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The Island of Dr. Moreau | Study Guide

H. G. Wells

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The Island of Dr. Moreau | Themes


Blurring of Lines between Animal and Human

The most dominant theme in the novel is the difficulty—or folly—of attempting to distinguish between human and animal. This theme is explored most directly by Wells's presentation of the Beast People, all of whom (the Ape Man, the Dog Man, the Hyena-Swine, the Leopard Man) are depicted as having traits that are the sole province of neither people nor specific animals. The Dog Man's unwavering loyalty to Prendick is one example; another more complicated example is Wells's conception of Montgomery's assistant M'ling (described by Wells as "a bear, tainted with dog and ox," implying some mix of intelligence, devotion, and strength).

Hand in hand with this presentation is Wells's none-too-subtle exhibition of humans engaging in behavior just as animalistic as that of animals. The novel's first chapter describes the rapid deterioration of three isolated men into near-cannibalism and blind rage. Similarly, the utter breakdown of social order during Montgomery's "bank holiday" in Chapter 19 is accelerated by Montgomery himself, who abandons any semblance of civilized behavior as he drunkenly encourages the chaos that results in his own death. (As Prendick tells him, "You've made a beast of yourself—to the beasts you may go.")

British naturalist Charles Darwin's (1809–82) theory of natural selection (adaptation by an organism to its environment that results in selective genetic change to reproduce the most desired traits for survival) is an obvious influence on Wells's exploration of this theme. The notion that human beings arose organically from the same processes (and the same biological origins) as animals leads inevitably to the conclusion that hard-and-fast distinctions between the two are largely arbitrary and artificial. Wells infuses a satirical tone into his presentation of human behavior throughout the novel; each of its human characters (particularly Moreau himself) behaves at some point in ways at least as savage as (and in Moreau's case, more savage than) the novel's so-called beasts.

Science and Ethics

The Island of Doctor Moreau is a cautionary tale about the dangers of unethically applied science. When Doctor Moreau tells Edward Prendick that he has "never troubled about the ethics" of his experimentation, he justifies his stance with the claim, "The study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature." He is asserting that science is amoral and that those who pursue it should approach it as such.

Moreau's actions, however, cross the line between amorality (state of being without morals) and immorality (state of conflicting with traditional morals). His infliction of horrendous pain upon animals in pursuit of his scientific goals—and his dismissal of that pain as something not ultimately real—evidences outright sadism. The same is true of his cruel and violent enforcement of "the Law" upon the Beast People over whom he has power. The fact that he does so under a veneer of rationality makes Moreau a chilling character rather than, as he presents himself, an enlightened one.

The result of Moreau's approach is catastrophic for all involved. Despite Wells's skepticism toward the validity of organized religion, he believed in a moral approach to science.

Nature of Religion

Wells portrays religion as a means of social control. Doctor Moreau tells Edward Prendick that he has little to do with his creatures once they begin to revert. He leaves them, he claims, to their "travesty of humanity," attributing whatever moral code the Beast People have to the past influence of a former Kanaka servant.

It becomes obvious, however, that Moreau is being less than honest about this. The extensive set of "Laws" under which the Beast People are expected to live are too complex to have sprung from the speculations of subliterate creatures. Nor do they evoke the polytheism and ancestor worship of the Kanaka tradition. The reader can infer, then, that these rules were put together by Moreau himself to keep the Beast People in line and maintain his authority over them.

The form and repetitious content of the Law (and its accompanying prayer) is an obvious parody of Catholic and Protestant rites. Similarly, the Law's cosmology—most notably its conception of Moreau as a godlike "Master" and its evocation of the "House of Pain" as a sort of purgatory or hell—is clearly meant by Wells to illustrate the mechanics by which organized religion keeps the undereducated masses in check. And while Prendick's views of the Beast People are far more moral than Moreau's, he too references Christian beliefs as a means of controlling them after Moreau's death. Prendick even asserts that Moreau "will come again" in judgment—bringing the House of Pain back with him—in a reference to the second coming of Jesus, discussed in the New Testament's gospels and the Book of Revelation.

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