© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

Herbert George Wells (1866–1946) was one of the world’s most important and influential thinkers and writers for more than a half century, from the 1890s to the 1940s. His thoughts on history and politics had an important impact on the course of many subsequent debates in those fields, while his meditations on utopia, dystopia, and the growing technologization of modern society were crucial in forming the modern Western mindset. These meditations also made Wells one of the founding figures of modern science fiction, especially as they often appeared in actual science fiction novels (which he himself referred to as “scientific romances”). Collectively, this body of novels—which includes such well-known works as The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898)—can be taken as the beginning of truly modern science fiction. Slightly later, but lesser-known works by Wells—including When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), The First Men on the Moon (1901), The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904), and A Modern Utopia (1905)—are also important and include especially thoughtful reflections of Wells’s socialist political ideas. Indeed, all of Wells’s science fiction is intensely engaged with the social and political issues of its day, demonstrating early on the potential of science fiction as a mode of commentary on such issues.

Wells would also go on to produce a number of highly successful and influential novels in a more realistic vein, though some of these, such as the remarkable Tono-Bungay (1909), continue to display some science fictional elements. As Don Smith notes in H. G. Wells on Film, Wells’s work (especially in science fiction) has also been widely adapted to film, keeping it fresh for generations of future audiences—though often at the expense of seriously diluting the intellectual content of the original novels.Because of his central importance as a figure in the Western culture of the first half of the twentieth century, Wells has been the subject of extensive critical commentary, including such book-length studies as Mark Hillegas’s The Future as Nightmare: H. G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians (1967) and Frank McConnell’s The Science Fiction of H. G. Wells (1981). Richard Hauer Costa’s H. G. Wells (1985) is a good basic introduction to Wells and his work. Wells has also been the subject of several major biographies and numerous individual critical essays, many of which have been collected in volumes such as H. G. Wells and Modern Science Fiction (1977, edited by Darko Suvin and Robert Philmus), whichconsiders the impact of Wells’s work on subsequent writers of science fiction.

The Island of Doctor Moreau and the Modern World

The time travel device of The Time Machine and the invading Martians of The War of the Worlds are probably Wells’ most compelling and vividly remembered science fictional inventions—and the ones that have exerted the most influence on the imaginations of Wells’ successors among science fiction writers. Indeed, while it is also based on specific developments and debates in contemporary Victorian science, The Island of Doctor Moreau is in many ways more rightly regarded as a work of horror, rather than science fiction[1]. This might be one reason why the best film adaptation of this novel, The Island of Lost Souls (1932), is the one that treats it as a work of horror, as opposed to the later (and inferior) 1977 and 1996 adaptations that treat it as science fiction. The Island of Lost Souls is, in fact, one of the great horror films of all time, largely thanks to Charles Laughton’s compelling performance as Moreau.

The Island of Doctor Moreau is a very short novel—and one that tells a seemingly straightforward story of scientific overreach, somewhat in the tradition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). A closer look, however, shows that Moreau is far more complex than it first appears. It certainly does interrogate the ethical duties and responsibilities of the scientist, but it also addresses a number of other issues about which Wells’ contemporaries in late-Victorian Britain were deeply concerned. In fact, Moreau is a deeply troubling text that evokes many of the fears and anxieties of the Victorian world, fears and anxieties that are so fundamental to the very project of modernity that they remain relevant today.

The Island of Doctor Moreau and Victorian Science

Science in general was a popular topic among the late Victorians, many of whom undertook scientific research as a hobby. H. G. Wells himself had studied biology under Thomas Henry Huxley, one of Charles Darwin’s chief advocates. Indeed, Wells’ first publication was a two-volume textbook on biology in 1893. He eventually helped to found the Royal College of Science Association, of which he became the first president in 1909. Wells, in short, had a substantial scientific background of his own and was well versed in the scientific debates of his day, especially in the field of biology. He was a strong advocate of science as the key to building a better world—and ultimately became one of the world’s most important utopian thinkers in that vein. It is safe to assume, therefore, that he did not intend Moreau as a commentary on the evils of science in general, even if it does critique the shortcomings of certain kinds of scientists.

