Race and Ecocriticism on The Island of Dr. Moreau

 

H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells is perhaps most famous for his work in science fiction, and he is often referred to as the father of that genre.  His most famous works include The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds. In each, he constructs fantastic worlds which serve to emphasize societal concerns, supplying narratives that are analogous with complex moral issues.  Using these otherworldly backdrops, Wells places readers at a safe distance from their reality, and it is there that their pre-existing views can be challenged.  This is perhaps most true of his novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which Wells employs a fanciful narrative to criticize slavery and prejudice based on perceived race whilst simultaneously offering a narrative that has a rich ecocritical reading. The novel also engages in Miltonic conversations on choice that border on existentialism.  This work, though relatively short, is layered, allowing readers to enjoy the superficial fantasy elements or to engage in a deeper analysis of social concerns, according to their preference.

 

RACE

 

A scale representation of how Africans were shipped to America after being abducted.

A scale representation of how Africans were shipped to America after being abducted.

The most overt analogous element of the novel is the link with perceived race and slavery.  The novel centers on an island populated by anthropomorphic animals (on ‘manimals’) who have been transformed from their original form to human form through a variety of cut-and-paste surgeries performed by the title character.  Wells is sure to link the treatment of these manimals with those who were enslaved in America through analogous experiences.  The manner in which the animals are shipped to the island, for instance, seems not dissimilar to the manner in which Africans were shipped to America after being abducted.  A puma is described as being “cramped in a little iron cage far too small even to give it turning-room”, whilst “a solitary llama was squeezed in a mere box of a cage” (12).  This is eerily similar to the way in which Africans were stacked into slave ships, often not given enough room to move, or being chained into position.  The manimals are described as making a huge mess on the boat (14), and this, too, was common among slave ships as the abducted African would often have to defecate where they were chained.  The narrative also offers parallels related to segregation.  The one manimal aboard the ship also faces segregation, being told by Moreau’s assistant, Montgomery (a prophetically appropriate name), that his “place is forward” on the boat, but the manimal is told that “They… won’t have [him] forward” (11).  This is reminiscent of the Jim Crow laws that had recently been legislated in America at the time of the book’s publishing, whereby people of colour were not allowed to use the same services as Caucasians.  Even Montgomery and Moreau seem to share commonalities with slavers.  Many of those who went to America had been rejected by England, or had failed in their native country and were going to America to seek out opportunities not available to them back home.  Moreau, likewise, was ostracized from England and so had to find new opportunities on an island where he made his own law (31), like American settlers.  Each of these plot points parallels experiences associated with the slave trade, drawing a link between the treatment of the manimals in the novel and the treatment of enslaved Africans in America.

 

 

Another way in which Wells links the manimals with those enslaved in America is through colour.  Wells uses the language of colour to demonstrate how our nomenclature encourages us to link ‘darkness’ with anxiety, ugliness, and even immorality.  He calls one of the manimals “The black-faced man” (11), later referring to him as “The black” (13), and “The black-faced” (24).  In another instance, one of the manimals is described as “a devil, an ugly devil” (15), fostering the link between ugliness and both immorality and evilness through the comparison with the devil. The conversation on race is made overt when the novel’s protagonist, Edward Prendick, arrives on the island and asks what race the ‘men’ on the beach are (35).The link between the manimals and enslaved Africans is furthered when Montgomery refers to them as ‘Kanakas’, which was a term used to describe workers on sugar plantations in the Pacific.    This is further reinforced when one of the manimals is referred to as an “Evil-looking Boatman” (24) and a group is referred to as an “ugly gang” (25).  This language again links ‘darkness’ with ‘evilness’ and ‘ugliness’, fostering anxiety.

 

Nat Turner, who led a slave revolt (image borrowed from here).

A sketch of Nat Turner, who led a slave revolt (image borrowed from here).

The anxiety felt on the island is similar to that present on plantations in the antebellum slavery-era south.  During the slavery era, it was common that plantations would be overwhelmingly populated with slaves enslaved people, but though they grossly outnumbered the slavers, revolts seldom erupted.  Prendick questions the manimals about what he perceives as their unreasoned fear: “Why then do you fear them?  You are many”.  He then points out to them that they inspire fear in Moreau and Montgomery (64).  It is then that he uses the word ‘enslaved’, further reinforcing the plantation analogy.  Later, Montgomery explains “that the comparative safety of Moreau and himself was due to the limited mental scope of” the manimals (78).  This is similar to the logic used by many plantation owners, but in reality it was fear that kept slavers safe.  The slavers had weapons: whips and guns, and used them often.  The rhetoric of slavery is ingrained in the narrative. The manimals refer to Moreau and Montgomery as ‘Master’ and link their authority with their ‘Whips’, suggesting that when both are gone, the manimals are free (117).  Both words are capitalized in the text, and it is emphasized that for the manimals to be afforded freedom, both the whips and the masters must be gone.  Thus, Moreau’s authority is not based on reason, but rather on the violent enactment of might.  When Prendick finds himself alone on the island, only some of the manimals follow his command (111). The Hyaena-Swine, the most dangerous of the manimals at that point in the narrative, refuse to obey and only disperse after Prendick fires his gun (112).  Hence, obedience is not due to a ‘limited mental scope’, but rather due to fear invoked through unreasoned might.  The manimals’ revolt is reminiscent of slave revolts like the one carried out by the likes of Nat Turner.  The island, then, serves as a model of plantation life. In this novel, Wells’ aim is to to deconstruct and criticize the institution of slavery, as well as the prejudices based on perceived race that facilitated both slavery and the Jim Crow Laws.

