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Scholarly Editions: H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau

Annotated with an Introduction


Barry Pomeroy, PhD

This annotated edition of H. G. Wells’ second novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, is meant to encourage the pursuits of scholars who are either encountering Wells’ influential classic for the first time or are returning to it in order to delve more deeply into its antecedents and influences. In the novel, Prendick, an aimless gentleman naturalist, becomes shipwrecked on the island where Moreau is creating bestial humans by a cruel and scientifically questionable application of vivisection and transfusions. Like Prendick, we ask, “What could it all mean? A locked enclosure on a lonely island, a notorious vivisector, and these crippled and distorted men?” but the answer is as baffling and ambiguous as the beast folk that Moreau creates.

The novel was seen as ghastly and indecent when it was published, but even in these times of internet schadenfreude, Moreau is still viewed as a shockingly vivid classic which probes the unsettling questions of human experimentation, gender and medicine, colonization, and the porous line that separates us from non-human animals.

My reading presents the novel through the lens of its critical background, as well as the scholarly work on its various themes of cruelty and exploitation. In order to trace the antecedents of the text, I include an introduction to Herbert George Wells and his work, the novel’s critical background, and a discussion of the filmic attempts to bring his compelling and by times disturbing work to the big screen. The annotations of the novel are meant to explain those more cryptic or dated references in the work as well as allow the reader to trace the critical readings the text offers.

© 2017 by Barry Pomeroy

All rights reserved. Copyright under Berne Copyright Convention, Universal Copyright Convention, and Pan-American Copyright Convention. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission of the author, although people generally do what they please.

For more information about my books, go to barrypomeroy.com

ISBN 13: 978-1987922561
ISBN 10: 1987922561

Table of Contents


H. G. Wells: Early Life

Wells the Reader, or the Tale of Two Broken Legs

Intellectual and Artistic Life

Early Period

Middle Period

Late Period

About The Island of Doctor Moreau

Critical Reaction and Editorial Changes


Overview of the novel

Film and Novelistic Adaptations

The Island of Doctor Moreau

























Appendix 1 - Preface to Seven Famous Novels 1934

Appendix 2 - The Limits of Individual Plasticity

Appendix 3 - The Province of Pain

Appendix 4 - Scepticism of the Instrument

Appendix 5 - Human Evolution, an Artificial Process

Appendix 6 - Excerpt from The Croquet Player (1936)

Appendix 7 - Comparative Theology

Appendix 8 - Bio-Optimism

Works Cited


Like many of Herbert George Wells’ readers, I come to his writing by way of what he called his scientific romances. In The Time Machine I ran with Weena and the Time Traveler from the Morlocks and then found The Island of Doctor Moreau, where, like others before me, I fancied that I would have been more courageous than Prendick, although I was unsure about the forces the doctor could rally on his behalf. I hid in the rain with The Invisible Man and pondered what I would do if his invisibility sat on my unsteady shoulders. I ran from the tripod Martians in War of the Worlds and In the Days of the Comet I became invested with his egalitarian vision of the future, although I lamented that we needed a green fog to make it a reality. I woke with the notion of deep time and the inevitable change to society in When the Sleeper Wakes, and burned the midnight oil on a fantastical voyage in The First Men in the Moon.

Although I had begun to realize that Wells had more than one story in him, in those pre-internet days, at first I did not know how prolific he was. I only had access to the village school library in a tiny town in New Brunswick, Canada. Its offerings were limited to those of his books that prim school teachers judged to be fit for the student audience; perhaps because of that, my idea of his oeuvre did not change for a long time.

Just as I was thinking that I had covered the total of Wells’ catalogue, I was confronted with the vast library of his works at university. There I found the political and social pamphlets loosely disguised as novels that more resembled thought experiments than character examinations. I learned to look for his grand ideas testily sermonized from the direct prose of his social criticism, and before long I had waded through Men Like Gods, The World Set Free and A Modern Utopia.

I think many young minds find Wells through the resilient door of his scientific romances, flit expectantly through the novels of his middle period, and then come to appreciate his forward-looking mind, adept prose, and social experiments. This current collection of his works is meant to satisfy those early acolytes as well as those students who want to find more in his texts than what is immediately apparent. Accordingly, I begin the introduction to this profound futurist with a brief biography of both his life and his artistry, and then explain how The Time Machine fits into his work and the world around it.

H. G. Wells: Early Life

On September 21st in 1866, Herbert George Wells, the fourth child of parents of quite modest means, was born in Bromley, Kent to Joseph and Sarah Wells. His father was an avid cricket player, but a rather unsuccessful tradesman and his mother a devout—nearly fanatical—lady’s maid. Sarah was born of rather humble circumstances herself, and only when she was older and the family had inherited some money was she able to attend a finishing school which focused—Wells tells us—on religiosity and scrubbing. Wells rather derisively claims that the school exacerbated her naturally pious nature:

A natural tendency to Protestant piety already established by her ailing mother, was greatly enhanced. She was given various edifying books to read, but she was warned against worldly novels, the errors and wiles of Rome, French cooking and the insidious treachery of men, she was also prepared for confirmation and confirmed, she took the sacrament of Holy Communion, and so fortified and finished she returned to her home. (Experiment in Autobiography, 27)

Although he seems rather cutting in his description, when Wells tries to imagine his mother’s world before he was born, he describes it as one of ignorance, financial desperation, and perhaps inevitably conformist views:

