The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells (Italian edition)
The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells (Italian edition)

The novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau” by H.G. Wells was published for the first time in 1896. The novel is available on Project Gutenberg‘s website.

Edward Prendick is traveling on the Pacific Ocean when gets shipwrecked with the resulting death of almost all the crew and passengers. The man is saved at the last moment by a small ship passing by where he meets Montgomery, accompanied by M’ling, a strange servant who shows various physical deformities.

Edward Prendick is just beginning to recover from his ordeal when he’s left on an island where Montgomery has landed with his servant. There they are welcomed by other men who show strange physical characteristics and then meet Dr. Moreau, who seems to run the small community that lives on the island.

The novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau” was written at a time when scientific advances were becoming faster and faster, with the consequence that the ethical and moral questions they sometimes raised were becoming increasingly urgent to deal with. Animal vivisection was becoming increasingly controversial with initiatives in the U.K. to ban it. Dr. Moreau is a product of that society, a scientist who ended up in a controversy because of his experiments and consequently forced to abandon his homeland to continue them on a remote island.

“The Island of Dr. Moreau” is told in the form of a diary written by Edward Prendick, a well-educated Englishman who’s traveling to the Pacific Ocean on a ship but almost dies in a shipwreck. When he’s rescued by a passing ship, he thinks his nightmare is over but actually has just begun because he’s left to the “care” of Montgomery, Dr. Moreau’s assistant, on the island that has become the base where his experiments.

Very soon Edward Prendick is revealed the nature of the experiments: Dr. Moreau performs vivisection surgery on various animals to physically and mentally transform them and make them more similar to humans. The Beast Folk created by Moreau live following his teachings, which are performed under the guidance of one of them in ceremonies that have characteristics similar to religious functions.

For this theme it’s considered the first example of what was later called “uplift”, the elevation of animals to an upper intellectual level, sometimes even equivalent to that of humans. Several authors gave uplift different connotations, in this case Edward Prendick tells the horror he experienced over the time spent on the island with the Beast Folk because he sees in them a really thin layer of civilization as well as because he sees Dr. Moreau’s cruelty and amorality.

Ethical and moral issues are crucial in “The Island of Dr. Moreau”. Dr. Moreau is interested in conducting his experiments without questioning the suffering of his guinea pigs or the possible consequences of his actions. He thinks he can control the Beast Folk by creating a sort of religion with its rites but what matters for him are the results of the experiments, not the responsibility resulting from them nor his guinea pigs’ suffering.

The society created on the island by Dr. Moreau looks like a parody of the British one. How much are these two societies really different? At the time when “The Island of Dr. Moreau” was written there were people who thought that only a thin layer of civilization distinguished human beings from animals and people who feared a regression to barbarism. Today things haven’t changed much.

Today science has advanced much more and from the point of view of plausibility “The Island of Dr. Moreau” has indeed aged. Today H.G. Wells would talk about much more advanced biotechnologies rather than vivisection to modify animals but the themes developed in the novel keep on being important.

“The Island of Dr. Moreau” is an example of what at the time was called scientific romance, though the tones are often similar to those of a horror story. The plot is developed at a fast pace but the protagonists are poorly developed, functional to the plot. It’s a small flaw that doesn’t prevent it from being considered among the major classics by H.G. Wells that after more than a century remains a must-read.

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