Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Island of Dr. Moreau

The Island of Dr. Moreau

An Entry for the Readers Imbibing Peril (R.I.P.) Reading Challenge

Title: The Island of Dr. Moreau (Project Gutenberg link)

Author: H.G. Wells (biography of H.G. Wells in Wikipedia)

Copyright: Originally published in 1896 (ie. this work is in the public domain); I read the text using the Bantam Classic Reissue Edition 2005 (link to LibraryThing entry for this work)

Length: 140 pages

Genre: Speculative Fiction

Summary: An Englishman by the name of Edward Prendick is shipwrecked and subsequently rescued by a passing freighter at the behest of another Englishman, Montgomery. At that point in the voyage where Montgomery is leaving the freighter with crates of wild animals to return home, Prendick is also thrown off the ship by the drunkard captain of the vessel. Thus thrown again upon the mercy of Montgomery and his companion, Dr. Moreau, Prendick comes ashore with them on a remote island inhabited by creatures that Prendick cannot quite identify. Reckless behavior draws him and the two other human inhabitants into horrific confrontations with these creatures, culminating in disaster.

Eerie/Creepy Quotient: The nineteenth century pacing, language and sentence structure may have boosted the score on this title. After I'd finished reading it, elements of the story appeared in my nightmare later when I slept. I give it a 5 out of 5 on the Eerie/Creepy scale -- not appropriate reading for small children or those prone to bad dreams. I found it to be very effective story-telling.

Extract (Chapter 9, occurring in the first third of the book):

...Then I thought that the man I had just seen had been clothed in bluish cloth, had not been naked as a savage would have been; and I tried to persuade myself from that fact that he was after all probably a peaceful character, that the dull ferocity of his countenance belied him.

Yet I was greatly disturbed at the apparition. I walked to the left along the slope, turning my head about and peering this way and that among the straight stems of the trees. Why should a man go on all-fours and drink with his lips? Presently I heard an animal wailing again, and taking it to be the puma, I turned about and walked in a direction diametrically opposite to the sound. This led me down to the stream, across which I stepped and pushed my way up through the undergrowth beyond...

...The vague dread that had been in my mind since I had seen the inhuman face of the man at the stream grew distincter as I stood there. I began to realise the hardihood of my expedition among these unknown people. The thicket about me became altered to my imagination. Every shadow became something more than a shadow,--became an ambush; every rustle became a threat. Invisible things seemed watching me. I resolved to go back to the enclosure on the beach. I suddenly turned away and thrust myself violently, possibly even frantically, through the bushes, anxious to get a clear space about me again...

Also Relevant:

I couldn't help but think of Frankenstein as I read this book. It wasn't due to the theme of science-gone-awry found in both, however. The trigger was the fondness movie makers have for the two titles. Search IMDB for either Frankenstein or Island of Dr. Moreau and there are multiple versions. But they generally focus on the science-gone-awry element and the action sequences; the films are scripted and produced for an audience of science fiction and horror fans. Consequently you get a rather shallow treatment of the book's thrust.

For me, science-gone-awry was the least important element of Moreau. In fact, the book left me in a bit of a blue funk. Wells seemed to me to be struggling to present his fears and hesitations about the likelihood of man's developmental progress, even in the face of increased scientific understanding. I am quite sure that he wasn't warning us against the wickedness of vivisection but of the tendency to forget that we humans are animals as well and may well have instincts that we will never be able to entirely shed. The Island of Dr. Moreau is a study of the tension that exists between our biological nature and the mental constructs that we've gradually adopted over the course of time. We give ourselves great pats on the back for those constructs as indicative of man's development and superiority. But Wells pauses to ask, "How advanced are we?. Won't there always be some part of our animal nature that holds us back from being truly civilized? Won't there always be a danger that we under provocation break out of our civilized indoctrinated behaviors?". Wells is something of a pessimist.

I'm wonder how successful the use of this title in a classroom might be. I can see using the text as a point of departure for discussions of ethics, religious thought and/or philosophy. It also has the virtue of being a very short book. But I suspect that the science in the text is so very dated and the pacing of the storytelling so much slower than today's youth are accustomed to, that the use of the work may decline despite the validity of Wells' point.