Big Thinks

Illustration for Comus by Arthur Rackham, 1921

The Island of Doctor Moreau
by H G Wells.
Introduction by Adam Roberts (2009).
SF Masterworks.
Gollancz 2017 (1896).

These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes.

Chapter 14: ‘Doctor Moreau explains’

After a collision at sea Edward Prendick survives by being picked up by a ship delivering supplies to Noble’s Island in the South Pacific. But the vicissitudes he has already suffered are as nothing to those he encounters after being reluctantly landed on the domain of a certain Dr Moreau: as in Shakespeare’s The Tempest “the island is full of noises” and Prendick is unprepared for the creatures that produce them.

Francisco Goya captioned his famous aquatint The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters with “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.” In The Island of Doctor Moreau Wells only just reins in the novella’s impossible monsters with a veneer of rationality, and even then the impossible monsters strain our credulity, reinforcing our sense of a nightmare scenario: the reader will wonder what fresh hell awaits them as they turn each page.

Our protagonist narrates how, despite his biological training, nothing has prepared him for the devastating year he will experience on this slumbering sea-girt volcano. For here in this isolated dystopia he meets horrors he could never have imagined: a House of Pain, a sociopathic autocrat, a drunken assistant with his “man Friday,” M’ling, and other perversions of Creation.

Illustration for Comus by William Blake

Wells wrote this title in the 1890s some while after he’d acquired a degree in zoology, at a time when several strands of thought were in the air, antivivisection and temperance in particular (the National Anti-Vivisection Society was founded in 1875, the National Temperance Federation in 1884). In addition pessimistic notions arose that the processes of Darwinian evolution might conceivably go into reverse — a kind of devolution that Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies had satirised as the eventual fate of the Doasyoulikes, “a great and famous nation” which lived on the slopes of a volcano and which had degenerated into gorillas, until the last one was shot by a French explorer. Wells’s scientific romance picked up on all these ideas — “Big Thinks” as the Ape-Man in this novella might have called them — and combined them in his plot, along with influences culled from his childhood reading. I’m guessing, for example, that he’d read the then popular The Coral Island by R M Ballantyne which, published in 1857, also featured three main protagonists on a Pacific island.

When Prendick is cast adrift from the sinking Lady Vain the two other survivors on his dinghy discuss cannibalism, but don’t live to tell the tale. Prendick’s rescue by the schooner Ipecacuanha (incidentally, and probably intentionally, the name of an emetic drug) is short-lived: captained by a drunkard it offloads another alcoholic called Montgomery, his odd companions, plus a cargo of miscellaneous beasts at Noble’s Island, but as nobody wants Prendick with them he is again cast adrift. He then thinks himself lucky that Montgomery finally persuades a certain Doctor Moreau, who has met them in the island’s launch, to have pity and take him ashore, but soon entertains doubts. And when he convinces himself that he’s going to be turned into a beast like the other “manufactured monsters” he desperately tries to escape the attentions of the only two humans on the island.

The writer Adam Roberts describes the novella in his introduction as “a concise, readable and superbly memorable fable,” though I see it more as a parable in the Frankenstein mould. Unlike Shelley’s novel, which had Frankenstein’s Creature made from the body parts of corpses before being imbued with life, here the Beast Folk are fashioned from living animals, cruelly subjected to surgical reconstruction without anaesthetics and somehow hypnotised to expunge bestial impulses. Not only that but the operations are conducted using blood transfusions to help create hybrids as Doctor Moreau — formerly “a prominent and masterful physiologist” — attempts to get closer to his concept of perfection. For this cruel vivisectionist pain is unavoidable, almost a necessity:

‘This pain— Oh! but it is such a little thing. A mind truly opened to what science has to teach must see that it is a little thing.’

