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Scholarly Editions: H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau - Annotated with an Introduction

Excerpt from the Introduction

About The Island of Doctor Moreau

Critical Reaction and Editorial Changes

Although Wells was investigating class structures and the Darwinian fate of humanity in The Time Machine, and expanding on the eventual demise of earthly life, that telling inspired less vociferous outcry than his The Island of Doctor Moreau. The fate of the Eloi and the Morlocks was comfortably far in the future, and the implications of their situation vague enough to be ignored by those who merely wanted to enjoy a rousing tale.

The Island of Doctor Moreau evoked an entirely different reaction. Although the story is distanced from the reader by its placement as a found text, voiced by an observer rather than the perpetrator of the experimentation, and set on a distant tropical island, Wells’ observations about the most uncomfortable implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution—that “Man [. . .] is the same fearing, snarling, fighting beast he was a hundred thousand years ago” (See excerpt from The Croquet Player in Appendix 6)—caused an immediate outcry when it was published.

Wells said that such books as his scientific romances are ones which “hold the reader to the end by art and illusion and not by proof and argument, and the moment he closes the cover and reflects he wakes up to their impossibility” (“Preface”, in Seven Famous Novels. See Appendix 1). Moreau’s scientific impossibility was the least of the problems according to the critics of the time. Contemporaneous reviews were universally critical, excepting a “reasonably just” (Bergonzi 99) reviewer in the Guardian who, as Wells says, “seemed to be the only one who read it aright, and who therefore succeeded in giving a really intelligent notice of it” (ibid 98). As Bergonzi notes, “[s]ome reviewers were so horrified by what they considered the blatant sensationalism of the novel that they were quite unable to consider its literary merits” (97). Reviewers either damned the novel for its “exceedingly ghastly” (Parrinder 52) “greed of cheap horrors” (ibid 45), claimed that it “achieved originality at the expense of decency” (ibid 50), argued that the “sufferings inflicted in the course of the story have absolutely no adequate artistic reason” (ibid 51), or heaped ridicule on its science:

Doctor Moreau is himself a cliché from the pages of an anti-vivisection pamphlet. [. . .] a multitude of experiments on the skin and bone grafting and on transfusion of blood shows that animal-hybrids cannot be produced in these fashions. You can transfuse blood or graft skin from one man to another; but attempts to combine living material from different creatures fail. (Parrinder 46)

Wells’ response to Chalmers Mitchell’s claim in the Saturday Review that his science was unfounded references an article from the British Medical Journal from 31 October, 1896, which “contains the report of a successful graft, of not merely connective but of nervous tissue between a rabbit and a man” (Correspondence).

The difference in the contemporaneous reaction to The Time Machine and Moreau is instructive, at least in terms of the preoccupations of Victorian society. Although some reviewers imply that Wells was flirting with sexual indecency (Bergonzi 97), in fact, beyond the suggestion that some of the beast women became promiscuous when they reverted to being animals, the novel did not deal in sexual matters. The “extremely precocious, physically at least” Eloi “running in their amorous sport” caused much less dismay, but Wells likely sensed that references to such behaviour in his beast folk might be too controversial for his audience. Even the faint suggestion of the beast animals’ reversion is unseemly enough that the timid narrator spares the reader its details:

They were reverting, and reverting very rapidly.

Some of them—the pioneers in this, I noticed with some surprise, were all females—began to disregard the injunction of decency, deliberately for the most part. Others even attempted public outrages upon the institution of monogamy. The tradition of the Law was clearly losing its force. I cannot pursue this disagreeable subject.

The reaction to Moreau had much less to do with the vivid and gory detail with which Wells made his argument than the notion that the troubling differences between humans and the other animals are merely skin deep. This is alluded to in the implications of Darwin’s work,[1] and certainly Huxley had toppled humanity from its self-appointed pedestal on the earthly pyramid, but Victorian society was still unready for such a suggestion come to life.

Unwilling to let the disconcerted Victorian sensibility alone, Wells also, and this was noted by an anonymous reviewer in the Guardian, “seems to parody the work of the Creator of the human race, and cast contempt upon the dealings of God with His creatures” (Bergonzi 98). By casting Moreau in the role of “a nightmarish caricature of the Almighty” (ibid 106) who argues that our humanity is maintained by following memorized and rather arbitrary rules which we will continually break, Wells makes Moreau a deity that the beast in us would rather avoid or kill.

Although even Wells seems to have been dismayed by the bleak vision of the novel, he also considered it to be his best work to date, and was happy enough with its central tenet that in its reworking over the next thirty years,[2] Prendick, Moreau, the beast people, and the saying of the Law remained the same. The changes he made to the novel served to excise characters which distract from the main plot, such as Moreau’s “wife and son in Wells’s earlier drafts” (Shelton 7): “those thematically extraneous figures are dropped from the final and far superior version, so that its Moreau is sterile and childless but for the creatures he, like Frankenstein, fashions in a laboratory with his own hands” (ibid).[3] Wells also discarded those portions of Prendick’s initial meetings with the beast folk which align their bestial nature with alcohol abuse (Philmus xxii). Originally he has a “piggish looking man” tell Prendick of a place “where they let you drink out of saucers” and “you can go about on all fours” (Philmus xix-xx). This “temperance tract” (ibid) type of evaluation of the animalistic flaunting of the Law is later changed to the alcoholism of Captain Davies from the Lady Vain, Montgomery’s incident in London on a foggy night, and his final “Bank Holiday.” Wells also shifted the setting of the novel from an idyllic South Seas isle to a lonely stretch of open ocean near the Galapagos. This moves the novel away from mere adventure and allows it to be associated with Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle. Wells also removed, or modified the explicit racism of the original draft. The “black woman sprawled [. . .] with much of the abandon of a well-fed dog,” the “yellow men,” and the “wizened brown negroid face” (Philmus xxii) leave only a few traces in the final copy.

[1]Darwin, having put an end once and for all to the Biblical legend, closed the gap between man and animated nature” (Kagarlitski 51).

[2] The various editions of Wells’ novel include “the original English edition, put out by William Heinemann in April of 1896 but based on a copy-text which that publisher presumably got no later than August 1895; the first American edition, which the firm of Stone and Kimball printed in May 1896 and issued in August of that year; and the T. Fisher Unwin/Charles Scribner’s ‘Atlantic Edition’ of 1924, which paired Moreau with The Sleeper Awakes in the second of twenty-eight volumes collecting most of the fiction and some of the nonfiction that Wells had committed to print by 1924” (Philmus xxxii).

[3] Even the references to Frankenstein are dropped from the subsequent drafts: “From the (deleted) references to ‘Frankenstein’ in the opening chapter, we can be quite certain that Wells had it in mind to expressly compare Moreau’s revival of Prendick with the animation of a corpse by Shelley’s ‘mad scientist’” (Philmus xix).


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