© 2010 by Dylan Ravenfox

At the crux of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) by H. G. Wells, haunted by nausea, uncertainty, and illusion, two critical chapters entitled “The Crying of the Puma” and “The Crying of the Man” dramatize the novel’s central concern with kindred expressions of human and animal suffering. In the first of these, the cry of a conscious, un-anesthetized puma on Moreau’s vivisection table, bleeding into the room from ‘behind’ a closed door, sets Edward Prendick, the narrator, increasingly on his nerves.  In the second, Prendick hears the same being’s cries as those of a tortured human animal. In the first instance, the cries drive Prendick to flee the scene, whereas in the second he bravely strides into Moreau’s laboratory to interfere.  As ‘natural’ as his responses might each seem to be, their contradictory affective and narrative impulses illuminate a complex nexus of socially and culturally ritualized assumptions that determine his memory and perception of ‘other species’.  The narrative’s uncertain response to and classification of the screaming victim (who the narrative does not grant a ‘proper’ name and genders both male and female) offer useful vantages through which to explore the tensions underlying late-nineteenth-century England’s ambivalent discursive treatment of pain expressed by beings different from ourselves.

Prendick’s flight or fight response defers to conflicted voices of authority that compel the narrator’s equivocation in reaction to “the cry within,” the inner din rendering a vortex of subject-object inversion, substitution, exchange and transformation. Wells’s linguistic treatment of the cry as that of an ‘other’ blending into his own ‘kind’ evokes a historical conflict between a Darwinian etiological perspective which posits that human language evolved out of non-human language, and an alternative cultural ideology advocating an absolute ontological divide between human language, and non-human utterance.  More precisely, alongside the Darwinian demystification of a privileged ‘origin story’ for human exceptionalism, Prendick’s experience activates a Cartesian vision of sharp division between humans and other animal species.  For if the puma’s howl can seem to Wells’ narrator at one moment a “cry from within,” it is simultaneously heard at a distance as if projected from Descartes’s vision of animals as mere ‘automata’ lacking the ontological—and hence ethical—sonority of human beings.

The contrast between Descartes’s treatment of animal non-signification (in-significance) and Darwin’s notion of non-human linguistic/cultural inheritance provides a useful framework for exploring Dr. Moreau’s attempt to appease Prendick’s remonstration when he hears the cries as those of his own species.  Leading up to this moment, Prendick forces open the laboratory door and sees “something bound painfully upon a framework, scarred, red, and bandaged,” and his view is quickly blotted out by “the face of old Moreau, white and terrible” who picks him up and throws him out as if he were a “little child” (78).  In his trauma induced youth, he fears that the doctor will soon substitute his own body for the creature’s on the cutting board, and in a “confusion, blurred with drifting black and red phantasms,” discovers the site of the “Beast People”, where they speak to him, in a tone of conflicted reverence, of Moreau’s punishments.  Shortly thereafter, the scientist appears in pursuit, and Prendick soon finds himself trapped on the island’s shore like a stag at bay.  After putting down his guns and convincing Prendick not to drown himself, Moreau lures him back indoors and begins his apologia.

Moreau’s impassioned self-defense helps excavate some of the contradictions motivating the ‘dispassionate,’ ‘detached,’ and ‘objective’ responses of Cartesian science to the expressions of suffering in non-humans.  The explication of his  scientifically ‘unemotional’ stance toward the outcries of his ‘subjects,’ reveals various cultural imperatives that drive forth his project of converting ‘others’ into imperfect versions of his own kind.  Exploring his stance provides a means of honing-in on a particularly anxious site of questioning  within British debates between differing reactions to non-human screeching, howling, wailing, and screaming: the practice of vivisection.  Moreau’s self-vindication engages various objections evoked by the anti-vivisection movement gathering force during the latter half of the nineteenth century, providing a vehicle for answering the following question at the novel’s core: Why is it that when a being under the vivisector’s scalpel is a non-human, the surgical experimentation is socially necessary and for a greater good, but when the creature is human, the cutting into his/her restrained, sensate body is atrocious and morally wrong?

The ethical statuses of Moreau’s ‘animal’ victimizings play an important role in shaping the ethical statuses of the ‘humans’ they become, or more precisely for Moreau, fail to become.  His speech thus evokes connections between his specific brand of scientific ‘detachment,’ his callous subversion of empathy, and the sadistic pleasure he takes from his administered control in the context of racist colonial enslavement allegorized by the doctor’s treatment of the not-quite-human Beast People.  Indeed, his penetration into the body of the other and inscription of his own image upon it functions as an apt metaphor for the logic of the drive to conquer veiled in the guise of civilizing intervention.  Of course, the theme of colonialism pervades the island narrative, with Moreau’s humanized animals allegorizing animalized humans, that is,   colonized peoples politically and ‘scientifically’ classified as sub- or non-human.  In relation to Moreau, the metamorphoses he enacts might well represent the transition from violently dominating animals to performing the same actions on humans.[1]

Furthermore, his practice of fabricating the ‘human’ ‘out of’ the ‘animal’ elicits a final thematic strand of the text’s central concerns—with respect to both cross-species expressions of pain and prejudices of ‘white enslavement’— often lurking just under the fiction’s surface: the consumption of bodies as a marker of hierarchically situated domains of difference.  Cannibalism serves as one of the novel’s most heightened points of anxiety in this regard, though flesh eating in general plays an important role in ‘shaping’ the prejudicial lens that Wells rearticulates and responds to.  Eating, then, will tie our exploration’s end back into its beginning, as a final means of probing social structures underlying the ways in which expressions that seem to say “stop this” are perceived across specific categories of difference in the text.

