The Island Of Doctor Moreau: Are We Not Men?
HG Well’s novel The Island of Dr. Moreau challenges the reader to distinguish humans from animals. The usual notion is that animals act solely on instinct. The actions of animals are driven by their survival instincts. Such instincts compel them kill their own kind and do other terrifying acts. These preconceptions of animals also suggest that they do not have control over their compulsions and passions. These characteristics are honed by humans.
While humans do also feel similar survival instincts, passions, and compulsions, we are able to analyze and control them. As such we are considered the superior specie.
The novel explores these ideas as the main character and protagonist Edward Prendick discovers the island and its inhabitants. Prendick is a well-educated man. He is used to the fine things in life and thus feels lost in savagery and crudeness of the island. The author sees the story from Prendick’s point of view and channels the author’s thoughts through this character’s observations and feelings.
Prendick seems to be gifted with the ability of distinguishing the beasts from humans by the glimmer of their eyes, “I did not know then that a reddish luminosity, at least, is not uncommon in human eyes. The thing came to me as a stark inhumanity”(18). Throughout the book, Prendick makes several notes about what he has observed from the beast men’s eyes. This first observation was from M’ling, the part bear, dog and ox man-beast.
Moreover, in terms of physical appearance, Prendick describes the beast men as “They seemed to me then brown men, but their limbs were oddly swathed in some thin dirty white stuff down even to the fingers and feet….there under peered out their elfin faces at me, faces with protruding lower jaws and bright eyes. They had lank black hair almost like horse hair, and seemed, as they sat, to exceed in stature any race of men I have seen….their bodies were abnormally long and the thigh-part of the leg short and curiously twisted. At any rate they were an amazingly ugly gang….” (26-27)
So as to further distinguish the beast men from other animals, Dr. Moreau imposed the Law on the island, “Not to go on all-Fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to eat Flesh or Fish; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to claw Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?” (65) This became the mantra of the beast men and they obeyed the law sincerely until certain events initiated by the human characters in the story made it difficult for them to do so. The Beast Men are bound by this law. They constantly strived to attain this archetype and yet they are doomed to fail. Thus when they made mistakes they felt immensely guilty. The Beast Men are considered the tragic figures in the story.
However repulsive and bizarre the creatures are on the island, Prendick has somehow grown accustomed to them, “I became habituated to the Beast People, that a thousand things that had seemed unnatural and repulsive speedily became natural and ordinary to me…I would see one of the bovine creatures who worked the launch treading heavily through the undergrowth, and find myself trying hard to recall how he differed from some really human yokel trudging home from his mechanical labors” (96). Prendick has recognized the animals and humans have similarities too. Prendick too has noticed some changes in him. His eyes “have a strange brightness” and his movements have become “swift” and “alert” (146). This particular eye characteristic is the same “luminosity” that he has first noticed on the inhabitants of the island.
Through Prendick’s association with the Beast People, the creatures seemed more human than Dr. Moreau himself. The doctor was fueled by his desire for knowledge and progress that he neglected the costs of his actions. The downfall of the peace and the rise of animosity in the story are also man-provoked. While the Beast People took the law to heart, it was the men who sought to tempt them into breaking the law. In this sense, in light of the usual conceptions of man versus animals, the humans in the story behaved more animal-like. Montgomery’s drinking, and Dr. Moreau’s greed for knowledge led to their downfall. One can say that these animal-like actions or regressions can lead men to trouble.
In the end, when Predick was back in his homeland, he attempts to analyze these changes in himself, his inability to socialize, and on the Beast People he had known:
“I was almost as queer to men as I had been to the Beast People. I may have caught something of the natural wildness of my companions. …a restless fear has dwelt in my mind…I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another, still passably human, Beast People….and that they would presently begin to revert, to show first this bestial mark…I look about my fellow men. And I go in fear. I see faces…. none that have the calm authority of the soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale. I know this is an illusion, that these seeming men and women are indeed men and women, men and women forever, perfectly reasonable creatures, full of human desires and tender solitude, emancipated from instinct, and the slaves of no fantastic Law – beings altogether different from the Beast Folk. Yet I shrink from them, from their curious glances, their inquiries and assistance, and long to be away from them and alone.” (154-156)
This excerpt summarizes that fear the Prendick feels that all human may be doomed to undergo in the future—they will regress back into their animal-bestial tendencies and instincts. Human nature cannot be bestowed upon animals, they will soon go back to what they are accustomed to. Humans, who are basically animals too, can lose their human instincts when they perform acts of extreme cruelty, injustice and selfishness. All this can happen if there is no Law that governs our actions and thought. Without laws, religion and guidelines, evolution may digress and regress us into savagery.
In the end of the novel, the mantra “Are we not men?” defines the limitation of humans in altering the laws of nature. This is as if to say, yes we are men. We are not God.
Wells, H. G. The Island of Dr. Moreau. New York: Random House, 1996.
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