Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479
This short novel employs an old device, a bogus introduction to explain how the story that follows was found in the narrator’s papers at his death. The story itself exploits the well-known theme of the shipwrecked castaway, made famous by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). These are familiar materials, but H. G. Wells updates them by putting them in the context of the controversy over evolution that raged in his day. He presents Dr. Moreau as a cruel, white-haired Old Testament God.
Wells described The Island of Dr. Moreau as “an exercise in youthful blasphemy,” referring to Moreau’s attempts to reshape God’s creatures as humans. In this respect the novel compares to Mary Shelley’s tale of Victor Frankenstein’s unholy accomplishment in Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Both novels are cautionary in warning of the consequences likely to follow when humans play God. The Greek understanding of hubris and Christian warnings against pride should have alerted Moreau to the danger of his game.
Wells himself, however, was not of one mind about the uses of human reasoning in changing the world. In the struggle between religion and science that raged in his day, he was a believer in the power of reason to banish superstition and produce a better world. His novel The First Men in the Moon (1901) dramatizes his faith in science and technology and the ways in which they can change the world. The Invisible Man (1897), however, follows The Island of Dr. Moreau as another warning about human reasoning put to the wrong use, and it offers more evidence of Wells’s inner debate on the issue.
If humans are merely advanced creatures on the evolutionary tree and civilized ways are a thin coating on an animal self, then The Island of Dr. Moreau offers a valuable parable. As Moreau wields his unfeeling scalpel, he is in a sense accelerating the process of evolution and endowing his beasts with two characteristics unique to humans—rudimentary speech and a mixture of awe and fear vital to religious faith. When their god, Moreau, dies, they fall victim to their basest instincts, as depicted in the unrestrained behavior of Montgomery, who leads the ensuing riot of self-indulgence. With Moreau and Montgomery dead, Prendick remains alone to watch the beasts descent into self-degradation.
When his horror has ended, Prendick confesses that he may have caught something of the “natural wildness” of the creatures he had lived with. For a long time afterward, he travels in fear among his fellow humans, sensing the “animal [that] was surging up through them,” even though he knows this is irrational, that he lives among “perfectly reasonable creatures” who are freed from their instincts. In this conflict of conviction, Prendick illustrates the common human plight: to be poised forever between higher and lower selves while resolving the struggle between urge and aspiration.