Thursday, December 29, 2011

463. The Island of Dr. Moreau – H.G. Wells

History: When the novel was written in 1896, there was much discussion in Europe about degeneration and animal vivisection. Interest groups were formed to address the issue: theBritish Union for the Abolition of Vivisection was formed two years after the publication of the novel.
Plot: The Island of Doctor Moreau is the account of one Edward Prendick, an Englishman with a scientific education, who is shipwrecked. A passing ship takes him aboard, and a man named Montgomery revives him. The ship is bound for an unnamed island. Prendick also meets a grotesque, bestial native named M'ling, who appears to be Montgomery's manservant.
Prendick is supposed to stay the ship, but when the captain, whom Prendick has insulted, forces him off the ship, he is forced to go ashore with Doctor Moreau and Montgomery. Prendick is housed in an outer room of an enclosed compound. Curious about what Moreau is up to on the island, Prendick remembers that he has heard of Moreau, formerly an eminent physiologist in London whose gruesome experiments in vivisection had been publicly exposed.
The next day, Moreau begins working on a puma, and its anguished cries drive Prendick out into the jungle. As he wanders, he comes upon a group of people who seem human but have an unmistakable resemblance to hogs. As he walks back to the enclosure, he suddenly realizes he is being followed. He panics and flees, and, in a desperate attempt at defense, he manages to stun his attacker, a monstrous hybrid of animal and man. When he returns to the enclosure and questions Montgomery, Montgomery refuses to be open with him. After failing to get an explanation, Prendick finally gives in and takes a sleeping draught.
Prendick awakes the next morning with the previous night's activities fresh in his mind. Seeing that the inner door has been left unlocked, he walks in to find a humanoid form lying in bandages on the table before he is ejected by a shocked and angry Moreau. He believes that Moreau has been vivisecting humans and that he is the next test subject. He flees into the jungle, where he meets an Ape Man who takes him to a colony of similarly half-human/half-animal creatures. The leader, a large gray thing named the Sayer of the Law, has him recite a strange litany called the Law that involves prohibitions against bestial behavior and praise for Moreau.
Suddenly, Moreau bursts into the colony, and Prendick escapes to the jungle. He makes for the ocean, where he plans to drown himself rather than allow Moreau to experiment on him. But Moreau explains that the creatures, the Beast Folk, were not formerly men, but rather animals. Prendick returns to the enclosure, where Moreau explains to him that he has been on the island for eleven years and has been striving to make a complete transformation from animal to human. Moreau regards the pain he inflicts as insignificant.
One day Prendick and Montgomery encounter a half-eaten rabbit. Since eating flesh and tasting blood are strong prohibitions, Moreau calls an assembly of the Beast Men and identifies the Leopard Man (the same one that chased Prendick the first time he wandered into the jungle) as the transgressor. The Leopard Man flees, but when the group corners him in some undergrowth, Prendick takes pity and shoots him.
Prendick also believes that although the Leopard Man was seen breaking several laws such as drinking water bent down like an animal, chasing men (Prendick) and running on all fours, the Leopard Man was not solely responsible for the deaths of the rabbits, but it was also the Hyena-Swine, the other most dangerous beast man on the island. Moreau is furious that Prendick killed the Leopard Man but can do nothing about the situation.
As time passes, Prendick is inured to the grotesqueness of the Beast Folk. But one day the puma rips free of its restraints and escapes from the lab. Moreau pursues it, but the two end up killing each other. Montgomery breaks down and decides to share his alcohol with the Beast Men. Prendick resolves to leave the island, but later hears a commotion outside to see Montgomery die after a scuffle with the Beast Folk.
At the same time, the compound burns down because Prendick has knocked over a lamp. With no chance of saving any of the provisions stored in the enclosure, Prendick realizes that during the night Montgomery has also destroyed the only boats on the island.
Prendick lives with the Beast Folk on the island for months after the deaths of Moreau and Montgomery. As the time goes by, the Beast Folk increasingly revert to their original animal instincts, beginning to hunt the island's rabbits, returning to walking on all fours, and leaving their shared living areas for the wild.
They cease to follow Prendick's instructions and eventually kill his faithful companion, a Beast Man created from a dog. Luckily for him, since his efforts to build a raft have been unsuccessful, a boat that carries two corpses drifts onto the beach (perhaps the captain of the ship that picked Prendick up and a sailor). Prendick uses the boat to leave the island and is picked up three days later. But when he tells his story he is thought to be mad, so he feigns amnesia. Back to England, Prendick is no longer comfortable in the presence of humans, who seem to him to be about to revert to the animal state. He leaves London and lives in near-solitude in the countryside, devoting himself to chemistry as well as astronomy, in the study of which he finds some peace.
Review: Like Frankenstein almost 80 years before, The Island of Dr Moreau features a man of science playing God and finding that his creations do not act as he would prefer. The themes of human nature, law, religion and society are expertly mixed against the backdrop of a mysterious Pacific island.
Of course, in recent years, many of the issues faced by Moreau have come to the fore in the media, as the advancement of genetics and cloning have begged the question of whether it is ever right for Man to play God, and just how far is too far? There is also the question of forcing a belief system on another set of “people” – deifying ones-self in order to be protected from one’s own creations – and the degradation of said creations when they are left to their own devices.
Wells has chosen a heady blend of science and nature to portray just how easily mankind can go astray – and one has to wonder if his ideas are not already becoming a reality – which makes for tense and exciting reading. It’s not a particularly long story and it runs at breakneck speed from beginning to end, hurtling the reader into the action and offering no respite until the tale is told.
Opening Line: “I do not propose to add anything to what has already been written concerning the loss of the Lady Vain.”
Closing Line: “And so, in hope and solitude, my story ends.”
Quotes: “I never yet heard of a useless thing that was not ground out of existence by evolution sooner or later.”
Rating: Very Good

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