The Profound Pessimism of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau

Anyone who’s watched John Frankenheimer’s 1996 film adaptation (starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer) might think that H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau belongs to that sub-genre of horror where the scientific experiment goes dreadfully wrong. In the film, Moreau tries to genetically engineer a non-violent race of human beings, only to create animal monsters.  So, the lesson is that Moreau’s obsession with conquering evil causes him to transgress the most basic moral boundaries.  He is thus a variation on Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, where playing God makes one the hand-maiden of the Devil.

But if Wells’ Dr. Moreau (like Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein) is a Promethean figure, he is an infinitely more pernicious one.  Unlike the ‘bringer of fire,’ Wells’ Moreau is not motivated by lofty ideals.  He is not moved by the very human desire to transcend death (Shelley) or to engineer evil out of the human genome (Frankenheimer); on the contrary, Wells’ Moreau is driven by a pathological curiosity abetted by a sociopathic ego.

In other words, Wells’ Moreau is not a visionary whose noble intentions become a real-life nightmare; he is a pitiless, amoral experimenter, willing to inflict any amount of cruelty to vindicate his hypothesis that animals can be transformed into a human beings.  Wells’ Moreau is more mad scientist than misguided genius.

Some have also compared Wells’ Island to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, seeing Prendick’s experience among the Beast Folk as analogous to Gulliver’s life among the Houyhnhnms.  The similarities, however, are largely superficial.  No doubt, the experience of both Gulliver and Prendick changed the way they looked at humanity thereafter.  But the naturally law-abiding and stoic horse-people have little in common with the morally incontinent Beast Folk, whose mindless incantation of the “Law” is more to remind them of the existence of the “House of Pain” and how to avoid it than to provide a model for life.

Moreover, the resultant changes in Gulliver and Prendick bear little resemblance to one another.  Gulliver is inspired to follow an ascetic life, trading the luxury and frivolity of everyday existence for quiet contemplation.  Prendick, on the other hand, is traumatized, condemned to seeing the animal in real human beings as he originally saw the real animal beneath Moreau’s human-like creations. In short, Gulliver is improved by his experience (at least from his own point of view and in some sense ours) while Prendick is merely haunted by his.

So, Wells’ Island of Dr. Moreau is neither a cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific hubris nor a satirical mirror in the excesses of contemporary life.  The book is really a profoundly pessimistic allegory about the human condition.  Moreau represents the naturally superior Nietzschean Overmen who shape the world and all within it into a form that serves their interests.  Like Moreau, they have created the Law that forces us, the human animals, into something more than the mere animals.  Thus, the Overmen’s civilization is maintained only through the threat of punishment (i.e., the “House of Pain”).  Like the Beast Folk’s, our humanity is ephemeral.  Our primal instincts are forever drawing us back to wallow in the mud.  In sum, our world, like the world of the Beast Folk, is just an invention of Moreau’s imagination—one contrived to further the intellectual pursuits that preserve him against the boredom caused by a purposeless existence.

One could expand upon this picture, of course, flesh out the details and draw some links with the text and the movement of the plot, but that is the general picture of the meaning of The Island of Dr. Moreau.

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