For the present I am trying to restore my mother’s mental picture of the world, as she saw it awaiting her, thirty years and more before I was born or thought of. It was a world much more like Jane Austen’s than Fanny Burney’s, but at a lower social level. Its chintz was second-hand, and its flowered muslin cheap and easily tired. Still more was it like the English countryside of Dickens’ Bleak House. It was a countryside, for as yet my mother knew nothing of London. Over it all ruled God our Father, in whose natural kindliness my mother had great confidence. He was entirely confused in her mind, because of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, with “Our Saviour” or “Our Lord”—who was rarely mentioned by any other names. The Holy Ghost she ignored almost entirely; I cannot recall any reference to him; he was certainly never “our” Holy Ghost, and the Virgin Mary, in spite of what I should have considered her appeal to feminist proclivities, my mother disregarded even more completely. It may have been simply that there was a papistical flavour about the Virgin; I don’t know. Or a remote suspicion of artistic irregularity about the recorded activities of the Holy Spirit. In the lower sky and the real link between my mother and the god-head, was the Dear Queen, ruling by right divine, and beneath this again, the nobility and gentry, who employed, patronised, directed and commanded the rest of mankind. On every Sunday in the year, one went to church and refreshed one’s sense of this hierarchy between the communion table and the Free Seats. And behind everyone, behind the Free Seats, but alas! by no means confining his wicked activities to them, was Satan, Old Nick, the Devil, who accounted for so much in the world that was otherwise inexplicable. (Experiment, 29)

Wells’ parents met at the estate of Sir Henry Featherstonhaugh, Up Park, and before long they were married. Almost immediately, they were living a precarious existence based on the profit from Joseph’s failing shop—which a family member’s inheritance had allowed them to buy on the unfulfilled promise that it would give them an income—and living in a house that Wells described as a “needy shabby home in a little town called Bromley in Kent” (Experiment, 22). The family spent much of their time in the kitchen close to the coal fire so they could lower their heating costs. The house was unhealthy (the well was twenty feet from the outdoor toilet) and infested with bugs: “They harboured in the wooden bedsteads and lurked between the layers of wallpaper that peeled from the walls. Slain they avenge themselves by a peculiar penetrating disagreeable smell” (Experiment, 25). Although her death was unrelated to their unhealthy living arrangement, his sister Fanny died from an “inflammation of the bowels” (which is now referred to as appendicitis) and his eldest brother was stunted and sickly. Wells himself was relatively healthy as a child, largely due to his mother’s faith in cod liver oil, although food was by times dear and difficult to access.

Wells’ father Joseph preferred to earn his living playing cricket rather than selling “jam pots and preserving jars to the gentlemen’s houses round about, and occasional bedroom sets and tea-sets, table glass and replacements” (Experiment, 42). Wells’ relationship with his father was a distant one. A casual statement by his father on his interest in the heavens, made Wells ponder how little he knew about the man: “I hadn’t thought of him before as a star-gazer. His words opened a great gulf of unsuspected states of mind to me” (Experiment, 37).

Wells’ youth, although one of relative privation for him, was a time of great technological change, which—largely because of his penury—he avidly watched as though he were a child at a sweet shop window. Observing and then commenting on the subsequent shifts in British culture, Wells embraced this rapidly changing world with an enthusiasm that could easily be attributed to his humble and machine-poor upbringing. The train system was rapidly being modernized, sailing ships were replaced with coal fired boilers, cottage industry with the factory, and the serfdom of peasant farmers was passing away. Although his imagination was attracted to the mechanical delights of the age—as he saw them as a young boy—he had little opportunity to study them. Only when a fortunate accident released his mind temporarily from serving his body, did Wells’ intellectual self blossom.

Wells the Reader, or the Tale of Two Broken Legs

When Wells was “seven or eight” a young cricketer named Sutton threw him into the air on a lark and broke his leg upon landing. For him, this event, or rather its fallout in terms of his changing circumstances, was a blessing. The mother of the young Sutton, contrite for her son’s impulsive action, brought Wells anything he wished to eat, and more importantly, anything he wanted to read. Confined to a bedstead or chair for long days, Wells feasted his mind on books that hitherto were difficult to access:

for some weeks I found myself enthroned on the sofa in the parlour as the most important thing in the house, consuming unheard-of jellies, fruits, brawn and chicken sent with endless apologies on behalf of her son by Mrs. Sutton, and I could demand and have a fair chance of getting anything that came into my head, books, paper, pencils, and toys—and particularly books. (Experiment, 54)

His parents did not support his interest in reading once he was back on his feet, but for a little while he had the books brought by Mrs. Sutton and encouraged his father to go to the library nearly every day. As the written text began to capture his imagination, Wells came to develop a faith in education that followed him until his death. He entered a small private school, Thomas Morley’s Commercial Academy, and suffered through the erratic teaching and mundane curriculum until 1880. In the meantime, in 1877, his father fractured his thigh. The accident meant the loss of even the meagre amount his father earned through cricket and the family could not survive merely on the income from the shop.

Largely due to this financial exigency, his mother returned to work at Up Park as a lady’s maid, despite the caveat that she was not provided with lodging for her family. Because their family situation had grown even more tenuous with them living separately, Wells’ personal troubles increased during his apprenticeship with a draper and also, later, his job as a chemist’s assistant. Luckily, Up Park was outfitted with a well-appointed library and he was able to read many classic works when he visited his mother. This was when he learned a love for Jonathan Swift—Gulliver’s Travels—and to appreciate Voltaire and Plato.

The family’s dire financial straits meant that they eagerly embraced a draper position for the young Wells at the Southsea Drapery Emporium, Hyde’s. There he worked thirteen-hour days and slept in a dormitory, an experience he was to make use of in his novels The Wheels of Chance and Kipps, both of which examine the profession with an eye to declaiming his society’s unequal distribution of wealth. He left his rather dismal attempts to apprentice at a dry goods store, and a druggist, and rather like his George Ponderevo from Tono-Bungay, he proclaimed to his mother that he was done with the whole rotten mess of selling his life for money.

