01 September 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: The Island of Doctor Moreau

Quick note before we get started: I've written a review of UNIT: Shutdown for USF.

H. G. Wells was born in September 1866-- meaning he turns 150 this year! I'd have loved to have been at this year's conference of the H. G. Wells Society, but lacking that, I'll be celebrating H. G. Wells here on the blog by doubling down on my tendency to post about H. G. Wells anyway by writing essays about him, reviewing autobiographical writings and other books relevant to his life, and posting reviews of Wells books in my enormous review backlog. So, I kick it all off on today, the first day of the month, with a review of The Island of Doctor Moreau. (The usual beginning-of-month reading roundup wrapup will appear tomorrow.)

Trade paperback, 139 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1896)
Acquired and read January 2013
The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells

As a novel about a Victorian scientist, of course I had to read this. Moreau is second only to Frankenstein in the mad scientist rankings of the nineteenth century, and second in the rankings of fictional scientists generally. (Because who remembers the sane ones?) Moreau is a "wantonly" cruel vivisectionist, exiled from the scientific community, so there's a different sort of flavor to him to Frankenstein: Frankenstein pursues knowledge into areas man was not meant to know, but his goals are amoral at worst. Moreau, on the other hand, is immoral. Suffering is not an incidental byproduct of his researches, but their goal. (This was a common critique of vivisectors in the Victorian period; I've seen it in Wilkie Collins's Heart and Science, Sarah Grand's The Beth Book, and Florence Fenwick Miller's Lynton Abbott's Children.)

Moreau's rationalizations of his own research are probably the most interesting part of this horrific book (early Wells was so good at evoking sensation), as he argues that his lack of sympathy for those in pain makes him superior: "So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick, so long as your own pains drive you, so long as pain underlies your propositions about sin, so long, I tell you, you are an animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels" (73). The human being, Moreau argues, is distinguished by his ability to choose not to feel, because when you are more intelligent, you can see after your own welfare without the need of the pain stimulus. Moreau argues that he is after knowledge only, that his only passions are intellectual: "You cannot imagine the strange colourless delight of these intellectual desires. The thing before you is no longer an animal, a fellow-creature, but a problem to be solved" (75). I'm interested in the vision of the scientist, but The Island is more about the feelings of the scientist, so there's not as much here for me as I might have imagined-- though the two do cross over occasionally, as in the preceding quote, where Moreau's lack of "sympathetic pain" means he sees animals differently than other humans.

In traditional Wells fashion, The Island also uses its set-up to do some doubling: like how in Frankenstein the creature's plight is also the plight of all humans, so too do some of the narrator's comments about the abandoned animal experiments resonate with the human condition: "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 -- and for what?" (95). Substitute "God" or any other source of law/morality for "Moreau," and I'm not so sure we're much better off. And I know Wells thought we weren't.

No comments:

Post a Comment