The Island of Dr. Moreau

Another ‘masterwork’ this week (I reviewed Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House a few weeks back), although I wouldn’t consider this one particularly spooky.

I’ll admit to having read relatively little H.G. Wells despite his status in many circles as the “Father of Science Fiction”. At some point, I read War of the Worlds, but apparently was not impressed with it enough to pursue his other well known works such as The Time Machine, or The Invisible Man.

Why read The Island of Dr. Moreau then?

Simply put, it seemed like it might enrich the experience of reading other books of the genre which I knew to be influenced by, or direct commentaries on this original work. Though I have not yet finished reading the title for which this book seemed important supplemental reading (ahem Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s The Daughter of Dr. Moreau), finishing this work has already revealed new insight and connections into some of my favorite stories.

For instance, in many ways, Jurassic Park follows the blueprint of Dr. Moreau only using dinosaurs instead of vivisected animals. The two consider many of the same themes, such as the hubris of attempting to change and control nature, the ethics of genetic engineering (though not named as such in Dr. Moreau), and the cost of ‘playing god’. Equally important to my argument, they both take place on an island (jk not that important).

Dr. Frankenstein may be the original mad scientist, but Dr. Moreau provides a pretty good sketch of the trope as well. It is easy to see his remote island laboratory as a kind of predecessor to the Supervillain Lair popularized by books like Ian Fleming’s Dr. No. (007).

Finally, there are the hybrids themselves, which (small spoiler) form a kind of society all their own. The contrast between their “rules” and the customs and conventions Pendrick (the MC) has been raised to consider ‘civilization’, form potent arguments about the nature of humanity, and just how close mankind is to the ‘beasts’ we are supposedly better than.

This last part was perhaps my least favorite aspect of the book as, in short, it is rather racist. Much of the language used to describe the ‘primitive’ hybrids, and to fill the story with a sense of danger and foreboding, is language which does not take a scientist to intuit the prejudice inherent within.

References to the character M’ling as the “black faced cripple”, and to his mouth as a “muzzle”, or his speed as “animal swiftness”. All these descriptions are surely meant to heighten the suspicion and dread the reader experiences towards the character as we are still getting acquainted with the island. In the opening chapters, Pendrick does not even know that M’ling is not a man, and so what else can we ascribe these descriptions to then that of race?

Later, we discover ape-people on the island as well as a slew of other animal-people hybrids. But it is the ape-people that are referred to as having “a black negroid face”, “unnatural”, and as an “ugly brute”. Matthew Thompson has laid it all out much better than I could in his paper “The White Face of Dr. Moreau”: Race, Gender, and Animalism in the Literature of the Imperial Campaign.

I will not try to argue that we should look past this type of thing because of the time period the book was written. It is something to acknowledge and consider as we read and especially something we want to be aware of as we write.

So is it a good book?

Ultimately, I would say yes, despite its flaws. In the sections that Wells is not beating the reader over the head with internalized prejudice, it reads as a fast paced adventure. Wells has a knack for keeping the story moving, and while no creative premise exists without roots in some other creative endeavor, The Island of Dr. Moreau feels like an original idea, or at the very least novel in concept. That it was written so long ago and has inspired so much other work lends itself to the relevance of the book’s themes and questions. That it is able to accomplish all of this in a scant 153 pages (in my edition) is perhaps even more impressive.

For anyone looking for a quick and thought provoking read, I would definitely recommend The Island of Dr. Moreau . . .

That’s all I have this time. Who else has read this book? What did you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments section. Looking forward to talking about this one!


4 thoughts on “The Island of Dr. Moreau

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