When he was sixteen and still gloomily engaged to be an apprentice, Wells was offered an opportunity at Midhurst Grammar School by Horace Byatt who had been impressed by Wells’ abilities as a pupil. Byatt offered him a student assistantship and Wells was soon both a student and a teacher. Within a year Wells had passed examinations and earned an entrance scholarship for the Normal School of Science in South Kensington. There he attended lectures on biology and zoology given by Thomas Henry Huxley, which examined at length the implications of the revolutionary notions of Darwin, among others. Wells said it “was beyond all question, the most educational year of my life. It left me under that urgency for coherence and consistency, that repugnance from haphazard assumptions and arbitrary statements, which is the essential distinction of the educated from the uneducated mind” (Experiment, 161). This concern with orderly thought processes was to inform his attempts to envision the transformation of society and its educational apparatus.

Wells stayed at the Normal School until 1887. Although his weekly allowance was more than most working class families earned as a household, the young Wells was not satisfied with either his caste-oriented society or his own station in life. Before long his dissatisfaction with the classist nature of British society began to inform his scholastic career. He joined the Debating Society of the school where he began to express his interest in political transformation. At first his ideas were heavily indebted to Plato’s Republic, but soon he became interested in contemporary socialism, especially that propounded by the recently formed Fabian Society. Before long he was attending lectures at Kelmscott House, the home of William Morris. Wells was among the founders of The Science School Journal, a school magazine that allowed him to express his views on literature and society, as well as trying his hand at fiction; a precursor of what would be The Time Machine was published in the journal under the title The Chronic Argonauts.

During his heady time in Normal School, Wells took advantage of the library to stray from the strictly scientific reading which had become boring once the details were not animated by Huxley’s influence. He spent his time familiarizing himself with writers such as William Blake and Thomas Carlyle. He was also distracted by a growing attraction for his cousin, Isabel Wells. Largely because his focus on his studies was waning, and he was spending more time with Isabel, Wells left Normal School to teach at small private schools which could not afford to be selective about the credentials of their instructors. Unfortunately, while playing soccer at such a school in Wales, his kidney was damaged by one of the players, and that, combined with a diagnosis of tuberculosis, meant that he was periodically an invalid for the next ten years.

Wells spent that time wisely. He began to take his writing more seriously, and with the completion of his Bachelor of Science degree in zoology from the University of London External Programme in 1890, he soon was earning a better income. He became a biology tutor for a correspondence college, did some teaching, edited the in-house journal, and published several educational papers. His first book-length publications came about during this period, when he authored a biology textbook in two volumes and co-authored another on physiography. His restless nature drew him away from the tame life of the teacher lackey, however, and that, combined with his dissatisfaction with his wife, led him to seek elsewhere for both intellectual and emotional satisfaction.

By 1894 he fell in love with one of his students, Amy Catherine Robbins (later known as Jane), who he married in 1895 while he tried to make a living as a professional writer. He began to produce a stream of essays, book and theatre reviews, and articles that speculated about scientific advances.

Intellectual and Artistic Life

Early Period

Commonly referred to as the father of science fiction, although he happily shares that title with Cyrano de Bergerac and Jules Verne, Herbert George Wells wrote science fiction, histories, social commentary, political treatises, radio plays, textbooks, and contemporary novels. His earliest and most remembered works are those he called his scientific romances. He is responsible for several themes that are now thoroughly installed in the science fiction genre: time travel in The Time Machine, genetic plasticity and manipulation in The Island of Doctor Moreau, invisibility in The Invisible Man, alien invasion in The War of the Worlds, a grim capitalistic dystopia in When the Sleeper Wakes, and space travel in The First Men in the Moon. Although this is by no means an exhaustive list of more recent science fictional preoccupations, Wells was almost prophetic in his insight into the effects of future technological changes and especially the human response to an evolving society.

Wells’ interest in the transformation of society due to technological change rather than just treatises about science as a field of study becomes apparent in the technique he used in his scientific romances. Rather than hang the entire story on the pedagogical goal of science instruction, he entrapped the reader in their own desire to pursue the story:

He always made a point of beginning, he says, with apparently normal characters in prosaic, everyday circumstances. The fantastic and impossible are not mentioned till the reader has been caught up by the story, and by then the reader no longer cares: improbability and impossibility neither deflect nor delay him. He reads on, all suspense and emotional interest. (Belgion 77)

Although Wells had a considerable scientific background by this point, he was much more interested in the human in the landscape than the workings of scientific mechanism. Rather than apologize for this focus, such as when Jules Verne objected to his work by claiming it was not true science fiction, Wells proudly proclaimed his was a “new system of ideas.” Wells said that the author should always try to make his or her story believable, even if elements of it were impossible.

One of the ways that Wells was different than those authors who attempted to write science fiction before him was that he tried to add a sense of realism to unfamiliar concepts in order to encourage the reader to put aside their scepticism and proceed. He said, as part of his law, that a science fictional story should only contain a single extraordinary assumption. This encourages the reader to accept ideas that otherwise they might immediately dismiss. Wells’ best-known statement of his theory is outlined in his introduction to The Scientific Romances of H.G. Wells (1933):

As soon as the magic trick has been done the whole business of the fantasy writer is to keep everything else human and real. Touches of prosaic detail are imperative and a rigorous adherence to the hypothesis. Any extra fantasy outside the cardinal assumption immediately gives a touch of irresponsible silliness to the invention. (Behlkar)

This evocation of the real has kept Wells’ science fiction relevant when the work of his peers has been relegated to dusty stacks in libraries or infrequently downloaded Gutenberg texts. Jules Verne, despite his lack of respect for Wells’ casual relationship with scientific veracity, has become a historical curiosity who only imagines faster cars and better boats. Wells’ timeless themes of exploration, speculations on the future, and anticipations about the force technology might wield, still keeps him relevant in a world of viral videos and footprints on the moon.

