You might have last read H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) in high school, some time in the midst of writing deeply analytical essays or reading whatever classic literature was on the syllabus, but it’s good to revisit ghosts from our pasts. Almost five years since I last read Wells’ science fiction novel, I decided to reread the novel and to put aside the socio-political and racial criticisms I studied in high school and just enjoy the writing. I thoroughly enjoyed The Island of Dr. Moreau the second time around, but I couldn’t stop analyzing. Though high school is a dim memory, I found the novel’s writing and criticisms coming back to life—molding into a modern silhouette of humanity.
The Island of Dr. Moreau is the story of Edward Prendick, a biologist who is shipwrecked and saved by a passing boat and its mysterious crew who works for the infamous vivisectionist Dr. Moreau. The doctor’s work surgically transforms animals into human-like creatures: hyena men, an ape assistant, even an experimental part-horse and part-dog creation. Before you are turned off by such animal cruelty, think about the social analysis. A panther turned into a man is not just an entertaining plot decoration; it’s the bones of a greater ploy—the questioning of what separates man from animal.
In poet Chris Abani’s 2008 TEDTalk on humanity, he illuminates the South African phrase “ubuntu,” which exists as part of a philosophy that says “the only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me.” In Wells’ short novel, humanity is reflected in Moreau’s warped animal creations. The image we see of humanity isn’t innocent and clean. It’s the snarling teeth and hungry claws of a man more animal than human—and this time Wells isn’t speaking about the humanoid experimentations. Rather, he’s talking about Dr. Moreau, about man corrupted by immorality, about animal disguised as man.
Over 100 years after The Island of Dr. Moreau was written and 4,000 years after Gilgamesh first introduced the concept of man and animal existing as one being, the issue of man’s separation from animal nature is still at the forefront of literature and at the forefront of humanity’s biggest questions. What does it mean to be human? And, how am I more than animal? These inquiries may seem too big to answer, but writers whose minds explore intangible futures like that of Wells’ may find the solution that man is animal—that we are all animals. Reading The Island of Dr. Moreau again (or even for the first time) will show a skewed image of humanity: the cruelty of man and the sincerity of the animal.
As a student of the humanities (and I love saying that, because it suggests I am remotely in touch with what being a human means), pondering life’s biggest questions is almost my job. However, figuring out the distinction between man and animal is one that’s evaded our consciousness since the earliest notion of history. Nonetheless, I’ve come to conclude this—being a human is not about separating from animals. Being a human is about recognizing our reflection in a menagerie of animals. H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau shows readers the menagerie. It is up to us to see our humanity.
Abani, Chris. “Chris Abani: On humanity.” TEDTalks, July 2008. Web. 8 May 2014.
Wells, H. G. The Island of Dr. Moreau. Heinemann, Stone, & Kimball, 1896. Print.