No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, September 16, 2012

2012/43: The Island of Doctor Moreau -- H G Wells

Before, they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence, begun in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau — and for what?
Read for the Coursera fantasy and SF course. I first read this novel as a teenager and found it depressing and unpleasant. This response hasn't changed. I dislike the characters; am distressed by Moreau's experiments; and I read between the lines.

The Island of Doctor Moreau is a powerful novel: another condemnation of vivisection, and some vivid descriptions of what it's like to be hunted, and to hunt. It's much more of an adventure novel -- exotic location, heroic actions, violence etc -- than The Invisible Man, which I read immediately before it.

Here's the essay I wrote for Coursera, which achieved my highest score to date (thus demonstrating the randomness of the peer-review grading: it's far from my best).

The Island of Doctor Moreau can be read as an exploration of what it means to be human. When Prendrick discovers the nature of Moreau's work, the Doctor mocks his scruples, and tells him that 'So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick... you are an animal'. In this respect, Moreau and his assistant Montgomery are the only humans on the island.

Prendrick develops his own criteria of humanity. He notes that the beast-people cannot laugh; later, he writes bitterly that 'it takes a real man to tell a lie'. An abstainer himself, he berates a drunken Montgomery for making a beast of himself, and condemns him for offering brandy to the beast-people.

Prendrick asserts his humanity with every mention of his 'revulsion' at the 'grotesqueness' of Moreau's creations. Yet there are signs that he is gradually becoming more bestial. When the Leopard-man is hunted, Prendrick joins the chase, 'one of a tumultuous shouting crowd'. Only when the 'quarry' is cornered does Prendrick's humanity return: he administers a mercy killing.

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Prendrick's gradual dehumanisation is his reaction to the females of the beast-people. '[G]lancing with a transitory daring into the eyes of some lithe, white-swathed female figure, I would suddenly see (with a spasmodic revulsion) that she had slit-like pupils'. His revulsion supersedes, but does not erase, the unvoiced desire implicit in 'lithe' and 'daring'.

Later, Prendrick mentions that the females, in particular, have begun to 'disregard the injunction of decency' and adds 'I cannot pursue this disagreeable subject.' Is there self-censorship at work here? Does Prendrick, in his ten months alone with the beast-people, overcome his revulsion sufficiently to copulate with one of the females? Perhaps even the urge to do so would suffice to convince him of his own inhumanity.

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