The central motif, then, of (self referential) animal language in The Island of Dr. Moreau, and its relation to Victorian England’s discursive and material practices regarding non-humans, leads to a conceptual web binding the novel’s seemingly disparate thematic concerns: conflicting and unsettled responses to the expression of pain across species boundaries; their dialogue with Moreau’s scientific (dis)passion respecting vivisection; the spatial and logical similarities Moreau’s vivisection shares with the gluttony of colonial power; and flesh eating (becoming) as the very medium founding all social hierarchy.  Through a close reading of Prendick’s reactions to the Puma’s evolving cries, as well as Moreau’s attempt to quell his tempestuous vexation, this essay explores that assemblage of issues in order to elucidate some of the challenges the Wells of this novel puts to its audience by raising questions about the possibility of animals as agents worthy of ethical regard. In further elaboration, the logic motivating Moreau’s vivisection parallels the schematic of his colonial brutalization, adding to the provocation of Moreau‘s Wells an unsettling critical force upon his audience’s complacent implication in governing structures of colonial domination. Ultimately the challenges begin as a vivid experience of a penetrating yowl, so we’ll commence by analyzing  the unsettled ways in which Prendick hears the puma’s impassioned supplications.

In “The Crying of the Puma,” Prendick first hears the screaming as “a sharp, hoarse cry of animal pain” (57) during supper and conversation with Montgomery, Moreau’s deputy.  Neither of them acknowledge it verbally, and the men don’t let it interrupt them, but after M’ling (“the misshapen monster with the pointed ears”)–a clear veteran of making all but invisible his intense sympathetic pain–clears away the meal and Prendick is left alone, the latter can only bear the cries by silencing them with physical distance:

Presently I got to stopping my ears with my fingers.

The emotional appeal of those yells grew upon me steadily, grew at last to such an exquisite expression of suffering that I could stand it in that confined room no longer.  I stepped out the door into the slumberous heat of the late afternoon, and walking past the main entrance—locked again I noticed, turned the corner of the wall.

The crying sounded even louder out of doors.  It was as if all the pain in the world had found a voice.  Yet had I known such pain was in the other room, and had it been dumb, I believe—I have thought since—I could have stood it well enough.  It is when suffering finds a voice and sets our nerves quivering that this pity comes troubling us. (59)

That Prendick “could have stood it well enough” if he hadn’t had to listen to it suggests that his sentiments do not arise from the ethical code he inherits from British culture, but rather from a set of emotional s(t)imulations he feels in spite of that code, a code that he cannot quite suppress.  Earlier in the narrative, apropos Moreau’s tightly shut door, he states, “Yet surely, and especially to another scientific man, there was nothing so horrible in vivisection as to account for this secrecy” (53).  According to this passage, Prendick views the practice of vivisection as an acceptable one, though he cannot help but exhibit an intense discomfort with it. As if haunted by a memory of having experienced ‘this pain’ before, one could imagine the reader’s muslces tightening, ‘quivering’ in obscure alarm, a form of identification (‘pity’) which feels that it’s so close to the pain of actual bodily mutilation  the identifier begins, almost, to want that loss.  Interestingly, the same discomfort might well be attributed to the figure of Wells himself, who in his non-fiction writing denounces the anti-vivisection efforts of his time (Armstrong 93), efforts that his novel responds to fairly sympathetically  by troubling the assumptions of human privilege upon which such experimentation is founded.  Hence, Prendick and Wells both articulate an ethical standpoint supporting the practice of vivisection, but at the same time betray an underlying guilt, an unresolved emotional discord, and even a profound disagreement by dramatizing such fiercely discordant ambivalence.  Though of course ‘knowing’ the ‘true opinion’ of Wells is not possible, The Island of Dr. Moreau seemingly takes on a wild, instinctual life of its own, at least in relation to the Wells who avowedly distains the ‘sentimentality’ of anti-vivisectionists.[2]

This inner strife conflicting with the narrator’s avowed approval of cutting open live sufferers resonates with the instability of the animal-human boundary activated by Moreau’s divisions.  In the chapter “The Crying of the Man,” Prendick,  while sitting down to eat, notices between mouthfuls that the cries of the Puma have metamorphosed into the sobbing anguish of a human being:

Even as that fear returned to me came a cry from within.  But this time it was not the cry of the puma.

I put down the mouthful that hesitated upon my lips and listened.  Silence, save for the whisper of the morning breeze.  I began to think my ears had deceived me.

After a long pause I resumed my meal, but with my ears still vigilant.  Presently I heard something else very faint and low.  I sat as if frozen in my attitude.  Though it was faint and low, it moved me more profoundly than all that I had hitherto heard of the abominations behind the wall.  There was no mistake this time in the quality of the dim broken sounds, no doubt at all of their source; for it was groaning, broken by sobs and gasps of anguish.  It was no brute this time.  It was a human being in torment!

And as I realized this I rose,  and in three steps had crossed the room, seized the handle of the door into the yard, and flung it open before me. (77-8)

Why then does the Prendick from “The Crying of the Puma” react first by stopping his ears with his fingers, and then by fleeing the scene, while the Prendick of “The Crying of the Man” is compelled to look inside and turn directly toward the violence?

In both instances it seems that he cannot help himself while swept up by the surges of emotion he hears pulsing in the blood in his ears, but in the second case Prendick finds himself disposed to feel more outrage and more inclined to intervene.  That Prendick would feel a greater sense of empathy for the expressions he recognizes as human as opposed to animal certainly reflects the traditions of Wells’ culture, as evidenced by Victorian England’s widespread (though not unchallenged) acceptance of the vivisection practiced on non-humans as valuable scientific enterprise.  In Harriet Ritvo’s The Animal Estate, she claims that the end of the nineteenth century saw anti-vivisection as a fringe movement, “appealing to an assortment of feminists, labor activists, vegetarians, spiritualists, and others who did not fit easily into the established order of society” (162).  Despite this conventionalism, the thesis that only human grievance elicits empathy from Prendick seems over-simplistic, since both of his reactions suggest a kind of participation in the experience of suffering that he hears, as evidenced by his impulse to silence and escape as well as his impulse to confront and express.  If he claims to consider the cries as “nothing so horrible,” why can’t he bear to listen to them?