Perhaps the most well-known of his scientific romances is The Time Machine (1895), the heavily edited and modified novel which emerged from The Chronic Argonauts. In the later novel, Wells imagines the working class descendants of contemporary England evolving to the point of cannibalizing the aristocracy who drove them into the subterranean factories. The modern reader is as transfixed by the story as those of Wells’ contemporaries as the Time Traveler explores, struggles to save Weena, and once caught, endeavours to escape from his overly elaborate trap. Not satisfied with merely diverting his reader’s attention, Wells the polemicist was also at work in this first novel, and he leaves the reader questioning the ramifications of the “social effort in which we are at present engaged” (The Time Machine, 27).

Likewise, in these days of CRISPR technology, such musings on the human genome as we find in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) are timely and pertinent, as the vivisectionist doctor uses a scalpel to cold-bloodedly trim the animal from the human shape. The most memorable aspects of the book are the beasts that are forged from the anvil of pain and their bloodcurdling screams that echo through the jungle and cause Prendick—the hapless narrator of the text—to squirm in horror on his narrow bed. Wells is not finished with the reader when Prendick escapes, however. In a perhaps inevitable evocation of Gulliver’s Travels, Prendick returns to the world of humans only to see in them the bestial qualities of the animals he thought he had left behind.

The War of the Worlds (1897), perhaps because it has been subject to so many cinematic treatments, is relevant to the modern reader because of its evocation of an elemental fear of alien invasion. The alien nature of the tripod machines and grotesque octopus-like Martians did more than establish a subgenre of science fiction; it also introduced the dangers of other biomes to the space traveler. His Martians proved to be resilient enough to lay waste to Earth, but when they are undone it is thanks to the invisible world of microbes rather than the efforts of the ineffectual human society.

The Invisible Man (1897) has its own share of modern film versions, and although it loses much of its force in adaptation, it still sells in huge numbers. The novel draws heavily on the archetype of the mad scientist, in this case Griffin, who experiments on himself with his serum of invisibility. As he vanishes from view he dreams of taking advantage of his new power in order to enact a reign of terror over England. Wells’ novel does more to expose the disadvantages of invisibility than its benefits, however. Griffin runs about the countryside naked in order that his body remain invisible and nearly starves for want of food that he cannot easily procure; like many of Wells’ science-based narratives, the novel becomes far more interested in Griffin’s megalomaniac reaction to a perceived unlimited power than in the mechanism of invisibility.

Texts which do not find a modern audience quite as readily are The First Men in the Moon (1901) and When the Sleeper Wakes (1910). Although both books suffer from their tendency to fall into political pamphleteering rather than the relation of a good yarn, they remain quite readable. His ideas about political control, exploitation, and distraction of the masses are even more pertinent today, even if the packaging of his exploration of those concepts—the archetype of the mad scientist conflated with a Rip Van Winkle—has become dated.

Wells’ first bestselling non-fiction, Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought (1901), was originally serialised in a magazine and subtitled “An Experiment in Prophecy.” It is widely touted as his most explicitly futuristic work. It contained the same class criticism that is evident in The Time Machine and When the Sleeper Wakes, but is quite explicit in its predictions for the year 2000. It was, as Wells wrote to Arnold Bennett, a “rough sketch of the coming time, a prospectus as it were of the joint undertakings of mankind in facing these impending years” (Wells in Gunn 129). Wells fulfilled his sketch by predicting the growth of the suburbs, the universality of the automobile, the slackening of puritan values in terms of sexuality, and gender equality. He also envisioned the end of German militarism and the creation of the European Union.

Middle Period

As the century ended, Wells returned to his early life experiences and observations of British class culture in order to engage with, as he called it, “the proper stuff for my everyday work, a methodical careful distillation of one’s thoughts and sentiments and experiences and impressions” (Hammond). This middle period begins with Love and Mr. Lewisham (1900) which is a novel of manners about a man who is in the same circumstances as Wells himself when he was first teaching, falling in love with a woman, and completing his teacher training under Thomas Henry Huxley. This more orthodox British novel excited much contemporary praise and Wells followed it with several more.

He continued to write science fiction stories, such as those gathered in Twelve Stories and a Dream (1903) and The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (1911), but much of the middle period was taken up with semi-autobiographical novels, such as Kipps (1905). Kipps is a rags-to-riches and back-to-rags story about a man of simple means—rather like the young Wells—who inherits money even as he learns to prefer a more simple life than that of the upper classes which he attracts when he has more money.

In Tono-Bungay (1909), the young George Ponderevo is caught between the growing capitalist urges of his uncle and his own interest in romance. His love interests are scandalously presented by three intimate relationships and his pecuniary urges by a wish to make a living. Driven by financial concerns, he finally sells his skills to the highest bidder, and ends the novel making destroyers for the inevitable war the novel imagines to always be on the horizon.

