still be happily there rather than “an outcast from civilisation.”
Prendick sees the dark man by the rail. In the lamplight “its” eyes flash red, and Prendick suddenly feels “the forgotten horrors of childhood.” That night, nightmares and the howls of the dogs interrupt his sleep.
In this chapter, Montgomery speaks wistfully of his former life in London, and Prendick thinks that the mystery behind his new friend will be revealed. Instead, new mysteries present themselves. What as the slip that cost Montgomery his life in London? And what is the power that causes the sailors and Prendick himself to dread the dark man? Building and maintaining suspense is a foremost task of the novella’s early chapters.
V. The Man Who Had Nowhere to Go.
Prendick wakes to the sound of chains, footsteps, and animal cries; he arrives on deck to see the terrified puma being lowered onto a launch manned by men who seems slightly odd somehow. Captain Davies, still drunk, is hastening the task, yelling, “Overboard with ’em! We’ll have a clean ship soon of the whole bilin’ of ’em!” Davies shouts that he wants to be rid of Prendick as well, but the dark man says, “Can’t have you,” and Montgomery is unwilling to take Prendick to the island. Prendick feels weak—the only alternative is for him to take his chances again in the Lady Vain’s leaky dingey, which is in tow. The sailors force him into the little boat, unprovisioned, and cut him loose. The ship sails away from Prendick, who, hungry, faint, and shocked, cries and prays to die.
The narrator’s character is revealed in this chapter: He has a strong tendency to passivity, to allowing events to wash over him as he looks on “dumbfounded.” When the captain forces him off the ship, he feels “a gust of hysterical petulance” and looks around “dismally at nothing.” Yet readers also become aware that Prendick is a compassionate man. He pities the puma—and why not? Just as the puma “crouched in the bottom of its little cage” during off-lading, Prendick “crouched in the bottom of the dingey, stunned.” Neither has control over the events that sweep them away.
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