The Island of Doctor Moreau - Q2: Animals and Humans

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“An animal may be ferocious and cunning enough, but it takes a real man to tell a lie.”

There are two main kinds of characters in the novel – those who were born human, and those born animal. Apart from their origin story, what distinguishes the two groups? Was one group more human than the other, in the end? How does gender factor into things?

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    I read the animals as victims, and I think it was intended that way. The novel also a blatant justification for all the worst aspects of colonialism. These poor benighted animals were raised to person-hood by the painful intervention of the white man, but they all too soon revert to their bestial ways. Is the novel anything other than an apology for the crimes of the British Empire?

    Moreau was a monster. Pendrick had some sympathy with the animals, but soon reverted to type and attempted to rule over them with violence and lies. Montgomery was a parasite.

    Gender? Wasn't an issue. There were a few women in the background, but they were kept in the background.

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    Welles may not have intended any such thing, but from the first I saw the standard 'comic book people A are metaphors for real life social ills so that we may address them.' I liked the animals far more than the people.

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    @clash_bowley said:
    Welles may not have intended any such thing, but from the first I saw the standard 'comic book people A are metaphors for real life social ills so that we may address them.' I liked the animals far more than the people.

    So what were they a metaphor for? Did you get something other than colonialism?

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    Well, there could be any number of issues read into it, and Wells most like meant for us to do that. Here is my precis of his views:

    Wells was a committed Socialist, and he hardly ever wrote fiction in his later years, preferring politics and social issues. He was a lifelong Republican - i.e. believed that the UK should become a republic. He was also a lifelong advocate for a world state, replacing nations. He despised eugenics and racism, and believed that race as a concept should be abolished, and that races would and should disappear in the future by blending. He wanted the classist system pulled down and one based on merit only to replace it. In his view the only good thing colonialism could possibly bring would be the dissemination of technology to every part of the world, allowing all to compete on an equal footing.

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    I think an attempt to justify colonialism would have showed positive results with the animals, wouldn't it? What I see here is colonialism backfiring. The book is usually described as a satire, using the animals to send up our own sense of self importance at having created a civilization. Wells believed that humans were first and foremost animals.

    The animals in the books are undergoing an artificial and forward evolution, slowly becoming human, but then degrading again. The experiment is precarious, and never quite stabilizes. The humans are also degrading - some faster than others. Early in the book, Prendick finds himself in the apartment unable to read the books with any comfort, and unable to described the beasts. At the end, he can no longer relate to the society he returns to. Montgomery, further removed from society, has gone further down the slope, as has the captain.

    There was a belief at the time that “many species appeared to have evolved not onwards and upwards, but into retrograde and degenerate forms” (biologist E.R. Lankester) and Wells seems to have been exploring the idea that this could happen to humans.

    And thanks for the bio, @clash_bowley , I didn't know most of that, but it sheds some nice light on this.

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    I don't think Wells was trying to justify colonialism. I think that was the only lens he could use to understand the relationship between white European men and other types of people. The society on the island could have been presented as a family, with Moreau the father and the beast-folk as children. It could have been a commune, with all involved in decision-making. It could have been a hospital, with doctors and patients. There are many ways it could have worked, but we ended up with colonialism.

    Is it a satire? I thought satire was using humour to point out the absurdity of a real situation, and I don't recall a great deal of humour in the book!

    The idea of progress/regress is why I asked about what keeps humans being decent. A small, isolated community regresses to something barbaric (similar to Lord of the Flies?). Is it society that keeps us elevated, the people around us holding each other to the highest standards of behaviour?

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    Though Satire is often funny, it's not exclusively so. It's more frequently absurd, I think. Wikipedia describes it as a genre in which the "vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government, or society itself into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society."

    Thomas More's Utopia is another example of a satire that isn't humorous (that I can recall, anyway - I read it a looong time ago) but is quite earnest.

    Upthread you said "The novel also a blatant justification for all the worst aspects of colonialism," and suggested the novel was an "apology for the crimes of the British Empire," which I interpreted as you calling out Wells for trying to justify colonialism - apology here in the 'apologia' sense. I think Wells is calling our attention to these things, but hardly defending them.

    Wells doesn't seem to give us a clear answer in this book as to what keeps us elevated, but I always felt that speculative fiction was more about asking questions than giving answers. I still think the clue is in the last chapter, but can't quite tease it out. Our club philosophers might be able to tell us. Often the answers to such things are couched in allegory, like a turn of phrase that provides a clue to the writings of a particular author, who may have been widely known at the time the book was written, but no longer is.

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    @Apocryphal said:

    Upthread you said "The novel also a blatant justification for all the worst aspects of colonialism," and suggested the novel was an "apology for the crimes of the British Empire," which I interpreted as you calling out Wells for trying to justify colonialism - apology here in the 'apologia' sense. I think Wells is calling our attention to these things, but hardly defending them.

