The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells (1896)

H. G. Wells need no introduction, so perhaps shouldn’t be in our collection of fiction from 1900-1950 that needs to be preserved, but his popularity is evidenced in how often he is donated! We have early editions and several Penguin reprints from 1946.

The fly leaf of the Penguin states:

“This edition of The Island of Dr. Moreau is one of a uniform set of volumes of Mr Wells’ works specially published in commemoration of his eightieth birthday, September 21st 1946. Of each volume one hundred thousand copies have been printed”

This must have been very gratifying to Mr Wells, though slightly undermined by the number of typos in these editions.

I have also just received a donation of a set of splendid leather-bound editions published by Odhams Press in 1921. This contains several novels we don’t have and that are not in print so I happily welcomed them into the collection.

Review of The Island of Dr. Moreau by George Simmers

Edward Prendick is shipwrecked when travelling from Peru. His is saved by a drunken sea- captain, with whom he quarrels, and so is told to leave the ship with another passenger, who is taking a cargo of live animals to a remote island. There he encounters strange semi-human creatures, and discovers that the island is dominated by the mysterious Doctor Moreau.  With the assistance of Prendick’s fellow-passenger, Montgomery, Moreau performs painful medical experiments on animals.

Moreau’s aim is to use plastic surgery to transform an animal into a human, and the novel develops themes from an essay that Wells had published the previous year: ‘The Limits of Human Plasticity’. This takes up the Darwinian idea that humans are modified versions of other animals, and speculates whether the biological form of an animal may be altered in such a way that it would  no longer resemble its inherent form, but to all intents and purposes had become a different animal. He takes examples from the relatively new art of plastic surgery to show how changes could be made.

The story also links to other contemporary issues – the debate about the ethics of vivisection, for example. Prendick is disturbed by the piercing shrieks that come from Moreau’s surgery when the painful experiments are conducted on living subjects. Moreau is passionate about his work, and undeterred by the fact that his experiments are never totally successful; the results are never quite human, even when he has subjected them to hypnotism and taught them how to speak (this is the least convincing part of the story’s premise).  One of them has already become quite wild and savage at the start of the story, and as Moreau loses his hold over his creatures, they all gradually become less human and more animal.

This reversion to the animal, I think, relates to late nineteenth-century theories about degeneration, the idea that individuals and whole societies could revert back from civilisation to barbarism.

When Prendick finally escapes the  island and returns to England, there is a striking passage where he describes how he cannot bear the crowds of London, because the humans there remind him of the beat-men of the island;

‘I would go out on the streets […] and prowling women would mew after me, furtive craving men glance jealously at me, weary pale workers go coughing by me, with tired eyes and eager paces, like wounded deer, dripping blood.’

Even in church, the preacher seems to be gibbering words he does not understand, like the ape-men had done.  Prendick tells us that:

‘Particularly nauseous were the blank expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow-creatures than dead bodies would be.’

He feels that even he himself is ‘not a reasonable creature but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder of the brain […] like a sheep stricken with the gid.’

Wells later described the book as an ‘exercise in youthful blasphemy’, and its use of Darwinian ideas to dispute the gulf between humans and animals was enough to get American Christians clamouring to get the 1934 film, with Charles Laughton as Moreau, banned. There is satire on religion, too, in the way that Moreau. Playing God, keeps his creatures in order by imposing commandments on them. They obey him out of fear, despite his cruelty.

Today the book reads like a period piece. We now know that plastic surgery is not enough to transform one species into another. There was a 1996 film with Marlon Brando as Moreau. I don’t know whether that tried to update the story with references to DNA – but it got terrible reviews, anyway. Despite the fact that the science behind the fiction no longer convinces, though, the book still contains some chilling and horrific episodes that made it rather good Hallowe’en reading.


3 thoughts on “The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells (1896)

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