The Island of Dr. Moreau

The Island of Dr. Moreau Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of H. G. Wells

Herbert George Wells was born the son of professional cricket player—a low-paying occupation at the time—and a housemaid, the youngest of four children. As a child, Wells suffered a badly broken leg that left him bedridden for several months. To pass the time, his father loaned a stack of novels from the public library which Wells tore through, losing himself in the tales of far-off worlds and beginning his lifelong love of literature. Wells’s family had always struggled financially, and as a teenager Wells apprenticed in a number of trades, all of which were miserable. Wells eventually managed to escape the apprentice’s lot by getting himself into a grammar school, where he studied as a senior student and worked as a mentor to younger students. Excelling in academics, Wells won a scholarship and went on to study biology at what is now the Imperial College in London. During this time, Wells joined a debate society which kindled his interests in social reform, and later, socialism. During his time in college, Wells also began dabbling in fiction writing, prototyping an early version of The Time Machine in a school magazine. Wells left the Imperial College, continuing to teach at various schools—as a teacher, Wells instructed A. A. Milne, author of the Winnie-the-Pooh series—and finally finished a degree in zoology. While living with his aunt, Wells earned a living writing short articles and humor pieces for various journals, which he was quite successful at. This success emboldened him to try his hand at novel-writing, and he produced his first novel, The Time Machine, in 1895. This marked the beginning of a prolific writing period in which Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Wonderful Visit, and The Wheels of Chance, all within a two-year period. Although Wells is most remembered for his science fiction novels—a genre that he played a significant role in pioneering—he also wrote several utopian novels, such as A Modern Utopia, and eventually shifted to writing political and intellectual pieces. With these, Wells garnered a reputation for himself as a reformist and a futurist, a visionary of humanity’s future development. Indeed, much of his work seems almost prophetic, predicting tanks, space travel, nuclear weapons, and even surmised an early concept of the Internet. During his later years, Wells’s reputation as writer declined as he continued to promote his socialist ideals to a Western audience that was less and less interested. Wells was married multiple times and had four children, two of whom were out of wedlock (throughout his life, Wells had numerous affairs, including a brief one with American activist Margaret Sanger). He died of unknown causes in London in 1946.
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Historical Context of The Island of Dr. Moreau

Medical science and practice underwent a revolution in the nineteenth century. As tools and methods were developed and improved, it became clear that there were great gaps in the scientific understanding of the human body, and many of the standard operating procedures were not based on science at all, but simply dubious traditions that had no proven benefit. The need for research became obvious, leading to the practice of vivisection, the dissection of live creatures to observe how the organs and anatomy functioned in tandem. Though vivisection was mostly practiced on animals rather than people, it provoked a moral outrage and stoked fears of what horrors the future may hold if humanity were allowed to reshape what nature or God had made. The debates and movements for and against vivisection inspired the basic concept of The Island of Dr. Moreau. Influencing these discussions, and also Wells’s story, was the publication of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, which suggested that there was nothing exceptional about human beings other than that they had evolved much further than any other species on Earth. This theory provoked a similar outrage, contradicting the long-standing religious tradition that humanity was created by God to be exceptional above all the animals, a bearer of the divine image. This breaking down of the divide between humans and animals features heavily as a theme in the story and likely would have made vivisection seem slightly more permissible, since scientists would only be tampering with a long-running natural process, rather than God’s finely wrought creation.

Other Books Related to The Island of Dr. Moreau

H. G. Wells was a pioneer in the realm of science fiction. He is often regarded as setting much of the precedent for the genre as it currently exists alongside French novelist Jules Verne, author of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth, and even Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, who, like Wells, envisioned the dark possibilities of scientific progress. This tradition of anticipating the future risks of science and technology was carried on by dystopian authors such as George Orwell (1984; Animal Farm) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World). Wells was also among the first authors to write about concepts such as alien invasion and time travel, paving the way for contemporary acclaimed science fiction authors such as Arthur C. Clarke (Childhood’s End). The Island of Dr. Moreau itself has become a cultural icon, spawning numerous books, a number of film adaptations, and even an episode of The Simpsons.
Key Facts about The Island of Dr. Moreau
  • Full Title: The Island of Dr. Moreau
  • When Written: 1890s
  • Where Written: Woking, England
  • When Published: 1895
  • Literary Period: Victorian
  • Genre: Science fiction novel
  • Setting: An island in the Pacific Ocean, somewhere off the coast of South America
  • Climax: Dr. Moreau and Montgomery are killed, leaving Edward Prendick to survive alone amongst the Beast Folk.
  • Antagonist: Dr. Moreau
  • Point of View: First person, narrated by Edward Prendick

Extra Credit for The Island of Dr. Moreau

By Any Other Name. Since the term “science fiction” did not exist during Wells’s day, he called his stories “scientific romances,” nodding to their dramatic arcs and influence from the pre-Victorian literature of Romanticism.

Strangely Prescient. As he often did, Wells seemed able to envision where humanity was headed in the writing of his story. Although vivisection did not turn out exactly as he thought (as far as the public knows, there are no half-human, half-animal hybrids running about), modern advances in biological and genetic engineering pose similar ethical dilemmas for humanity’s near future.