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Learning episode 4:

 

Purpose and use of this learning episode: Hubris, God-like powers and Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau


On the myclasses portal where this learning episode was found there were links to the Well's The Island of Dr Moreau, found on the web in text format. The page used images from the recent and very poor film, the best part of that narrative. Some of the actual short stories noted here are removed from this version but citations are included for these very well-known texts, in the Readings and links section of this page. The following text with links were offered to the students, excluding the full-text of Well's novel and some images from broadcast films, due to copyright reasons.

 

Students attending a face-to-face class for this study watched the DVD version of the film in class with computer and overhead projector, while students studying as flexible learning were offered a copy of the film on CD-ROM, copied under the special provisions of local Copyright laws.

 

Image for learning episode four of the brave new world theme area of the mySF ProjectIndex:

Forum topics for discussion
HG Wells and Dr Moreau's island
Animals below the skin and a demi-God for monsters
Resource list
Readings and links
Further reading and links

 

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The points at the start of these notes are to be discussed in the Forum area. You are asked to jump to the Forum area, using the link here and making a comment in the appropriate Forum thread. Please remember, your participation in discussions is expected in this study, as part of your overall participation.

 

Forum topics for discussion:

 

 

What are the essential differences between the three humans and the beast-people in the first part of The Island of Dr Moreau?

 

What goes wrong with the realm of Moreau's island? Why does it end in slaughter and tragedy?
  Is The Island of Dr Moreau a horror film or a SF film? Why?
  What is HG Wells saying about human nature and the nature of animals in The Island of Dr Moreau?

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HG Wells and Dr Moreau's island

 

The great English writer HG Wells is often called the Father of Science Fiction. He wrote many of the great SF novels and these novels became cornerstones for the genre, such as the novel of alien invasion in War of the Worlds, a time travel epic with The Time Machine, and a wonderful novel based around the surgical engineering of animals to make them almost human, The Island of Doctor Moreau. You can find an electronic copy of The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells after clicking the highlighted text.

 

The Island of Doctor Moreau was published in 1896 and English readers would have been familiar with its opening because it is very similar to Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift. The story starts with a sea voyage and a shipwreck and the narrator, Prendick, survives.

 

Prendick arrives at a tiny island with mystery surrounding it. Prendick sees that there are strange, shrouded creatures on the island and the whole place is owned by Moreau. For all intents and purposes there are only three actual human beings in the novel: Moreau the scientist, Montgomery his assistant, and the narrator, Prendick. SF critic Brian Aldiss says that these characters are stereotypes and they serve symbolic roles (Aldiss, 2001:123). When Prendick arrives there are cries and screams in the night and Prendick jumps to conclusions, building a sense of suspense in the novel. This is what Aldiss calls a "nervous playing on unvoiced things which is the essence of science fiction" (Aldiss, 2001:123).

 

Prendick discovers that the mysterious and shrouded inhabitants of the island are the results of experiments undertaken by Dr Moreau, who has used vivisection to transform animals into man-looking creatures. There creatures are "human in shape, and yet human beings with the strangest air about them of some familiar animal." Moreau had been uncovered for his earlier vivisections and fled to the tiny island to continue his dream.

Through a series of interviews and direct observation, Prendick learns from Moreau and Montgomery that the animals transformed by surgery are held in check. They have animal nature and human characteristics, again the same kind of duality we saw in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but in this case the duality is between a rounded human nature and the nature of a beast.

 

The beasts are controlled through religion and rigorous discipline administered by Moreau's assistant and some beastly associates. Moreau has created 'The Law' and its rules are repeated and repeated to drill them into the limited consciousness of the beast-people. Some of these laws are:

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 Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not men?

Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not men?

Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not men?

 

As with the duality of Dr Jekyll with Mr Hyde, the animals are in a continuous state of battle between their animal and human natures. Moreau has also created a sort of religion of himself, making himself a God-like figure amongst the beast-people.