The tension disturbing Prendick arises from the interstices between his perception of the puma’s cries as “such an exquisite expression of suffering [. . . ] as if all the suffering in the world had found a voice” and of the human’s utterance as “groaning, broken by sobs and gasps of anguish.”  Why does he use the word “exquisite” (etymologically, to ‘seek out’), as if some undercurrent of pleasure in-forms his reading?  His dramaturgical use of “as if all the suffering in the world”  seems to remove him from the cries by abstracting and generalizing, while “broken” “sobs” “gasps” and “anguish” suggest a more vividly corporeal experience of them, situated more somatically within an individual body.  With the language he uses to recollect the two encounters, he sympathizes (in all senses including “to suffer,”  “to attract or tend toward each other,” and to experience “a relation between two bodily organs” (OED)) more with the ‘human’.  That Prendick feels more toward the human than the puma might seem like a ‘natural’ constituent of his humanity, an ‘evolutionary’ necessity, but it is also supported by a long history of cultural construction and conventional training.  The following excerpt from Aristotle exemplifies one of the many authoritative influences that has helped calcify and ingrain Prendick’s normative reaction to the expressions of animal pain:  

Where then there is such a difference as that between soul and body, or between men and animals (as in the case of those whose business is to use their body, and who can do nothing better), the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master.  (Aristotle, Politics, bk. I, ch. 5)

The typically harsh treatment of animals sanctioned by this ideological objectification has generally been justified by emphasizing some quintessential attribute of mankind as a marker of absolute qualitative separation from other species.  But then, if the constructions of that separation have motivated man’s dominion over animals, the reverse is also true. In his own outline of presiding cultural dispositions toward non-humans, Keith Thomas educes this reversal through a reading of Darwin:

Man stood to animal as did heaven to earth, soul to body, culture to nature.  There was a total qualitative difference between man and brute.     [. . . ] Throughout the eighteenth century the theme was reiterated.  [. . .] The practical advantages of this distinction were clear, even if its theoretical rationale was elusive.  ‘Animals, whom we have made our slaves,’ Charles Darwin would write, ‘we do not like to consider our equal.’ (Thomas, 35-6)

Thomas’s list of dichotomies that echo Aristotle’s soul/body divide, mobilized to absolve human-guilt, resonate strongly with the move Descartes’ makes in relegating animals to the purely bodily while granting the human ‘mind’ an entire ontological category of its own. His schema leaves animals and their signification on the other side of a wall that they and their ‘meanings’ could never pierce. At the same time, he is not quite willing to claim that animals are unable to feel a set of sensations and emotions he calls the “passions” that they instinctually express. In order to maintain a uniquely human form of signification, he must then posit an alternative form of expression which has no relation the bodily, blood-pulsing passions.

According to that position, such utterances as puma’s cry express only the sensations of pain, but somehow exist outside of ‘language’ propper.  Importantly though, so too fails the cry of the woman that the puma becomes.  Hence, expressing alike emotion through inarticulate gesture and sound, Wells’s non-human and human sufferers meet at a juncture unimaginable within, yet assimilable to, the Cartesian schema. But then, Darwin, in proposing that human language derives from animal expression, complicates Descartes’ notion of linguistic signs that “have no relation to their passions.”  Where Descartes posits an absolute break between the expression of thought and the expression of emotion, Darwin posits a shared origin of human (presumed agent of thought) and animal (locus of pure affect), and therefore a convergent history that contradicts Descartes’ theory of ontological division.  For the former, it seems that there can be no ‘human’ language that is not always already a rearticulation of ‘animal’ sensation.  Such a position suggests important consequences for the scientific objectivity espoused by Moreau, but before we focus on that issue, it would be useful to explore Darwinian interconnectivity through the word and performance of “cry” itself.

It seems that as printed word, “cry” does encode what Darwin would call “articulate” locution and Descartes would consider a linguistic ‘sign’, where the sound of the cry itself does not.  One way to clarify this distinction would be to suggest that it arises out of writing itself.  Thus, the sound of the cry cannot be precisely repeated in the form of text, cannot be looked up in a dictionary, but the word can. But then, isn’t it true that any sound cannot be reproduced in a visual image? The word “cry” then, can function only through its relation to the corporeal experience of audible utterance.  Descartes, though, posits a form of language that somehow functions completely independent of such relations.  His linguistic “mind” struggles to escape the bodily world.  Paradoxically, though, he is only able to posit the existence of a mind through metaphors of the corporeal body.  The Cartesian elevation of the divided mind above the body plays an important role, I think, therefore, in the ethical uncertainty belied by the gap between Prendick’s description of vivisection as “nothing so horrible” and his vivid sensations of emotional discomfort, sensations that lead him to question the moral status of Moreau’s “progress”.

Dr. Moreau’s stated relation to the cries of his subjects exhibits an even more dominant Cartesian influence.  His brand of scientific experimentation relies explicitly on the figure of a rational mind separate from the ‘animal’ body.  For Moreau, pain functions as the quintessential mark of animality, that from which the elevated form of humanity he would construct fails to escape (a failure that fuels its own repetition, as per Moreau’s illusion that he will finally succeed in fabricating a ‘real’ human with the body of the puma.  And yet, notwithstanding this Cartesian surety, the scientist presents to the narrator a  conflicted apology, both self-celebrating and self-exonerating, in which pain plays a central and contradictory role, as that which motivates  and vindicates the vivisection, as well as that which solicits justification because ethically suspect.  Pain somehow lies both behind Prendick’s outraged demand for an explanation, as unnecessary infliction—needing absolution from Moreau’s own accusation via the title ‘artistic torture’ that he ascribes to the vaults of the Inquisition—as well as behind the explanation Moreau gives, as the “mark of the beast” against which he specifies and establishes his own mastery and authority over his animal subjects.

