So I confess that this book was not what I expected. I decided to read the book because I thought it would be a cool sci-fi/horror tale for October. What I discovered is an amazing story that explores human consciousness, evolution and animal instincts in humans, social structure, morality and mores, religion, psychology, and the development of mythology. In fact, upon finishing this book, I have come to the conclusion that the name Moreau is symbolic of mores and morality, as we will see later in this post.
Before I begin looking closely at some of the key passages, I figured I’d give a very brief summary of the plot. It is the tale of Edward Prendick, who finds himself on an island where Doctor Moreau is conducting experiments, using surgery and vivisection to speed up the evolutionary process, essentially modifying animals so that they become more human and teaching them how to behave as humans. As you can imagine, this does not end well. But that’s all I’ll say—no spoilers!
The beast-men on the island are trained to repeat the Law, which is a code of ethics and morals bestowed upon them by Moreau. When Prendick encounters the beast-men, one of them who is tasked with repeating the Law points out that the animal instinct is within all, and that it is adherence to the Law that prevents them from slipping back into animalistic behavior.
“For every one the want is bad,” said the grey Sayer of the Law. “What you will want we do not know; we shall know. Some want to follow things that move, to watch and slink and wait and spring; to kill and bite, bite deep and rich, sucking the blood. It is bad. ‘Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to eat flesh or fish; that is the Law. Are we not Men?’’”
When Moreau explains his work to Prendick, he asserts that the physical transformation is the easy part; it is the mental transformation that is difficult. The reason being is that the psyche maintains aspects of the primal consciousness, and this part of the psyche always seeks to reestablish dominance.
“… But it is in the subtle grafting and reshaping one must needs to do to the brain that my trouble lies. The intelligence is often oddly low, with unaccountable blank ends, unexpected gaps. And least satisfactory of all is something that I cannot touch, somewhere—I cannot determine where—in the seat of the emotions. Cravings, instincts, desires that harm humanity, a strange hidden reservoir to burst forth suddenly and inundate the whole being of the creature with anger, hate, or fear. These creatures of mine seemed strange and uncanny to you so soon as you began to observe them; but to me, just after I make them, they seem to be indisputably human beings. It’s afterwards, as I observe them, that the persuasion fades. First one animal trait, then another, creeps to the surface and stares out at me. But I will conquer yet! Each time I dip a living creature into the bath of burning pain, I say, ‘This time I will burn out all the animal; this time I will make a rational creature of my own!’ After all, what is ten years? Men have been a hundred thousand in the making.” He thought darkly. “But I am drawing near the fastness. This puma of mine—” After a silence, “And they revert. As soon as my hand is taken from them the beast begins to creep back, begins to assert itself again.”
(pp. 107 – 108)
After Moreau is killed, there is a poignant moment of existential crisis for the beast-people as they begin to question what will become of them and whether the laws of morality are still applicable. Prendick responds by saying that Moreau is not really dead, but has ascended to heaven and now watches over them.
I had been standing behind him during this colloquy. I began to see how things lay with them. I suddenly stepped in front of Montgomery and lifted up my voice:—“Children of the Law,” I said, “he is not dead!” M’ling turned his sharp eyes on me. “He has changed his shape; he has changed his body,” I went on. “For a time you will not see him. He is—there,” I pointed upward, “where he can watch you. You cannot see him, but he can see you. Fear the Law!”
(pp. 145 – 146)
Essentially, Wells is asserting that religion is a falsehood, designed to instill fear in people and force them to deny their animal tendencies and embrace a coerced morality. Fear is a powerful motivator, and the fear of some unseen being watching your every move, ready to inflict suffering if you disobey, has effectively guided the behavior of individuals for thousands of years.
When Prendick returns to civilization, he is haunted by the realization that society is fragile, that the fabric is so thin and frayed, it is just a matter of time before we slip back into our animal selves. Our primal nature will inevitably regain control of our psyches. There is a long passage near the end that expresses this and it is so exquisitely written that it is worth including here at the end of the post.
My trouble took the strangest form. I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another 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. But I have confided my case to a strangely able man,—a man who had known Moreau, and seemed half to credit my story; a mental specialist,—and he has helped me mightily, though I do not expect that the terror of that island will ever altogether leave me. At most times it lies far in the back of my mind, a mere distant cloud, a memory, and a faint distrust; but there are times when the little cloud spreads until it obscures the whole sky. Then I look about me at my fellow-men; and I go in fear. I see faces, keen and bright; others dull or dangerous; others, unsteady, insincere,—none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale. I know this is an illusion; that these seeming men and women about me are indeed men and women,—men and women for ever, perfectly reasonable creatures, full of human desires and tender solicitude, emancipated from instinct and the slaves of no fantastic Law,—beings altogether different from the Beast Folk. Yet I shrink from them, from their curious glances, their inquiries and assistance, and long to be away from them and alone. For that reason I live near the broad free downland, and can escape thither when this shadow is over my soul; and very sweet is the empty downland then, under the wind-swept sky.
When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. I could not get away from men: their voices came through windows; locked doors were flimsy safeguards. I would go out into the streets to fight with my delusion, and prowling women would mew after me; furtive, craving men glance jealously at me; weary, pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces, like wounded deer dripping blood; old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves; and, all unheeding, a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel,—and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered “Big Thinks,” even as the Ape-man had done; or into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey. Particularly nauseous were the blank, expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow-creatures than dead bodies would be, so that I did not dare to travel unless I was assured of being alone. And even it seemed that I too was not a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain which sent it to wander alone, like a sheep stricken with gid.
(pp. 183 – 184)