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Monday, April 15, 2019

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

There is, though I do not know how there is or why there is, a sense of infinite peace and protection in the glittering hosts of heaven.There it must be, I think, in the vast and eternal laws of matter, and not in the daily cares and sins and troubles of men, that whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope. I hope, or I could not live.” 

*This review will contain spoilers*

I have been in a science fiction mood lately, so I decided to tackle The Island of Dr. Moreau next. It's one of my Classics Club books, and I've always been intrigued by it. I went into my reading fairly blind. I didn't know many specifics about the plot, aside from the fact that it involved an evil scientist. I think this was the best way to start the book, since it allowed me to be surprised at its weirdness as I read. That being said, if you are interested in reading this novel, and don't know much about the plot, stop reading this post and go read the book instead! It will be more fun if you don't know what's coming!

The novel is set up as a true account of the adventures of Edward Prendick, a young man shipwrecked on the Lady Vain in 1887. He manages to survive in a dinghy until a larger ship, the Ipecacuanha, is able to rescue him. This ship is in the midst of a curious job. It is transporting a shipment of wild animals, including a puma and several wild dogs, to a doctor on a remote island somewhere in the South Pacific. The doctors assistant, a man named Montgomery, is overseeing this task, and befriends Edward and tends to him as he recovers from his ordeal. Once Edward is on his feet again, he begins to realize that he's managed to stumble into an extremely odd situation. One of Montgomery's helpers has a physical appearance that is extremely off-putting to the rest of the crew. His facial structure and movements are unnatural, and his presence is causing tensions to rise precipitously. What's more, the animals on the ship are creating a huge mess and the alcoholic captain is furious about it. In a fit of rage over these disturbances, he drops Edward off on the remote island along with everyone else and washes his hands of the whole business.

Abandoned with these strangers, Edward is uneasy and wants to return home to England. However, Montgomery explains to him that ships don't come that way often, and he will be stuck with them for a while. He meets the doctor, the eponymous Dr. Moreau, who cautiously agrees to let him stay in one of the rooms on the outside of their compound. He isn't allowed to venture inside though, as the Doctor is working on some private experiments. Edward is initially fine with this, but after a few hours pass, he begins to hear some terrifying noises. The puma is screaming as it is being experimented on, and Edward can't abide it. He leaves his room to wander around on the island for a while. In his wanderings, he stumbles onto the beast men.

After encountering several terrifying creatures that appear to be some sort of human-animal hybrids, Edward returns to his room and forces an explanation out of Dr. Moreau. The doctor eventually explains that his private experiments involve him trying to turn animals like dogs, pigs, and apes, into humans through the use of vivisection. He believes that by cutting into animals and reforming their parts, he can turn a beast into a man. He's had some successes, the helper from the boat that unnerved all the sailors was once a dog, but he has hit a stumbling block. He can reform the brains of his creations, and teach them to walk and talk like people, but eventually, their bestial nature returns and they begin to revert back to their animal state. He frees his failed creations to roam the island, after impressing them with a set of rules about never hurting humans. These failed creations are what Edward encountered on the island during his walk. They have set up their own strange society on the island where they have been living more or less peacefully while Moreau continues his experiments in his compound. 

Edward is understandably uneasy about all this. He trusts no one and can sense rising tensions among everyone on the island. He wishes more than anything to go home. Then suddenly, a particularly frightening group of the beast men start reverting to their original states. Once they have re-tasted blood, their natural predator tendencies reemerge and this sets off a battle between the men and the beast men that Edward must try to survive.

This novel was fantastically weird. It's chock-full of impossible science, disturbing monsters, and chilling medical experimentation. It's a quick read and quite action-packed. I managed to finish the whole thing in just a few sittings and was thoroughly entertained the whole time. It's one of those older science fiction works that just keeps you turning the pages, excited to see what absolutely absurd and creepy thing will happen next. It was definitely an enjoyable read. That being said, I feel like it could have been stronger, and one of the aspects I was the most disappointed with was the narration. 

The decision to tell the story from the point of view of Edward is effective in allowing the reader to be scared and horrified along with him as he pieces together the atrocities that are happening on the island. This structure, however, means that we don't get very much background on Dr. Moreau himself, which is a significant drawback. Moreau is definitely the most interesting character here, as Edward is just a reader surrogate, and it seems a shame that we only get a few pages of him explaining his background and experiments before the novel becomes an action story. 

This is meant to be a novel with a message about the dangers of playing God with science, much like Frankenstein. Unlike that novel, though, The Island of Dr. Moreau doesn't spend a lot of time discussing the reasoning or implications behind the science. We don't see any of the path that lead to that kind of science being explored and we never get a clear understanding of what Moreau hoped to do with his experiments. The closest thing we get in way of explanation for all of this is Moreau's claim that he is merely curious. That all this experimentation was just to see if he could make an animal into a man; he wanted to test the limits of vivisection. He expresses no regret or second thoughts about what his creations go on to do and feels no particular responsibility for them. I suppose the overall message that H.G. Wells was going for was that performing morally dubious experiments solely for curiosity's sake was wrong. It feels like there was a missed opportunity here to go a little deeper though. I wish Moreau's character had been developed more.

There is one part of the novel that contains a very intriguing spark of thought that I can't end my review without mentioning. Unfortunately, it doesn't come until the very last pages of the book. Edward, in reflecting on his experiences at the conclusion of his narrative, makes some interesting comments on his inability to separate the beast men from regular men now. When he looks at the faces of normal people, he can't help but see flashes of the animal parts of them. He now feels like there isn't as much separation between man and beast as he once thought, and the idea of this frightens him and has caused him to mostly withdraw from society. This concept of how much beast lives within man is an interesting one, and I wish this idea was explored more in the story. This, more than any pig-man or ape-man, was the most unsettling part of the reading experience. I wanted more.

Due the overall lack of depth, I don't feel like I'll ever have the urge to visit this novel again. Since the narrative mainly focuses on Edward's horror and his attempts at survival, once you know the ending of the story, there's not really a reason to come back for multiple readings. That doesn't mean that The Island of Dr. Moreau isn't worth reading at all though. On the contrary, this is a classic piece of science fiction from one of the masters of the genre. It 's a wild, fun, bizarre read, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a creepy adventure story. This was a cool entry to my Classics Club list, and I'm glad to have experienced it. 

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#42 on my list): 44/100 

Total Books Read in 2019:22

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