H.G. Wells is my favorite author, but when I tried to read this in high school I had to put it down after a few chapters. The first bit of it is extremely slow and if you’re not reading it closely it comes off as very racist. I must have been really tired the first time I read it because I thought Montgomery’s manservant M’ling was a black guy who was being described in a grotesquely animalistic way. The second time I read it it was for book group, so I persevered through those parts and discovered that M’ling is actually part animal and that explains the awkward descriptions, like this one:
I had paused half-way through the hatchway, looking back, still astonished beyond measure at the grotesque ugliness of this black-faced creature. I had never beheld such a repulsive and extraordinary face before, and yet– if the contradiction is credible – I experienced at the same time an odd feeling that in some way I had already encountered exactly the features and gestures that now amazed me.
It’s still probably kind of racist but it’s not (as I’d thought) an Englishman meeting a black man for the first time and describing him like an animal. Well, that solves some of my cognitive dissonance about H.G. Wells…
The story begins as the hero named Prendick is shipwrecked. He escapes on a small craft with three other men who quickly (and conveniently) kill each other. He floats alone in the ocean for a bit until he’s picked up by a larger craft, a merchant ship bringing a menagerie of animals, the mysterious Dr. Moreau, his assistant Montgomery, and his assistant’s assistant M’ling, to an isolated volcanic island. The doctor’s assistant, Montgomery, is a really fun character to watch. He’s warm, he has a good sense of humor, and he’s also drunk much of the time. He’s someone I would want to meet in real life, which I can’t say for Prendick or Dr. Moreau. Prendick is just too cold and timid while Moreau actually has very few speaking parts, so we don’t get to know him all that well (which is probably intentional, as Wells sets him up as a kind of God figure in the latter half of the book).
There’s a twist about half way through which makes the initial premise – a doctor who creates chimeras on an island – a lot more complicated and interesting. In H.G. Wells, Critic of Progress Jack Williamson quotes Wells calling the book “an exercise in youthful blasphemy”. That it is, and it is glorious. It gets into the themes of religion as an artificial construct, philosophy as a bunch of meaningless but pretty phrases, and humans’ separation from animals as mere pretense. When Prendick returns to London he finds the company of humans much more unnerving than living with the animals, even though with the animals he was in real physical danger.
I don’t think it’s what he had in mind, but at the end Prendick expounds on how the stars and laws of the universe symbolize a kind of protection and hope for the side of mankind that is greater than the animal, and it reminds me of the part in the Bible where Moses tells the Israelites that they are forbidden to worship the stars because the stars are for all mankind and are lower than the true God (Deut 4:19). But couple this with how jealous God is through the Old Testament, and it makes you wonder if God was created to keep man from going to space. He (read: religion) definitely did his damnedest, especially in conjunction with Aristotle. Maybe God was created by jealous aliens in the next galaxy over who wanted to keep us from mining the other planets for resources. Anyway, that’s my silly conspiracy theory of the day.
H.G. Wells is a great author for anti-social people. His characters are cold, clinical, logical, and kind of selfish. If you’re like this (INTJ), it’s comforting just to read a character whose thoughts reflect your own. A lot of his writing is in a serious tone, but every once in a while, you’re treated to bit of dry humor that is so much funnier because of the sober scientific context. In this way, I feel that he’s the one author that really “gets” me and reading more of his stuff feels a little like coming home.
There are a lot of reasons to read this book: if you like animals, critiques of religion, action-oriented plots, discussions of ethics in medical research, and science fiction, I would say it’s worth checking out. Like much of H.G. Well’s work, it’s very original in its plot and for me at least, it will remain in my brain and inspire me for a long time.