    That could be because I'm still unclear in my own mind about what I think Wells is saying about colonialism. I think Wells is saying that colonialism is the default way for people to interact, and it's the way he's used to seeing those interactions. And there's nothing in the novel, I think, that says this is wrong. Moreau is wrong for usurping god, but the domination of the beast-folk is just the way things are. I don't think Pendrick tries to establish or support any other way of the beast-folk relating to anyone.

    The message I get is of Wells saying, "colonialism produces hurt, but what else can you do?"

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    The message I get is of Wells saying, "colonialism produces hurt, but what else can you do?"

    I don't know what message he was trying to send here, but I doubt very much it was the above. That would go against things he has said in other works. There was, for example, a scathing condemnation of British treatment of colonials in South Africa called something like "What do the Zulu really think about the English?" based on a letter he had received from a Zulu soldier.

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    @clash_bowley : Wise in the Ways of Wells :)
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    @Apocryphal said:
    @clash_bowley : Wise in the Ways of Wells :)

    I have read a lot of Wells over the years.

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    @clash_bowley said:

    The message I get is of Wells saying, "colonialism produces hurt, but what else can you do?"

    I don't know what message he was trying to send here, but I doubt very much it was the above. That would go against things he has said in other works. There was, for example, a scathing condemnation of British treatment of colonials in South Africa called something like "What do the Zulu really think about the English?" based on a letter he had received from a Zulu soldier.

    Thanks. I'm happy to stand corrected.

    But in this book, does Wells even admit the possibility of an alternative? The message seems to be that altering the status quo is dangerous, it's the role of the white man to rule over the less enlightened, and everything will revert back to how they were, no matter how squalid.

    Is that a deliberate part of the book? It's difficult to read the book as something that caricatures colonialism, as what happens in the book is fairly tame compared to the real world (no forced labour, no exploitative taxation, etc). There's no attempt to show the creation of a decent society, even if that were as crass as Pendrick teaching the beast-folk how to read. Pendrick doesn't even gain an appreciation for animals as being creatures with emotions and mental state, deserving of affection and support.

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    edited June 9

    @NeilNjae said:
    Thanks. I'm happy to stand corrected.

    But in this book, does Wells even admit the possibility of an alternative? The message seems to be that altering the status quo is dangerous, it's the role of the white man to rule over the less enlightened, and everything will revert back to how they were, no matter how squalid.

    Is that a deliberate part of the book? It's difficult to read the book as something that caricatures colonialism, as what happens in the book is fairly tame compared to the real world (no forced labour, no exploitative taxation, etc). There's no attempt to show the creation of a decent society, even if that were as crass as Pendrick teaching the beast-folk how to read. Pendrick doesn't even gain an appreciation for animals as being creatures with emotions and mental state, deserving of affection and support.

    Wells doesn't admit the possibility of an alternative because that is not what he is interested in exploring in this book. You are free to read what he actually felt about that topic and many others. He was not shy. I do not think he was interested in satirizing colonialism either.

    As a possibility, he could be ripping into science without responsibility here. Moreau makes his changes and tosses the result aside, not caring whether it lives or dies, so long as it doesn't bother him. He does not train or employ his creations aside from M'ling, which may be Mongomery's doing. There is no love in Moreau, nor is there any sense of responsibility.

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    @clash_bowley said:

    Wells doesn't admit the possibility of an alternative because that is not what he is interested in exploring in this book. You are free to read what he actually felt about that topic and many others. He was not shy. I do not think he was interested in satirizing colonialism either.

    No argument from me. That sound perfectly reasonable.

    As a possibility, he could be ripping into science without responsibility here. Moreau makes his changes and tosses the result aside, not caring whether it lives or dies, so long as it doesn't bother him. He does not train or employ his creations aside from M'ling, which may be Mongomery's doing. There is no love in Moreau, nor is there any sense of responsibility.

    That's another aspect that comes through very clearly. Moreau is amoral and uncaring, too self-centred to look beyond himself. Montgomery I think understands the beast-folk have feelings, but is too venal and lazy to do anything about it.

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    Maybe the three humans represent three ills of society: the amoral, the lazy, and the aimless? One can almost stretch that to ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ Moreau sees no evil in what he’s doing. Montgomery doesn’t want to hear about it. Prendick won’t speak out against it?
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    edited June 9

    @Apocryphal said:
    Maybe the three humans represent three ills of society: the amoral, the lazy, and the aimless? One can almost stretch that to ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ Moreau sees no evil in what he’s doing. Montgomery doesn’t want to hear about it. Prendick won’t speak out against it?

    I like it! It fits.

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