Chapter 13

Adam Roberts also draws attention to some of the literary parallels one may suggest for The Island of Doctor Moreau. He himself suggests Moreau’s name is related to the Tudor writer Sir Thomas More, with an island dystopia replacing More’s Utopia; and he points to Margaret Atwood’s inclusion of The Tempest as a possible model, with Prospero’s Isle inspiring Moreau’s Island. But in fact Wells himself offers, as a key inspiration in Prendick’s narrative, John Milton’s masque Comus, though it only appears in a passing reference. The title character of the Restoration masque is an evil sorcerer, the son of Bacchus and Circe, who has inherited his father’s association with intoxication and his mother’s skill for transforming humans into beasts. But while Circe used magic to transform Odysseus’s crew into beasts when they landed on her island, Moreau uses brute methods to achieve the reverse; meanwhile Moreau’s assistant Montgomery provides the necessary Bacchic link to inebriation. In the frequent descriptions of the two men arming themselves with revolvers and whips (to maintain, literally, the whip hand) Wells echoes Comus wielding his magic wand or staff to command the beasts of his forest domain.

A final literary echo is worth mentioning, namely that from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in the continuation of Edward Prendick’s pessimism and melancholy after he finally returns to London: this is very akin to Lemuel Gulliver’s disgust and despondency about the human race when he returns from Houyhnhnm Land. A clue may be sought in the protagonist’s surname, which is a curious misrendering of a common surname, Pendrick. Edward’s last name is very close to the French words prendre and comprendre, to which is related the English words apprentice and comprehend; this suggests that Edward has had a lot of learning and understanding to do, not only on the island but back at home.

Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (which followed only a couple of years later) had some similar themes to The Island of Doctor Moreau, but ramped up the speculative aspects and the horror in different ways from Conrad. Although we now know that some of Moreau’s biological practices would never have been successful — which for some moderns may blunt the fiction’s impact — it’s the lack of ethics that Wells is really concerned with. It’s this ethical aspect which makes this novella in effect a parable, one that is as relevant today as it was then and worthy, as the Ape-Man would say, of Big Thinks.

Read for Readers Imbibing Peril, RIPXVI; tomorrow, 29th September, is Michaelmas, the feast of St Michael the psychopomp or guide of souls, thus very apt for reads about death!

10 thoughts on “Big Thinks

    1. The ethical aspects are viewed through Victorian spectacles of course but they can be extended in our day and age to questions of gene-splicing and -editing, transplanting pig hearts and other organs (‘xenotransplantation”) and other innovative techniques involving trans-species operations.

      Wells of course is trying to tell an exciting adventure story, not writing a polemic, and I suppose then it’d be a question of what one’s tolerance for gross-ness was, but compared to modern thrillers it’s very mild. Let your copy lurk no more!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry, not sorry!

      I’ve been determined to revisit Wells after a splurge in my teenage years, and this is a reread after more than half a century—do you, like me, also find that a book reread after a long gap can seem like a different novel using the same plot?! This was certainly the case for me here, and it even handily fitted in with my other RIP titles for September and October, so win-win for me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. JJ Lothin

        I remember virtually nothing of the plots of my Wells period (like you, teenage years) – other than the enormous ancient hardbacks I used to lug home from the library …

        But I know what you mean about the way books change on re-reading. I have a handful of a few favourite book I tend to re-read every few years, and invariably get something new out of it each time.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. This one certainly gave me Big Thinks when I read it, and Big Goosebumps too! Although it’s so much darker, and therefore less easily enjoyable, than his other ventures into speculative fiction, I felt this was the best of them in the sense that it takes the reader so deep into the themes and, as you say, the ethics of the questions he raises. In that sense, I agree that it has some similarity to Frankenstein. A real classic, although… urghhh!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remembered the gore and the darkness from a first read yonks ago (though not the details of the action) so that never fazed me, meaning I could think more about the immoral aspects of vivisection and Moreau’s indifference to the pain he caused. Interestingly I found this more focused than The War of the Worlds and therefore a more effective narrative.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Careful, don’t start a book avalanche… 😁 Anyway, please don’t feel a failure as a bibliophile because you-know-who is still catching up on 100 books I’m told I ought to read before I pop my clogs. It’s not gonna happen, is my belief!

      Liked by 1 person

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