When Prendick demands to hear Moreau’s justification for “inflicting all this pain” they exchange the following remarks:

“But you see I am differently constituted.  We are on different platforms.  You are a materialist.”

“I am not a materialist,” I began hotly.

In my view—in my view.  For it is just this question of pain that parts us.  So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick, so long as your own pain drives you, so long as pain underlies your propositions about sin, so long, I tell you, you are an animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels.  (113)

In this passage, Moreau excludes Prendick from the sphere of humanity by reducing him to the level of material existence.  His conceit clearly reiterates threads of the Cartesian elevation of divided mind over its instantiation in the flesh, as evidenced by his use of the word “platforms,” which suggests a hierarchical relationship between his own logic and Prendick’s pain-driven motives.  In calling Prendick “an animal” Moreau implies his own status as a human, defined through opposition to the characteristics he ascribes to Prendick.  Those characteristics include being made sick by the pain of others, being driven by one’s own pain, and using pain to define sin.  Moreau’s desire to operate on a level completely removed from bodily hurt constitutes a key motive for his attempt to construct a perfect rational creature out of his subjects, and out of himself.  Paradoxically, then, his struggle for a form of reason external to bodily sensation is itself motivated by pain.  The dispassionate scientific ‘objectivity’ with which the novel characterizes him thus undermines itself.  Because defined in opposition to the biases of emotional subjectivity, it cannot exist in “neutral” isolation from them.  When Moreau tells Prendick, “you are an animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels,” he suggests that there are some human thoughts that, in Cartesian terms, merely express the passions, and others that do not.  Whereas pain marks ‘the beast,’ emotionless thought seems to mark ‘the human’.  But then,  such emotionless thoughts contradict themselves, because they are ultimately constructed as reactions to pain, and are therefore always already driven by it.

To better understand Moreau’s dispassion in relation to animal pain we must undertake a reading of his ostensible lack of sympathy:

“The thing before you is no longer an animal, a fellow-creature, but a problem! Sympathetic pain,—all I know of it I remember as a thing I used to suffer from years ago.” (115)

His statement reinforces the notion of Cartesian meaninglessness in the other—“animal” and “fellow-creature” transformed into “thing” and “problem”—which perhaps allows him to experience that objectification as a kind of numbness in himself.  As a provisional understanding of the sympathy Moreau claims to transcend, we may borrow from Darwin’s The Expression of Emotion: “The feeling of sympathy is commonly explained by assuming that, when we see or hear of suffering in another, the idea of suffering is called up so vividly in our minds that we ourselves suffer.” (215) Prendick’s, Montgomory’s, and especially M’ling’s reaction to the puma’s cry all support Darwin’s analysis, which suggests a reading of the puma’s cry experienced as suffering, rather than as a mere gesture toward it.  But then, hearing the puma’s screams, or seeing her writhing in pain, is not the same as actually experiencing one of Moreau’s sessions of cutting and suturing.  Rather, the physical pain of the puma seems to sublimate into psychological suffering.  That process perhaps occurs through the division and recombination of one’s own memories of excruciating hurt.  Thus, when Moreau claims he only experiences sympathetic pain as memory, he alludes to the same process of experiencing the pain of the other as a memory of one’s own.  Perhaps, then, when  Moreau states that “Each time I dip a living creature into the bath of burning pain, I say, This time I will burn out all the animal, this time I will make a rational creature of my own” (120), he refers to ‘civilizing’ himself as well as the other.  In this way, we can see that his Cartesian “mind,” his scientific “objectivity” and cold “dispassion,” are themselves driven by pain, and not so removed from it as Moreau claims.

In her essay on Wells’s novel, Sherryl Vint treats Moreau’s thoughts on pain as a critique of the idealistic detachment espoused by the new experimental science that emerged alongside Descartes’ philosophy in the seventeenth century, as well as of the practices of vivisection that rapidly grew in frequency during the latter half of the nineteenth century.  She invokes Claude Bernard, one of the most prominent vivisectors of Wells’s time,  as a model for the character of Moreau, providing the following excerpt from his Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine:

The physiologist is no ordinary man: he is a scientist, possessed and absorbed by the scientific idea that he pursues.  He does not hear the cries of animals, he does not see their flowing blood, he sees nothing but his idea, and is aware of nothing but an organism that conceals from him the problem he is seeking to resolve.  (87)

That Bernard’s physiologist “does not hear the cries of animals” illuminates how the Cartesian schema could be employed as a way of rendering expressive utterances ‘unreal’ underwriting the conception of non-human sufferers’ cries as illusive. One might imagine Bernard arguing that the puma’s cries only appear to constitute expressive acts, while ‘in reality’ they are simply the inevitable results of mechanistic causal chains.  Like Moreau, Bernard elevates the ‘progress’ of science above sympathetic emotion, championing the objectivity, dispassion, and distance that characterized scientific ideals exemplary during Wells’s time.  Vint states, “In Wells’s novel we see these same qualities turned into sadism, the distorted delusion of a man who has made himself into a god” (87).  She thus critiques the very notion of objectivity as a bias of human arrogance, stating that such constructions are “linked to a series of intellectual moves that separate man from body and nature and posit the scientist as the natural, unmarked, and unconnected observer—a distorted and limited perspective” (89).  Thus, the Cartesian doctrine which posits human language as disembodied from the passions becomes suspect as that cooked up to maintain the mentalist ideals of anthropocentric supremacy.

