Study Guide

The Island of Dr. Moreau Themes

  • Society and Class

    Wells seems more interested in society rather than class, but you can't have one without the other. They're peanut butter and jelly, people. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, society is a sham, a fake, an illusion meant to keep us happy. It hides the fact that we are animals, but it doesn't change the fact. The beast inside us can still come out at any moment. Just like the Beast Folk, our society is fragile at best and prone to break any day now. As for class, well, someone is always going to try and be on top.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. List the various societies in The Island of Dr. Moreau. Do you notice any similarities between them? Any differences? What conclusions can you draw from these? Now consider the similarities and differences with your own society. Have your conclusions changed? What does this tell you about society?
    2. If Moreau holds no interest in the Beast Folk, why do you think the Beast Folk made him the head of their society? What social or class advantage do you think this gives Moreau? Likewise, does this provide the Beast Folk with any type of social or class advantages? Why or why not?
    3. Why do you think Montgomery fits in so well with the Beast Folk society? Explain your answer.
    4. Alternatively, do you think Prendick ever fully integrates into Beast Folk society? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The Beast Folk would have created a society with or without Moreau's help, especially after learning language. Moreau just used the power of language—i.e. the Law—to make sure he was on top rather than bottom. Why? Well, wouldn't you rather be in charge?

    Montgomery finds companionship with the Beast Folk because he desires to return to society—any society, so long as it has brandy. This is why he ultimately helps Dr. Moreau.

  • Morals and Ethics

    Often when we discuss morals and ethics, the questions revolve around whether something is right or wrong. Not so with The Island of Dr. Moreau. Here, the questions revolve around whether morality and ethics are even concepts we should bother with. After all, if mankind was shaped by nature, and nature is a careless, merciless machine, aren't we the same? In the grand scheme of things, does anything we do really matter given the size and vast emptiness of the universe? Wow, those are depressing questions to ask, let alone answer. But for those with the gumption, it makes The Island of Dr. Moreau an interesting, if dark, journey.

    Questions About Morals and Ethics

    1. Who is the most ethical character in the novel? Explain your answer.
    2. On the flip side, who is the most immoral character in the novel? Explain your answer.
    3. Do you think the Beast Folk who follow the Law are moral by our standards? What about their own standards? Do they even have independent standards? What does this tell us about the nature of morality?
    4. What do you personally think the relationship between morality and nature is? Why? Take an example from the book that either agrees or disagrees with your personal view and explain why this is.

    Chew on This

    The only consistently moral character in the novel is M'ling, because he's undyingly loyal to Montgomery. It's actually kind of sweet.

    Montgomery is an ethical lush. That is, he becomes more moral when he drinks, which we can tell because he treats the Beast Folk as equals and is more honest with them while he's sauced.

  • Rules and Order

    Some rules just seem natural. Don't scream fire in a crowded theater. Call 911 if you witness a crime. Tip your waiters. Pay a psychic top dollar for the more accurate predictions. Okay maybe not that last one, but you catch our drift. Now, we aren't saying these are bad rules (except that last one), but we are saying that The Island of Dr. Moreau takes issue with society's rules, and specifically with the idea that they're natural. They are, in fact, anything but natural. They only feel that way because they are so deeply integrated into our daily lives that to think differently seems unnatural. We can see this is the Law of the Beast Folks—completely natural for them, utterly oddball for us. So the question becomes, what rules are natural and what rules aren't? And how do we tell the difference?

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. What traditional rules does Prendick have to question on Moreau's island? At what point in the novel does Prendick have to question them, and what is the outcome? How can you tell?
    2. How is the Law of the Beast Folk similar to our social rules? How are they different? What conclusions can you draw about our rules based on these similarities and differences?
    3. Do you think Moreau has any rules he must follow? If yes, what are they, and why does he follow them? If no, then why not?
    4. In the novel, who do you think broke the most rules? Why do you think this, and what do you think this says about their character and importance to the novel?

    Chew on This

    Prendick mocks the rules of the Beast Folk because the ceremony is so foreign to his British sensibilities. Had he listened to the Laws, he would have seen they are similar to his own rules.

    The Beast Folk actually represent a civilization. They took the laws from the Kanakas missionary and made them their own. It gets weirder. They actually want Moreau to enforce the Law for them.

  • Man & the Natural World

    In most people's minds, there seems to be a divide between mankind and the natural world. The natural world is the stuff we put in state parks and pay five dollars to park near when we want to see some trees. Mankind, well, that's everything else. The Island of Dr. Moreau tries to break down that divide by showing us that mankind and the natural world are one and the same. More to the point, mankind is part of the natural world. We can't escape it no matter how big we build our cities or how many flush toilets we add to our state parks. Like the Beast Folk, we came from nature, we live in nature, and to nature we shall return.

    Questions About Man & the Natural World

    1. Make two lists. On one side, put the characteristics the novel associates with humanity and on the other those it associates with nature. Are there any characters that only have characteristics from one side or the other? Why do you suppose this is? Which characters connect with both lists? What do you think the novel is trying to say with these characters?
    2. How do you think Montgomery sees mankind in relation to the natural world? Are they one and the same? Distinct and separate? Something else? How can you tell?
    3. How do we consider the separation of man and the natural world today? Based on the novel, would you say this view is accurate or inaccurate? What do you think about the theme of man and the natural world?

    Chew on This

    The divide between man and the natural world breaks down with the sinking of the Lady Vain. Yep, page one, and it's gone.

    Montgomery's drinking is an attempt to keep the divide between mankind and the natural world. Unfortunately, the more he drinks, the less human he becomes.

