To say H. G. Wells was the founder of science-fiction is a bit much. To say that The Island of Doctor Moreau contains all my literary interests is spot on. And here is why.
The reason H. G. Wells is often called the father of science-fiction is all too visible in this particular story. The infamous scientist Dr Moreau uses a number of unusual techniques to change animals into people. He uses blood transfusion, vivisection and an unusual brand of reconstructive surgery as ways to transfer human and animal characteristics into other species. Possible? No. Ludicrous. Yes. Anachronistic? Definitely not.
Vivisection was at the time an exciting method of learning about anatomy while watching that anatomy engaged in all its primary functions. Although it’s a highly debated learning method, no one today would consider it possible to physically change one being into another by cutting it open alive. In fact, reconstructive surgery in general would probably be less successful with a conscious patient. Not to mention a lot more traumatic. Now a widely criticized school experiment in American high-schools, vivisection was not yet widely accepted in the Victorian era. It was highly debated, and considered barbaric by the general public even in Victorian times.
The use of blood transfusion to transform a person will sound very odd to modern readers. However, this is not the only literary reference to blood transfusion as transferring qualities into another body. In Dracula, Bram Stoker lets Lucy Westenra ‘take the blood of 3 strong men’ and become more sexually powerful because of it. The blood transports the sexual activeness of virile men into her passive bloodstream and changes her.
Yaaaay! In general, The Island of Doctor Moreau can definitely be read within the context of a changing worldview after Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species. The book also mentions Thomas Henry Huxley, often referred to as “Darwin’s bulldog”. On the Physical Basis of Life is probably Huxley’s most well-known work and one of the foundations of a heated ensuing discussion between materialists and anti-materialists.
Moreau’s technique of removing and adding part from one being to create a different being is another pure materialist idea. Changing the material of the creature automatically changes its whole character and behaviourisms. When we compare it to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Dr Frankenstein sowed bits and pieces together to create a new man. However, even Frankenstein construed that there had to be a sort of spirit flowing through the body to give it life. In The Island, this is all irrelevant. There is only the material matter of the body.
When discussing materialist theories, we can’t ignore the subject of morals. The Island explores the materialist notion that animals are made of only matter. Since they are constructed like a machine (i.e. just a bunch of parts and bolts), they cannot feel. As a result, there is no moral conflict in conducting experiments on them.
The ethics in animal experiments has been a topic of debate in the medical world since the Middle Ages. Although animals are no longer considered emotionless mechanical bits and pieces, we still regard animals as “below humans”. Animal testing is something most of us feel uncomfortable with, but the general consensus remains that it is less immoral than performing the same experiments on humans.
Considering that this story was written in the Victorian era, it’s remarkable how the female creatures in the book turn out to be the most sexually aggressive. Can we see this as a way to make the creatures appear more estranging, when they are in direct contrast with the Victorian passive and chaste domestic angel-figure? Or is this an actual criticism towards the rigid notion that women aren’t sexually aware beings? Either way, it makes for a very interesting read if you are familiar with the sexual position of women in turn-of-the-century Britain. And if you’re not familiar with this theme, I still urge you to read it. Because regardless of everything I mentioned in this post, The Island of Doctor Moreau is also just a good book and a pleasure to read. So go read it now!