The Island of Doctor Moreau BOOK REVIEW

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The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells as a disturbing exploration of Victorian fears and ethical dilemmas through its blend of horror and science fiction, writes PETULA MITCHELL

The Island of Doctor Moreau has been adapted into film many times. including this one from 1977.
The Island of Doctor Moreau has been adapted into film many times. including this one from 1977.

Review of The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells, the giant of early science fiction, taps into the dreads and fears of Victorian society on many levels. It can also be viewed as a horror story, with elements that today’s reader would still find disturbing, possibly just as much as our forebears in the 1890s.

The story unfolds as the diary of the late Edward Prendrick is being reviewed by his nephew. A fantastical and dreadful story unfolds, which Prendrick has not dared to relate during his lifetime for fear of being branded a madman.

Shipwrecked and in a lifeboat with two other men, Prendrick finds himself in a desperate situation. Adrift on the Pacific, with no land in sight his two companions are all for enacting the ‘law of the sea’. This involves the death of one, to be cannibalised by the other. The ensuing fight sees both of them go overboard and sink like stones, leaving Prendrick alone. 

After drifting for some days, he is picked up by a ship called the Ipecacuanha. There a former medical student (Montgomery) and a strange companion are passengers on the ship, captained by an impatient and inebriated Irish captain, with striking red hair.

He is charged with carrying Montgomery and a cargo of animals to a remote island. Montgomery’s companion however is causing consternation among the crew. All in all it is not a happy vessel, however, Prendrick does start to respond to Montgomery’s  administrations and feels he is going to survive his ordeal. 

On arrival at the island destination, the cargo of animals, including a puma and several rabbits and dogs, are disembarked . Prendrick then finds himself in the unenviable position of not being wanted on the ship or on the island. The captain of the Ipecacuanha does not want an extra passenger, and the strange inhabitants of the island do not want visitors. 

Once again, Prendrick is cast off, in a small boat alone and in despair. Finally the island inhabitants relent, and Prendrick finds himself under the care of Montgomery and the mysterious Doctor Moreau. Prendrick struggles to remember why he knows that name and is convinced he has heard it before. 

Although he is thousands of miles from home, and knows it is going to be many months before there is any chance of getting off the island, he is at first happy to have survived. The doctor gives him shelter and food and Montgomery is attentive to helping him gain his strength and return to full health. Little does Prendrick know that he has landed on an island of unimaginable horrors. 

Who was Doctor Moreau?

Doctor Moreau was driven out of England some years before for being a vivisectionist. Although some experiments on animals were permitted under licence, his work was not and he moved to this remote setting to carry on with his work unobserved and undisturbed. Prendrick is tormented by the screams of the puma that Moreau is ‘experimenting’ on. No anaesthetic is administered to the unfortunate creature, and the doctor remains oblivious to the suffering he is causing. 

When it becomes clear that there is an extreme form of experimentation going on, Prendrick takes fright believing that he may be used as a subject and mutilated in one of the experiments. He escapes from the compound  and makes his way into the hinterland of the island only to encounter the strangest of hybrid beasts. Some are ape like, another is part leopard, another part hyena or part pig. 

Marlon Brando as the mad doctor in The Island of Doctor Moreau 1996.
Marlon Brando as the mad doctor in The Island of Doctor Moreau 1996.

The beast men, as they are described in the book, have the power of speech to some degree. After being chased down and hunted by a creature that is part leopard, and being persuaded by Montgomery to return to the compound for a further night of shelter, Prendrick decides to return to the wilderness of the island and try to find refuge with the beast men. 

Prendrick comes across a settlement presided over by a strange grey creature ‘The Giver of the Law’. There is a litany of rules and codes of behaviour that they make him repeat, that has been given to them by Moreau to ensure that they don’t rise up against him. They refer to the compound as the house of pain, and any transgression of the rules will mean they return there for more of the cruel treatment they have had inflicted on them. 

Moreau and Montgomery come in search of Prendrick and spend a day hunting him down, along with some of the beast men that they have retained as servants. They are puzzled by his desire to escape and finally explain the nature of the work Moreau is doing – he is trying to humanise animals. But he explains as soon as the ‘experiments’ are turned out into the the wild they start to revert back to their natural state. “The beast flesh” starts to take over again. Prendrick has little choice but to sit it out until the next time a ship arrives at the island. 

In the meantime, one of the beasts that is part leopard kills and eats a rabbit, transgressing the rule that they must not eat flesh. Moreau goes in search of the beast to bring it back to the compound  but is killed in the attempt. Once the beasts realise that they can break free from the control of the humans the situation goes rapidly downhill for Prendrick. 

Montgomery, who is an alcoholic, sets fire to the only boats on the island so Prendrick can’t leave him and gets killed in a drunken brawl with the beast men. Prendrick finds himself alone, bar the company of one beast. A dog man shows him loyalty and gives him protection from the other rapidly reverting creatures. Prendrick is involved in a protracted struggle for survival. When his dog/man companion is murdered he feels more vulnerable than ever.

His attempts to build a raft are inadequate and he despairs of ever returning to his old life in England.

Then one day, he sees a sail in the distance. A small boat comes closer and closer to the island. He can see two figures in it, but they do not respond to his calls. When the boat finally beaches he sees the figures are the bodies of two sailors. They have been dead for some time and fall apart as he tips them out on to the beach.

One of them still has very distinctive red hair, and is probably the captain of the Ipecacuanha. Wasting no time Prendrick gets the boat back onto the water and moors it far enough away from the shore to protect himself from the carnivorous creatures that come out to devour the remains on the beach.

 He finally manages to collect a few stores and some water and sets himself adrift on the Pacific. After three days he is picked up by a ship heading for America. He tries to relate his story but nobody believes him. He decides to write it down, but not repeat the tale while he is alive. He finds he cannot integrate back into life in London and ends his days in a peaceful country residence.

The contemporary readers of the book would have found several aspects of the story unsettling in the extreme. There was a very vocal and growing movement against vivisection in Victorian England. Patients would deliberately seek out doctors who did not practice it, as they felt involvement in it indicated a lack of compassion. It also came out at a time when the theories of evolution by Charles Darwin were still fresh and hotly debated ideas. 

Shipwrecks, part of the consciousness of the Victorian public, were an ever present danger. The famous story of the wreck of the Medusa (1816) was  well known, not in small part due to the harrowing painting by Gericault (The Raft of the Medusa 1819) in the Louvre. His graphic and tortured depiction of the survivors being cast adrift on a raft, and very few of them surviving a drunken brawl (the raft was supplied with wine and not water) must have resonated with many of the readers of this book. 

There is a lot to unpack in The Island of Doctor Moreau even today, when we grapple with questions around ethics, the increasing role of genetic engineering and genomics and man’s inhumanity to the world that surrounds us. 

Watch Island of Lost Souls Trailer (1933 film based on Island of Doctor Moreau)

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