Taming the Beast in the Name of the Father: The Island of Dr. Moreau and Wells's Critique of Society's Religious Molding

Article excerpt

When H. G. Wells first published The Island of Dr. Moreau in 1896, its success was surprisingly dismal compared to his previous books. According to Bernard Bergonzi, critics were unable to get past the novel's "blatant sensationalism" and "consider [the novel's] literary merits" (97). H. G. Wells, however, did not put much credence in his reviewers' disparaging comments and went on to commend only one critic's remarks saying "The Guardian critic seemed to be the only one who read it aright, and who therefore succeeded in giving a really intelligent notice of it" (qtd. in Bergonzi 98). The unnamed columnist from the Guardian gave a rather interesting assessment of Wells's novel:

  Sometimes one is inclined to think the intention of the author has
  been to satirize and rebuke the presumption of science; at other times
  his object seems to be to parody the work of the Creator of the human
  race and cast contempt upon the dealings of God with His creatures.
  This is the suggestion of the exceedingly clever and realistic scenes
  in which the humanized beasts recite the Law their human maker has
  given them, and show very plainly how impossible it is to them to keep
  that law (qtd. in Bergonzi 98-9)

Wells's acknowledgement of this review as an insightful interpretation of his work has set scholars to the difficult task of deciphering the underlying meanings of the religious aspects in the text.

In characterizing The Island of Dr. Moreau in 1924, H. G. Wells labeled his own novel as a "theological grotesque" (Bergonzi 99), and critics have latched onto these very words to develop interpretations of what they perceive to be a satiric parody of God and His creation. Gorman Beauchamp, for instance, claims Wells has created a direct link between God and Moreau revealing God "as the archetypal 'mad scientist'--amorally experimenting with creation, ineptly bungling the attempt at a wholly rational being, callously abandoning his failures to inhabit the island of this world, neither rational enough nor animal enough to find peace" (411). Beauchamp's contention is that Wells's novel is a direct attack upon God as an uncaring and irresponsible creator. According to Mark Hillegas, "this reading of the novel is consistent, too, with the interpretation, frequent since the earliest reviews, of Dr. Moreau as a caricature--most often a 'blasphemous' caricature--of God" (37).

Bergonzi asserts a slightly different claim that moves away from the idea of Moreau representing the Judeo-Christian God and says that the god Moreau symbolizes is a "sort of arbitrary and impersonal power that might be conceived of as lying behind the evolutionary process" (qtd. in Hillegas 37). Since The Island of Dr. Moreau was written and published amid the earliest debates about Darwin's theory of evolution and the survival of the fittest, Bergonzi's interpretation seems reasonable, especially considering Wells's own interest and connection with Darwinian thoughts--he studied directly under T.H. Huxley, who was a major defender of the idea that man evolved from beasts.

What intrigue me most about Wells's novel are the religious details that he has expertly woven throughout the whole text. While I agree this novel is a religious attack, I do not believe it is attacking God, the Creator. Rather, The Island of Dr. Moreau is Wells's critique of the institutions of religion that have attempted to control and civilize human beings by forcing them with fear of eternal damnation to adhere to a code of ethics contrary to the naturalistic laws of evolution, and therefore contrary to humankind's natural instinct.

Wells and Religion

In discussing his own religious beliefs, Wells describes a dream in which he envisions God punishing a sinner by slowly roasting him over an open fire and says that "I saw no Devil in the vision, my mind in its simplicity went straight to the responsible fountain head. …