The Island of Dr. Moreau
by H. G. Wells
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Tell Me if This Hurts
Scream once for yes and twice for no.
Vivisection* literally means to cut the living. Basically, it's when a scientist dissects an animal while it is still alive as an experiment or to study its organs. In Wells's day, vivisection was a big issue, so we'll need to dive into a wee-bitty history lesson here.
England's Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876 said vivisection was okay so long as the experiment helped save human lives and was not unduly cruel. Oh, the animal had to be killed after the procedure as well (you know, the little details).
As is often the case with these things, groups formed on both sides of the issue and each had a different opinion of what "helping to save human lives" and "unduly cruel" meant. These two sides didn't like each other much and fought many political and legal battles over the years. Meanwhile, animals were still being vivisected all the way to the 20th century.
Man, that's depressing stuff. Yet, Wells was able to take his allegorical island and use it to tackle the issue of vivisection from a new angle.
When Prendick first catches Moreau experimenting on the puma, he mistakenly believes Moreau to be vivisecting a human. He runs in terror, and who can blame him? A man being dissected alive? It's an awful notion.
Ah, but Wells has a trick up his sleeve. The person wasn't a person after all. It was an animal. So, the novel seems to be asking a question of the reader, "Why was it more horrible when you thought it was a human being?" After all, human beings are animals, too. If it's horrifying to put one animal (a human) through that pain, then why is it less wrong to put, say, a dog through the same process?
On the other hand, evolution and nature are, as Moreau puts it, "remorseless" (14.29). On the evolutionary scale, animals are forged into their current shape by nature, and pain is simply an evolutionary trait to respond to nature. Why should our treatment of other animals be any different? And who is to say that an animal's pain is the same as a human's pain?
Like any good author, Wells does not provide his readers with easy answers. Instead, he offers them a place to ponder the questions. So, the questions are then left up to you, the reader. What do you think?
* An important note: Today, the word vivisection can sometimes be used to describe any experimentation on animals. We're discussing it here as it would have been discussed in Wells' day. You can find out more about vivisection, both the historical and current meanings of the term, at encyclopedia.com. And, of course, The Island of Dr. Moreau works great as a starting point for considering modern day animal experimentation as well.