“I must confess that I lost faith in the sanity of the world”
– H.G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau
H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, while less read than some of his other oeuvres, has doubtless inspired numerous eminent films and stories. Wells himself was inspired by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. While the basic substance of Doctor Moreau is retained in the aforementioned films and stories, the book is not as frequently read, thus obscuring the original significance of the story. Rather than being an archetypal tale of shipwreck and survival, Doctor Moreau is simultaneously a social satire and Darwinian parable. If anything, Wells’s opus is an archetype of classic science fiction, characterized by projecting certain circumstances into a futuristic setting in order to comment on them, ergo evoking awareness.
The story is essentially about a man named Edward Prendick who is the lone survivor of a shipwreck. He is rescued by a ship bound for a remote island where scientist Dr. Moreau and his assistant Montgomery are preoccupied with experiments of transforming animals into manlike creatures. The experiments have caused Dr. Moreau to flee human society in order to develop them in solitude. Nevertheless, more often than not, these experiments yield horrifying results.
H.G. Wells’s novels are notorious for combining satire with warnings of the powers of science. While The Time Machine (the previous Wellsian book that I read) was somewhat rushed, Doctor Moreau, while barely an additional 20-30 pages in page count, very punctiliously elaborated on what it desired to convey. As previously mentioned, Doctor Moreau is a parable of Darwinism. In 1884, Wells won a scholarship to study under biologist and Darwinian apologist T.H. Huxley. Charles Darwin, as some might know, published his magnum opus On the Origin of Species where he scientifically validated evolution. He postulated that mankind descended from primates as a result of natural selection over the last hundreds of thousands of years. In Doctor Moreau, Wells many a time veers between whether mankind can evolve back towards primates (if mankind has descended from animals), or whether mankind can continue to evolve further as Homo sapiens (if mankind is the result of evolution). In summary, Wells decided to foreshadow the powers of evolution — namely, by musing on how it can affect mankind in the future.
I would recommend this book to people who like science fiction, general reading, classics, and British literature. I read the Penguin Classics edition, edited by Patrick Parrinder with an introduction by Margaret Atwood and notes by Steve McLean. Atwood’s introduction does a superb job in exploring different interpretations of Doctor Moreau as well as discussing its social and scientific significance. McLean’s excellent notes help to elucidate the text where necessary without being overly grandiloquent. Doctor Moreau is a book that is horridly haunting once it has been read; it leaves the reader with strong mental impressions — don’t be deceived by its pithiness!