This short novel is the eerie story of a man named Edward Prendick who is lost at sea and finds himself rescued by a man named Montgomery aboard a large ship en route to an unnamed island. Prendick is utterly grateful to Montgomery although right away he can tell that something is not quite right. There’s an unsettling feeling aboard the ship. It is carrying lots of animal cargo on board that is bound for the island and the animals wail and wail. Then there’s Montgomery’s manservant, M’ling, who looks very odd to Prendick’s eye. But what exactly is wrong with him Prendick cannot quite grasp.
When they arrive at the island the drunk and abusive captain has decided that Prendick is not allowed to travel with the ship any further. Although Montgomery and his employer Moreau, who has met him at the ship, at first tell Prendick that he is not welcome on the island, eventually they take pity on him and set him up in a room.
Moreau is very cold to Prendick and constantly reminds him that he is an unexpected and unwelcome guest so he has to be prepared to accept the secrecy in which he is kept. Prendick is told that they do scientific work on the island, but what exactly that is is kept from him. Moreau constantly escapes behind a door where a large puma is caged and locks the door behind him. The screams of the beast chill Prendick.
One of his first nights on the island, Prendick searches his brain for he remembers the name Moreau, but how and for what? Finally it comes to him! Dr. Moreau was a famous scientist in England but was exposed for his gruesome experiments in vivisection! All of a sudden Prendick is terrified for he chances to see behind that locked door and finds, not a puma, but a half-puma, half-man monster. He runs for his life away from the enclosure and tries to hide out in the wilderness only to be greeted by more man-beasts. When Montgomery and Moreau finally catch up with him they must finally explain the purpose of this island of theirs. No, they do not wish to splice him with an animal, as he had feared; Moreau is trying to turn animals into humans, and the puma will be his greatest achievement yet!
I will end my summary there because that is only about halfway through this wonderfully scary tale. Even though I knew the “secret” of Dr. Moreau’s island before I started reading the book (as I’m sure most people do), that didn’t diminish any of the story for me. Wells’ novel is exciting and nerve-wracking from start to finish. Right away when Prendick meets Montgomery you get a sense that things are going to take a turn for the worse very soon. And then once you finally come into contact with the man-beasts Wells only gives you just enough description to let your own mind run wild. There is one scene where Prendick is being chased by something but you don’t know exactly what, and it was truly scary. At the end my heart was pounding. And I thought with such an unrealistic concept as this it would be hard to actually instill fear in me, but I was wrong.
The true mastery of this book is what it represents, the message if you will. Wells was a master of social commentary and this science fiction novel was no exception. The premise of what Dr. Moreau was trying to do with these animals was turn them into humans so that they could flawlessly fit into the human world. First he would make them look human and then give them a set of rules to follow:
Then he sent them out into the wild to live abiding by these rules he pounded into their heads. If they messed up they’d be punished. But the problem was they were still animals. You could not just give them some silly rules and change the way they looked and expect it all to go as planned. As Prendick stated,
“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 First 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?”
These principals can be applied to many things but what stuck in my mind the most, whether Wells intended this the most or not, was race relations. The book was written during the time when slavery had come to an end in most parts of the world and black people were expected to integrate flawlessly into the rest of society, basically given society’s pre-existing rules and expected to have no problems at all whatsoever, not taking into account what problems society would have with them and how difficult it might be overall. When things did not go flawlessly it was all their fault, not a fault of the system, and they were the ones punished.
“Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence, begun in agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau--and for what? It was the wantonness of it that stirred me.”
I would recommend this book to anyone because whether you’re looking for a book with a message or one that is just a sci-fi thriller, you can find both here, and I think that’s a rare trait. I cannot wait to get my hands on some more of his work!