‘It may be I fancy I have seen more of the ways of this world’s Maker than you – for I have sought his laws, in my way, all my life, while you, I understand, have been collecting butterflies.’
Considering I’m quite a fan of science-fiction (and attempting to be a science-fiction writer for NaNoWriMo!), the fact that I have never read anything by H.G. Wells before now is pretty shocking! Whilst The Time Machine and War of the Worlds are better known, I managed to pick up a copy of The Island of Doctor Moreau for 99p on Ebay, hence why it has ended up being my first jaunt into the fiction of H.G. Wells!
The novel begins with its protagonist Edward Prendick getting shipwrecked, and ending up on an island that is home to the notorious vivisector Doctor Moreau, his drunken assistant Montgomery and a host of curiously deformed men and women. These deformed ‘humans’ transpire to actually be humans manufactured by Moreau from animals, whom he controls through fear, and casts out when he finds himself dissatisfied with his latest creation. However, one day one of his experiments turns on him and kills him, leaving Prendick alone on an island with the ‘Beast People’ who begin to rapidly revert to their animal-like states.
Whilst the novel is without a doubt extremely disturbing, I did enjoy it, and found the concept to be really interesting. It certainly raises a lot of questions about morality, and what it actually means to be human. Whilst the Beast People strive to keep to their ‘Law’, which they endlessly repeat and includes things like ‘not to go on all fours’, ‘not to suck up drink’, and ‘not to eat flesh or fish’, it is, despite their supposed transformation to humans, a daily struggle, and unnatural for them. Whatever it is that Moreau does to make them into humans, he is evidently missing something, because, as Prendick observes, despite their transformation there seems to be some kind of essential humanness that they lack.
Moreau as a character, and his dubious motives are also pretty interesting. Having been exiled from England for his horrific experiments, he has set up on a remote island, where he essentially tortures animals to ‘study the plasticity of living forms’. Whilst the way his physical appearance is described makes him seem like the stereotypical ‘mad professor’, in his talks with Prendick he seems quite reasonable, which is pretty confusing considering he conducts cruel experiments, which only an insane person would attempt (and then abandons his testers when it doesn’t turn out right!). He gives no proper reasoning for why he would even want to turn animals into humans, other than curiosity, and considers the horrendous pain the animals (and later human-esque creatures) undergo as of little consequence in comparison to his potential scientific breakthroughs. So whilst his untimely and somewhat gruesome death at the hands of one of his victims elicits a bit of an ‘uh-oh’ on behalf of Prendick, on his own account, it kind of seems like he gets what he deserves.
Montgomery is also a pretty complex character. Having been stuck on the island for so long with Moreau, despite his disgust at his companion’s experiments, he seems to have a certain sympathy towards the Beast People, particularly his assistant M’ling, and seems more at home with them than he is with Prendick. In fact Prendick himself remarks that he seems more akin to them than to ordinary humans.
Prendick therefore, as the only other human character, seems to fulfil a kind of ‘everyman’ role, through which the reader sees the Beast People through the eyes of an ordinary person who is unaccustomed to them. Whilst Moreau sees his creations either as successes or failures, and Montgomery almost seems to see them as actual people, Prendick feels a kind of revulsion and horror at the sight of them, which is similar to how the reader feels at the thought of Moreau’s experiments. Whilst he is far from the most likable character (he can be a little pompous at times), you can definitely sympathise with his position, especially at the end where he is left alone with the reverting Beast People.
The Beast People themselves are a very strange and varied set of characters, and at times you find yourself becoming confused as to whether they are human or animal, as at different times they seem more like one than the other. Prendick names them after what kind of animal he can ascertain them having been made from, so there’s a Dog-Man and an Ape-Man, a Hyena-Swine man, a Leopard-Man, a couple of Wolf-Women, and many more very odd sounding creatures. Some are also more friendly than others, the Ape-Man for example being an extremely chatty, friendly, if slightly irritating character, whilst the Leopard-Man and Hyena-Swine Man are sneaky, and infinitely more dangerous and unpredictable. Whilst they have many human characteristics, their character traits often seem to stem from their animal roots: for example the Dog-Man is inherently loyal.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book. Whilst as a product of the late-nineteenth century, the writing style tended to be a little dry at times, and it was occasionally slow going, it was definitely an interesting read, and both disturbing and creepy, albeit not in an in-your-face, overdramatic way. The way the story is left, in particular, remains with you long after you close the book, as Prendick, upon returning to civilisation finds himself becoming a recluse, as he finds being around humans difficult: he is always waiting for them to revert back to their animal-like states as the Beast People did on Moreau’s island.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone with an interest in science-fiction (as I can definitely see now why H.G. Wells is considered a bit of a godfather of the genre!), or even anyone who likes nineteenth-century Gothic novels like Frankenstein, as it reminded me quite a lot of it. Like Frankenstein, The Island of Doctor Moreau shows the terrible consequences of trying to play God, and is equally disturbing (and considerably more creepy in my opinion!). Anyway, I’m certainly putting War of the Worlds and The Time Machine on my extremely extensive to-read list after reading this!