Underlying Victorian anxieties in H.G.Wells’ ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’

H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau draws from common Victorian anxieties concerning the human-animal relationship, presenting macabre scenarios as a means to exorcise the fears of its contemporary readers. The concept of vivisecting animals into humans would have unearthed present day insecurities regarding the societal trend to glorify science and deify scientists, science’s threat to upend the natural order through the spreading of Darwinian philosophy, and the dangers in the pursuit for knowledge. Anxieties concerning science are very much at the heart of the novel and are nightmarishly depicted by Wells as the devolution or total demise of humanity’s moral and natural superiority.

The story introduces the fear that the old religion of Christianity could hypothetically be replaced by the new religion of science. With Christian-Protestant beliefs working as the foundation for Victorian ideals, the existence of an isolated land where these ideals are forgotten and substituted for the worship of science would have undoubtedly been a problematic premise for Victorian audiences. The seclusion of the island is also noteworthy, for it is physically detached from the rest of the world and symbolically represents a philosophical divergence from expected norms concerning morality and ethics, a shift towards amoral scientific experimentation and dissent from religious teaching. Godlike, Doctor Moreau creates a population of animal-man species, or Beast Folk, who worship his authority and follow laws that he has created for them. In the story, Prendick, a moral guide that observes and judges the amoral Moreau, describes his witnessing of the Beast Folk chanting Moreau’s laws. Prendick sees the Beast Folk “swaying in unison and chanting… A kind of rhythmic fervour…”, referring to Moreau as “Him”, Wells italicizing and capitalizing the word (114). This is not only a direct allusion to the Christian practice of honoring the name of God, but also a significant indicator that the Moreau is seen as a deity, his science a power equal to that of God himself. More evidence of Moreau’s deification is seen after his death when Prendick explains to the Beast Folk that “he has changed his shape” and “his body”, that they will not see him, yet he will be “there”, Prendick says pointing up to the sky (151).  This dialogue directly aligns with the Christian belief that Jesus Christ died and ascended into heaven, body and soul, and is ever present in day-to-day life. In the words of Prendick, Dr. Moreau has transfigured into a formless entity to watch over his creations and judge them according to his laws.

This idea the scientist can replace religion coincides with the fear of the social order being upended by experimentation and, in the case of Doctor Moreau, vivisection. Science therefore becomes a force of change within the social consciousness; if humans can be examined on the same plane as apes, man’s place in the natural hierarchy is in jeopardy. The public’s conception of man as caretaker and divine creation is void. Wells utilizes this fear through Moreau’s obsessive attempts at mutilating animals into humans. And it is seen Prendick’s final sentence at the end of his tale. “…whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope. I hope, or I could not live”(174). The hope he expresses is not only for the resolution of the human condition, or rather human flaw, but also a wish that our animalistic side finds its peace and lives at bay within us. It is the wish, the hope, that the animal stays separate from the man, and that their biologies, essences, souls, do not cross.

The fear concerning the pursuit of knowledge is also bundled up nicely into Wells’ novel. It is very deliberate that he paints Moreau as a reason-based, well spoken villain. He is a doctor with a college degree, and there is something familiar about his calmness and intelligence, yet his twisted logic is horrifying. Further still, what is frightening is the seemingly casual nature with which Moreau started his venture. He says he “went on with this research just the way it led [him]”, beginning with a question, devising “some method of obtaining an answer”, only to get “a fresh question.” He proclaims in the same paragraph, “You cannot imagine the strange colourless delight of these intellectual desires!” (127).

Moreau expresses his need to further his scientific quest in a way that evokes a sense of horror, given his gruesome experiments and mangled Beast Folk. For Prendick and the reader, the cry of the leopard man rings throughout the novel as a call of warning, of terror and pain. For Moreau, it is like the sound of a Siren from greek mythology, drawing him in further to attain more and more knowledge.

But for Victorin readers, Moreau is a manifestation of their worst fears; unholy science, education gone awry, and the devolution of man. These anxieties are latent, and it is unclear whether Wells placed them into his story for the sake of his audience, or whether they naturally arose in the writing process. Though it is impossible to deny their existence and their overall importance in understanding The Island of Doctor Moreau.


Work Cited:  H.G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau. Ed. Mason Harris. Broadview, 2009

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