According to this reading, the novel’s depiction of Moreau criticizes Cartesian science as a means of upholding a set of cultural prejudices rather than as a means of discovering ‘the truth.’  Moreau’s origin story, in which he tells Prendick how he made his “first man,” functions as an apt site for exploring those prejudices, especially in relation to the clash of Cartesian and Darwinian theories about the conception of human thought and language:

Then I took a gorilla I had; and upon that, working with infinite care and mastering difficulty after difficulty, I made my first man.  All the week, night and day, I moulded him.  With him it was chiefly the brain that needed moulding; much had to be added, much changed.  I thought him a fair specimen of the Negroid type when I had finished him, and he lay bandaged, bound, and motionless before me.  [. . .] I spent many days educating the brute,–altogether I had him for three or four months.  I taught him the rudiments of English; gave him ideas of counting; even made the thing read the alphabet.  But at that he was slow, though I’ve met with idiots slower.  He began with a clean sheet, mentally; had no memories left in his mind of what he had been.  When his scars were quite healed, and he was no longer anything but painful and stiff, and able to converse a little, I took him yonder and introduced him to the Kanakas as an interesting stowaway.  (117)

Moreau’s desire to “create a rational creature of [his] own” by narcissistically converting the mental and physical attributes of an other into a (necessarily imperfect) replica of himself belies the set of hierarchically dependent assumptions to which he subscribes.  Moreau sees himself as the quintessential human, the supposed end product of evolutionary ‘progress,’ and all other life-forms as imperfect deviations from this avowed ideal.  Hence, Moreau imagines the need for corrective intervention, and justifies his torturous impositions as graceful bestowals of ‘development,’ ‘progress,’ or ‘civilization.’ Importantly, this set of cultural biases applies not only to non-human animals, but also to the (sub)humans they become.  That is, Moreau sees not only the gorilla, but also the “Negroid” as a flawed or lesser embodiment of his own perfection.  Hence his assumptions about the ‘inferiority’ of other species are essentially the same assumptions determining his prejudices against non-whites.

Moreau’s use of “mastering,” “moulding,” and “specimen of the Negroid type” all elicit the context of racism and enslavement influencing the novel.  Both the Beast People and the Kanakas serve as Moreau’s colonial subjects.  The convergence of “gorilla” and “Negroid” reiterate a  longstanding tradition of that racial association, as well as the tendency to consider non-whites as non- or pre-human.  More precisely, this conjunction alludes to the contemporary tendency to interpret Darwin’s origin story as narrating the evolution of apes into non-whites into whites, positing a hierarchy over which Europeans rule as the most “developed” (Corbey 64).  (The alternative non-progressivist interpretation posits a common ancestor and rejects the notion that some species are “more evolved” than others.) Moreau’s belief that the “specimen” begins with a “clean sheet, mentally” reiterates the Cartesian view that posits a substance dualism between human signification and animal expression.  While the creature’s physical brain is comprised by the gorilla’s, Moreau imagines that ‘its’ mental experience stems only from the education he enforces.  Moreau thus repeats the logic of colonial conversion whereby non-Europeans were expected to abandon completely their own cultures and replace them with European values.

Later in his apologia, Moreau contradicts the imagined “clean sheet” with which his subjects ostensibly begin when he finishes his surgical interventions. “I have been doing better,” he says to Prendick, “but somehow the things drift back again, the stubborn beast flesh grows, day by day, back again. . .  I mean to do better things still.  I mean to conquer that” (118).  He thereby alludes to a central contradiction within his conflicted enterprise.  For Moreau, the animality that he would purge is precisely what marks his mastery over the Beast People.  His treatment of them as servants conflicts with the desire to fully purge them of their animality.  Hence, there seems to be a kind of necessary failure built into his colonial experiments.  The necessarily incomplete inscription of his own image onto the body of the other resonates with Homi Bhabha’s analysis of imperialism’s “civilizing” process in Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse:

It is from this area between mimicry and mockery, where the reforming, civilizing mission is threatened by the displacing gaze of its disciplinary double, that my instances of colonial imitation come.  What they all share is a discursive process by which the excess or slippage produced by the ambivalence of mimicry (almost the same, but not quite) does not merely ‘rupture’ the discourse, but becomes transformed into an uncertainty which fixes the colonial subject as a ‘partial’ presence.  By ‘partial’ I mean both ‘incomplete’ and ‘virtual.’ It is as if the very emergence of the ‘colonial’ is dependent for its representation upon some strategic limitation or prohibition within the authoritative discourse itself.  The success of colonial appropriation depends on a proliferation of inappropriate objects that ensure its strategic failure, so that mimicry is at once resemblance and menace (86).

Moreau’s scientific enterprise runs parallel to the process of mimicry described by Bhabha, such that his “strategic failure” functions as an integral component of his power.  The puma’s vivisection thus illuminates an interdependence within constructs of animal-human and savage-civilized boundaries through this necessary slippage in the process of conversion enforced alike by Moreau and imperial British rule.  Bhabha’s analysis illuminates the ambivalence of Moreau’s conflicted project: if it were to truly succeed in transforming the other into the self, the differences his mastery and authority predicate themselves upon cease to exist.  In Wells’s text, the “strategic limitation or prohibition,” the “inappropriate objects,” the “strategic failure,” of the emergent ‘colonial’ generally tend to function as articulations of animality.

