The Island of Doctor Moreau

commentary, study resources, plot, and web links

The Island of Doctor Moreau was first published in 1896 in London by William Heinemann. The novel was successful in England and America, and a French edition was produced in 1900. There were later, slightly revised editions in 1913 and 1924. It is worth observing that the note explaining the origins of the narrative (written by the narrator’s nephew) appears in some editions as an introduction, and in other editions as an appendix to the main text.

The Island of Doctor Moreau


The Island of Doctor Moreau – commentary

The background

The late nineteenth century was a period of considerable social anxiety. Many intellectuals had lost the consolation of religious belief, and following Darwin’s theories of ‘natural selection’ many people imagined that the human race was destined for nothing other than a brutal survival of only the fittest.

There were popular theories of eugenics (selective breeding) based on the presumption that the world was overcrowded and would only become more so unless checked. Scientific discoveries and industrialisation were also seen in a threatening light. H.G.Wells was aware of these developments. He had studied science and would participate actively in the public debates on all these issues.

He launched his literary career with a series of novels that he called ‘scientific romances’ and we now classify as science fiction. The term ‘romance’ had originally been a literary genre for classifying works that were set in non-real or imaginary worlds. Wells was following the trend set in France by Jules Verne with works such as Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863), Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870), and Around the World in 80 Days (1873).

The horror

The Island of Doctor Moreau certainly fits comfortably within the category of ‘Gothic horror’ that was popular towards the end of the nineteenth century – alongside works such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and Dracula (1897).

The element of horror in Wells’ novel is all the more effective for being understated. It begins with the repeated sounds of animals or beings in torment – all of which are recounted from Prendick’s point of view. He is disturbed and mystified, but he sees nothing .

As readers, we too see nothing, but are bound to suspect that Moreau, by his very absence, must be engaged in some activity he wishes to conceal. We are also told that he is a notorious vivisectionist who has been hounded out of England. Even when Prendick is pursued by some of the Beast People, they are not at first described, but exist as menacing presences.

Prendick eventually seizes a brief glimpse of Moreau’s laboratory – but the horror is still impressionistic, not specific:

There was blood, I saw, in the sink, brown and some scarlet, and I smelled the peculiar smell of carbolic acid. Then through an open doorway beyond in the dim light of the shadow, I saw something bound painfully upon a framework, scarred, red, and bandaged.

Even later, when Prendick is mixing with the Beast People, they are given names such as Dog Man and Swine Woman, not described in any detail. The reader is provided with general outlines, and left to imagine the worst.

They were naked … and their skins were of a dull pinkish drab colour, such as I had seen in no savages before. They had fat heavy chinless faces, retreating foreheads, and a scant bristly hair upon their heads Never before had I seen such bestial-looking creatures.

Intertextuality

The Island of Doctor Moreau makes reference to several other texts, without labouring the connections or drawing particular attention to them.

The term ‘intertextuality’ is used when discussing one text that makes reference to another. The reference may be slight and trivial, such as a brief quotation or the name of a character, or it might be something on a larger scale such as a setting or an entire plot.

There is a fine line between intertextual references and stealing another writer’s ideas – but the history of Western literature is full of texts that echo or refer directly to texts which preceded them. Most people are aware that Shakespeare took the basic stories of many of his plays from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. The practice is usually acceptable so long as the second author is doing something new with the material and is not relying too heavily on the original.

The first is Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610). This drama takes place on an island where a single man (Prospero) has pronounced himself lord of the island. He has also enslaved two non-human creatures (Ariel and Caliban) to do his bidding. Ariel has very little substance, but Caliban is actually described as half-beast and half-man. The parallels between Prospero and Doctor Moreau should be quite clear.

The tensions in Prospero’s situation are not resolved until a boat appears at the island and gives them the opportunity to leave it – just as Prendick is only able to leave when the two dead men turn up in a dinghy. Prospero ‘frees’ Ariel and Caliban and leaves them behind – just as the remaining Beast People are left on the island when Prendick finally departs.

The second major ‘influence’ on Wells’ novel is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). This is the story of an ambitious and unscrupulous scientist who pursues experiments using animal body parts to create a new quasi-human creature – all of which he does in secret. Doctor Frankenstein, like Doctor Moreau, also rationalises this step beyond what is acceptable behaviour with a dubious theory of moral superiority.

Victor Frankenstein’s monster eventually feels degraded by his lowly status and rebels against his creator. He takes revenge by murdering Victor’s bride-to-be Elizabeth, and Victor dies in pursuit of his own creation. Similarly, Doctor Moreau’s creations the Beast People strain against the simplistic Rule of Law he has imposed upon them, and they begin to defy its strictures. Eventually, Moreau is killed by one of his own creations – the. puma or Leopard-woman.