Ann Veronica (1909) is Wells’ attempt to write about the early women’s movement. The twenty-two-year-old Ann Veronica Stanley is at first naïve about the possibility for change in her society, but as she is attacked by an older man, storms parliament with other suffragettes, and spends a month in prison, she rejects society’s conventions and returns to the man she loves even if marriage is not on offer. Although tame by today’s standards, when it was first published Ann Veronica was judged to be scandalous enough that the Spectator issued a stern warning:

IT has long been the rule of the Spectator to avoid giving the advertisement of scandal to any book, and especially to any novel, which appears to us to be in its essence depraved, and therefore likely to do injury to those who read it. When, however, the poison is contained in a work by some popular and well-known author, little or no additional harm can be caused by the extra publicity of a review. Such an exception is to be found in Mr. H. G. Wells’s new novel, Ann Veronica. We have headed this article “A Poisonous Book,” and that is the epithet which we desire deliberately to apply to it. It is a book capable of poisoning the minds of those who read it. Our readers will, we feel sure, acquit us of being unreasonably and exaggeratedly Puritanical in our attitude. We do not desire to set up any too exacting moral standard, or to condemn a book altogether because it may take a much freer view of the relations of the sexes than we ourselves hold to be consistent with the public welfare. We do not wish to boycott or denounce any and every book which does not accept the ethical standard of Christianity. Again, we should not dream of denouncing a book as likely to poison the minds of men and women merely because it was coarse in language, or dealt plainly, or even brutally, with the facts of human life. Between such books and a book like Ann Veronica there is a gulf deep and wide. Ann Veronica has not a coarse word in it, nor are the “suggestive” passages open to any very severe criticism. The loathing and indignation which the book inspires in us are due to the effect it is likely to have in undermining that sense of continence and self-control in the individual which is essential to a sound and healthy State. The book is based on the negation of woman’s purity and of man’s good faith in the relations of sex. It teaches, in effect, that there is no such thing as “woman’s honour,” or if there is, it is only to be a bulwark against a weak temptation. When the temptation is strong enough, not only is the tempted person justified in yielding, but such yielding becomes not merely inevitable but something to be welcomed and glorified. If an animal yearning or lust is only sufficiently absorbing, it is to be obeyed. Sell-sacrifice is a dream and self-restraint a delusion. Such things have no place in the muddy world of Mr. Wells’s imaginings. His is a community of settling stoats and ferrets, unenlightened by a ray of duty or abnegation. (November 20, 1909, 34)

I include the entire passage so that the modern reader will understand that although the novels from Wells’ middle period are rather mundane by our standards, the Spectator—which was not really the conservative organ it appears to be in retrospect—viewed them as potentially disruptive to society and a threat to contemporaneous morality.

The following year Wells wrote The History of Mr. Polly (1910), a novel which envisioned Alfred Polly’s life as a drapers assistant. This will no doubt sound familiar to readers of Wells’ biography. Polly is more accepting of his humble life than Wells, although, like Wells, he marries his cousin. After his subsequent suicide attempt brings him fame with a small fortune at his command, he runs away to conduct his own life only to worry about his cousin in later years. The History of Mr. Polly reads as though Wells were examining what life he might have led were he of a different temperament or if he’d not chosen to leave the draper’s life behind to pursue his pen.

Wells rather openly used characters in The New Machiavelli (1911) to satirize Beatrice and Sidney Webb because they had questioned his love affair with the British feminist and scholar Amber Reeves. Perhaps because of these rather more personal reasons, the novel was considered even more scandalous when it was published. Some libraries banned it, and the Spectator refused even to condemn it as they had done with Ann Veronica. Contemporary reviewers were relatively accepting of Wells’ more political arguments in the novel, but generally thought its sexual message about liberation in the face of extreme conservative views was going too far.

Mr. Britling Sees It Through (1916) came at a crucial time in British history, and Wells’ novel is, not surprisingly, an atypical response to the brutality that enveloped Europe. He imagines a typical British father who loses his son at the front and is separated from a visiting German student who is forced to leave at the outbreak of the war. The stark reality of war’s senselessness invades Mr. Britling’s simple life. Although he is at odds with his relationship with his second wife, his pining for his deceased first wife and his concerns with the war lead Mr. Britling to religious faith—rather unusually for Wells—in order to come to terms with the times. Against the background of the war and the changes it brought to English society, many saw the book as redeeming Wells’ ability and career, and Maxim Gorky was not alone in his praise for the book:

Without doubt it is the finest, most courageous, truthful and humane book written in Europe in the course of this accursed war. I am sure that later, when we again become more human, the English will be proud that the first voice of protest, and such intense protest, against the barbarism of war was raised in England, and all honest and wise people will pronounce your name with gratitude. [. . .] We must cleanse from the hearts of children the blood-stained rust of this horrible and senseless war; we must restore to those hearts a faith in mankind and respect for it. We must reawaken the social romanticism of which Mr. Britling speaks so splendidly to Letty, and about which he wrote to Heinrich’s parents in Pomerania. (Gorky)

Late Period

His later period, when Wells once again turned his mind to the problems of the world, and used his faith in education to become a teacher, is populated by work that many view as nearly propaganda. The books of this time were often written as if they were meant to be science fiction novels, but are actually thinly-veiled thought experiments on the reordering of society. During this period he was also even more active politically and socially. He supported and was involved in the women’s movement, free speech activism, birth control, the British Labour Party and the Diabetic Association. He gave speeches and wrote pamphlets, spoke on the radio and met with world leaders. In his interviews with Franklin Delaney Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, he tried to persuade them that they should take advantage of their position in order to advance both their nations and others rather than stifle the natural curiosity of humanity under nationalist flags and jingoist patriotism. His criticism of the direction of society was generally heeded if not followed, and by the time the second European War was underway, Wells was one of the major figures involved in the Sankey Declaration of Human Rights, which went on to inform the United Nations declaration.