The way the narrative marks the master-slave power relations that it stages draws so heavily on the language of animal (dis)figuration that those relations seem almost to rely upon this discourse.  That is, the animal-as-other motif pervades the narrative’s portrayal of colonial racism to such an extent that it seems to suggest that the trope plays a necessary role in the construction of British imperialist ideology.  Another way, then, that we might read the cries of the  puma on Moreau’s operating table might be as a direct transformation of animal into human suffering—that is, as a ‘translation’ of the ever-present context of animal suffering into English culture’s proliferation of racism, colonialism, enslavement, and misogyny.  Moreau’s project represents a conversion of the violent subordination of animals into the analogous treatment of humans.  Read in this way, the novel’s central metamorphosis perhaps asserts that practices such as sacrifice, hunting, domestication, vivisection, and slaughter enact a relationship of mutual reinforcement with the imperialistic conquest and enslavement of human beings.

Just before one the novel’s first instances of racially charged violence, Prendick sees M’ling[3], whom he does not yet recognize as one of Moreau’s Beast People, approach a group of chained and muzzled dogs:

The black hesitated before them, and this gave the red-haired man time to come up with him and deliver a tremendous blow between the shoulder blades.  The poor devil went down like a felled ox, and rolled in the dirt among the furiously excited dogs (22).

Prendick thus uses imagery of both a devil and a domesticated beast of burden to describe M’ling’s receipt of the captain’s blow.  While the narrator does takes a somewhat defensive stance toward M’ling, the passage betrays an underlying set of conventionalized prejudices (even the word “poor,” which gives the passage its sense of sympathy, emerges from and silently affirms Prendick’s bourgeois English roots).  His use of the word “devil” elicits the traditional demonization of the animal, evidenced through countless representations of Satan and other demons of western mythology as hoofed, horned, tailed, winged, etc.[4] The “felled ox” Prendick uses to describe the fall of M’ling elicits the central role played by figurations of domesticated animals in the construction of inferior raced identities.  During many instances throughout the novel M’ling is treated as just such a domesticated animal.  We learn that he sleeps in a kennel outside, that “Montgomery had trained it to prepare food, and indeed to discharge all the trivial domestic offices that were required” (130) , and that he serves as a scapegoat during Montgomery’s bouts of drunken fury (here, Prendick reiterates the novel’s tendency to nominalize the Beast People with the words “it” or “thing”).

Prendick’s account of M’ling’s fall does not animalize and demonize M’ling toward the simple purpose of adding insult to injury, as he does not utter the words “ox” and “devil” out loud.  What, then, motivates the process of othering within his memory? One way of explicating this demeaning nominalization would be to posit that the metaphors of “felled ox” and “devil” serve to make the Captain’s abuse less worthy of Prendick’s ethical concern by naturalizing it according to the venerable Aristotelian formulation of hierarchical power relations positing white European men at the top as the “perfect” realization of “human” being and non-human animals at the bottom as born-to-be slaves.  If the use of “felled ox” thus serves to naturalize, and make determinately fixed, the inferior status of M’ling, it attests to the theory put forth by Thomas in a compelling chapter of Man and the Natural World entitled “Inferior Humans” in which grounding the claim that intra-specific “human” social subordination tends to model itself after the archetypal pattern of domestication, he evokes countless examples of animalization within European imperialist representations of colonized peoples.  Thomas states, apropos black slavery, that “It is hard to believe that the system would ever have been tolerated if negroes had been credited with fully human attributes.  Their dehumanization was a necessary precondition of their maltreatment” (45).[5]

Of course, as a means of constructing identity, the various forms of brutalization enforced upon enslaved races do not reflect the ‘natures’ of those peoples so much as the projected prejudices of the enslaving culture.  The language of animalization as a kind of cultural mirror evokes Thomas’ insight that ascriptions of ‘animal’ attributes to animals and humans alike project human anxieties:

Men attributed to animals the natural impulses they most feared in themselves—ferocity, gluttony, sexuality—even though it was men, not beasts, who made war on their own species, ate more than was good for them, and were sexually active all the year round.  It was as a comment on human nature that the concept of ‘animality’ was devised.  As S. T. Coleridge would observe, to call human vices ‘bestial’ was to libel the animals (Thomas, 41).


In Thomas’s analysis, the seemingly simple dichotomy of human and animal operating along the axis of self and other is transformed into a mysterious and enchanting perceptual process (recalling Prendick’s whirlwind of confusion and fear spurred by “the cry from within” .  On the one hand, we feel that they ‘are’ as we see them.  On the other hand, when we look closely, we notice that the attributes we recognize in them are perceptions of our own. [6] Somehow, within the animal, the human is legible. But then, the reverse is also true.  Human and animal identity engage in a somewhat circular relationship within their apprehension.  The animal functions as a site of human projection, though that projected ‘self’ is itself constituted out of ‘animal’ being.  Moreover, the circle functions on both a symbolic and a physical level.  Symbolically, the objectivity of animal being is produced by human subjectivity, while human subjectivity exists only in material relation to its animal other.  This double mirroring is itself reflected through the continual re-circulation of corporeal matter, most notably through transmutational process of eating.

Most pointedly for our reading of The Island of Dr. Moreau, the recognition of the human in the animal and the animal in the human that unsettles this reflexive dichotomy threatens the clear-cut distinction between cannibalism and meat-eating. If an ‘animal’ other may only be recognized in relation to one’s own subjective human experience, then when one eats an ‘animal,’ one eats (becomes) the embodiment of one own perceptions of the other.  This  strange Mobius strip of inter-subjectivity may account for some of The Island of Dr. Moreau’s cannibalistic anxiety.  The novel first exhibits its fear of anthropophagy through the familiar shipwreck narrative with which the tale begins.  Prendick finds himself adrift with two shipmates, where six days of starvation, and of “already thinking strange things and saying them with [their] eyes” (11), attest to the strength of their society’s taboo against cannibalism.  Eventually they decide to draw lots.  At first Prendick refuses to sacrifice his culturally constructed humanity even to save his life, stating that he’d rather be eaten by sharks.  Eventually he gives in, though Wells saves him from the ‘shame’ of eating his shipmates by having them wrestle each other overboard just before the arrival of Moreau’s ship, the Ipecacuanha (a name aptly referring to a medicinal emetic, evoking the novel’s unsettled gustatory trajectory).

