Term Paper: Reason to Pay Close Attention

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¶ … reason to pay close attention, in these post-9/11, post-Hurricane Katrina (and post-disabled FEMA) days to such works as H.G. Wells' honor being reserved, perhaps, for The Time Machine as much less difficult story to access, The Island of Doctor Moreau allows significant reflection on current conditions, despite its place in the annals of horror genre fiction and suspense. Its theme is, after all, particularly cogent at a time when we are not sure, collectively, about what constitutes good or evil, patriotism or belligerence, sanity or fanaticism, logical responses to the baser drives of humanity or ill-reasoned reactions to those drives that result in even baser events worldwide.

Thematic matters

In much of literature after Darwin's Origin of Species, the essential attributes of humanity was a primary subject of exploration. Darwin's earth-shaking book was published in 1860. By 1871, its effect on human thought was sufficiently established that Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), a rabid proponent of Darwin's work, had already grappled with the ethical problems that work presented (UCMP Web site, undated). Huxley was a biologist, and did original research in zoology and paleontology, making him the perfect voice for not only support for Darwin's theories, but to issue considered critiques of them as well, something Huxley also did, pointing out some problems, although Huxley apparently did not think them of sufficient magnitude to dissuade him from his support of Darwin's notions.

Huxley founded a dynasty of British thinkers, including several noted scientists, amongst them his grandson, who became Sir Andrew Huxley and also won the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology for his work on nerve impulses and muscle contraction (UCMP Web site, undated). His grandson Aldous Huxley perhaps became the most well-known of the Huxleys because of his anti-utopia novel, Brave New World.

While these things are only tangentially related to H.G. Wells' work, it would be difficult to imagine that Wells did not have an effect on Aldous Huxley; indeed, the fantastical aspect of Huxley's novel certainly owed something to the fantastical aspects of The Island of Dr. Moreau; certainly, the idea of casting some men as beasts and others as human was derived from Wells' work, at least in part. While the men-beasts were gross in Wells' work, by the time they had filtered through another generation of writer/scientists to arrive in Aldous Huxley's time, it was possible to create a more subtle man-beast and elevate them from the forest floor to the heights of government.

One of Thomas Huxley's ideas was "Administrative Nihilism" (Graff, 2001, p. 33+).

This idea demonstrated the "consequences of an insufficiently developed ethical process: namely institutional paralysis and ignorance" (Graff, 1002, p. 33+). He thought of ethics as a social concern, not an individual choice, and believed that the greatest political danger to humanity at the time -- a thought that would carry through Wells' work to Aldous Huxley's -- was the belief that failing to act was effective conduct. He attributed the increasingly common failure to act to several facts as he perceived them, including:

Men's convictions becoming les and less real

Men's tolerance for aberration increasing as their belief decreased

The conviction that government would do better to leave things alone unless it has clear knowledge of what action to take

The suspicion that the knowledge of those in government may in fact be no greater than that of the common man (Graff, 2001 p. 33+).

Huxley proposed that there had been a loss of faith not only in religious but also in the permanency of secular knowledge, a very logical conclusion, it would seem, in light of the way Darwin had so recently set accepted (and until that time seemingly permanent) knowledge of the human condition on its ear. Huxley well understood that anew research and theories promote knowledge while, simultaneously fostering disorientation as people realized their current knowledge is probably:

Going to be supplanted by different or deeper knowledge

Inadequate to explain life and how to conduct life (Graff, 2001, p. 33+).

These two concepts are easy to see in The Island of Dr. Moreau, even though that book was published more than 20 years after Huxley lectured on these concepts (1871). Indeed, they would continue beyond Wells' book to the early works of Aldous Huxley and his contemporaries. The theme of humanity being less than it had once seemed to be -- akin to the animals as most people suspected Darwin was suggesting, even if they had not actually read his work -- formed a substrate for fiction for generations. The Island of Dr. Moreau perfectly exemplifies the "confusion the face of the growing complexity of the world is especially unsettling if human advancement can be upset or undermined by errors in judgment or some mysterious atavistic tendency toward reversion to a primitive state as Darwin implies" (Graff, 2001, p. 33+).

