What could it mean? A locked enclosure on a lonely island, a notorious vivisector, and these crippled and distorted men?...
H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau has been relegated to campy film status like The Invisible Man, but Wells was about so much more than that. What I did not know going in were the themes he deals with -- I just knew "something about an island with messed-up animals."
|even more messed-up than the platypus|
What actually happens is there's a guy in a shipwreck who gets picked up by a boat with weeeeird passengers that look almost -- ALMOST -- inhuman. And there's another guy on the boat named Montgomery who's all cagey about where he and his weirdo passenger friends -- and also a llama, puma, and a bunch of rabbits -- are going. But the drunk captain of the boat HATES Montgomery and his weirdo friends, and makes him AND the shipwrecked guy get off at Mysterious Island, where an older dude with white hair meets them. GUESS WHO THAT GUY IS (hint: he's a doctor).
So Shipwrecked Guy slowly figures out what's going on, and what's going on (SPOILERS AHEAD) is that Dr Moreau is super into vivisection, which was the gene splicing of the 19th century I guess, and he got kicked out of Doctoring because of things he was doing to cats, so he went to this island and makes PEOPLE OUT OF ANIMALS. By vivisection. Which means he just kinda cuts things up and moves things around.
|these action figures are pretty spot-on, actually|
As with most H.G. Wells stuff, he's got A Point to make about humanity.
Before they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence began in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau.
As the afterword says, "Does he mean me? is a question we often ask when reading Wells." Because he is talking about animals made to look like men, BUT HE ALSO MAYBE MEANS US (he definitely means us). Wells occupies this time in Victorian England when all the shit everyone took for granted was changing. He uses the word sexuality in his book. In 1896! I was shocked! But England had started hearing about evolution and Freud and the main character goes to see a "mental specialist." Can you imagine that happening in Dickens? No! It is weird and modern! Moreau is supposed to be God in this strange microcosm of the world where there are Leopard Men, and Wells is here to talk to us about how our conception of God is maybe a little enslaving.
Wells and Conrad and Stevenson marked both a change from didactic Victorian morality and a turn towards the modern era. And it's jarring. People started questioning religion and ethics and man's place in the universe in a way they had not before, and when you read books from this period it feels like the Victorian safety net has been removed and you no longer know what you can depend on.
|where is the reliance on social mores! where!|
I disagree with Wells's conclusions in Dr Moreau (which he later called "an exercise in youthful blasphemy"), but I'm extremely glad he wrote it. It's one of those makes-you-pondery books. If you believe in God, it makes you sit down and think about why and if you can satisfy that belief beyond being afraid like Moreau's creations are. If you don't, it makes you think about the human condition and how removed we are from other animals and why.
The afterword mentions Wells's "attack on smugness in general--rather than simply on the smugness of the Church," meaning the particularly Victorian emphasis on man being lord of creation and placed at the top of the ladder by God. Were we? Have we just decided that on our own? Has evolution really tended towards the best possible thing rather than just kind of made us and here we are, we're not the best but we exist? I was not expecting these thoughts to come out of this Monsters on an Island book.
It's a fast read. I'm going to read more H.G. Wells now. Bring on The Invisible Man.