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H.G. WELLS: SCIENTIFIC ROMANCE AT THE FIN DE SIÈCLE (Part 2)

THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU

Like The Time Machine, Wells’s 1896 romance The Island of Doctor Moreau is also deeply pervaded by the contemporaneous Fin de Siècle / Fin du Globe train of thought. The fact that it was met with an almost hysterically negative reaction in some quarters owes as much to its ambivalent stance towards the value of religion and humankind in general, as it does to its scenes of vivisection horror. Again we have the theories of evolution and degeneration providing the narrative thrust and topical interest.

From the very beginning of the story, the concept of “chance” has a large part to play in the development of events. Our protagonist and narrator Prendick’s journey to the titular island is dictated by a series of random events. It is by chance that the schooner Mary Vain crashes into “a derelict” [5] and by chance that Prendick survives along with another two men on a life raft. After a few days adrift with no food and little water, they, in an early hint at the sanguinary and primal nature of much of the rest of the novel, draw lots to see which of them will be eaten by the other two. When the other two men struggle with each other and fall overboard, chance has again worked in Prendick’s favour, as it does once again when he awakes to find himself in the cabin of another boat, the Ipecacuanha. Prendick feels the need to express his gratitude to a human agent, in the form of his rescuer, Montgomery:

‘If I may say it,’ said I after a time, ‘you have saved my life.’
‘Chance,’ he answered; ‘Just chance.’
‘I prefer to make my thanks to an accessible agent.’
‘Thank no one. You had the need, and I the knowledge…
I was bored and wanted something to do. If I’d been jaded that day, or hadn’t liked your face, well – ; it’s a curious question where you would have been now.’ [17]

Montgomery’s jaded attitude can be seen to carry distinct echoes of the postures affected by the decadents.

The effects of this depiction of the operation of “blind” chance have been neatly summed up by Bernard Bergonzi: “The incident has nothing to do with what will follow but it sets the emotional tone of the whole work, by demonstrating the savagery of nature, even –or especially- human nature, and by showing that survival can depend on pure chance.” [101] This certainly would have resonated with contemporary anxieties regarding the deeper implications of the findings of Darwinism; implications which seemed to favour the ultimate dominance of blind chance over the forces of “reason”, whether or not these forces be human or “divine”. For what is “natural selection” but a combination of shrewdness and luck? As Brian Aldiss observes: “Natural selection has chosen Prendick.” (Introduction xxxii)

Later, in chapter 14, “Doctor Moreau Explains”, the predominance of chance as an agency is again referred to in explicit terms: when Prendick asks him why he has chosen to render his creations in human form, “[Moreau] confessed that he had chosen the form by chance. ‘I might just as well have worked to form sheep into lamas, and lamas into sheep.’” [71] It seems the Beast Folk owe their human appearances to blind chance just as Darwinism suggests that we do. Prendick, like Wells himself, “had done some research in biology under Huxley” [27], and hence is all too familiar with the principles of Darwinism.  As Peter Kemp has put it: “To an extent, the novel is about evolution with Moreau’s bloodied laboratory as a grisly parody of natural selection.” [19] Like Victor Frankenstein, Doctor Moreau is a “Promethean over-reacher”, who seeks to become god-like by imitating nature. But whereas his literary antecedent gives away his unavoidably orthodox Christian worldview by attempting to create a new “Adam”, Moreau instead seeks to imitate nature as it is now redrawn by the advent of evolutionary theory, primarily its randomness and wild experimentation. This is why Bergonzi calls him “Frankenstein –the would-be creator of life- in a post-Darwinian guise” [108] and, as we have seen, Moreau, unlike his predecessor, claims to have chosen the human form by chance.

However, in the same passage, Moreau admits that it is not completely by chance that he has settled upon this form for the bulk of his experimentation. He confesses that “I suppose there is something in the human form that appeals to the artistic turn of mind more powerfully than any animal shape can.”[71] With this sentence, Wells perhaps illustrates the idea that, while humans can seek to imitate nature through the application of science, this can never be anything more than a sham, as, unlike nature, humans are invariably governed by whims, desires, fears, likes and dislikes. Moreau is shown to be governed by a particular aesthetic, which again carries echoes of the decadent movement, and for all his pretensions of dwelling on a higher mental plane than “the masses”, he as delusional as the rest of us, if not more so. He sees most humans as little more than animals because they are governed by pain and other bodily sensations, whereas he, as he demonstrates by sticking a pen-knife into his leg without flinching, has transcended this “primitive” state. But this is also a man who is so unsure of himself that he has felt the need, not only to create “people” by cutting up living animals, but also to condition his creations with a set of laws resembling the Ten Commandments, with himself in place of God. He appears to have conquered physical pain as a cause of personal discomfort, but what kind of mental pain causes a man to go to such extreme and violent lengths to delude himself that he is important and somehow at the centre of things? It is perhaps not too much of a leap to consider that Wells is saying here that a similar delusion motivates humankind’s need to try and imitate or “conquer” nature. Wells and many of his contemporaries believed, as Aldiss puts it, “in the disinterested power of knowledge to improve life” [xxx], but of course, in human hands, it is unlikely that this power can ever be said to be “disinterested”’.