In his fiction during this time, Wells tried to imagine the social order that might spring from a reorganization of society. In The Food of the Gods (1904), genetic tinkering runs amok as rather thoughtless scientists let their experimental food laced with a growth formula loose on the local biosphere. Rather like his scientific romances, Wells does not trouble himself with worrying about the exact biology of his magical food, but is more concerned with the social and biological implications of the subsequent plague. When the book culminates in a war between a politician bent on killing the giants and the giants themselves, it results in a stalemate, although the biosphere has been completely reordered by dint of the huge creatures which had been insects and small mammals. The last image is one of limitless possibility and yearning for the place of humanity amongst the stars after the dross of internecine battle has been shaken from the giant hands.

A Modern Utopia (1905) also reads like a political pamphlet, for Wells transports two educated Britons to a far planet through instantaneous and unexplainable means merely in order to record their reactions to the utopia they find. The other planet is exactly the match of Earth except it has been entirely transformed by an effective and organized government. The other world, Wells argues, is what the Earth could be if we followed the same precepts. The utopian society is run by what the book calls Samurai—autocratic leaders who remain independent of worldly affairs in order to preserve their objectivity. They are charged with, and take very seriously, the responsibility of maintaining order and promoting the positive values of the state. There is no coercive physical labour, the economy uses energy as its basis, and gender equality has been achieved. Unfortunately, one of the two voices in the dialogue which makes up the book cannot stop obsessing about a past love affair, and that frivolity finally destroys their ability to stay in the paradise humanity has made of Earth. They return to England with only their memories to prove that their experiences were real, although the narrator is inspired to take on the master work that is the transformation of our own planet.

In the Days of the Comet (1906) the mechanism for social change is external, as the novel follows the adventures of William Leadford as he murderously pursues his lover and her new man. His original intent is completely transformed by a green vapour expelled from a passing comet; his rage is checked and his narcissism forgotten. The gas works its same magic on all of humanity. We instantly become generous, altruistic, and outward-looking, and before long we are reordering society along the lines of that in A Modern Utopia. The story is narrated by a much older William Leadford who reflects on the immense and positive changes to society that have taken place over his life.

In some ways, The War in the Air (1908) is as prophetic as his much earlier Anticipations, although that farsightedness is not shared by its main character. Bert Smallways is rather like a young Wells, a youth struggling financially to advance himself in a society that is organized around class. That all changes when he happens upon a mad scientist figure who has invented the helicopter. Bert gains possession of his blueprints and then, regardless of this extreme good fortune, becomes caught up in German invasion plans and witnesses the bombing of New York. That battle ends with a combined Asian attack, as many Asian countries join forces and use their air superiority to take over much of the world. Once Bert finally returns to England to protect his beloved Edna, his childhood sweetheart who is now threatened by a local tough, Bert has been roughened by the world. He kills the rogue just as he had the prince of Germany, and soon is running the gang himself, as rural England—in the book’s suddenly claustrophobic view—becomes insular and medieval in its technology and outlook.

In The World Set Free (1914), the world is faced with a choice as the very real fear of larger and more powerful weapons culminates in something that resembles a nuclear bomb. With such destruction at the command of mere mortals, people in its society recognize that they either need to reorder their political systems or they will bomb themselves into paste:

The council was gathered together with the haste of a salvage expedition, and it was confronted with wreckage; but the wreckage was irreparable wreckage, and the only possibilities of the case were either the relapse of mankind to the agricultural barbarism from which it had emerged so painfully or the acceptance of achieved science as the basis of a new social order. The old tendencies of human nature, suspicion, jealousy, particularism, and belligerency, were incompatible with the monstrous destructive power of the new appliances the inhuman logic of science had produced. The equilibrium could be restored only by civilisation destroying itself down to a level at which modern apparatus could no longer be produced, or by human nature adapting itself in its institutions to the new conditions. It was for the latter alternative that the assembly existed. (The World Set Free)

As many critics have noted, Wells’ use of radioactive decay is his most significant glimpse into the future. Although contemporary scientists knew that radium releases, through natural decay, a huge amount of energy over thousands of years, it took Wells’ novel to speed up the release until it produces bombs of similar power, but whose explosions continue for days on end. For Wells, both in and outside the novel, this is a clear indication that warmongering must come to an end. Leó Szilárd, the physicist who conceived of atomic chain reactions read The World Set Free in 1932 and said the book made a great impression on him.

Rather like the earlier A Modern Utopia, Men Like Gods (1923) imagines three men—who are meant to represent three antithetical faces of England—being magically transported to another utopia. The main import of their arrival is a didactic explanation about changes to society which would lead to its improvement. In the history of this future England, they refer to our time as the “Days of Confusion.” Set three thousand years in our future with the tedious problems of our culture cured, the disease that the three characters bring with them is both physical—in the form of long-dead diseases, moral—in terms of the Reverend’s prurient attitude toward the women of the new world, and social—as Catskill leads an attempt to subjugate the utopian peoples. The novel is a rather transparent attempt to explore ideas about the use of education to form an equitable society that Wells had been interested in since his scientific romances. Utopia is governed by Five Principles of Liberty, which are privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness and free discussion. For Wells, the implementation of such ideas could build a utopia on Earth without the reader needing to travel through novelistic dimensions in order to get a peek. At the end, when the quite autobiographical Barnstaple must return to his own world, he learns what he can do to contribute to the society he has begun to prize:

And suddenly it was borne in upon Mr. Barnstaple that he belonged now soul and body to the Revolution, to the Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein. He knew clearly that this Revolution is life, and that all other living is a trafficking of life with death. And as this crystallized out in his mind he knew instantly that so presently it would crystallize out in the minds of countless others of those hundreds of thousands of men and women on Earth whom minds are set towards Utopia. (Men Like Gods)

The Holy Terror (1939) is another novel or political tract, but in it Wells seems to turn his back on the world state in order to examine the timely terrors of fascism. The novel promotes the notion of a unified humanity, but the peaceful union of all peoples that Wells often imagined is not found within its pages. Its world state grows out of violence and rebellion, and its principal character, a kind of natural politician, ultimately comes to resemble Stalin.