 

ECOCRITICISM

 

Marlon Brando, who played Dr. Moreau in the 1996 film adaptation of the novel.  Interesting side note, before losing weight for the role, Brando had initially been cast not as the doctor, but as the island.

Marlon Brando, who played Dr. Moreau in the 1996 film adaptation of the novel. Interesting side note, before losing weight for the role, Brando had initially been cast not as the doctor, but as the island.

The text is equally ripe for ecocritical interpretation, demonstrating how the exploitation of nature can be analogous to the oppression of marginalized groups.  Moreau, for instance, rationalizes the pain he inflicts on the animals by defining them as ‘lower’ life forms that don’t feel pain: “Plants do not feel pain; the lower animals… such… as starfish and crayfish do not feel pain” (72).  This is akin to the rhetoric employed to rationalize enslavement of foreign peoples during the colonization the Americas.  Because the peoples of Africa and the Americas had darker skin, Europeans used scientific language to define people of colour as belonging to a different race, though in scientific terms, they, like the Europeans, were members of the human race.  Sadly, this lie has been perpetuated as the word ‘race’ is still used fallaciously.  Moreau also adopts the voice of a colonizer, using language that suggests he is a paternal figure to the manimals. He rationalizes that they would regress without his civilizing influence, stating that “As soon as [his] hand is taken from them the beast begins to creep back” (76). Likewise, Europeans used to suggest that indigenous societies lacked culture, ignoring their storied oral traditions and claiming the written traditions of the West to be superior.  Like Moreau, Westerners believed that were they not present to teach culture, the colonized races would quickly devolve.  In each of these instances, Moreau speaks to taming nature in a way that harks back to the days of colonization. In this way, an ecocritical reading can offer insight into other forms of oppression.

 

 

Michael York, who plays an adaptation of the Prendick character in the 1977 film version of the novel.

Michael York, who plays an adaptation of the Prendick character in the 1977 film version of the novel.

The ecocritical reading also puts nature on equal terms with humanity by demonstrating not only how the natural realm is similar to the human realm, but also by showing how the human realm is driven by natural instincts.  When Prendick first sees the manimals, he does not assume that they are animals transformed into human form, but rather humans that have been “infected with some bestial taint” (64).  His attitude suggests that there is little difference between the two realms outside of superficial characteristics.  Though it might be a prejudice on Prendick’s part to project human characteristics onto beings that bear superficial similarities, such an interpretation is challenged later in the novel when Prendick, now fully aware of the manimals’ origins, notes in an interaction with one that he “realized… the fact of its humanity” (92), demonstrating that ‘humanity’ does not belong exclusively to the human realm, but is also a trait present in the natural world.  During one fight scene, Wells writes that one of the manimals dropped “His axe… when he encountered” his antagonist and used his teeth as his “Teeth were his weapons” (100).  This plot point exemplifies how human constructs, like axes, merely try to imitate elements of the natural realm, positioning nature in Platonic terms whereby things fabricated by humanity only aim to mimic the natural realm.  Likewise, when the manimals are left to their own devices, they reject the man-made homes prescribed by Moreau and construct habitats suited to their natural inclinations: “The Beasts by that time had, with one or two exceptions, left the ravine, and made themselves lairs, according to their tastes” (124).  Thus the animals, like humans, are builders and are capable of building habitats suited to their needs without human instruction.  Prendick’s language, then, coupled with the novel’s construction tools and weapons, clearly situates the natural realm on parity terms with the human realm.

 

Val Kilmer, who portrayed Montgomery in the 1996 film adaption.

Val Kilmer, who portrayed Montgomery in the 1996 film adaption.

