Dr Moreau is evidently a sort of Frankenstein figure. A man dedicated to research: the endless pursuit of questions which, as he himself puts it, once answered raise new questions. It is not a genre horror story, which mixes a cocktail of fear, loathing and guilt in order to evoke a sufficiently extreme emotional response which is good for selling books. Instead there’s the feeling that the author is profoundly interested in the questions he raises. Chiefly the question of what it is to be human: what are the basic ingredients when baking the human cake, which of them can be left out, and what are the effects of doing so. There are echoes here of The Country of the Blind (by the same author) in which the narrator stumbles into a strange isolated community which on the face of it is so different to the one we know. And yet on closer inspection we end up looking at ourselves.
The novel’s overwhelming impression is of deep pessimism and misanthropy. In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels the hero journeys to a land dominated by intelligent horses, but home also to a species contrived to excite our horror and disgust (but importantly not our pity or sympathy). Yet they look unmistakably like human beings. These are the despicable Yahoos, inspired by the Mohocks of Jonathan Swift’s day. H G Wells’s humanoid chimeras fulfil a similar purpose. Yet unlike the Yahoos in the land of horses, who just happen to be there and have to be put up with, the humanised animals on Dr Moreau’s island have been deliberately contrived by painstaking and painful surgery as part of an experimental programme.
Dr Moreau is at length forced to explain his thinking to his unwanted guest, the castaway Prendick. The doctor’s life’s work has been to investigate and demonstrate the plasticity of flesh and its susceptibility to what, at the time, were the major advances of blood transfusion and antiseptic surgery, just as almost a century earlier Mary Shelley was impressed by the inherent possibilities of Galvanism. Dr Moreau professes to have no especial love for the human species, except as a vehicle to demonstrate his mastery of the medium of flesh. He has experimented with other shapes for the animals he mutilates, but the results were so disastrous that he has opted to stick with the human form. With each new vivisected preparation he imagines he has reached his chosen goal: to humanise an animal. But he cannot prevent animal traits re-emerging, and on this account he becomes dissatisfied with each new creation, turning it out to roam the island and become part of some sort of humanoid society which has somehow emerged naturally.
But Moreau has been more successful than he imagines. He does not properly understand his target species, humanity, with the result that the beasts’ imperfect attainment of the human ideal is interpreted by him as his own failure, not as an increasingly accurate modelling of the human condition. His animals need a Law (it is never made clear whether he himself wrote this Law and handed it down to the inhabitants of his island as God did to Moses, or whether it is the animals’ own invention) to exhort them not to go on all fours, and not to drink water by lowering their mouths to it and sucking it. But, as the doctor’s assistant Montgomery points out, in spite of their apparent commitment to the Law and its recitation at each and every opportunity, the animals all have the greatest difficulty in adhering to its precepts.
At last, in the authentic Frankenstein tradition, the mad scientist’s creations rise up to do battle with their creator. I’m not concerned here to describe the course of events: like the end-game in a chess tournament it could have been played out in any number of ways, and the author chooses to harvest the potential for horror and adventure he has carefully built up, like the competent thriller writer he is.
But at this late stage there are no new insights to be revealed: these have all emerged in setting the scene for disaster. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, the animals’ bone of contention is not the master’s failure to create a compatible companion (arguably Moreau has done that magnificently), but paradoxically the result of accepting the central lie of their creator’s propaganda: that they are now human beings, and therefore entitled to human rights, which Moreau has been denying them. There is a hint here of the fear prevalent at the time that the proletariat will rise up to overthrow their masters once they picture themselves as rational individuals entitled to respect, and not mere slaves conditioned to humane ideals solely for the purpose of keeping them docile. Yet the effect of doing so will be to destroy the very prize they have seized: because without the rigid discipline imposed by the overlords, they will in time shed the veneer of humanity and revert to the brute beasts they still are at root.
This is not a fashionable sentiment – these days we are apt to bracket it with the “white man’s burden” and other ways of thinking that argue for the preservation of a non-egalitarian society: a slave-owning one, or a class- or caste-bound one. When the novel was published (at the end of the 19th century) the dismal experience of firstly the French Revolution, then the Paris Commune, plus a multitude of rebellions throughout the British Empire, seem to bear out the theory of the refractory savage. H G Wells would have felt no compulsion to justify it: indeed it was what his readership largely accepted without question. But Wells certainly felt compelled to explore it – and to question it.
Unlike Kipling (who made no secret of where he stood on the issue), or Charles Dickens (who stood on the other side), H G Wells’s stance is ambivalent – indeed agonised – to the point of despair. Are Moreau’s monsters ruined human beings, as the narrator Prendick at first supposes? They have been surgically worked into a semblance of human form, and been taught to speak, however badly. But are they still beasts and never cease being so, destined to revert to bestiality as soon as they’re released from compulsion to obey and conform, reinforced with a dread of what will happen to them if they don’t? Both Prendick and Montgomery (but never Moreau) make half-hearted efforts to engage with the twisted creatures on their own terms, but the results disappoint them.
The story is clearly intended as an allegory. Wells’s generation were seeing the first fruits of education for the masses – and so far this social experiment had yielded few results to impress anyone from a privileged background. This is the latent insight from Dr Moreau’s island laboratory.
In a sense it is Wells’s laboratory too – his laboratory of ideas – in which he transmutes the conflicting elements he inherits from being English in the days of empire, plus new ones gained from contemporary advances in medicine and society, into the gold of certainty and enlightenment. But the mixture in his flask turns explosive and poisonous, with little sign of precipitating something precious or permitting an elixir to be distilled, whether of recommendation of a way forward or offering even the haziest hope for the future. The best to be done is to pour it out as a libation to the gods of Fear and Terror, then have his hero withdraw from the scene, and even from humanity itself, daring the reader to contemplate the noxious mess as it passes out of sight of the known world.
The island of Dr Moreau is an elder-day Jurassic Park: a forbidden land of terminally degenerate chimeras which, please-God, no one will chance upon ever again.