Perhaps as an effort to stem those very tides of fascism, or to avoid the consequences of The War in the Air, Wells began work on a text which attempted to propose a way of collating human knowledge, and hopefully, understanding. His World Brain (1936–1938) is a collection of essays, many of them given as talks, about the creation of a world encyclopedia. Rather than merely write about it, Wells had taken on part of the project himself and just a few years earlier had published his immensely popular, encyclopedic, The Outline of History (1920). In it Wells attempts to put recent human advances and beliefs in the context of scientific understanding and history. Although he feared he would be publishing it at a loss, it became an instant bestseller, selling over two million copies, and did much to establish Wells as a household name. The success of the text proved to be inspirational for Wells, for he realized that his thirst for knowledge was shared by many, and he turned his mind to similar projects.

Wells collaborated with Huxley a decade later in The Science of Life (1930), which was an attempt to do the same for the biological sciences as he had done for history. The commercial success of both books further proved Wells’ longstanding suspicion that the world was eager for education. The last volume in the three part series, The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1932), was not nearly as popular, however. In it, Wells, with the assistance of Edmund Cressey, Amber Reeves, Alexander Carr-Saunders, and Graham Wallas, tried to explain economics by reference to psychology. As the world turned its mind to the Depression, and less to purchasing books, especially those books which were more exploratory than explanatory, Wells’ latest work came to be seen as naïve, and too optimistic for a world which was teetering on the brink of another war.

The Shape of Things to Come (1933) is perhaps a reaction to that optimism. The book is a rendering of a future history which has been delivered to its writer, a Dr. Philip Raven, by the agency of dreams. He dutifully transcribes a future textbook from 2106. Rather surprisingly, like with his Anticipations, Wells’ predictions are quite accurate. He foresees the beginning of the Second European War to within a few months of when it actually began, and predicted that the war would mostly be conducted by bombing raids on civilian targets. He neglects the use of the tanks that he foresaw in his story “The Land Ironclads,” and instead imagines them to be of little utility in what he envisions as primarily a war in the air. In the novel, the exhausting war destroys the industrialized nations enough that they are overcome by a plague and only rise, phoenix-like, in a new society with a benevolent dictator who appears out of the ashes of the 1950s. The world state that Wells spent his career promoting is then suffered to take over the devastation, and before long English is the world language and religions are destroyed by decree. The world that he imagines, even after the benevolent dictator is overthrown a hundred years later, is one of a highly organized and just, if homogenous society1 where normal individuals are the intellectual equal of our polymaths.

In World Brain (1936–38), Wells proposes a kind of continually updated world encyclopedia. In this series of lectures, he dispenses entirely with the guises of his science fiction and instead entreats his audience directly. Although it is not the most well-known of Wells’ futurist speculations, World Brain remains one of the first texts to investigate the need for a coherent and organized system of information delivery so that humanity would become less of a victim to history as a series of accidents. Willing them to avoid the possible outcome of scientific marvels turned to horror, such as the development of more and more destructive armaments, he calls upon the world powers to rapidly organize scholarly and economic forces in order to create an information database where an educated humankind might learn how to be citizens in a rapidly changing world.

In his series of lectures, Wells was responding to Europe’s rapid descent into the madness of the coming war and dismayed by the lack of sociological understanding he saw around him. People were making decisions in the world that affected millions and yet knew nothing of their circumstances or how best to put their ill-formed ideas into practice. To counter that ignorance, Wells envisioned an ever-changing scholarly elite tasked with the altruistic project of creating and maintaining a world encyclopedia so that humankind might educate itself in a more even and equitable fashion and thus avoid, through an understanding of the implications of their actions, more wars to end all wars.

Wells’ long career is not one that can be subsumed under merely a few words, but even when it is divided into three broad artistic periods, his perennial interest in education and societal reorganization along more logical lines can be seen to extend throughout his oeuvre. He imagines intellectual forces overcoming the petty political bickering and hidebound class structures of his time so that all might take advantage of the new peace. The scientific romances can be seen as arising out of his observations of society’s transformation due to technological advances around him; he used his novels as a springboard to examine what might come about with even more wide-ranging changes. His novels of manners can be seen as a return to the privation of his youth although they combine his autobiographical urges with the socialist ideals that had always concerned his work. Finally, his scientific treatises—those science fiction books which make up his later period—are more explicit about the possible achievement of those social ideals. He rallies a series of scientific advances in order to examine what technological achievement might allow or force upon a reluctant humankind.

From his scientific romances—which are paeans to scientific progress even as they warn of the use of technology in unsteady hands—to his novels of English class struggle, Wells rails against class structures and wishes that society could be reordered so that all young drapers assistants might find advancement and fulfilling careers. His later period is one in which he is unsatisfied with mere metaphorical attempts to promulgate his ideas. Instead, he reaches for the pen of the pamphleteer and disengages his literary prowess in order to speak directly to his more radical notions. His character development of the later period never bothers with a depth that was common in his middle period, for like the stage dressing of his scientific romances, the characters of his later period are merely promotional puppets who strut and fret their hour on the stage of his ideas.

