Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Island of Dr. Moreau, by H. G. WELLS

 Literature is a sort of magic mirror which reflects the mind of the generation, its passions and follies and dreams, as well as its serious thinking, and so even the most foolish or malodorous of novels is not without significance. It is a picture of some human mind, a register of some social drift, a crystallisation of some thoughts, wise or foolish, inhabiting some more or less unoccupied heads. Perhaps the most nakedly offensive and startling novel which has appeared for many years is The Island of Dr. Moreau, by H. G. WELLS. The book has the merit that it does not discuss the great sex-problem, and in a certain sense is innocent enough for the shelves of a Sunday school library. But it has more shudders to a page than anything else that has appeared for many a day. Mr. WELLS represents what may be called the scientific novelist, he dissolves chemistry, the higher mathematics, psychology, &c, into tiny little doses of fiction, and performs his legerdemain with great neatness and skill. The Time Machine and The Stolen Bacillus are no bad examples of the fiction which is new without being nasty. But in The Island of Dr. Moreau  Mr. WELLS undertakes to tell us what are the potentialities of vivisection and what is the trend of a certain school of materialistic science, and the vision is calculated to give every reader a months nightmare.

The narrator of the story is ship wrecked and picked up by a little ramshackle schooner, conveying a small menagerie of wild animals and some very queer passengers to a lonely island in the Pacific. A broken down doctor is in charge of the expedition ; his principal assistant is a misshapen man with a crooked back, a hairy neck, a face suggestive of a muzzle, eyes that in the dark shone with a pale green light, and ears that were furry and pointed. The boat that took them ashore at the island was manned by strange, brutish looking fellows, with lipless mouths, bodies abnormally long, and the thigh part of the leg short and curiously twisted, and other agreeable characteristics, and against whom the very dogs barked themselves hoarse. Dr. MOREAU, in brief, is an advanced vivisectionist, an expert in morbid growths, strange feats of surgery, the transfusion of blood, the transplantation of organs,&c. The horror of his experiments had driven him out of London, and he had created a paradise of his own in the Pacific—a paradise made up of a locked enclosure on a lonely island, a notorious vivisector, and a colony of crippled and distorted men. Bestial looking creatures, scarred, distorted, with chinless faces, lipless mouths, and a habit, on occasion, of going on all fours. Yet they were men, with human passions and speech and clothes ; only each carried some irresistible suggestion of a hog, a swinish taint. Over the enclosure that formed the mystery of the island floated a perpetual aroma of carbolic acid, out of it through all the horns of day and night, stole the sound of groaning, broken by sobs and gasps of anguish. The horrors of a visitor dropped suddenly into the midst of such a Comus rout may be better imagined than described. Dr. MOREAU, in a word, occupies himself in grafting human organs and characteristics upon beasts, and so making " men" after a new and startling pattern. If patches of skin can be grafted why not organs, why not the articulation of the limbs and the whole chemical rhythms of a creature? Dr. MOREAU describes his art as "experiments in the plasticity of living forms." The great difference between man and a monkey, taken physiologically, he contends, lies simply in the larynx. It a human larynx can be grafted into a monkeys throat, an animal can be created endowed with speech.

Dr. MOREAU explains how he took a gorilla, as the basis of his first experiment, and with patient vivisection " made his first man." By grafting human characteristics on a succession of animal foundations, Dr. MOREAU produced some startling results. One of these bestial men, for example had the mild but repulsive features of a sloth, the same low forehead, the same drab face, and slow gestures. Another product of Dr. MOREAU'S scalpel, not quite so successful, had the face of neither man nor beast, but a mere shock of grey hair, with three shadowy overarchings to mark for the eyes and nose and mouth. Another was covered with dull grey hair, almost like a Skye terrier ; in fact, it was a Skye terrier, with a number of human organs superadded. Another was a limbless thing with a horrible face, that writhed along the ground in a serpentine fashion. Here is a photographic flash cast upon the creatures Dr. MOREAU scientifically carved into human likeness :—

The two most formidable animal-men were my Leopard Man and a creature made of Hyæna and Swine. Larger than those were the three Bull creatures who pulled in the boat. Then came the Silvery Hair Man who was also the Sayer of the Law, M'ling, and a satyr like creature of Ape and Goat. There were three Swine Men and a Swine Woman a Mare-Rhinoceros creature and several other females whose sources I did not ascertain. There were several Wolf creatures, a Bear Bull, and a Saint Bernard Dog Man. I have already described the Ape Man, and there was a particularly hateful (and evil smelling) old woman, made of Vixen and Bear, whom I hated from the beginning. Smaller creatures were certain dappled youths and my little sloth creature, &c."

Dr. MOREAU, in addition, tried to create a soul in these bestial men by the aid of hypnotism, impressing upon his creatures certain fixed ideas, infecting their dwarf brains with a kind of deification of himself. But Dr. MOREAU complained that the animal material upon which he had to work was poor stuff. The beast would re-emerge in spite of science. 'The human shape," he says, " I can get now almost with ease ;" but one animal trait after another would creep to the surface. So his vivisection grew ever more daring, and he dipped each new animal in a bath of yet more fiery pain, determined to burn out the beast in it. Dr. MOREAU was trying the experiment, too, of working in a tougher material, and so had a puma in process of being carved into a man and its ceaseless moaning made day and night hideous.

This grim colony dissolves at last in a victorious eruption of long supposed beast life. 'The vivisected puma breaks loose, and emerges from the mysterious enclosure, wearing a face not human, not animal, but hellish ; brown, seamed with red scars, red drops starting out upon it, and lidless eyes ablaze. "The great monster, swathed with lint, and with red-stained bandages about it," murders—in a fashion unhappily too brief— Dr. MOREAU  himself ; the beasts generally lapse into their true natures, with horrors in the process past telling ; the Dog Man, whose original basis had been a St. Bernard, showing his fidelity to type by protecting the teller of the story till he escapes from this dreadful island.

The Island of Dr. Moreau is a horrible effort of invention, none the less horrible because, as Mr. WELLS assures us, " the manufacture of monsters, and even of quasi-human monsters, is within the possibilities of vivisection." We may well be reluctant to believe that science, which somehow, we always take for granted must tell in a beneficent direction, is capable of such hideous dreams as that in the volume we are discussing. But let the reader for a moment analyse the impulse of disgust, swift, instinctive and peremptory, created by such a shocking conception as Dr. MOREAU'S  Beast-men. The conception, we feel instinctively, is an inexpiable insult to human nature. Man, after all, is not separated by the narrow interval of a larynx of a particular pattern, or by any merely physiological details, from the monkey, the sloth, or the hog. He is a being of another order. He cannot be translated into merely physiological terms. He is conscious of a reasoning intellect, of a spiritual element in himself, of a relationship to the external universe, a kingship over nature and the orders of life below him ; and this consciousness is primary and ineradicable. It is interwoven with the very tissues of his being. And that consciousness is wholesome and ennobling, as no lie could ever be. The "science" that would obliterate the essential distinction between human and bestial life or would resolve it into a question of pigments and tissues, capable of being expressed in chemical formulæ, or in the terms of physiology, is certainly false ; and is certainly an insult to humanity.

 The Argus 16 May 1896,

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