Genre issues

It is not easy to classify The Island of Dr. Moreau. While it might be tempting to place it in the same category as other Victorian 'horror' stories, such as Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it seems to have ascended the ladder of terror, taking it out of the impossible to the merely implausible, if one predicates that possibility on the increasing understanding and acceptance of Darwin's theories.

Moreover, in the willful disregard of ethics inherent in The Island of Dr. Moreau, as Graff notes, although The Island of Dr. Moreau was written only a year after The Time Machine (an example of utopian satire), The Island of Dr. Moreau is "much more ambiguous and horrific

Though Wells would use evolution in most of his utopias and dystopias, it is in The Island of Doctor Moreau that he first establishes a skeptical pose" (Graff, 2001, p. 33+).

Graff notes that human nature is the issue at the base of the action in The Island of Dr. Moreau, noting that others have called it "a parable of the cruelty, savagery, and arbitrariness of the cosmic process as it has created man and determined his nature" (Hillegas p. 36, qtd. By Graff, 2001, p. 33+). It is in relation to his usurpation of a divine prerogative by arrogant mankind, Graff seems to suggest, that Wells invents a new genre, comprised of both the horrific physical elements of earlier Victorian gothic works, but adding a soupcon of mental/emotional/spiritual anguish that was, in large part, absent from the simpler horror stories that had captured the otherwise locked down sensibilities of the Victorian reader.

In his own work, Thomas Huxley had "highlighted the tension between evolution and ethics and argued that we needed to devise an ethical process that could limit the impact of evolution" (Graff, 2001, p. 33+), and certainly, the events on Dr. Moreau's island underline that amply. Later, Graff says, Wells himself borrowed from the conceptual work of Huxley, calling for 'artificial evolution,' a sort of evolution of the mind and society that would have an impact on the cultural environment (Graff, 2001). "In The Island of Doctor Moreau, Wells is laying a foundation for that later argument by bemoaning the absence of an ethical process capable of effectively responding to Moreau's actions, not the arbitrariness of evolution itself" (Graff, 2001, p. 33+).

In fact, it seems that evolution is not, in fact, arbitrary. If it were, Wells seems to say, then the animals altered by Dr. Moreau's ministrations would stay altered; it is debatable whether or not their metamorphosis would continue, or whether they would all become virtual donkeys, incapable of producing offspring with the new characteristics. In any case, Wells allows the nature of the beasts to resist Dr. Moreau's plans to interfere with natural selection, finally returning to some "semblance of their original form" (Graff, 2001, p. 33+).

Although it is not stated, it seems plausible to think that readers would have to wonder, as they might in truly modern 'transformation' novels such as Flowers for Algernon and the movie Awakenings, in which Robin Williams plays a doctor responsible for giving a mentally challenged man normal intelligence for a time. In some ways, that modern film was a horror film in that one would have to wonder if the patient would recall his brief introduction to normalcy and grieve for it, as one might wonder whether the man-beasts might also have some intimation of a sol-called 'higher' status and grieve for that.

Graff notes that Wells' novel "has no ethical center" and that Dr. Moreau is "a symbol of 'science unhindered by ethical consideration' (Bergonzi, 25)" (Graff, 2001, p. 33+). In fact, it is possible to see this Victorian horror genre as being somewhat comparable to modern TV reality shows. Graff notes that in The Island of Dr. Moreau, "The animals are not enlightened by the experience of transmogrification. In fact, they are debased by it as their sole consideration (even though the appear to be climbing an evolutionary or natural hierarchy) becomes survival" (Graff, 2001, p. 33+).

In a similar way, the participants in the 'desert island' TV reality… [END OF PREVIEW]

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