Chief among the scientists who come under fire is Moreau himself, whose dedication to his research might be admirable except for the fact that he pursues his goals with a single-minded, unrestrained fanaticism, without regard for the possible negative consequences. In this sense, he is a Frankensteinian figure. At the same time, the details of Moreau’s research touch upon some very specific issues that were very prominent in the 1890s[2]. It is no accident, for example, that Moreau primarily uses a combination of surgical techniques and blood transfusions in order to create hybrid animal species, with the ultimate goal of making them human. One of the major scientific controversies of the time had to do with the ethics of animal research, especially vivisection (which involves performing surgery on live animals for experimental purposes, typically in order to learn lessons that might be later applied in human medicine). There was also considerable controversy in the 1890s concerning the use of blood transfusions, which often did more harm than good, because the scientists of the day did not understand the concept of blood types[3]. But blood transfusions were nevertheless becoming more common; for example, a particularly extensive series of experimental blood transfusions was carried out at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary between 1885 and 1892. Given the tenor of Wells’ novel, with the emphasis on the pain caused by Moreau’s treatments, it seems clear that Wells was not a proponent of animal vivisection or of cross-species transfusions (animal to human transfusions had been tried—usually with dire results—as early as the seventeenth century).

However, as R. D. Haynes points out, it is important to recognize that Moreau is also presented as something of an alchemist, dabbling in dark material that perhaps no genuine scientist should ever explore (14). Further, Haynes also points out that Moreau is not the only scientist in the novel. Moreau’s assistant Montgomery is also a scientist, if a less brilliant one. Perhaps more importantly, he is also a much less dedicated one, seemingly putting more energy into drinking than into his research. Even Montgomery’s apparent sympathy for the Beast People is depicted as a weakness in the text, partly because it suggests an emotional entanglement that is incompatible with the objective approach generally considered appropriate to scientific research.

Of course, one reason why Montgomery comes off so badly is that all we know about him comes from Edward Prendick, the book’s principal narrator, who takes refuge on the island after being set adrift at sea and who is horrified by virtually everything he encounters there. Prendick, an avowed teetotaler, seems particularly to loathe Montgomery, whose penchant for drink is abhorrent to the narrator. Indeed, Prendick is so appalled by Montgomery’s drinking (and fraternizing with the Beast People, often under the influence of alcohol) that he sees this drinking as a sign of Montgomery’s own beastliness. Late in the narrative, he thus issues his summary judgement of Montgomery: “I felt that for Montgomery there was no help; that he was, in truth, half akin to these Beast Folk, unfitted for human kindred.”

Of course, one could also argue that Prendick is being priggishly judgmental here, and it is worth remembering that Prendick himself is presented to us as a thoroughly problematic figure. For one thing, his entire narrative is called into question from the very beginning when it is prefaced with an introduction by Prendick’s nephew, Charles Edward Prendick. The nephew notes that, after being rescued at sea, his uncle

“gave such a strange account of himself that he was supposed demented. Subsequently he alleged that his mind was a blank from the moment of his escape from the Lady Vain. His case was discussed among psychologists at the time as a curious instance of the lapse of memory consequent upon physical and mental stress. The following narrative was found among his papers by the undersigned, his nephew and heir, but unaccompanied by any definite request for publication.”

The nephew then goes on to note that there is no evidence for the existence of such an island as his uncle describes in his narrative, so that “this narrative is without confirmation in its most essential particular.”

We are thus warned to be wary of Prendick’s reliability (or even sanity), something that the misanthropic turn taken by the narrator at the end of the narrative seems to suggest as well. Nevertheless, it should also be noted that Prendick is also something of a scientist, with a background in that regard similar to Wells’ own. He had, for example, “spent some years at the Royal College of Science, and had done some researches in biology under Huxley.” It is also important to recognize that he is initially horrified by Moreau’s experiments, partly because he misrecognizes Moreau’s project, thinking that the scientist is attempting to transform people into animals, rather than the other way around.

Ultimately, though, as Haynes points out, Prendick essentially assumes the role of Moreau on the island after the latter’s death. Then (in a mode that numerous observers have compared with Gulliver’s return from the land of the Houyhnhnm in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels) Prendick finds on his return to London that he is horrified by his fellow Englishmen, who now impress him as being not all that different from the Beast People of Moreau’s island. If he has learned from the island that beasts are akin to people, he now feels that people are akin to beasts. He thus retreats into seclusion, where, importantly, he devotes himself primarily to scientific pursuits:

“My days I devote to reading and to experiments in chemistry, and I spend many of the clear nights in the study of astronomy. There is—though I do not know how there is or why there is—a sense of infinite peace and protection in the glittering hosts of heaven. There it must be, I think, in the vast and eternal laws of matter, and not in the daily cares and sins and troubles of men, that whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope.”

