H. G. Wells’ 1896 novel is dark, disturbing and thought-provoking. Coming just several decades after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), it tells the tale of a man named Edward Prendick who gets shipwrecked on a remote island, subsequently encountering a sinister figure named Dr. Moreau, who he discovers conducts vivisections of animals, combining various creatures to make subhuman beasts who he then loses interest in and releases to roam the island. Some of these Beast Men have banded together and recite a Law that rules their actions:
Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Prendick initially is terrified that Dr. Moreau will use him in his experiments, but later understands that Dr. Moreau has been trying to shape animals into men, not the other way around. He still cannot reconcile the horrific experiments of Dr. Moreau with the civilized ways of society, or with the principles of science. At the same time, he is also unsure of how to view these miserable creations, which are neither fully animal nor human.
The fragile order of the island is thrown into turmoil by events involving Prendick, Dr. Moreau, Mr. Montgomery (his assistant), and the various Beast Men that inhabit the island. As the reader might suspect, things unravel into chaos and bloodshed. In the end the narrator finds his way back to civilization, but his view of his fellow men as civilized has been shaken permanently, for he fears that man’s animal nature is always lurking beneath the surface, waiting only for the right circumstances to break out.
Wells was clearly influenced by the ideas of evolution, only recently introduced to the world, and the concept that man had descended from apes was still creating shock and controversy throughout British society. Wells chose to examine science through the cruel experiments of Dr. Moreau, who was unconcerned by the suffering of his subjects, all in the name of science and knowledge. Dr. Moreau’s tampering invariably resulted in monstrous subhuman beasts, who themselves are confused as to their identity. Though they strive to be like men and repress their animal urges, once blood is shed this veneer soon wears off.
I find the moral ideas in the story to be well-developed and disturbing, without any clear direction suggested as to what the correct path for science is. Does man have the right to play God and create life on his own? Will it always result in monsters? And what of man’s own beastly nature? Is it not a losing battle when social inhibitions are stripped away?
I think Wells’ story-telling skills are sometimes underestimated. He is very good at introducing an erudite, usually innocent protagonist who stumbles into a situation that soon becomes more complicated than he bargained for. In this case, the island becomes a place of horrors with no easy escape for Prendick or Dr. Moreau’s beastly creations. Even over a century later, it remains a fast-paced and sinister story that will grab your attention and leave a dark shadow in your mind.