 

As might be expected, there is a downward spiral on the island and the Law is broken, with Prendick shooting a leopard-man who attacks Moreau. The film version by Frankenheimer (1996) is changed considerably from the novel in these later stages, for a more cinematic effect. What does remain the same in the climax and resolution of the narrative is that Prendick survives amongst the man-beasts (who are becoming more beastly all the time) for a short time before he is rescued out at sea. Of course, no one believes Prendick's crazy story about this mythical island full of terrible and miraculous creatures ruled over by a scientist who made himself into a God.

 

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Animals below the skin and a demi-God for monsters

 

The novel The Island of Dr Moreau seems to indicate that "the nature of the beast" cannot be changed as easily as its physical form (Nicholls & Clute (1995). This is a fairly easy argument, but much more can be said here about this novel. Aldiss believes that HG Wells was "trying to create a synthesis between evolutionary and religious theory" (Aldiss, 2001:124). Aldiss believes that HG Wells did not think very well of the idea of God, nor of the creatures God created - us. Moreau has seen into the souls of both humans and animals and he finds, "'there nothing but the souls of beasts, beasts that perish - anger, and the lusts to live and gratify themselves'" (Aldiss, 2001:124).

 

In the novel and to some degree in the film version we study the character of Prendick (like the other humans) is not very likeable. He is shallow and lacks understanding and compassion for Montgomery as well as the beasts (Aldiss, 2001:125). The novel in this way is dark and black and sees very little to redeem either humans of the beast-people. The use of The Law, the chants and the deification of Moreau seem to be parodying the human love of God as represented in religious symbols  and Church representatives and if this is so, then HG Wells is scathing on religion in this novel.

 

Aldiss points out that when Prendick returns to England (a part not seen in the film) in The Island of Dr Moreau he returns to a civilisation that seems just as bleak as the one on the island. His fears pursue him back to England (Aldiss, 2001:125) and Prendick thinks to himself, "'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.' The Leopand Man, c'est moi" (Aldiss, 2001:125).

 

What HG Wells can be said to have done in The Island of Dr Moreau is to show the similarities between the tiny island and the great world we all live in. As Aldiss says, "The stubborn beast flesh, the beast mentality, is everywhere manifest" outside us and within us (Aldiss, 2001:126). HG Wells seems to be saying that in the great battle between beasts and humans in all our souls, the beasts have won.

 

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Resource list:

 

Aldiss, B. & Wingrove, D. (2001). Trillion Year Spree: the History of Science Fiction. Second edition. Thirsk, North Yorkshire: House of Stratus.

 

Frankenheimer, J. (Director). (1996). The Island of Doctor Moreau. Screenplay by Richard Stanley and Ron Hutchinson. Based on the novel by HG Wells. New Line Cinema.

 

 Nicholls, P., & Clute, J., (Eds.)     (1995). Grolier Science Fiction: the multimedia encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Danbury, CT: Grolier Electronic Publishing.

 

Philmus, R. (1974). 'Wells and Borges and the Labyrinths of Time'. Science Fiction Studies. Number 4, Volume 1, Fall, 1974. Retrieved 17 August, 2006 from http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/4/philmus4art.htm

 

Wells, H. G. (1896). The Island of Dr Moreau. Atlanta, University of Georgia.

 

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Readings and links:

  Notes on The Island of Doctor Moreau from Wikipedia
  Online version of The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells, in Word format

 

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Further reading and links

 

 

Short story 'It' by Theodore Sturgeon

 

Short story 'The Dead Man' by Fritz Leiber

 

Short story 'The Furniture of Life's Ambitions' by Brian Stableford

 

Short story 'Blood Music' by Greg Bear

 

Novel, in electronic format, 'Frankenstein' by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

 

Brave new world theme area podcast 1a - an introduction to genetic engineering in SF

 

Brave new world theme area podcast 1b - an introduction to genetic engineering in SF

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ends

Michael Sisley

 

 

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