In short, he becomes still another image of the “bad” scientist, pursuing knowledge for his own comfort and gratification but completely cut off from the social world around him.

The Island of Doctor Moreau, Evolution, and Degeneration

The scientific idea that hovers over the entire text of The Island of Doctor Moreau is Darwin’s theory of evolution, first put forth in On the Origin of Species in 1859. By the 1870s, Darwin himself had followed with The Descent of Man (1871), and his theory, supported by large and growing amounts of physical evidence, was fast gaining widespread scientific acceptance. It also gained the attention of Britain’s amateur scientists, becoming something of a popular fascination. But interpretations of the implications of the theory varied widely, and Darwin’s work ultimately both reinforced and undermined Victorian confidence in the inevitability of progress.

This doubleness is not surprising. One of the most often noted characteristics of late-Victorian thought is its inherent doubleness. On virtually every issue, the late Victorians seem to have been able to hold views that were not only different, but often downright contradictory. This situation strongly influenced Wells’ writing. For example, his two best-known novels of the 1890s, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds are both cautionary tales against complacence and overconfidence. In the first, Wells warns his contemporary Britishers against an excessive faith that the progress of history will necessarily lead to a better world and a better human race. In the second, he warns his fellow citizens against the dual assumption that the British will necessarily remain the most powerful nation on earth and that this power gives them the right to rule weaker nations. In The Island of Doctor Moreau, however, Wells addresses issues over which the British, far from being complacent, were already suffering significant fears and anxieties.

The doubleness of late-Victorian thought is perhaps not surprising, given the fact that the British of the time found themselves in such a contradictory position. At the end of the nineteenth century, Great Britain was undoubtedly the most technologically advanced and powerful nation on earth, its empire the greatest and most extensive in human history. Yet the British economy was in serious trouble, and unemployment was high. In addition, those who were employed worked in such dismal conditions that their general health and welfare had actually declined during the previous century. All in all, the utopian dreams that had fueled the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution still had a great deal of currency, but the sense that these dreams were not being realized in the way expected was gaining power.

By 1909, Charles Masterman, a politician and minor intellectual, observed in The Condition of England the collapse of early-Victorian dreams:

“The large hopes and dreams of the Early Victorian time have vanished: never, at least in the immediate future, to return. The science which was to allay all diseases, the commerce which was to abolish war, and weave all nations into one human family, the research which was to establish ethics and religion on a secure and positive foundation, the invention which was to enable all humanity, with a few hours of not disagreeable work every day, to live for the remainder of their time in ease and sunshine—all these have become recognised as remote and fairy visions” (qtd. in Hynes 133–34).

The air of crisis that informed so much late Victorian thought is reflected (and commented upon) in The Island of Doctor Moreau in a number of ways. For one thing, as Glendening emphasizes (and as the preface to the text of Moreau itself stipulates), Prendick is potentially an extremely unreliable narrator. In earlier Victorian novels, narrators were typically presented as figures of authority who could be relied upon as sources of accurate information—and even for some guidance on how to interpret that information. In Moreau, though, the narrator is a nasty figure who might even be entirely insane.

Glendening, meanwhile, believes that Prendick’s unreliability provides an important component of what he sees as an emphasis on uncertainty and disorder that runs throughout The Island of Doctor Moreau. Uncertainty and disorder, of course, were two things with which the Victorians were extremely uncomfortable: one of the reasons why Darwin’s work ultimately triggered a crisis was that it made the evolution of the human race seem, not the result of a divine plan, but essentially a matter of chance. This realization clearly undermines the conventional Christian notion that humans, created in the image of God, are intended to stand above and have dominion over nature, including animals. Perhaps even more troubling to the Victorian upper classes, though, was that this collapse of what were once felt to be divinely ordained hierarchies meant that bourgeois hegemony in Britain and British hegemony around the globe were both matters of chance, rather than matters of innate bourgeois superiority to the working class or inherent British superiority to Africans or Indians.

