Gothic Monsters- The Litany of Fear in H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau

H.G. Wells may be known as one of the first writers of science fiction but his novel The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of the first modern horror stories and hits upon four of the greatest fears of the Victorian age. His work does this in such a subtle and inventive way that we may need to reevaluate Wells and name him one of the modern fathers of horror fiction as well. The four fears that Wells so intricately weaves into his story are the fear of science, the fear of internal corruption, the fear of reverse colonization, and the fear of social isolation. These four themes run throughout Victorian Gothic literature but few utilize all of these in one story. For instance Dracula is probably the best known of all the Gothic monsters but the story relies primarily on the use of the fear of internal corruption. In fact Dracula even fits the mold of the Detective story and uses scientific inquiry and deduction not as a negative but to finally destroy the title vampire.  If we look further afield we can see these four great horrors of the age used in many novels and stories of the period. For instance both Ziska and The Beetle utilize the fear of internal corruption, and reverse colonization as part of their plots, while The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde combine fear of science and internal corruption. Social isolation runs through many of these stories as an oppressive background to some but it is much more prevalent in The String of Pearls, here we find the Victorian mind petrified by the very society they have created. Alienated and alone a man could become lost in a city of millions. All these fears however are embodied in Wells story of men created from beasts.

Foremost in the novel Wells wishes to delve into the horrors of the scientific age. Doctor Moreau has set himself up as a literal God above the bestial creatures he experiments upon. He has even handed down a series of Laws in a parody of God speaking down to Moses.

“A horrible fancy came into my head that Moreau after animalizing these men had infected their dwarfed brains with a kind of deification of himself.” (129)

The audience of this novel was well aware of Darwin’s theory of evolution and I am sure they saw what Wells was suggesting through the character of Doctor Moreau. Here was a world turned upside down. Prometheus was unbound and God was now flesh and blood. Doctor Moreau represented the death of religion because if man could replicate the works of God what was God? Science had killed God and this realization could not have been lost on the Victorian mind. If men could command the powers of a God through scientific knowledge then what types of God would they be? Again Wells goes for the gut and here we see Doctor Moreau a mad God drunk with what he believe to be power over his creation, but just as Zeus over threw the Titans Moreau’s Godhood would end in tragedy at the hands of his creation. Science is at the heart of horror in this novel. Wells shows the reader that science unbidden by morals and ethics will run amok. This story is certainly a parable for the reader informing him of the dangers of science divorced from ethics and morality.

While a fear of science drives the story the twin fears of internal corruption and reverse colonization lurk just beneath the surface. Wells creates a microcosm of Britain on the Island. Here we have learned men of science, white men, civilized men but they have without knowing created the situation that will lead to their own demise. The beast men are creations of the Victorian mind but they are also stand-ins for those people that exist in the British colonies. Any Victorian would recognize in the dog-man the loyal Indian servant who graced so many wealthy homes in the period. This man brought from the savage Indian sub-continent would have been thought just as much a creation of British science and ingenuity as any man created from a beast. Here was a person, who through the prejudice of the Victorian mind would have been seen as having been raised out of a condition of savagery and into the light of civilization. What fear Wells must have produced in these minds when they read of the beast men raised in what could only be a parody of the civilizing hand of British society abroad. What little prick of fear would the fine gentleman have when laying down his head and knowing that his Indian servant could at any time revert back into a savage and kill him while he slept? This was the fear the Wells awakens in his novel.  So too did Wells awake the fear of internal corruption. We see this corruption creep into almost all the characters in the novel. Even the civilized Victorian was not immune to the effects. Wells pierces the thin veneer of civilization and we see the monsters and beast that lie beneath. Moreau is mad with his power. He has set himself up as a God before his creations. This internal corruption which can be seen as the loss of his soul is the price he has paid for his experiment. Prendick goes to live with the beasts and essentially becomes one of them while working on a means to escape. In the parlance of the time Prendick had “gone native”.

The last fear and one that probably sat heaviest on the hearts of those in London was that of social isolation. Prendick returns to London a changed man. His metal has been tested by his ordeal and he does not return the stronger for it. Prendick has been stretched to his breaking point and while he has not totally fallen apart his mind has been forever frayed by his encounters on the Island. Prendick cannot look at his fellow man or hear their voices without hearing and seeing the beasts. He is alone in a city of millions with his fear. Prendick comments on his fear that all men are like the beasts,“it seemed that the preacher gibbered “Big Thinks,” even as the Ape-man had done; or into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey.” (250)  To the fevered mind of Prendick God must have died on that island and science had killed him. Wells now takes the reader to the brink of real fear by asking a simple question. If Science has killed God and man evolved from the beast, are men not beasts? Here is the gripping fear. Civilization is just a façade it is merely the litany of the Law, a false set of beliefs that hold men back from their true inner desires.  Prendick finds the only inner peace that he can in contemplation of a God in which he no longer believes.

 

Wells, H. G. The Island of Dr. Moreau, Dover Thrift Editions. New York: Dover Publications, 1996.

 

 

About Jonathan David Baird

Jonathan David Baird has worked as an archaeologist for the past fifteen years throughout the Southeast. He left full-time field work in 2011 to finish graduate school. In 2012 Jonathan received a master's degree in English literature from Fort Hays State University. His focus of study was the development of late Victorian Gothic horror. Currently working on second masters in American history and applying to PhD programs.
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Robbins Mitchell says:

“Are we not men?”

“We are Devo!”

Read it again that is exactly what I said in this sentence at the end of the article. “If Science has killed God and man evolved from the beast, are men not beasts? Here is the gripping fear. Civilization is just a façade it is merely the litany of the Law, a false set of beliefs that hold men back from their true inner desires.”

jfh says:

I think you have it backwards- [not agreeing with Wells, but] Wells is explaining to us that we are beasts, and that religion is nonsense designed to control our bestiality.

A.A. Kidd says:

Great article. I have a paper on the evolutionary themes in The Time Machine that I’ve been sitting on for the past twelve years, waiting for publication.

My Master’s thesis was tracing the evolution of Gothic Horror and Science Fiction from the work of Charles Darwin. Looking at Darwin’s influence on H.G. Wells, Robert Lewis Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle. This paper was written before I did my thesis so it is a little dated in terms of my current research on the topic but I wanted to share it anyway and since it hasn’t been in print…WTH