  • Primitivity

    Thanks to countless adventure stories in the vein of Indiana Jones, our view of primitivity can be a little skewed. When we think of the term, we imagine tribes of people still living in huts and throwing spears in the age of ipads and yogurt that comes in a tube. However, The Island of Dr. Moreau wants us to reconsider primitivity. It wants us to see primitivity not as a (low) level of tech-savviness but as something inside us. It's the primitive and savage remnants our ancestors left in our brains. And given the right circumstances, even the most civilized among us can give way to primitivity.

    Questions About Primitivity

    1. Who do you think is the most primitive human character in the novel? What about the Beast Folk? How can you tell?
    2. After Montgomery's death, Prendick must survive alone on the island. Do you think he succumbs to primitivity or does he maintain his civilized ways? Something in-between? How can you tell, based on specific moments in the novel?
    3. After reading the novel, do you see primitivity in today's civilization differently? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Prendick's inability to wield the weapons of civilized society—i.e. the gun and the whip—are actually signs of his civility. It is only when he uses the gun that he begins to descend into primitivity.

    The whole point here is to show us that we're all primitive, no matter how much tea and how many finger sandwiches we consume. When put in the right situation, we, like Prendick, will revert back to our basic instincts... at least eventually.

  • Identity

    Identity is a slippery thing in The Island of Dr. Moreau, and at no point is it clear cut. From the outset, Prendick has a difficult time telling the Beast Folk apart from humans. Even when the physical distinctions become clear, the internal distinctions get all muddy. Prendick begins to see bits and pieces of humanity in the fears and plights of the Beast Folk. Meanwhile, he sees beastliness in the actions and offenses of his human brothers. By the end of the novel, Prendick has no idea where one stops and the other begins. But that's kind of refreshing, right? In real life, identity is complicated and unpredictable. Why shouldn't it be the same in our stories?

    Questions About Identity

    1. At the end of the novel, who do you think Prendick identifies most with? The Beast Folk? Dr. Moreau? Montgomery? Dare we ask, Captain Davis? How can you tell?
    2. When does Prendick finally identify the Beast Folk as something other than human? Why do you suppose it was this moment that caused him to finally see it?
    3. What character do you identify most with? Remember, the Beast Folk are up for grabs.

    Chew on This

    Prendick's tale is really one about keeping his identity. As he delves deeper and deeper into the island, he beings to lose his sense of self to the island, culminating in his own animal reversion. Ultimately, it's left ambiguous as to whether or not he succeeds in remaining himself.

    On the other hand, Montgomery's story is about losing his identity. His talks with Prendick about London are his last grasping attempts to hold onto his old civilized self. With every day, every drink, on the island, Montgomery loses more of himself to the place.

  • Suffering

    We all suffer, some of us more than others. For some, suffering is a painful existence of starving daily. For others, it's being without an Internet connection for a day—well, half a day, let's not get carried away here. The question is, how can we measure suffering? In the comparison above, it's pretty obvious who is truly suffering. But do animals feel pain just like humans; do they suffer like we do? Should one person suffer if it means ten won't have to? Given the vast scale of the universe, does our suffering even matter? Back in Wells' day, these questions were important but difficult to answer. And guess what? Today, we are no closer to answering them than we were back then. Doesn't mean we shouldn't try though, and The Island of Dr. Moreau is one way to jumpstart the discussion.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Why do you suppose Prendick's concern for the puma's suffering only surfaces when he thinks it's a human being vivisected? What does this tell us about Prendick?
    2. During the hunt, some of the Beast Folk enjoy the suffering of Leopard Man. Do we see any other characters enjoying the suffering of others in the novel? Who and when? Does this tell us anything about the these characters? Does it tell us anything about how we should think of suffering in the novel?
    3. What character do you think suffers the most in the novel? How do they suffer? Physically, mentally, emotionally?
    4. Think of a way people suffer in the world today. Can you find any suffering in the book related to that kind of suffering? If yes, what do you think the book says about this sort of suffering? If no, why do you think it was left out?

    Chew on This

    Moreau believes pain is meaningless because it's possible that "nowhere else does this thing called pain occur" (14.23). However, maybe pain's possible rarity in the universe is actually what makes it meaningful...

    There are two types of suffering in The Island of Dr. Moreau: physical suffering, like the puma's, and social suffering, like Montgomery's. Which is worse is left ambiguous, but they do seem related in some way.

  • Science

    In The Island of Dr. Moreau, Wells tackles the relationship between science and ethics. In his day—as in ours—science had produced unprecedented technologies and revelations about the world. It was all great stuff, and we'd be a wholly different society today without these advancements. For example, this website you're reading now wouldn't exist, and your science textbooks would be less than a quarter their current size—good for homework; bad for everything else. But discoveries like the theory of evolution left people worried that scientific endeavors were destroying the so-called pillars of society, like religion and morality. Others thought science had lost its ethical compass all together (we're looking at you, vivisection). Wells's goal is to explore these issues raised by science and morality. If this all sounds familiar, it's because we are still facing the same questions about science today.

    Questions About Science

    1. Consider vivisection as presented in the book. What has changed with regards to animal experimentation? What has remained the same? Do you think the questions and conclusions still relate to today's world? Explain your answer.
    2. Why do you suppose it is important that Prendick is studying both chemistry and astronomy at the novel's end?
    3. The relationship between evolution and religion is as big an issue today as it was then. How do you read The Island of Dr. Moreau as relating to the issue historically? Does it still hold up to scrutiny today? How can you tell?
    4. Do you think Moreau has a scientific purpose for his experiments?

    Chew on This

    The science in The Island of Dr. Moreau is more fantasy-like than scientifically accurate. This is because a focus on actual science would have taken away from novel's ability to openly explore the questions it raised. Also, it's science fiction.

    Prendick's scientific background allows the reader to trust his experiences on the island more than if he were ignorant of the field, giving the novel more of a sense of truthfulness.