Moreau’s experiments can largely be described as an attempt to overcome the element of chance in evolution and to discover scientific techniques that would allow human beings to seize control of the evolutionary process, eventually providing a means to create a new human race of Nietzschean Übermenschen that would, in fact, be superior to anything in the natural world. Later developments, such as the attempts of the German Nazis to stimulate the development of a Master Race through their own gruesome scientific experiments, highlight the sinister (and, particularly, racist) intonations of Moreau’s project. Moreau’s failure, meanwhile, highlights the fact that nature might not be so easily tamed.

From this point of view, The Island of Doctor Moreau can be read as an early environmentalist tale that suggests the ultimately destructive impact of human interventions on the natural world. But the text as a whole can also be taken as Wells’ satirical jab at his fellow Victorians for being so overwrought in their terror of disorder.

Most centrally, though, Moreau satirizes the Victorian fear that, if evolution is driven by chance, perhaps it might at some point reverse itself and turn to devolution. This fear leads directly to what was perhaps the most visible anxiety suffered by the late Victorians (and one that extended to late-nineteenth-century America as well): the fear of “degeneration.” Driven first and foremost by the popular understanding (which was mostly a misunderstanding) of Darwin’s theory of evolution, many in Britain (and elsewhere in the Western world) felt a growing sense that their oh-so-advanced civilization was extremely fragile, possibly just a thin veneer beneath which darker and more savage forces still lurked, poised to burst back to the surface at any moment.

However, the Victorian misapprehension of Darwin was deep enough that many Victorians seemed to believe that even a given individual could somehow evolve in their own lifetime. But, of course, this notion implied that an individual could also degenerate into primitive savagery. Many popular Victorian narratives built upon this idea; the best known such narrative (and one that is particularly overt) is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894). In this narrative, the ultra-sophisticated scientist Dr. Henry Jekyll develops a potion that activates the latent beast man Mr. Hyde, who still resides in the depths of Jekyll’s mind. Hyde is vicious and murderous, his more primitive impulses absolutely free of the kind of restraints that held Victorian society together in a civilized state. Dramatizing another key Victorian fear, Hyde turns out to be stronger and more energetic than Jekyll, whom civilization has made effete.

Darwin’s work inspired a number of offshoot theories, many of which were based on fundamental misunderstandings of the implications of the theory of evolution. For example, in the movement known as “social Darwinism,” many notions of social progress came to be modeled on Darwin’s work. Thus, thinkers such as Herbert Spencer argued that human societies advance through a process of natural selection analogous to that attributed to plants and animals by Darwin, presumably assuring that society will gradually progress to more and more efficient and sophisticated states. These kinds of narratives helped to shore up the remarkable emphasis on the notion of progress that characterized so much European thought in the nineteenth century. However, the Darwinian vision of progress (with no divine plan to assure its forward movement) also triggered a growing anxiety over the possibility that evolution might somehow reverse itself and begin to proceed backward, with humans then becoming more and more primitive. Even Spencer’s notion of social progress contributed to these anxieties. For Spencer, Victorian England was a unique society because it had the sophistication of advanced, or “industrial” societies, but still maintained the raw energy and drive that he associated with primitive or “militant” societies. But this hybrid vision of Victorian England implied that the Victorians maintained strong vestiges of their primitive past, reinforcing fears that these primitive characteristics might somehow come back to the fore, gaining the upper hand through their greater strength and vitality.

In many ways, The Island of Doctor Moreau is a fairly straightforward allegorization of the Darwinian recognition that the line separating animals from humans is not nearly as strict and absolute as the Victorians might have liked to believe. After all, the island of the title is a remote location where Moreau conducts gruesome experiments in which he attempts to transform animals into humans, while also dabbling in the creation of cross-species hybrids. These experiments thus assume a basic kinship and biological compatibility among various animal species, including humans. They also enact in compressed form the evolutionary process through which species transform into other species, with human beings at the pinnacle of this process.

These experiments are, in themselves, horrific enough, involving the imposition of great physical suffering on Moreau’s experimental subjects, who consequently dub his laboratory the “House of Pain.” But what, for a Victorian readership, must have been particularly troubling about this narrative is the suggestion that the process can easily reverse itself. Indeed, Moreau fights a constant (and losing) battle against the reversion of his experimental subjects into their previous animalistic states, ultimately leading to a revolt in which Moreau and Montgomery are killed.