The third influence is Defoe’s Robnson Crusoe (1719) who establishes dominance over his desert island because he has the advantage of tools and material supplies rescued from his shipwreck. When the island becomes ‘populated’ by others, he turns Man Friday into his slave, and holds him in submission because he is in possession of a gun – just as Moreau, Montgomery, and Prendick keep the Beast People in submission with their firearms. Ironically, the Beast people are the more ‘natural’ inhabitants of the island, because they have been created there.

The parallels between the two texts become more obvious when Prendick is eventually stranded ‘alone’ on his island following the deaths of Moreau and Montgomery. He constructs an escape device (a raft) just as Crusoe constructs a boat, only to find that he has built it inland, and cannot get it to the sea.

Prendick and Moreau

Prendick is the innocent and lone survivor of a maritime accident in the south Pacific Ocean and is at first relieved to be rescued and taken to the island. He is mystified by what he finds there, and then horrified when he discovers the truth about Moreau’s experiments.

He feels antagonistic towards Moreau, and attacks him – even though technically Moreau is his protector and host. But then Prendick gradually begins to assume the role Moreau has established on the island. As soon as he is in possession of a gun, Prendick starts shooting the Beast People.

When Moreau is killed by the puma, Prendick demands that the Beast People obey the Law that Moreau created – ‘Is the Law not alive?’ He also tells them that Moreau is not really dead, so that they regard him as ‘The Master’ instead. ‘Salute’ he tells them. ‘Bow down!’

As soon as the Beast People are under his command, Prendick immediately downgrades them: ‘I dismissed my three serfs with a wave of my hand’. And he hands out summary ‘justice’: ‘The wretched thing was injured so dreadfully that in mercy I blew its brains out at once’.

Once this wave of slaughter gets under way, Prendick accelerates it, even though the Beast People have let him live amongst them: ‘Presently … I will slay them all’. But more than that, he also commands his slave the Dog Man to kill his fellow creatures.

Moreau is presented as the archetypal ‘mad scientist’ who has pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable practice. He has used non-anaesthetised surgery on live creatures to create hybrids – creatures who are half human, half animal. But at least he has been creative in a perverse sort of way. Prendick on the other hand eventually does nothing but destroy life – and he destroys the very creatures that allow him to live amongst them when he has nothing else left.

His motivation is summed up in an admission that clearly echoes The Tempest even down to the image of Prospero’s symbol of power: Prendick reflects, ‘I might have grasped the vacant sceptre of Moreau, and ruled over the Beast People’. Instead he goes home and lives as a recluse.


The Island of Doctor Moreau – study resources

The Island of Doctor Moreau The Island of Doctor Moreau – Penguin Classics paperback- Amazon UK

The Island of Doctor Moreau The Island of Doctor Moreau – Penguin Classics paperback- Amazon US

The Island of Doctor Moreau H.G. Wells Classic Collection – five novels hardback- Amazon UK

The Island of Doctor Moreau H.G. Wells Biography – paperback- Amazon UK

The Island of Doctor Moreau The Island of Dr Moreau – DVD film adaptation – Amazon UK


The Island of Doctor Moreau – chapter summaries

Introduction Charles Prendick explains the origin of his uncle’s written narrative.

I   The narrator Edward Prendick survives a shipwreck in the Pacific Ocean and is picked up alone by a passing schooner.

II   The former medical student Montgomery helps to revive Prendick, who is worried by strange animal noises on board.

III   On deck, amongst filth and animals, Prendick sees an ugly man with a black head whom he thinks he has seen somewhere before. A drunken captain abuses the black-headed man.

IV   Late at night on deck, Montgomery reveals to Prendick that he was driven out of his medical studies in London because of a brief indiscretion.

V   Next morning the animals are being offloaded for transit to the island. The drunken captain throws Prendick off the ship and sets him adrift in his own old dingy.

VI   Prendick is rescued by Montgomery and the evil-looking islanders who speak a language Prendick thinks he has heard before but cannot understand. Rabbits are released onto the island to breed.

VII   Prendick is given a room but forbidden to enter the enclosure. He recalls the case of Moreau, a notorious vivisectionist who was hounded out of England.

VIII   Prendick and Montgomery have lunch served by the assistant with a black face and pointed ears. Montgomery refuses to acknowledge the man’s strangeness. Next door the puma screams during a vivisection.

IX   Prendick escapes the horrible sounds by exploring the island, where he spots a half-savage creature then a trio of bestial like people whose language he cannot understand. At sunset he retreats, pursued by a creature whom he fights off.

X   On Prendick’s return to the enclosure, Montgomery gives him a sleeping draught. Next day he hears the sounds of a human being in torment, but when he goes to inspect, Moreau expels him from the compound..