But Wells does not merely stop at showing nature as equal to the human realm. In fact, he represents the natural realm as superior to the human through demonstrating the value of the lessons humans learn from nature, simultaneously attributing negative characteristics to the human realm. For instance, Prendick notes that his study of human sciences, like biology, does not help him survive on the island because he has become so far removed from nature that he is helpless (122).  This piece of the narrative serves as a foreshadowing of humans losing the ability to navigate nature as they become immersed in human technology.  A person who can create computer programs, for instance, may not even be able to start a fire without a lighter.  Prendick does, however, take lessons from nature and “to some extent [adopts] the practice of slumbering in the daytime, in order to be on [his] guard at night” (124), a lesson learned from the nocturnal predators.  Thereby, Prendick imitates nature and benefits from it.  Nature also exemplifies the manner in which relationships between organisms ought to be developed.  At one point, Wells makes reference to a plant called the epiphyte, whichgrows non-parasitically on other plants.  This is a sharp contrast to how Moreau relates to the animals he vivisects, demonstrating that nature is capable of producing far more symbiotic relationships than are humans.  As for the lessons humans teach the natural realm, they are far from beneficial.  Moreau teaches the manimals not to eat ‘Flesh or Fish” (88), though Montgomery eats both, which causes a conflict with the animals as it goes against their natural instincts.  This conflict would not have existed without human intervention.  Other lessons include hazing.  In one passage, Montgomery, who refers to the manimals as ‘Kanakas’, says that “two of the Kanakas had been teasing” another and that he “threatened [them], told [them] the inhumanity of such a proceeding” (74).  Such teasing, though, is not an innate behaviour, but rather a learned one.  This characteristic, which is ironically described as ‘inhumane’, is exclusively human (funny how the words ‘humane’ and ‘human’ can be polar opposites when they share the same root word).  Upon returning to the ‘civilized’ world, Prendick notes that among humans, he sees faces that are dangerous, unsteady, insincere, lack reason and foresees “the degradation of the Islanders… played over again on a larger scale” (128).  This observation became tragically portentous as, during the half-century following the novel’s publication, WWI and WWII raged and whole nations adopted the behaviour of wild animals.  This framing of humanity recalls Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous assertion that “Man is the cruelest animal”.  These passages demonstrate both how humanity can learn from nature, and how humanity corrupts nature by projecting its baser mentalities onto the natural realm, placing nature above humanity.

 

MILTONIC EXISTENTIALISM

 

Burt Lancastr, who played Dr. Moreau in the 1977 film adaptation.

Burt Lancaster, who played Dr. Moreau in the 1977 film adaptation.

Wells also suggests that, rather than our choices, a combination of biology and societal coercion serves to dictate our behaviour. He alludes to both Milton‘s conception of choice as explained in his essay Areopagitica, as well as existentialist theory that speaks to how one’s facticity shapes their identity.  Biological urges, which are a part of the manimals facticity, clearly dictate their behaviour, suggesting that it is a part of their biology, and not the identity they choose.  The Miltonic elements creep in when Wells notes the ways through which Moreau compels the animals to obey his laws.  Moreau states that

In our growing science of hypnotism we find the promise of a possibility of replacing old inherent instincts by new suggestions, grafting upon or replacing the inherited fixed ideas… pugnacity is trained into courageous self-sacrifice, and suppressed sexuality into religious emotion. (70-71)

Here, Moreau details a process whereby the manimals’ autonomy is usurped through hypnosis, forcing the manimals to behave in a manner deemed appropriate, or ‘religious’.  This enforced virtue is akin to the ‘excremental whiteness’ or ‘blank virtue’ Milton warns of in Areopagitica when choice is removed, meaning the virtue is not authentic, but merely enforced.  Prendick observes that the manimals “were wretched in themselves” and that “the Law held them back” (93), clearly demonstrating that the laws were not in concert with their authentic selves.  Furthering this Miltonic reading, Moreau is framed as a tyrant, using the threat of whips and guns to coerce obedience in the manimals. Milton likewise warns against such tyrannical rule and enforcement of law in Areopagitica, comparing it to the Spanish Inquisition.  In the absence of Moreau and his whips, the manimals finally find Miltonic virtue as they state that though they have “no Master, no Whips, [and] no House of Pain”, they still “love the Law, and will keep it” (117).  Though this keeping of the law does not last long, the failure to uphold the law is a result of their biological urges.  For a time though, even without the threat of punishment, the manimals manage to maintain this virtue.  The manimals, who are under instructions from their biological design and societal coercion, struggle to define their autonomy, providing a laboratory where Miltonics and existentialist theory are practically applied, demonstrating how little control we have often over our identities.

 

SEMIOTICS

 

A more flattering image of Brando, who played Dr. Moreau in 1996.

A more flattering image of Brando, who played Dr. Moreau in 1996.