That Moreau taps into the fear of degeneration that was so widespread and deep-seated in late Victorian society can perhaps be seen most clearly in the revulsion experienced by Prendick when he encounters his fellow Londoners upon his return to England. Prendick’s understanding that the modern human beings are not that far removed from the creatures created by Moreau is surely rooted in some of the same realizations as the fear of degeneration. If humans and animals are virtually interchangeable and one easily can be converted into the other, then all notions of the special and unique status of the human species go out the window.

It is clear that Wells presents Prendick’s attitude upon his return as unreasonable and misanthropic. There is also the open possibility, as indicated by the prefatory note of Prendick’s nephew, that Prendick has either imagined or fabricated his entire narrative, which further undermines his position. Therefore, Moreau should not be read as an expression of contemporary anxieties about degeneration so much as it should be read as a criticism of those anxieties as excessive and irrational. In this sense, Moreau supplements The Time Machine, published just a year earlier. There, Wells’ protagonist travels to the far future, where he discovers that England’s working class has degenerated into a race of animalistic cannibals (the “Morlocks”), while the ruling class has degenerated into a passive, effete race (the “Eloi”), that the Morlocks use for food. Both cases, Kershner notes, “are precise illustrations of Darwin’s discussions of degeneration among lower species as a response to pathological local conditions” (432). This narrative can be interpreted either as suggesting that the class structure of late Victorian Britain could drive a class-based degeneration or as a mockery of the upper-class belief that the working class were a fundamentally different (and inferior) category of humans, or as a parodic sendup of upper-class fears of degeneration. Either case, however, would serve as a critique of contemporary notions of degeneration, which becomes either the product of class inequality or a mere paranoid fantasy.

Incidentally, it should be noted that Prendick’s perception of the similarities of his fellow Englishmen to Moreau’s Beast People is actually foreshadowed by an earlier observation made by Prendick when he was still on the island. Describing Moreau’s hold over the Beast People, Prendick notes that

“In spite of their increased intelligence and the tendency of their animal instincts to reawaken, they had certain fixed ideas implanted by Moreau in their minds, which absolutely bounded their imaginations. They were really hypnotised; had been told that certain things were impossible, and that certain things were not to be done, and these prohibitions were woven into the texture of their minds beyond any possibility of disobedience or dispute.”

Prendick here seems to feel that he is describing something special about the Beast People, apparently unaware that he is providing here an excellent description of the way in which bourgeois ideology limits the thoughts of the subjects of modern capitalist societies. Describing the workings of ideology in such societies, the French theorist Louis Althusser has noted that bourgeois ideology operates in the mode he refers to as “interpellation.” In this mode, the individual subject is not merely influenced by ideology, but it is literally created by it, made who they are by the impact of the ideology that has surrounded them all their lives, even before birth. Individuals thus find it very difficult to think outside the boundaries of bourgeois ideology, because all of their conceptions of the world have been formed within the framework of that ideology.

Prendick’s description of the conditioning of the Beast People takes on a different meaning in light of his later perceptions of the similarities between the Beast People and ordinary Englishmen. If the Beast People are like Englishmen, then Englishmen might be expected to be similarly conditioned. This passage thus provides a criticism of the conservatism and conformism of late-Victorian society, suggesting that Wells’ contemporaries are resistant to new ideas because they have been programmed to think in certain ways, almost like trained animals.

The Island of Doctor Moreau and Colonialism

The Island of Doctor Moreau provides other forms of political commentary as well, mostly due to the way in which the degeneration fears are linked to contemporary concerns about colonialism. Moreau is absolutely saturated with motifs that evoke the topic of colonialism. Most obvious of these is simply the “exotic” setting on a remote Pacific island. There is also a great deal of imagery that is obviously intended to link Moreau’s Beast People (who are clearly figured as not quite human) with Britain’s colonial subjects. For example, when Prendick first meets up with M’Ling, Montgomery’s servant, he clearly assumes that he is simply a nonwhite human, referring to him as having a “black face.” And such notions proliferate through the text, while blackness is associated with ugliness and primitivity.