XI   Fearing that he is in great danger, he attacks Montgomery then runs away and hides on the island. He meets another Beast Man and follows him to a ravine.

XII   He is taken into the squalid camp of the Beast People, where they chant their ritual of beliefs. Moreau and Montgomery arrive to capture Prendick, but he escapes again.

XIII   He thinks to drown himself in the sea, but is ‘too desperate to die’. Moreau and Montgomery corner him and offer to parley.

XIV   Moreau claims that the creatures he creates are all animals that have been surgically turned into semi-human forms. He rationalises the pain and torment involved. But the results are not entirely successful: some creatures ‘revert’ to their bestiality.

XV   The Beast People are programmed to be obedient, but their animal instincts sometimes emerge at night. Montgomery’s assistant M’ling is more humanised than the others. Prendick becomes accustomed to their ugliness.

XVI   Montgomery and Prendick discover that some Beast has killed a rabbit and tasted blood. Moreau calls an assembly at which he is attacked by the Leopard-Man, who is then chased down by the Beast People and shot by Prendick.

XVII   Some weeks later Prendick is attacked by the escaped puma which breaks his arm. Moreau pursues the animal and disappears. Montgomery shoots some rebellious Beast People.

XVIII   Montgomery and Prendick go in search of Moreau, and find him killed by the puma. Prendick threatens some rebellious Beast People, and tells them that Moreau is not really dead. He destroys Moreau’s current experiments.

XIX   Prendick argues with Montgomery, who gets drunk and goes off with the Beast People. Prendick plans to escape, but Montgomery burns the boats then is killed in a fight. Prendick accidentally burns down the enclosure.

XX   Prendick commands the Beast People on the beach, where they take all the dead people into the sea. Prendick is unsure of his power, and has run out of food and shelter.

XXI   Prendick lives amongst the Beast People and assumes command over them. The Dog Man becomes his assistant. But the the Beast People begin to revert to their animal state. Prendick builds a raft, but it falls to pieces. A dinghy approaches, but it contains two dead men.

XXII   Prendick sets himself adrift in the dinghy and is picked up by a passing ship three days later. On return to England he looks on his fellow men as animals and he lives in isolation.


The Island of Doctor Moreau – adaptations

The novel has given rise to a number of film adaptations. The first was in 1913, a French silent film called Ile d’Epouvante which was later re-named The Island of Terror. Most of the film versions take minor liberties with the original text – but there are two interesting features they all have in common. First, the introduction of a glamorous female character – of whom there is no trace in the novel. And second, they all change the character of Prendick to someone with a different and less awkward name.


This is 1932 version called Island of Lost Souls. Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Screenplay by Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie. Starring – Charles Laughton (Dr Moreau), Richard Arlen (Edward Parker) Julia Hyams (Ruth Thomas), and Bela Lugosi (Sayer of the Law). Filmed in the Channel Islands, California, and Paramount Studios, Hollywood.


The Island of Doctor Moreau (1977). Directed by Don Taylor, Screenplay by Al Ramus, John Shaner, and Richard Simmons. Starring – Burt Lancaster (Dr Paul Moreau), Michael York (Andrew Braddock), Nigel Davenport (Montgomery), Richard Baseheart (Sayer of the Law), Nick Cravat (M’Ling), Barbara Carerra (Marie). Filmed in St Crois, the US Virgin Islands.


The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996). Directed by John Frankenheimer. Screenplay by Richard Stanley and Ron Hutchinson. Starring – Marlon Brando (Dr. Moreau), Val Kilmer (Montgomery) David Thewle (Edward Douglas), Fairuza Balk (Alssa), Ron Perlman (Sayer of the Law). Marco Hofschneider (M’Ling). Filmed in Queensland, Australia.


The Island of Doctor Moreau – principal characters
Edward Prendick the author of the narrative
Charles Edward Prendick his nephew, who presents the narrative
Montgomery a former medical student
Doctor Moreau a disgraced vivisectionist
M’Ling black-faced assistant to Montgomery

More science fiction by H.G. Wells

The Island of Doctor Moreau The Time Machine (1895) – Penguin Classics – Amazon UK

The Island of Doctor Moreau The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) – Penguin Classics – Amazon UK

The Island of Doctor Moreau The Wheels of Chance (1896) – Penguin Classics – Amazon UK

The Island of Doctor Moreau The Invisible Man (1897) – Penguin Classics – Amazon UK

The Island of Doctor Moreau The War of the Worlds (1898) – Penguin Classics – Amazon UK

The Island of Doctor Moreau The First Men in the Moon (1901) – Penguin Classics – Amazon UK

The Island of Doctor Moreau The Shape of Things to Come (1933) – Penguin Classics – Amazon UK

© Roy Johnson 2016


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