The narrative uses cannibalism in a way similar to “the mark of the beast,” as a derogatory insult, when the captain deports Prendick from the Ipecacuanha: “‘Overboard,’ said the captain.  ‘This ship ain’t for beasts and cannibals, and worse than beasts, any more’” (35).  That cannibalism has traditionally been used as a way to exclude certain groups from the class of humans is evident in the following excerpt from Paul S. Reinsch’s 1905 “The Negro Race and European Civilization”: “The terrible custom of cannibalism, too, can be explained only by taking into account this absence of a feeling of common humanity” (Reinsch, 3-4).  On the one hand, Reinsch strips “the Negro race” of their humanity, but on the other, he only elicits his own refusal to feel a “common humanity” between his culture and theirs by implementing a conceptually arbitrary taboo.  The impulse to use cannibalism as a mark of degradation thus resembles the process Thomas alludes to in claiming that “Men attributed to animals those natural impulses they most feared in themselves.”  Perhaps, in a similar fashion, it was as a comment on European imperialist nature that the concept of cannibalistic taboo was devised.

The word itself belies its own roots in the discourse of colonial exoticism, deriving etymologically from ‘Canibales,’ which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “originally one of the forms of the ethnic name Carib or Caribes, a fierce nation of the West Indies, who are recorded to have been anthropophagi, and from whom the name was subsequently extended as a descriptive term.” Moreover, cannibalistic practices have been obsessively posited in European travel and anthropological literature.  In her book Cannibal Talk Gananath Obeyesekere outlines a set of specifically British discourses, practices, and fantasies that constitute what she terms a “cannibalistic complex.”  Similarly, William Arens, in his essay “Rethinking Anthropaphagy,” suggests that “the ever-present cannibals on the horizon of the Western world are the result of intellectual conjuring—including the anthropological variety” (40).  Further, he states that such conjuring generally functions to exoticized various ‘tribes,’ and to foster a narrative in which Western culture congratulates itself “for putting a stop to this cultural excess through colonial ‘pacification’ and introducing Christianity to the once-benighted natives” (41).

Why is it, then, that cannibalism seems to lurk just under the surface of the novel’s concerns, given the empirical perversity of this charge against the native residents of “Moreau’s” island?[7] Tying this essays end back into its beginning, we find threads of the novel’s ‘cannibalism complex’ woven into the passages narrating Prendick’s responses to the cries of the puma.  Just as the animal-human ‘boundary’ is erased under Moreau’s scalpel in a blur of excruciating pain, so is the distinction between the ‘civil’ act of eating meat and the ‘savage’ ‘animalism’ of cannibalism.  Prendick’s need to keep these two practices separate inevitably discourages him from identifying more closely with the puma’s cries.  Certainly the same need could be seen as a driving force behind much of the discourse that demeans the status of non-human expression.  Hence, when Prendick states, “I put down the mouthful that hesitated upon my lips and listened,” his auditory perceptions are shaped by the need to keep a certain level of distance from non-human beings so as to maintain their edible status. And yet, as much as Prendick might like to have it otherwise, alongside all the uncertainty comprising the animal-human boundary the text feels a lingering sense that when we eat the flesh of others, we eat ourselves.  Both ‘behind’ Moreau’s closed door—as the inscription of the self onto the body of the other—and in Prendick’s stomach—as the incorporation of the other into the body of the self—the ‘animal’ becomes ‘human.’

Works Cited and Consulted

Armstrong, Philip. What Animals Mean in The Fiction of Modernity. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Bhabha, Homi K. “Of Mimicry and Man”. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 2003.

Benston, Kimberly W. “Experimenting at the Threshold: Sacrifice, Anthropomorphism, and the Aims of (Critical) Animal Studies.” PMLA 124.2 (2009): 548-55. Web.

Benston, Sue. Dura Mater. “Selected Works by Sue Benston.” Haverford College. Web. 29 Mar. 2010. <http://www.haverford.edu/engl/faculty/Benston%20S/dura_mater/index.html&gt;

Corbey, Raymond H. “Up From the Ape.” The Metaphysics of Apes : Negotiating the Animal-Human Boundary. New York: Cambridge UP, 2005.

Darwin, Charles. The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. New York: Pyr Books, 2002.

Descartes, Rene. “Automatism of Brutes.” Descartes Selections. Ed. Ralph Eaton. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927.

Descartes, Rene. Discourse on the Method of Conducting One’s Reason Well and of Seeking the Truth in the Sciences. Trans. George Hefferman. London, University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick, and Michael Meyer. Frederick Douglass : The Narrative and Selected Writings. New York: McGraw-Hill Humanities, Social Sciences & World Languages, 1983.

Formigari, Lia. “A Natural History of Speech.” A History Of Language Philosophies. Trans. Gabriel Poole. John Benjamins Publishing co. Philadelphia, 2004.

Fudge, Erica. “Saying Nothing Concerning the Same: On Dominion, Purity, and Meat in Early Modern England.” Renaissance Beasts: Of Animals, Humans, and Other Wonderful Creatures. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois P, 2004.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Full House : The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. New York: Three Rivers P, 1997.

Thomas, Keith. Man and the Natural World : Changing Attitudes in England, 1500-1800. New York: Oxford UP, Incorporated, 1996.

Radick, Gregory. The Simian Tongue: The Long Debate about Animal Language.The University of Chicago Press. Chicago, 2007.

Reinsch, Paul S. “The Negro Race and European Civilization.” Racism: Essential Readings. Ed. Ellis Cashmore and James Jennings. New York: Sage, 2001.

