Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Island of Dr. Moreau

Cross-posted at Slaves of Golconda

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be posting on this today or tomorrow, but I figure that if it’s supposed to be tomorrow, you all can come back and read this then. I’m also not going to do this book justice, since I read it in a rather distracted state of mind. I felt as I was reading that I should re-read in order to fully appreciate it, but I didn’t have the time.

At any rate, I enjoyed the novel very much. This is my first experience of Wells, and I’m tempted to read the two other novels in my edition, The Time Machine and War of the Worlds. I’m curious what people make of the frame narrative – is there something complicated going on here, or is it simply by way of explaining and setting up the narrative to follow? Wells participates in an old tradition of frame narratives, whether it’s the frame story of escaping the plague in Boccaccio’s The Decameron or the multiple frame narratives that encircle the creature’s narrative in Frankenstein, or the explanation Defoe gives at the beginning of Robinson Crusoe that the narrative is a true one that Defoe had stumbled upon and decided to publish. Wells’s use is certainly not as complicated as Mary Shelley’s was, but the frame does give the reader a sense of the mysteriousness to come in the main narrative, and it tells us the interesting fact that Prendick “subsequently … alleged that his mind was a blank from the moment he escaped from the Lady Vain.” Did he find that his attempts to explain what he saw on the island were so impossible that he gave it up and simply said his mind was blank to avoid explanations entirely?

I’m reminded of Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown” where Brown journeys into the woods, discovers the horrors that (supposedly) exist in the human heart, and returns home a changed man, unable to live at peace with his family again. And also Gulliver, who after his travels becomes a bitter, cynical man. In both of these books, and in Wells’s novel too, one of the central questions is about what it means to be human: are humans like the houyhnhnms or the yahoos, or neither? The ending of the novel is moving; Prendick lives in fear and horror of his fellow humans and isolates himself from people, devoting his time to scientific studies. He writes:

They say that terror is a disease, and anyhow, I can witness that, for several years now, a restless fear has dwelt in my mind, such a restless fear as a half-tamed lion cub may feel. My trouble took the strangest form. 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.

At the heart of the novel, I think, is the conversation between Prendick and Dr. Moreau where Moreau explains the nature of his experiments. This dialogue is all about the relationship of human beings and animals – a topic that has fascinated writers since the time of Gilgamesh, another work that tries to define humanity by considering how people differ from the gods on the one hand and the beasts on the other. The question in Wells’s novel centers around pain – what it means to be able to feel pain and how we should respond to our own pain and that of others. Moreau says:

For it is just this question of pain that parts us. So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick, so long as your own pains drive you, so long as pain underlies your propositions about sin, so long, I tell you, you are an animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels … A mind truly opened to what science has to teach must see that [pain] is a little thing.

Pain is an aspect of animal experience, not human, according to Moreau; as humans separate themselves from the animal world, pain will carry less and less significance. That he brushes aside Prendick’s objections to his cruelty shows that he has lost something essential to his humanity and has become much less than an animal, which would never behave as cruelly as he has. By working so horribly on animal bodies and denying the significance of the pain they experience, Moreau shows his abhorrence of bodies in general – he desires to leave the body and all its weaknesses behind. But in denying the body, he perverts human nature into something it’s not – the body is as central to human experience as the mind.

Moreau cannot succeed in turning animals into humans to his satisfaction because he misunderstands what it means to be human and animal both. He says of his animal/human creations that:

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 suddenly and inundate the whole being of the creature with anger, hate, or fear.

He wants to drive what he sees as the beast out of the human, and yet what he considers “beast” – the body that feels pain and experiences instincts and cravings – is inseparable from the human. Prendick separates himself morally from Moreau when he recognizes the humanity of one of Moreau’s creations:

It may seem a strange contradiction in me – I cannot explain the fact --, but now, seeing the creature there in a perfectly animal attitude, with the light gleaming in its eyes, and its imperfectly human face distorted with terror, I realized again the fact of its humanity.

This is a redeeming moment for Prendick, who, rather than allowing this creature to enter Moreau’s torture chamber once again, shoots it. This is an act of mercy.

Okay – there is so much more going on in this novel, but I’ll leave it up to my fellow Slaves to point those things out.