Prolific writers often suffer the fame of their more famous works that some of their lesser known works are sometimes forgotten, or automatically perceived as not as good because it’s not as well-known. When we think of Wells, the first books that came to mind are the Time Machine and the War of the Worlds, then maybe if the reader is familiar, The Island of Doctor Moreau. Mind you, Wells also wrote some forgettable fiction, like the New Machiavelli, but his understated works are surprisingly insightful.
Doctor Moreau is a well-thought novel which reflects on human nature. Sounds like a cliché it does, but in the island man and beast are stirred in the same cocktail mixer, and whatever is poured into the martini glass is not something that you’d serve your guests in a skybar, it’s more like something you’re drinking six beers in and tastes rancid. But perhaps the bartender is at fault. What is humanity? I guess that is the bottom of the question of any book, but often the study of humanity skip the baseness that is our animalistic side.
In The Island, this is turned around — it is Moreau who is trying to turn animals into humans, and along the way, exposing the baseness of his own nature. The best part of the book comes in the middle, when Moreau explains his work to Prendick, who surprisingly sympathised with the rationale of his work — yet the rationale is not explicit. Moreau, like any ambitious scientists, try to fill the gaps where science has not treaded before, and in this way we can say that he is a glory-seeker. But at the same time, he tortures his subject o his endeavours to know more about pain — then is he a sadist, as implied in the book, or is his pursuit is purely scientific?
Regardless of Moreau’s intentions and emotions, he has little regard of the consequences of the life he creates, he is as amoral as Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. Still, his hypothesis on pain was interesting — that it holds back humanity and that man can go beyond pain, that as he becomes increasingly more and more intelligent, that he does not need to worry about pain, then he won’t need to feel pain. Perhaps Moreau tried to skip a step in his experimentation — creating human animals who cannot feel pain. Pain, after all, is what drives us to do (or not do) our basic actions. I do think the pain that Moreau speaks about applies to physical pain as much as emotional pain.
We see Moreau’s resemblance in other mad scientist characters, taken down only by their own hubris. But there is the question of ethics:
“To this day I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter. The study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature.”
Seems to Moreau that empirical coldness must come hand in hand with scientific experimentation, as this is also Nature’s way. Is this kind of experimentation in its roundabout argument, then, ethical?
But don’t read the book for its discourse on science and biology, even though it raises good questions. The story itself is a great read. Wells is a story weaver, and the plot comes first and foremost, the literature is the fabric in between. It reads like an action adventure, and a survival novel full of engaging characters, human or not. Not to say that these characters are perfect or likeable, but for a book with such self-serving characters I couldn’t stop reading.