It is clear that the captain of the Ipecacuanha makes similar assumptions, extending them to include the assumption that M’Ling is a cannibal. But that is not even the first mention of cannibalism in the book. Oblique references to cannibalism begin very early in Moreau, as Prendick drifts with two other men in a lifeboat, nearing death and realizing that desperate measures will soon be necessary. But Prendick is too squeamishly proper even to utter the word “cannibalism,” opting instead merely to refer to“the thing we had all been thinking,” thus showing how horrifying the very notion of cannibalism is to the Victorian mind. Then, after Prendick is taken aboard the Ipecacuanha, the drunken captain there loses patience with the weirdness he finds aboard his ship (especially in the person of the Beast Man M’Ling) and decides to unload Prendick along with Montgomery, M’Ling, and the cargo of animals he has brought to Moreau’s island, grumbling that “this ship ain’t for beasts and cannibals and worse than beasts, any more.”

Once Prendick is on the island, where the boundary between beast and human has been so radically blurred, suggesting a strong kinship among all species, the eating of meat inherently becomes a form of cannibalism. As a result, the eating of meat has been banned among the Beast People, who view it as a key element of “The Law,” which is designed to keep them as human as possible and to help prevent their reversion to animality. Thus, the scene in which Prendick comes upon the vicious Hyena-Swine, which has just killed Prendick’s loyal Dog-Man (the only Beast Man with whom Prendick had established a relationship), is particularly horrifying. He finds the Hyena-Swine “gripping the quivering flesh with its misshapen claws, gnawing at it, and snarling with delight. As I approached, the monster lifted its glaring eyes to mine, its lips went trembling back from its red-stained teeth.”

Such images reek of the colonialist stereotyping of Africans, Pacific Islanders, and others as savage cannibals, stereotyping that is particularly prominent in another late-Victorian literary genre with which Moreau has a great deal in common: the colonial romances of writers such as H. Rider Haggard. However, if Moreau differs in tone and outlook from Wells’ other scientific romances, it also differs substantially from the mainstream entries in the genre of colonial romance. These narratives were typically built on British confidence, even arrogance, and they were generally designed to reaffirm, rather than challenge the British faith in their own innate superiority. In narratives such as King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and She (1886), Haggard constructed rousing adventure stories in which stalwart (male) British heroes proved able to overcome all obstacles presented to them by the savage peoples and harsh environments of the colonial world. As Taneja puts it, “Typically, such colonialist stories featured upper-class or aristocratic heroes bringing progress and civilization to their perceived animal-like primitive Others in the outposts of a growing empire” (139). However, as Taneja then notes, there are no such heroes in Moreau. Moreau himself, Montgomery, and even Prendick are, she suggests, “coded as degenerates, failing to establish productive relations with any of the non-European natives or the lower-class members of British society in the tropics” (139).

The unheroic nature of the narrative of Moreau is not unique among late Victorian fictions set in exotic locales—one thinks of Stevenson’s The Beach of Falesá (1892)—but the particular nature of Moreau’s subject matter is especially effective at using this sort of narrative to address in a very direct way the prominent fears of its contemporary Victorian society, while also addressing the deep-seated sense of guilt and anxiety that is endemic to the entire project of modernity. In particular, Moreau responds to a barely suppressed memory of the shaky moral foundation upon which capitalism and modernity were built, recalling that the genocidal extermination of tens of millions of Native Americans and the brutal enslavement of tens of millions of Africans were both absolutely crucial to building the economic foundation upon which capitalism was built. Meanwhile, Moreau responds particularly directly to the corresponding fear that this foundation might collapse at any moment, sending modern civilization tumbling into the abyss.

In mid-1890s Britain many of these fears were focused on colonialism and on the questions of whether the British really had a right to be colonizing peoples all around the world, whether this process might have a negative impact on Britain itself, and whether a small nation such as Britain could really maintain such a vast empire indefinitely. In The War of the Worlds, Wells would produce one of the most effective critiques of colonialism to be produced in the 1890s, asking his British readers to imagine what it might be like to be the colonized, rather than the colonizer. Moreau is clearly a story about Europeans behaving badly in the non-European world, and to this extent it can certainly be seen as an anticolonial narrative as well. Thus, Weaver-Hightower and Piwarski argue that Prendick is made so uncomfortable by the Beast People because they remind him of “the unpleasant realities of colonialism, of the crimes committed in the name of the civilizing mission—enslavement, culture and language eradication, oppression, dispossession, violence—the same themes that both psychoanalysis and postcolonial studies continue to explore more than a century later” (369). Meanwhile, Weaver-Hightower and Piwarski also point out that Prendick’s anxieties continue after he returns to London, where “Prendick cannot mentally escape the fear coming from the reminder of the instability of empire and European civilization’s progress” (368).

