Friday, March 21, 2014

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells // So Much Content in Such a Small Book

The Island of Doctor Moreau was my Classics Club Spin book, and I was supposed to finish it by April 1st.
Whaddaya know, I finished early! :-)
Note: there is a spoiler warning a couple paragraphs down - skip that section if you haven't read the book.

The Island of Doctor Moreau is about a shipwrecked traveler who winds up on a mysterious island, where the title character is conducting gruesome vivisections on animals, attempting to transform them into humans. I've already started and deleted five different beginnings to this post, because there's so much to talk about. Do we start with the basic plot and writing style? Do we go into characterization? Do we discuss the idea of man vs. beast, and what defines each? Or do we address the concept of religion and God (which is a very clear theme in the book)?
For a short, 130 page book, The Island of Doctor Moreau is loaded with layers and layers of meaning.

Let's work backwards, and start with the most intense of the above questions - Wells' commentary on religion and God. If we look at Doctor Moreau as a sort of human version of God, then his Man-Beasts are bestial versions of humans, God's creations. The Man-Beasts have a set of laws that they must follow them, but they don't really know why - their brains aren't human enough to understand why they shouldn't walk on all fours, or why they shouldn't attack other animals and eat them. There is a Sayer of the Law, who reminds them of the rules, but the Man-Beasts are constantly breaking them, because they forget. They still have an innate bestiality in their souls.

Wells is showing us what could potentially happen if a human tried to become God, and took it upon himself to "create" rational creatures. But Wells is also comparing us to the Man-Beasts, and commenting on following a religion, cult, or other group mindlessly, and believing everything that the self-instituted leader says.

********SPOILER WARNING!*******

After Moreau dies, Prendick takes a position of semi-leadership, and tells the Man-Beasts:
"He [Moreau] has changed his shape - he has changed his body... For a time you will not see him. He is... there" [pointing upward] "where he can watch you. You cannot see him. But he can see you. Fear the Law."
Is this not like Jesus' death and ascension?

******End of Spoiler**********

Wells is criticizing those Christians who follow blindly, and haven't given thought to why they do the things they do as Christians. But this is a good thing for those of any religion to think about. Why are the traditions in place? What is the meaning behind them? By looking into the history and reasons for the traditions and customs within our religion and culture, we can better understand it, and not just be mindless followers, following the Law just because it is the Law.

The second thing I want to talk about is the idea of man vs. beast. Though in the modern world, we think of humans as being animals as well, in Wells time, this was not the case. Vivisection of animals was an approved practice, and this just made Moreau's gruesome experiments even more of a moral dilemma. If they were animals, then of course it was fine what he was doing (in the standards of the time). But if they were humans, then his was a barbaric practice.

I, thinking about it from a 21st century perspective, feel the DEEPEST sympathy for the poor creatures. Never once did I feel that revulsion that Prendick so often experienced when in their company. The poor things don't know what they are doing. Their minds are only half as advanced as ours, and so they are confused by their new lives as (sort of ) rational beings. In my opinion, the Man-Beasts only need some love, but Prendick is disgusted and Moreau thinks of them as experiments. Their only hope lies in Montgomery, Moreau's assistant, but he is trying to figure his own life out, and isn't much help. Montgomery is, possibly, the most sympathetic character of the book - outside of the Man-Beasts themselves.

I suppose that that's touched on almost all the points brought up in the beginning. But there is just so much more that I haven't even mentioned. The Island of Doctor Moreau is much, much more than just a science fiction tale - it's a commentary on life, religion, and the definition of human-ness.


  1. What a great post, Sophia! I had no idea that this book was so intricate. I need to add it to my TBR list. It sounds even better than War of the Worlds. I'd like to read a biography on Wells too, at some point, as I think that would give me more insight into his books. I am bookmarking your review for when I read this book in the future!

    1. I've never read War of the Worlds, so that's going on MY TBR :-)
      I'm glad you liked my review! Let me know when you read it and I'll read your take on the book!

  2. A very well written, thoughtful and thought-provoking review Sophia! Brava!!!

  3. Great review! I really enjoyed this book when I read it some 20+ years ago. I should revisit it!

    1. Thanks! I'm definitely going to read more of Wells, too. He's a fantastic author.

  4. I loved this book. As you say, it is so remarkably full of thought provoking issues despite its tiny, tiny size. Loved the review!

    1. Yes, it's really amazing how much food for thought there is in such a short book.

      Glad you liked it!

  5. The title of this book has always put me off a little - for some reason I thought of it as a Lord of the Flies type book.
    Your review is very thoughtful and thought provoking and has caused me to rethink my opinion of this book.

    1. I did avoid it for some time because I had heard it was really creepy and I don't do horror very well... But now I'm sad I did because it wasn't really horror - more science fiction.
      I'm glad you enjoyed my review!


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