Roger Luckhurst looks at H G Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau as a text that both provoked and explored feelings of disgust, reflecting late-Victorian questions and fears about vivisection, cannibalism and evolutionary degeneration.
Although the term ‘scientific romance’ had appeared in the 1880s to describe a new kind of popular literature, it was the energetic young writer H G Wells
(1866-1946) who fleshed out the contours of this genre in the 1890s. He published a series of best-selling texts, starting with The Time Machine
(1895) and including The War of the Worlds
(1898). By far the most shocking and controversial of these texts was the lurid fantasy The Island of Dr. Moreau
, which was condemned upon publication by the Daily Telegraph
as ‘a morbid aberration of scientific curiosity.’ Wells himself would later call it ‘an exercise in youthful blasphemy.’
It is a book that explores feelings of disgust, and has in turn often provoked such feelings.
Campaigns against vivisection
Wells had trained in science and wrote science journalism in the 1890s. He was therefore able to pick up on many humanistic and religious concerns about scientific advances. Doctor Moreau is a character constructed from English fears about new kinds of Continental experimental medical science. When these ideas arrived in England in the 1870s, there was a vigorous campaign against the vivisection of animals in laboratories. The first English guide to the subject, called Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory (1873) was denounced as introducing ‘a new moral contagion’ into England, and journals like The Spectator alongside the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals actively campaigned against these techniques. The image of the slightly mad foreign vivisector, uncaring about animal pain, was fixed in the minds of the English public by the testimony of Emmanuel Klein before a Royal Commission in 1875. Klein was an Austrian who worked at Barts Hospital in London and professed utter indifference to animal pain, explaining that he rarely used anaesthetic. The public reaction to this testimony left many men of science fearful that experimental medical science would never be established in England. Moreau’s ‘House of Pain’ is a direct descendant of these portraits of mad medics.
Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory
Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory (1873) provided guidelines for the practice of vivisection, and was denounced as introducing ‘a new moral contagion’. The images are copies of those in a publication by Claude Bernard, the by then infamous French practitioner of vivisection.
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Wells also picked up on sensational tales from the far-flung corners of the British Empire in order to give the story a full Gothic tone. In this case, Prendick is particularly menaced by a Leopard-Man, surely a reference to the attempts of the British colonial authorities to try to stamp out the secret societies of ‘cannibals’ in Sierra Leone, known as the Leopard-Man cult. The Island of Dr. Moreau does repeatedly raise the spectre of cannibalism as the ultimate taboo that marks out the human from its others – Prendick himself is from the start suspected of surviving alone in the lifeboat of the Lady Vain by drinking the blood of his vanished shipmates. No one can quite be trusted to hold the line.
Evolution and the decline of civilisation
But the key elements of the story derive from the theory of degeneration that so preoccupied the fin-de-siècle intelligentsia. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species had upset mid-Victorian Britain, but the book actually ended with an extremely positive exhortation that man was evolving always upwards towards perfection. By the 1880s, the message was not so optimistic. One of Wells’s zoology teachers, Edwin Ray Lankester, argued that if it was possible to advance up the evolutionary scale it was equally possible to decline, to move from the complex to the simple. This biological theory chimed with moral panic about the decline of civilisation, and the pattern of ‘decline and fall’ that haunted the British Empire even at its largest extent. The Island of Dr. Moreau tells a bleak story about the impermanence of moral and intellectual advances and the inevitability of decline. Without Moreau to command the Beast Men, they all inevitably slide down the scale, back towards their bestial origin. The implication is that we are never far above bestial origins. That the men of science can now manipulate the boundary between the human and the animal only further blurs the lines.
Degeneration: a view of evolution
Edwin Ray Lankester’s Degeneration. A chapter in Darwinism (1880) examined how evolution, including social or behavioural evolution, might be degenerative, especially where food and safety from predators were easily acquired.
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Wells’s story, with its frequent ‘spasms of disgust’, has remained controversial (ch. 21). It was made into a film in the first year of the Hollywood ‘horror’ boom in 1932, with Charles Laughton as a particularly nasty and sensuous Doctor Moreau. The Island of Lost Souls added a further sensational lure with the suggestion of bestiality between the shipwrecked hero and an alluring Leopard Woman. Hints of this perversity proved too much for many boards of censorship, and the film was banned in Britain and across Europe and America for many years. In the 21st century, with genetic splicing making animal-human hybrids an actual possibility, Wells’s queasy exploration of the limits of the human in this provocative satire keeps the book incredibly relevant today.
 H G Wells, Seven Famous Novels (Alfred A. Knope: New York, 1934), p.ix.