Though Wells does not devote as much attention to issues of semiotics as he does to the concepts of perceived race and nature, the deceptive nature of words is a central part of the narrative.  The laws which the manimals recite are simply words repeated by rote.  They do not mean anything to the manimals, and though they have a cursory understanding of the words, they do no fully understand their deeper implications.  They speak the words knowing that they will not follow the law, and so, the recitation of the words means nothing, like an adolescent parroting the words of a song whose words they do not understand.  In this sense, the words lose their meaning.  This is not only present in the manimals, but in the people as well. Prendick, seeking to avoid the wrath of Moreau, makes an apology to him, though he asserts to the reader that he did not mean it (92).  The reason for this is that he feared Moreau’s response, which demonstrates that under tyrannical rule, words lose their meaning because people are coerced to say one thing when they actually feel another.  In this way the words are undermined.  Words, though, are central to the expression of thought, and as George Orwell wrote in his seminal work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, limiting one’s vocabulary limits their range of thought.  One of the manimals exemplified this concept in his constant striving to express new ideas, and “had a fantastic trick of coining new words” (120), which expanded his vocabulary and in turn his range of thought.  However, as the animals regress, so too does their language.  Because they do not have a clear understanding of language to start with, and do not know the meanings of the words, the words become inadequate and fall out of use.  Words are then traded in for grunts, leading Prendick to ask readers if they can imagine a “language, once clear cut and exact, softening and guttering, losing shape and import, becoming mere lumps of sound again?” (120)  Like some of the other elements of the work, this has proven prophetic as well.  Words that once had a specific meaning in conversations regarding class, such as ‘lady’, ‘gentleman’, and ‘middle class’, become conflated with other words and lose their meaning.  Likewise, words like ‘literal’ and ‘inconceivable’ are constantly misused and come to mean their opposite.  And as internet acronyms come to replace words, the meanings of words change and become diluted, eventually transforming what was once clear and precise language into ‘lumps of sound’.  Though semiotics, or rather Ferdinand de Saussure’s concept of semiology, was a burgeoning field at the time, Wells seems to incorporate elements of the theory into his work, giving it added depth.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

Islanddrmoreau1977The Island of Dr. Moreau is one of the earliest science fiction novels, and as such, it presents a narrative that will not hold water with modern science, despite the fact that Wells was a biologist and had current information on biology at the time he wrote the novel.  The likes of Neil deGrasse  Tyson (or rather the geneticist who is the equivalent of Tyson in that field) could tear apart the science of the novel without much thought.  Regardless of the science behind the anthropomorphization of the animals, what is clear is that Wells had a clear understanding of the ethics behind both colonization and the way in which humanity exploits nature.  Both of these elements remain as potent today as when Wells first wrote them, perhaps even more so as the environmental crisis has only increased and the practice of colonization has not subsided in the least.  Through discourse on perceived race and the environment, Wells also manages to introduce the construct of semiology and what might fairly be called Miltonic existentialism, giving the work added depth.  Though some represent his later works as political, it seems that even his early works were potent expressions of his political views.  The novel, perhaps not as entertaining as more recent works of science fiction, nor as well written as Owrell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, does manage to create a narrative that combines elements of a slave narrative with Gulliver’s Travels, Heart of Darkness, and Lord of the Flies, creating a uniquely original narrative that offers a precise diagnosis on social ills that have yet to be cured.

 

If you enjoyed this review and would like updates on my latest ramblings, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRamber.

 

Words I thought I’d look up:

Slöjd:  A form of education based hand crafts.

Circuitous: Convoluted or winding.

Ambuscades:  An antiquated form of the word ambush.

Paraffin:  Wax.

Garrulous:  Verbose or loquacious.

Maudlin:  Self-pitying or over emotional.

Virago:  A heroic woman.

Kanakas:  Plantation workers in the Pacific.  Translates to ‘wild man’.

Temerity:  Boldness or audacity.

Inimical:  Hostile.

Myriad:  Countless.

Aperture:  Space or orifice.

Litany:  Prayers or a list.

Comus:  The title character in a closet play by John Milton.  In Greece, he was the god of festivities, but in Milton’s play, he was a tempter akin to Lucifer in the Garden of Eden.

Epiphyte:  A plant that grows non-parasitically on other plants.

Masticated:  Munched, crunched or ground.

Vivisector:  One who cuts into a living person or animal.

Saturnine:  Slow or gloomy, supposedly the disposition of those born under Saturn’s astrological sign.

Guttural: Gruff, grating, rough, rasping or raucous.

Infernally:  Meaning below the underworld.

Unvictualled:  Without food supplies or victuals.

Pertinacious:  Resolute or stubborn.

Ipecacuanha:  A plant used to treat dysentery.  In the book it was the name of a boat. I guess the captain though dysentery might be an issue.

 

Works Cited:

Wells, H.G. The Island of Dr. Moreau.  London: Orion. 1993.  Print.

 

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Speak Your Mind

*

css.php