The Island of Dr.moreau: Theme Analysis
Vivisection and Ethics
To today’s readers, the grotesqueness of The Island of Doctor Moreau lies in the twisted forms of the beast folk and the growing understanding of the cruel process that produced those forms. However, for readers in Wells’ day, this process was more grotesque and dreadful than today’s readers can perhaps grasp until they learn about the social and scientific context of Wells’ novel. Vivisection—that is, dissection of a still-living creature—was, on the one hand, advancing understanding of biological processes. On the other hand, at this time religious authorities, poets and artists, activists and philosophers began to raise doubts about the morality and ethics of the treatment of animals generally and vivisection in particular. Underneath these real concerns and debates ran a dread and fear of human vivisection that was in large experienced by those in the lower classes. Since laws limited the medical use of cadavers in the early nineteenth century, teachers and students of anatomy were permitted only a certain number of cadavers each year —those of executed criminals, who by and large came from the lower classes. Novels that we now consider classics and cheap “penny dreadfuls” alike featured plots involving “resurrection men”—men who stole cadavers from poor graves to feed anatomy schools’ need for cadavers. A common belief among the lower classes was that many doctors who treated the poor did so to exploit them as subjects, not to aid them without ulterior motivations. Add to this a gothic fascination with the famed Whitechapel murders (1888) and with the murderer, Jack the Ripper, so called because he removed organs from the women, all prostitutes, he killed, and today’s readers begin to grasp how emotionally and socially laden Moreau’s work is. (Incidentally, Jack was never conclusively identified, but some theories held and still hold that he was a doctor.)
Moreau picks his subjects from among the voiceless—animals who cannot protest effectively (no matter how loudly they scream on the table). Moreau has abandoned, or been driven from, London after one of his subject escapes. Its pitiable state rouses public opinion against his work, so he goes underground, to an island “that seemed waiting for me,” he says, as if the hand of destiny had guided him there. Moreau resents even Prendick’s awareness of his work. Moreau is utterly careless of the beasts he destroys and of those on whom his experiments “succeed.” He is not trying to improve their condition or relieve their sufferings; in fact, he states openly that he has “never troubled about the ethics” of his methods or of their results, which Prendick calls abominations. Lost in the “strange, colourless delight of these intellectual desires,” Moreau ceases to see “an animal, a fellow-creature” and sees only “a problem” to be solved. Some critics see the beasts that endure Moreau’s experiments as stand-ins for members of the lower classes, exploited, used up, and cast aside by those in power; Wells’ concern for this class is well documented in his writing. Like Jack’s victims—the very underclass of London, women whose existence many Londoners preferred to ignore—the victims of Moreau’s work are less than human and thus at risk of unethical treatment.
Wells studied biology under T. H. Huxley, the evolutionary biologist and zoologist who argued that while pain is the natural law of the universe, the great achievement of the human mind is ethics—the imposition of an orderly justice on the chaos of nature. On the island, Moreau has taken a different view of human achievement by using pain to drive and enforce a new order. To do so, he has had to cast aside ethics and justice, which exist only in the perverted Law. Montgomery, by contrast, cannot lose the ethical impulse. He attempts to ameliorate the beast folks’ plight and, when he cannot shield them from Moreau, drinks to blunt his disgrace. Prendick, through whose eyes readers watch the action, shares Montgomery’s feelings to the degree that he can (revulsion limits him), but he is in danger of losing his ethical sense, readers see, as the puma’s quasi-human cries of pain afflict him less and less the longer he hears them. Ironically, the trauma of Prendick’s experiences on the island renders him unable to sympathize—to feel a common human bond—with the people who surround him in London after his return. It is as if his exposure to Moreau’s experiments in plasticity have revealed to him a fact that he cannot grapple with, the shared animal nature of all creatures of flesh and blood. Rather than moving Prendick toward a more ethical view of his “fellow-creatures,” this fact drives him away from the chaotic, messy realities of biological existence. He finds solace mostly in gazing at the stars, which provide him with a sense (perhaps false) of “the vast and eternal laws of nature.” The distant stars do not, as far as he can see, suffer “the daily cares and sins and troubles of men”; in other words, they make no demands on his shattered ethic.
The Necessity and Burden of Community
Over the course of the novel, Prendick moves in and out of a number of communities, and his interactions with these groups inform a central question in the novel: In what ways does community enable, on the one hand, and limit, on the other, human happiness and accomplishment? Readers vicariously experience, through the narrator, first the little community in the Lady Vain’s dingey—not a hopeful presentation of community, as it suggests that individual survival trumps communal bonds. Resources are painfully limited, and the plan for one person to take the fall for the little group fails quickly. Prendick soon finds himself in a larger community about Ipecacuanha. Here he finds both aid, in the form of Montgomery’s medical expertise, and risk, in the form of the division of the community—Montgomery and all associated with him (including Prendick) against the captain and crew. Without this community, Prendick would perish; he needs it for survival. Yet his association with M’ling, the unhuman man, divides him from the community that could prolong his life. The crew’s reaction to M’ling and his defender Montgomery suggests, as does the experience of the three men in the dingey, that community is fragile and easy to disturb.
The community on the island also protects Prendick, though grudgingly. Had Montgomery not returned for Prendick, and had Moreau not extended his protection, Prendick could not have survived his ordeal. Yet though this community is necessary for his well-being, providing shelter and food, it also limits his freedoms. The tiny room he lives features a locked door that prevents him from entering the enclosure, and another locked door keeps the dangers of the island out. With only M’ling and the taciturn Montgomery as company, Prendick is limited not only in his physical mobility but also in his mental mobility. Because this community is ruled by the dictatorial Moreau, secrets are kept and trust fails spectacularly, leading to Prendick’s flight from the community and to the only community in the novel that functions—ironically, that of the beast folk.
In contrast to Moreau and Montgomery, who shut Prendick out of their confidence and meet (barely) his physical needs only, the community of the beast folk embraces him. Immediately, they take him to their squalid home; right away, they teach him the Law so that he can benefit from the protection of obedience and avoid the House of Pain. They offer him food and physical contact, these not-quite-humans. Even after Moreau’s death and the gradual reversion of the beast folk, the St. Bernard creature maintains community with Prendick; and the pink sloth-like creature, long after she has taken to the trees again and lost all use of language, comes to tell Prendick of his dog-companion’s death.
In the end, Prendick loses this community as each creature’s original nature overcomes its human tendencies, forcing him to flee the predators when they gain dominance over the island. But for a short time, the beast folk are better exemplars of community than any other group in the novel. As for Prendick, his traumatizing experiences at sea and on the island render him unfit for any community but that of the dead and absent, in the form of books, and nature.