Friday, December 04, 2009

Island Dystopia

The Island of Dr. Moreau

by H. G. Wells

Wells was in the main a true prophet. In physical details his vision of the new world has been fulfilled to a surprising extent.  - George Orwell

Over the period of a decade beginning with The Time Machine in 1895, H. G. Wells created some of his most popular fictions in the form of scientific romance novels. These books have captured the imagination of readers ever since and are arguably as popular today as they were more than one hundred years ago. Among these perhaps the strangest and best is The Island of Dr. Moreau. Undoubtedly influenced by Robinson Crusoe, but also by Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island which was published only thirteen years earlier, this book goes far beyond those deserted island tales and looks forward to the twenty-first century and beyond. In its day it was considered blasphemous, but in the age of cloning its depiction of vivisection takes on new meaning while the blasphemy recedes into the background. Above all this is a good story with suspense that holds even after the first breathless reading that it usually inspires. The story is of such a suspenseful nature that I am reluctant to share any plot details for fear of spoiling the experience for the reader.

As with all great books the levels of meaning and reference in this book are many and the structure, a lost narrative found only after the author's death (reminiscent of Poe among others) is a nod to the era of the unreliable narrator for before his death Edward Pendrick, the narrator, claims to have no memory of the events which it described. Peter Straub, in his "Foreword" to the Modern Library edition, commented:

Given its infusion of the adventure tale with deep, pervasive doubt, Dr. Moreau can be seen as a unique and compelling alliance of Treasure Island and Joseph Conrad. (p. xvi)

I certainly agree with this assessment and believe that Wells, who was a good friend of Conrad as well as Henry James, Stephen Crane and Ford Madox Ford, might also agree with it. Like the best of Conrad reading this book was an exhilarating experience due both to its narrative and its deep meaning.

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells. The Modern Library, New York. 1996 (1896).


Dratski! said...

I've not read the book, but I saw the movie. Did you like the movie? My, you have read alot in 2009 ! My big accompishment is reading The Magic Mountain for the first time - I'm glad I waited because the translation by John Woods is perfection. I'm sad it's done, but am looking forward to reading his translation of Budenbrooks next.

James said...

There are at least three movie versions of The Island of Dr. Moreau in English from 1996, 1977, and 1932. I have not seen the most recent version but the previous two. The one that I remember best is the oldest (titled: Island of Lost Souls) which starred Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau. The book, however, as is usually the case, is much better than any film version. Glad you enjoyed the John Woods version of The Magic Mountain, that is on my list to reread in January of next year. Buddenbrooks is great as well, I hope you enjoy it.