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The Island of Dr. Moreau | Study Guide

H. G. Wells

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The Island of Dr. Moreau | Introduction–Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Introduction

The introduction to The Island of Doctor Moreau takes the form of an affidavit, or sworn statement, by a man named Charles Prendick. In it, he asserts that the manuscript that follows (the novel itself) was written by his uncle, Edward Prendick.

The short document provides some background information about Edward Prendick and the manuscript. In February 1887 a ship named Lady Vain, on which Prendick was a passenger, collided with an abandoned boat in the Pacific Ocean and sank. Prendick was believed drowned but was found nearly a year later in a small open boat that "is supposed to have belonged to the missing schooner Ipecacuanha." He told a story so odd that his rescuers deemed him demented. This reaction prompted Prendick to change his story; he claimed for the rest of his life that he had no memory whatsoever of the period between the Lady Vain's mishap and his final rescue.

Charles states that after Edward Prendick's death, he found among his uncle's belongings a written narrative of the missing year. He is publishing it here, believing that to be what Prendick would have wanted. He tells the reader that when an expedition later explored the area in which the described events allegedly occurred, they found a small island called Noble's Isle but saw nothing supporting Prendick's tale. There is, however, evidence that a schooner named Ipecacuanha did, in fact, disappear in that area within a time frame that matches Prendick's account.

Chapter 1: In the Dinghy of the Lady Vain

Edward Prendick's account begins by relating how, on February 1, 1887, the Lady Vain collides with a derelict (abandoned) ship 10 days after setting sail. It sinks, but a longboat with some survivors among the crew is rescued 18 days later. A second boat, a dinghy containing three men including Prendick, remains adrift. The other two men are a fellow passenger and a crew member.

The men soon exhaust the dinghy's meager provisions. After six days of drifting with no land in sight, one of the men gives voice "to the thing we all had in mind"—presumably cannibalism. At first, Prendick is repelled by the idea; he sits awake all that night with his knife in hand, though he doubts he has any actual fight in him. The next morning, however, he agrees to draw lots with the other two survivors. When the draw is done, the sailor, who loses, fights his fate. He and the third man get into a physical struggle and fall overboard, leaving Prendick alone. As Prendick contemplates suicide, a passing schooner notices him. He is saved, and someone pours "some stuff" into his throat.

Analysis

For the introduction to The Island of Doctor Moreau, author Wells creates the character Charles Prendick, whose purpose in the novel is to support the tale with a credible backstory. This literary device is known as the found manuscript tradition. Charles's recitation of authentic-sounding details, such as dates, geographic coordinates, and a name for the island—Noble's Isle—gives the text a realistic tone. So does the "evidence" he presents supporting the possible existence of Doctor Moreau's island and the schooner Ipecacuanha. And while Wells has Charles admit that his uncle's story "is without confirmation in its most essential particular"—the actual existence of Doctor Moreau—it is plain that the tale to come is meant to be taken as fact.

The Canadian critic and writer Margaret Atwood has suggested the significance of some of the names introduced here. Prendick is meant to suggest an apprentice. A gentleman who has dabbled in scientific inquiry, Prendick is not much of a go-getter as the novel starts. His name, however, suggests that he will soon begin learning—though the reader doesn't yet know what his new knowledge will entail. In an introduction to an edition of the novel, Atwood suggests readers say "Noble's Isle" quickly to hear the suggestion that it is "no blessed" island. Both names foreshadow events to come.

Edward Prendick's account of the three men adrift on the dinghy introduces a theme that Wells will revisit from various angles throughout his tale. It takes less than a week of isolation and deprivation before the trio abandons the behavior expected of so-called civilized humans. Not only do they agree to engage in the taboo practice of cannibalism, but two of them explode in such blind, brutal rage that they murder each other. This animalistic behavior on the part of human beings suggests that the distinction between "enlightened" humans and "ignoble" beasts is not as solid as it is commonly assumed to be.

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