The Beast People themselves represent a microcosm of human society. Moreau has provided them with laws and a religion in an attempt to further humanise them and repress their bestial instincts. The ever-present threat of being sent back to the “House of Pain” stands in for the threat of consignment to hell, meaning that they obey the laws only through fear, rather than any noble aspiration to be “more human” or simply “good”. Moreau and Montgomery find the task of keeping the Beast Folk’s animal instincts at bay a constant struggle. Wells here is clearly equating this sham with human society itself. Beneath the thin veneer of “civilisation”, the human race basically consists of creatures in perpetual struggle with their baser instincts, and hence is generally confused, futile, and preoccupied with self-gratification. This passage, among others, makes the comparison clear:

In spite of their increased intelligence, and the tendency of their animal instincts to reawaken, they had certain Fixed Ideas implanted by Moreau in their minds which absolutely bounded their imaginations. They were really hypnotized, had been told certain things were impossible, and certain things were not to be done, and these prohibitions were woven into the texture of their minds beyond any possibility of disobedience or dispute. [81]

This and other passages perhaps show Wells to have more in common with Wilde and other ‘decadent’ authors than perhaps he himself would have cared to admit. The idea that most are limited in their horizons by an unquestioning adherence to religion and arbitrary laws is a theme pursued to some extent in works such as Dorian Gray.

In addition to unsettling the teleological view of humankind’s advancement with the revelation of the importance of blind chance, the findings of Darwin had also revealed that the unquestioned division between “man” and “beast” was to a large extent illusory, and Wells here is hammering this point home. As John Batchelor has put it, “The fable forces Christianity to confront the humiliating implications of the Darwinian revolution: that man is no more than a talking animal, that all moral systems are arbitrary and man-made, that the sanctions traditionally endorsing the social order are illusions.” [21]

As we have seen, the Beast People’s “moral system” has been wholly devised by a human as a way of controlling them, just like those that govern the actions of “real” people. When Prendick observes one of their rituals he notes that the speaker is “reciting some complicated gibberish” [42], and in reaction to this, “the others began to gibber in unison, spreading their hands, and swaying their bodies with the chant,” [42] which, however uncharitably, brings to mind the congregation at an evangelical sermon. Later, when they perceive Prendick to be one of them and set about teaching him “the Law” [58], we see their versions of the Commandments are each appended by the same question:

‘Not to go on all-Fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
‘Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
‘Not to eat Flesh or Fish; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
‘Not to claw Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
‘Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?’ [59]

It is as though the Beast People believe that if they ask themselves this question frequently enough, then the answer cannot be anything other than “yes”. If the distance between human and beast can be continually reaffirmed through discourse, then those operating within that discourse can perceive it to be a reality. Prendick of course, as a detached observer, can clearly see the folly of this; the answer to the question “Are we not Men?” is a resounding “no.” As a reaction to the ritual, “within [Prendick] laughter and disgust struggled together.” [59] Wells here is not only putting forth the idea that this is how all religious beliefs and rituals would probably appear to the detached and unconditioned observer, but also how little difference there might appear to be between humans and animals to such an observer. John Hammond has observed that “Wells is looking at man dispassionately from the outside with the relentless honesty of an extra-terrestrial observer and is urging the reader to do likewise.” [87]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost as soon as Moreau has been killed by one of his own creations, the Beast People are seen to degenerate back into the animals from which they were forcibly “evolved”. If they represent a microcosm of the human race, then here we see a dramatisation, as in The Time Machine, of its then-feared degeneration at work. As soon as the invisible shackles of fear and repression are removed, the beast once again takes over and the illusion of “civilisation” (however unconvincing it is to Prendick and the reader) dissolves. And, as we see in the final chapter, “A Man Alone”, the illusion has been shattered irreparably for Prendick. When he returns to England, he finds that the humans there appear to him as nothing more than animals: “I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another, still passably human, Beast People, animals half-wrought into the outward image of human souls; and that they would presently begin to revert, to show first this bestial mark and then that.” [130]     

