Last Updated on July 29, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1211
Dinosaurs living in the present is a hot subject; people young and old seem captivated by ancient beasts who sometimes grew to enormous sizes and once roamed all the earth, including its seas. In retrospect, The Lost World is somewhat of a father to all the tales of prehistoric beasts roaming the modern world. Conan Doyle's underlying idea was that a region isolated from the rest of the earth might not have been affected by the evolution that exterminated species by natural selection. The Amazonian jungles, still not very well known to outsiders, were even less well known in the early part of this century — an era in which large areas of the earth's lands had yet to be mapped. Into the mysterious jungle, Conan Doyle dropped a great mesa that had been pushed up during the era that dinosaurs dominated the world, and which remained almost entirely isolated for millions of years.
The story is fanciful, but it was written before Conan Doyle's conversion to spiritualism; he was still a rationalist, very much an adherent of scientific thinking. One of the reasons the novel succeeds may be because of Conan Doyle's serious regard for scientific research. The satire of foolish, bickering, back-stabbing scientists might not work as well had Conan Doyle not thought that science was so important that the misbehavior of scientists could damage human progress. Too, his speculations about evolution, as well as his symbolic images of advanced species supplanting more primitive ones, might not hold together as well as they do had he not believed that natural selection was a scientific fact.
When discussing The Lost World, groups can approach the novel from more than one direction, with each direction enhancing their appreciation of the novel and its subject matter. One good approach is to have fun with the book. It is meant to be humorous; it mocks a style of books for young readers, "boys' books," that had become to seem ludicrous with its outrageous tales of violence and fantastic adventure. How many levels of humor are there in the book? Note the slapstick violence, the verbal byplay, the mocking of pomposity, and the satire of foolish scientific practices. How rich is this humor? What does it say about Conan Doyle's intentions?
Another approach to discussing The Lost World is to examine it as a book of ideas. H. G. Wells had demonstrated that there was a large readership hungering for good stories that developed interesting ideas. By the time The Lost World was published, readers had already traveled with Wells and Verne and others to the far future, to the moon, and to mysterious regions of the unexplored areas of earth; they had even been visited by hostile aliens. In these early scientific fantasies, the authors usually emphasized ideas over characterization and plot. For example, underlying Wells's The Time Machine (1895) are speculations about time as a fourth dimension. In The Lost World, Conan Doyle speculates about evolution, about scientific method, and about how society treats science and scientists. How much of his thinking is still meaningful? Are his notions about evolution now outdated? Do any of his criticisms or observations still apply to modern life?
Yet another good approach to discussing the novel is to compare it to the tales of modern dinosaurs that have since been published. Edgar Rice Burroughs's The Land That Time Forgot (1924; consisting of the short novels "The Land That Time Forgot" "The People That Time Forgot," and "Out of Time's Abyss") makes a wonderful object for comparison. Burroughs, too, speculates about evolution and uses his own symbolism to represent the process of development of new species. Which book more closely captures modern scientific views of evolution? Which book does a better job of presenting the logical problems of scientific thought? One need not take quite so heavy an approach; a good light approach would be to discuss which book has the best representations of prehistoric animals? Which has the best pulse-pounding situations? Which has the most interesting characters? Which better integrates its characters into the setting? This comparative approach would work for many fictional works about dinosaurs. Even Jurassic Park (1990) would work well. It too has the dinosaurs isolated from the rest of the world; it too features scientists who are in over their heads; it too features suspenseful action involving huge beasts from another epoch, some of which are hostile to humans. How does Crichton's scientific rationale for the existence of dinosaurs in the modern world measure up to that of Conan Doyle? Are there any character types shared by the novels? For people who love stories about dinosaurs, The Lost World offers wonderful opportunities for hours of discussion of favorite tales of dinosaurs alive in the present day.
1. Is Challenger an admirable man? Would you like scientists to behave like him?
2. Conan Doyle enjoyed practical jokes. One of his favorites was to dress up as Challenger, fake beard and all, and surprise acquaintances with unexpected visits, playing the role of Challenger to the hilt. The Lost World features photographs of Conan Doyle and some of his friends impersonating characters in the novel. How convincing is Conan Doyle's get up? Does Conan Doyle's apparent liking for the character explain any of the events in the novel?
3. Modern society is more sensitive to portrayals of ethnic groups than was the society Conan Doyle lived in. How accurate are his portrayals of the Indians? What, if anything, might people find objectionable in his depictions of Indians or other figures such as the ape-men?
4. What are the most interesting ideas in the novel? What makes them interesting? Are any provocative, perhaps controversial?
5. What is the funniest moment in the novel?
6. At the outset of the novel, Conan Doyle faces the problem of getting his young man out of England and into South America. What techniques does he use to achieve this? What do you think of the map as a plot device? Is it awkward, or is smooth?
7. How well described are the prehistoric creatures? Which is particularly vividly delineated? Which are too vague?
8. In our present era, the world has been mapped, and satellites are mapping it in even further detail, even locating ancient steam beds under the Sahara's sands. If one were to try writing The Lost World today, where would it have to be set? What would have to be changed in order to account for modern cartography? Use your imagination to answer these questions, just as Conan Doyle used his when faced with the limitations of his own era and audience. There are solutions to these questions! Have some fun with them!
9. Many readers have favorite dinosaur stories. Poll your group to discover whether enough members have read dinosaur tales, and if there are several, have them share their favorite novels or short stories in which dinosaurs play a significant role. How well does The Lost World compare to them?
10. The Lost World has some pointed satire, as well as broad humor. Which is emphasized in the novel, the satire or the comedy? What does Conan Doyle most seem to want his readers to leave the novel with, a sense of the ridiculous aspects of science and scientists or a sense of having had a rollicking good time?
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