It is certainly the case that Moreau can be taken as an emblem of the impact of Europe upon the colonial world, his complete lack of regard for the suffering of the animals on which he experiments marking him as the true monster of the piece. Montgomery, his assistant, is a bit more sympathetic to the Beast People, but he is also identified as suspect due to his excessive drinking. Meanwhile, as Taneja points out in detail, the British sailors aboard the Ipecacuanha are also depicted as animalistic and degenerate. Granted, the depiction of these sailors significantly resembles the negative stereotypes that were often applied to the working class at the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, as Gareth Stedman Jones notes, the impoverished East End of London came to be viewed at this time as “an almost unalloyed centre of degeneration” (308)[4].

However, if Moreau ultimately deconstructs degeneration fears, it is also the case that itundermines this sort of classist stereotyping, both through the negative depictions of Moreau and Montgomery and through the fact that Prendick himself, very much the point-of-view character of the narrative, is hardly an exemplary figure in his own right. Not only does Prendick find himself struggling against his own animalistic tendencies, terrified that they will get the best of him, but he winds up, as Glendening puts it, “an unhinged, frightened, and possibly untruthful misanthrope” (592).

Moreau, then, deconstructs the stereotypical notion that working-class people are somehow less human and more animalistic than their bourgeois rulers. What this novel demonstrates instead is that the British in general might be less superior to their colonial subjects than they would like to think. Of course, the rapid expansion of the British Empire in the late nineteenth century was justified by arguments of innate British superiority, which makes this anxiety a crucial one.

Probably the most important philosophical support for colonization in the nineteenth century G. W. F. Hegel’s scientific/rational version of providence, in which history is seen as an inexorable movement toward the realization of an ultimate goal that is identified with God’s plan for humanity: “That world history is governed by an absolute design, that it is a rational process—whose rationality is not that of a particular subject, but a divine and absolute reason—this is a proposition whose truth we must assume” (Hegel 28). Importantly, Hegel’s view of the divine plan behind history leads him to the ethnocentric conclusion that his contemporary European culture is the culmination of that plan and to the nationalistic belief that his own Germany is supreme among the nations of the earth. In short, his model of history tends to provide a justification for European imperial conquest of Africa and other “undeveloped” regions, because it envisions Europe as closer to the fulfillment of God’s plan for all of humanity. By extension, Europeans then argued that they had, not only the right, but the responsibility, to colonize other parts of the world, so that they could drag the people who inhabit those parts, however reluctantly, forward along the historical timeline toward a more “civilized” condition.

This vision of Europe’s more advanced development can clearly be seen in the rhetoric that accompanied the colonization of Africa. For example, in his 1922 book The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, the renowned British colonial administrator Lord Lugard, while admitting that European nations could certainly expect to profit financially from their African colonies, nevertheless maintains that this colonization also works for the benefit of Africans:

“Europe is in Africa for the mutual benefit of her own industrial classes, and of the native races in their progress to a higher plane; . . . It is the aim and desire of civilised administration to fulfill this dual mandate . . . In Africa to-day we are . . . bringing to the dark places of the earth . . . the torch of culture and progress, while ministering to the material needs of our own civilization” (qtd. in Sicherman 148).

But the colonization of Africa also triggered new degeneration fears, as many in Europe became concerned that contact between Europeans and the “savage” people and “primitive” societies of Africa, instead of making the Africans more civilized, might instead make the Europeans more primitive, causing them to degenerate into savagery. This fear is enacted most famously in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), in which the ultra-sophisticated European Kurtz goes to Africa and apparently descends into savagery (and possibly into cannibalism) thanks to his contact with the primitive environment there. But Moreau, though less overtly, reflects some of the same fears. As Weaver-Hightower and Piwarski put it, Prendick, observing the breakdown of the boundary between human and animal on Moreau’s island, “fears he will also biologically and socially devolve—from civilized white man to savage and then even further to animal” (366).

The Island of Doctor Moreau can be regarded as a work of satire that is designed to undermine late-Victorian British fears that contact with colonized peoples might make them into savage primitives. But, as I have suggested already, many of these fears are quite fundamental to the project of capitalist modernity and go well beyond the specifics of the late-Victorian situation. That this is so can perhaps best be seen in the fact that Moreau clearly resonates with so many different kinds of horror films that have been produced in the past century.