Ricken, Ulrich. “The origin of language and the historical view of humanity.” Linguistics, Anthropology and Philosophy in the French Enlightenment. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Ritvo, Harriet. The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures In The Victorian Age. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

Roberts, Mark S. The Mark of the Beast : Animality and Human Oppression. New York: Purdue UP, 2008.

Rohman, Carrie. “Burning Out The Animal: The Failure of Enlightenment Purification in H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau.” Figuring Animals: Essays on Animal Images in Art, Literature, Philosophy, and Popular Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Serjeantson, R. W. “The Passions and Animal Language, 1540-1700.” Project Muse. 7 April 2009. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_the_history_of_ideas/v062/62.3serjeantson.html&gt;

Schaffer, Kay. “Cannibals: Western Imaginings of the Aboriginal Other.” In The Wake of First Contact: The Eliza Fraser Stories. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Shevelow, Kathryn. For the Love of Animals : The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement. Boston: Henry Holt & Company, 2008.

Cosslett, Tess. “Wild Animal Stories.” Talking Animals in British Children’s Fiction, 1786-1914. Ashgate, 2006.

Twain, Mark. “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwhich Islands.” 10 March 2009 <http://etext.virginia.edu/railton/onstage/savlect2.html&gt;.

Vint, Sherryl: “Animals and Animality from the Island of Moreau to the Uplift Universe” Yearbook of English Studies, (37:2), 2007, 85-102. (2007)

Wells, H. G. The Island of Dr. Moreau. New York: Penguin, 2005.

“Read beyond its sensational portrayal of vivisection, The Island of Dr. Moreau clarifies the fractured anthropomorphism by which scientific animal studies seeks, through the exercise of sovereign and sacrificial power on animal being, to produce [. . .] the asymmetrical structure of human/animal relations [that] remains in place in the conduct of animal experimentation (in the time you will have taken to read this essay, several thousand animals will have been surgically or chemically altered, mined for data, and then “sacrificed” in research labs).”

~Benston, Kimberly W. “Experimenting at the Threshold: Sacrifice, Anthropomorphism, and the Aims of (Critical) Animal Studies.”


[1] C.f. Observations such as that put forth by Kathryn Shevelow in her book For the Love of Animals:

The society that countenances cruelty to animals breeds sociopaths who will eventually turn their violence against people.

This profile has become widely accepted today in discussions of criminals; serial killers often begin with torturing animals, and abusive partners or parents often injure or kill their human victims’ companion animals. The roman poet Ovid, for instance, depicted the vegetarian philosopher Pythagoras making an equation between the hard-heartedness it takes to kill a kid or a calf, and the callousness needed to murder a person.” (Shevelow, 136)

[2] Writing on the novel itself, Armstrong states,  “Swift and Shelly have, as it were, ghost written his novel, giving it a tone that agree more with their reservations about scientific experimentalism than with Wells’ ideological advocacy of it. At the same time, Wells’ ideological motivation is also compromised by his narrative skill: he succeeds too well in imagining the fictional embodiments of otherwise abstract scientific principles. It is one thing to write theoretically about the transcendence of pain; quite another to show that principle put to work by a man with a scalpel.” (93). This depiction of Wells’ inherited drives perhaps unconsciously calls into question Aristotle’s longstanding claim that, “The brutes do not share with man the power of deliberate choice, but like him they feel desire and passion.” (Roberts, 5).

[3] Strangely, “M’ling” is the only name of a non-white in the novel that does more than denote species hybridization (e.g. “the Leopard Man,” “the Puma Woman,” etc.), and the only name that does not always follow a nominalizing “the.” In this way the novel seems to posit that there are characters, and then there are non-white (non-human) characters, whose status as such must be continuously reiterated. Even M’ling’s name does little to break the trend, with “M” perhaps referring to Moreau, and the diminutive “ling” evoking a sense of “lesser than.”

[4] In an essay entitled “Up from the Ape,” Raymond Corbey maps out some long-standing associations of primates with devils, citing the famous phrasing of this conjunction from Charles Darwin’s notebooks: “The Devil under form of Baboon is our grandfather” (66).

[5] The following excerpt from the Narrative of Frederick Douglass provides a pertinent example of the essential role played by the process of domestication in both the linguistic and physical process (i.e. “taming” and “breaking”) of constructing slave identity:

If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey.  We were worked in all weathers.  It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow hail, or snow too hard for us to work in the field.  Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night.  The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him.  I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me.  Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me.  I was broken in body, soul, and spirit.  My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute! (73)

[6] This analysis resonates with a pivotal moment in the novel, when Prendick finds himself face-to-face with the Leopard Man (after joining Moreau in hunting him down so that he may be punished for suspected reversion to  carnivorous habits):

It may seem a strange contradiction in me—I cannot explain the fact—but now, seeing the creature there in a perfectly animal attitude, with the light gleaming in its eyes, and its imperfectly human face distorted with terror, I realized again the fact of its humanity. (147)

[7] By including “the Kanakas” in his narrative Wells further deepens his novel’s dialogue with anthropaphagy.  The name alludes to a more general conversation of cannibalistic accusation, as alluded to by Mark Twain in his lecture on the Sandwhich Islands:

It used to be said that the Kanakas were cannibals, but that was a slander.  They didn’t eat Captain Cook–or if they did, it was only for fun. There was one instance of cannibalism. A foreigner, from the South Pacific Islands, set up an office and did eat a good many Kanakas. He was a useful citizen, but had strong political prejudices and used to save up a good appetite for just before election, so that he could thin out the Democratic vote.

At this point in my lecture, in other cities, I usually illustrate cannibalism, but I am a stranger here and don’t feel like taking liberties. Still, if any one in the audience will lend me an infant, I will illustrate the matter. (4)