About The Island of Doctor Moreau

Critical Reaction and Editorial Changes

Although Wells was investigating class structures and the Darwinian fate of humanity in The Time Machine, and expanding on the eventual demise of earthly life, that telling inspired less vociferous outcry than his The Island of Doctor Moreau. The fate of the Eloi and the Morlocks was comfortably far in the future, and the implications of their situation vague enough to be ignored by those who merely wanted to enjoy a rousing tale.

The Island of Doctor Moreau evoked an entirely different reaction. Although the story is distanced from the reader by its placement as a found text, voiced by an observer rather than the perpetrator of the experimentation, and set on a distant tropical island, Wells’ observations about the most uncomfortable implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution—that “Man [. . .] is the same fearing, snarling, fighting beast he was a hundred thousand years ago” (See excerpt from The Croquet Player in Appendix 6)—caused an immediate outcry when it was published.

Wells said that such books as his scientific romances are ones which “hold the reader to the end by art and illusion and not by proof and argument, and the moment he closes the cover and reflects he wakes up to their impossibility” (“Preface”, in Seven Famous Novels. See Appendix 1). Moreau’s scientific impossibility was the least of the problems according to the critics of the time. Contemporaneous reviews were universally critical, excepting a “reasonably just” (Bergonzi 99) reviewer in the Guardian who, as Wells says, “seemed to be the only one who read it aright, and who therefore succeeded in giving a really intelligent notice of it” (ibid 98). As Bergonzi notes, “[s]ome reviewers were so horrified by what they considered the blatant sensationalism of the novel that they were quite unable to consider its literary merits” (97). Reviewers either damned the novel for its “exceedingly ghastly” (Parrinder 52) “greed of cheap horrors” (ibid 45), claimed that it “achieved originality at the expense of decency” (ibid 50), argued that the “sufferings inflicted in the course of the story have absolutely no adequate artistic reason” (ibid 51), or heaped ridicule on its science:

Doctor Moreau is himself a cliché from the pages of an anti-vivisection pamphlet. [. . .] a multitude of experiments on the skin and bone grafting and on transfusion of blood shows that animal-hybrids cannot be produced in these fashions. You can transfuse blood or graft skin from one man to another; but attempts to combine living material from different creatures fail. (Parrinder 46)

Wells’ response to Chalmers Mitchell’s claim in the Saturday Review that his science was unfounded references an article from the British Medical Journal from 31 October, 1896, which “contains the report of a successful graft, of not merely connective but of nervous tissue between a rabbit and a man” (Correspondence).

The difference in the contemporaneous reaction to The Time Machine and Moreau is instructive, at least in terms of the preoccupations of Victorian society. Although some reviewers imply that Wells was flirting with sexual indecency (Bergonzi 97), in fact, beyond the suggestion that some of the beast women became promiscuous when they reverted to being animals, the novel did not deal in sexual matters. The “extremely precocious, physically at least” Eloi “running in their amorous sport” caused much less dismay, but Wells likely sensed that references to such behaviour in his beast folk might be too controversial for his audience. Even the faint suggestion of the beast animals’ reversion is unseemly enough that the timid narrator spares the reader its details:

They were reverting, and reverting very rapidly.

Some of them—the pioneers in this, I noticed with some surprise, were all females—began to disregard the injunction of decency, deliberately for the most part. Others even attempted public outrages upon the institution of monogamy. The tradition of the Law was clearly losing its force. I cannot pursue this disagreeable subject.

The reaction to Moreau had much less to do with the vivid and gory detail with which Wells made his argument than the notion that the troubling differences between humans and the other animals are merely skin deep. This is alluded to in the implications of Darwin’s work,2 and certainly Huxley had toppled humanity from its self-appointed pedestal on the earthly pyramid, but Victorian society was still unready for such a suggestion come to life.

Unwilling to let the disconcerted Victorian sensibility alone, Wells also, and this was noted by an anonymous reviewer in the Guardian, “seems to parody the work of the Creator of the human race, and cast contempt upon the dealings of God with His creatures” (Bergonzi 98). By casting Moreau in the role of “a nightmarish caricature of the Almighty” (ibid 106) who argues that our humanity is maintained by following memorized and rather arbitrary rules which we will continually break, Wells makes Moreau a deity that the beast in us would rather avoid or kill.

Although even Wells seems to have been dismayed by the bleak vision of the novel, he also considered it to be his best work to date, and was happy enough with its central tenet that in its reworking over the next thirty years,3 Prendick, Moreau, the beast people, and the saying of the Law remained the same. The changes he made to the novel served to excise characters which distract from the main plot, such as Moreau’s “wife and son in Wells’s earlier drafts” (Shelton 7): “those thematically extraneous figures are dropped from the final and far superior version, so that its Moreau is sterile and childless but for the creatures he, like Frankenstein, fashions in a laboratory with his own hands” (ibid).4 Wells also discarded those portions of Prendick’s initial meetings with the beast folk which align their bestial nature with alcohol abuse (Philmus xxii). Originally he has a “piggish looking man” tell Prendick of a place “where they let you drink out of saucers” and “you can go about on all fours” (Philmus xix-xx). This “temperance tract” (ibid) type of evaluation of the animalistic flaunting of the Law is later changed to the alcoholism of Captain Davies from the Lady Vain, Montgomery’s incident in London on a foggy night, and his final “Bank Holiday.” Wells also shifted the setting of the novel from an idyllic South Seas isle to a lonely stretch of open ocean near the Galapagos. This moves the novel away from mere adventure and allows it to be associated with Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle. Wells also removed, or modified the explicit racism of the original draft. The “black woman sprawled [. . .] with much of the abandon of a well-fed dog,” the “yellow men,” and the “wizened brown negroid face” (Philmus xxii) leave only a few traces in the final copy.

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