The Island of Doctor Moreau and the Modern Horror Film

The important film critic and theorist Robin Wood begins a highly influential discussion of the basic workings of horror film by suggesting that horror films in general provide a mechanism for dealing with the repressed anxieties brought about by life under “patriarchal capitalism” (63–65). According to Wood, the concept of repression is closely linked to the concept of “the Other,” which “represents that which bourgeois ideology cannot recognize or accept but must deal with” (65). Wood then proceeds to outline various categories of Others, which generally have to do with differences based on gender, ethnicity, class, culture, ideology, or age, though for Wood the most basic category of Other is simply other people in general, given that the dynamics of capitalism encourage us to regard all other people as foreign to us in some way (66–67). The monsters and other alien entities and forces that we encounter in horror movies are then the representatives of these various sorts of Others, of a sort of return of the repressed, and by watching them in the movie we can in some sense deal with some of our repressed fears. “One might say that the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses, its re-emergence dramatized, as in our nightmares, as an object of horror, a matter for terror, and the happy ending (when it exists) typically signifying the restoration of repression” (68).

Moreau certainly performs some of these functions for its contemporary audience, and I have already noted that the novel itself might be regarded as a work of horror. That The Island of Lost Souls is such a successful horror film also suggests some points of contact between the original novel and the genre of the horror film. In point of fact, however, many different kinds of horror films have involved some of the same basic fears that are addressed in Moreau, fears that our comfortable modern world might at any moment be disrupted by dark forces from the premodern past. The whole subgenre of the werewolf film, for example, draws upon a fear of degeneration from humanity into savage animality, just as the subgenre of “body horror” contains reminders of the fundamentally animal nature of human beings, reminders that often employ the motif of cannibalism. There are also numerous horror films that draw upon the notion that primitive cultures pose a threat to modern civilization, often because they are in touch with dark, supernatural forces with which the modern world is ill equipped to deal. One thinks, for example, of the “gypsy” curses in Thinner (1996) or Drag Me to Hell (2009). And, of course, there is an entire subgenre of horror films dealing with ancient Egyptian curses, especially those involving mummies. Resonances of Native American magic also run through many American horror films (the motif of the disastrous results of building on ancient Indian burial grounds is particularly common), often fueled by a sense of guilt over the combined genocide and ethnic cleansing that stole an entire continent from its previous owners. Finally, the entire subgenre of “folk horror”—from early examples such as The Wicker Man (1973) to recent examples such as Midsommar (2019)—depends on encounters with premodern subcultures (often depicted as cults) that exist on the fringes of the modern world but do not follow the rules of modern civilization.

Even in modern America, modern characters often encounter horror from the past when they venture into rural areas. Indeed, an entire subgenre, known as “rural horror” (or sometimes the more colorful “hillbilly horror”) involves modern people who venture into remote areas inhabited by backwoods folk who, relatively untouched by modern civilization, don’t take kindly to intruders. Quite often, these hillbillies have many of the characteristics once associated with colonized peoples, as when the hillbillies of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and Wrong Turn (2003) turn out to be cannibals. Fear of a return of the past, whether it involve the degeneration of individuals into primitive savagery or the degeneration of culture into a primitive savage state, clearly remains at the forefront of our common fears as we near the end of the first quarter of the twenty-first century.


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[2] In addition to the obvious issues, see McLean for an argument that Moreau can be productively read within the context of contemporary scientific debates over whether animals could use language or whether language use was exclusive to humans. The novel, for McLean, clearly suggests that animals can use language and that a focus on language suggests no fundamental and unbridgeable difference between humans and animals. It thus contributes to the overall sense of concern that the line between humans and animals was not as firm as the Victorians would have liked to believe.

[3] Blood types were discovered by the Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner, in 1900, only five years after the publication of Moreau.

[4] See Davies for a discussion of the ways in which the members of the Victorian working class were often compared with animals. Literature of the time often reflected this phenomenon. John Kijinski, for example, points out that Arthur Morrison’s novel A Child of the Jago (published the same year as Moreau) is, among other things, a response to the growing fear among the British bourgeoisie in the 1890s that poor living conditions were causing England’s lower classes to degenerate to the point that the English population would no longer have the talent or vitality to continue to rule Britain’s vast global empire.