In this chapter, which owes an acknowledged debt to the finale of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, we see that, on the one hand, Prendick is understandably suffering from a form of what we would today diagnose as PTSD. On the other, Wells is showing us what happens when the fictions by which we live our lives are shown up for what they are. Thanks to his experiences on the island, he has been transformed into a detached observer of human affairs who can see how arbitrary notions and value-systems inform people’s attitudes, and hence their actions. Prendick’s fear of his fellow man stems from the knowledge that, lurking beneath this “civilised” exterior, is the “beast” in every human; a seething mass of primal instincts and unfulfilled hungers.

Passages like this have been taken by some to indicate Wells’s disdain of the working classes from which he has escaped (for example, Carey 1992). When one reads such statements as “Particularly nauseous were the blank expressionless faces of people on the trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow creatures than dead bodies would be” [131], it is difficult to argue with this standpoint. However, despite their perhaps elitist aftertaste (as, of course, between the lines one reads that Wells and others like him are perhaps exempt from such descriptions), such passages help to make Doctor Moreau the unforgettable and enduring work that it is. Its challenge to herd conformity and preconceived ideas is as pertinent today as it was at the Victorian Fin de Siècle. But this is not to say that Wells entertains much hope of his readership at large accepting the challenge, driven as they are by brutish and sensual instincts. With Doctor Moreau, Wells is again displaying the pessimism and lack of faith in human nature of The Time Machine, present in all the early romances. VS Pritchett has described this pessimism very eloquently:

This is the book of a wounded man who has had a sight of sadism and death. The novelist who believed in the cheerful necessity of evolution is halted by the thought of its disasters and losses. Perhaps man is unteachable. It is exciting and emancipating to believe we were one of nature’s latest experiments, but what if the experiment is unsuccessful? What if it is insurmountably unpleasant? Suppose the monkey drives the machine, the gullible, mischievous, riotous and irresponsible monkey? [36-7]

To be continued in part 3… (Go to part 1)


Works Cited

Aldiss, Brian. Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1973.

Aldiss, Brian. Introduction. The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells. London: Everyman, 1993.

Batchelor, John. H.G. Wells. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Bergonzi, Bernard. The Early H. G. Wells. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1961.

Borello, Alfred. H. G. Wells: Author in Agony. Illinois: Illinois University Press, 1972.

Carey, John. The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride & Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. Chicago: Chicago Academy Publishers, 1992.

Gilmour, Robin. The Victorian Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature 1830-1890. Harlow: Longman, 1993.

Hammond, John. An H. G. Wells Companion. London: Macmillan, 1979.

Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism and Degeneration at the Fin de Siécle. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kemp, Peter. H. G. Wells and the Culminating Ape. London: Macmillan, 1982.

Parrinder, Patrick. H. G. Wells. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1970.

Philmus, Robert M. ‘The Logic of “Prophecy” in The Time MachineH. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Bernard Bergonzi. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1976. 56-68.

Priest, Christopher. Introduction. The Invisible Man (1897) by H.G. Wells. London: Penguin Classics, 2005.

Pritchett, V. S. ‘The Scientific Romances’ H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Bernard Bergonzi. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1976. 32-38.

Pykett, Lyn. Introduction. Reading Fin de Siécle Fictions. Ed. Lyn Pykett. Harlow: Longman, 1996. 1-21.

Weeks, Robert P. ‘Disentanglement as a theme in H. G. Wells’s fiction’ H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Bernard Bergonzi. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1976. 25-31.

Wells, H. G. The Invisible Man (1897). London: Penguin Classics, 2005.

–. The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). London: Penguin Classics, 2005.

–. The Time Machine (1895). London: Penguin Classics, 2005.

West, Anthony. ‘H. G. Wells.’ H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Bernard Bergonzi. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1976. 8-24.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Toronto: Broadview, 1998.

About Rob Talbot

Returning from early days of Diabolique, Rob Talbot is a compulsive writer and cult cinema obsessive. He also writes for UK horror magazine Scream, including the popular 'Eurohorror of the Week' column for their website, and has also been published extensively in Starburst and Bedabbled!: British Horror & Cult Cinema, amongst others. Other obsessions include Italian soundtracks, Krautrock, and hard SF novels.

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