Although Prendick is initially horrified by Moreau’s actions and the cruelty with which he treats the Beast Folk, when it becomes a matter of survival, Prendick commits many of the same acts. This suggests that, especially in survival situations, morality is relative to one’s circumstances, rather than a rigid set of universal dictates.
Initially, Prendick is presented as a man with a firm moral conscience. In the first chapters of the story, having been shipwrecked and then rescued by the Ipecacuanha, Prendick intervenes to prevent a brawl between the captain of the ship, Davis, and Montgomery, even though it brings the ire of both men down on him. Although the captain is raging drunk and Prendick is weakened from his time lost as sea, he stands up to the man, indicating that he is courageous in the face of wrongdoing. Prendick is also sickened by both the physical and mental anguish that Moreau inflicts on the Beast Folk. Moreau’s vivisections cause physical torment, and his Law compels them to defy their beastly natures and fear human beings, which causes them much mental suffering. Although Prendick is himself a scientist, his initial moral compass compels him to value the well-being of the Beast Folk more highly than Moreau’s own desires or the scientific potential of his experiments.
As Prendick spends time on the island, he finds himself becoming increasingly complacent towards the suffering of the Beast Folk and the anguish inflicted on them. This suggests that as Prendick’s circumstances change, so too does his sense of morality—or rather, that his morality is relative to the situation at hand. Prendick is dependent on Moreau’s hospitality for survival—though Prendick briefly contemplates suicide, he realizes that he is desperate to live—and so cannot risk disrupting Moreau’s operations. He is forced to adjust to Moreau’s work, despite how grim it initially seems. Prendick becomes “habituated” to the appearance of the Beast Folk over time, finding their mutilated appearances and twisted psyches less repugnant as well as less sympathetic. Although they were once a symbol of Moreau’s indifference to others’ suffering, provoking Prendick’s ire, his sense of moral outrage fades. The mutilation of other living beings becomes just another circumstance of the island. This suggests that Prendick’s sense of morality could be adjusted to find any such atrocity commonplace under the right circumstances and with the proper motivation.
When the order of the island collapses and Prendick fears for his own survival, he commits many of the same acts that his initial sense of morality had previously condemned in Moreau, often without remorse. This shift in morality suggests that morality is much more circumstantial than universally rigid. When Moreau dies, Prendick perpetuates the myth of Moreau’s deification, convincing the Beast Folk that Moreau now watches them from the sky. For as long as he can, he also maintains his own deification—as a human with a whip—in the Beast Folk’s minds. Although he previously had despised Moreau’s brainwashing of the Beast Folk with the Law, once it seems necessary for his own survival, Prendick quickly embraces it. Furthermore, although Prendick had previously resisted violence as often as he could, after Moreau dies, he and Montgomery immediately go to Moreau’s laboratory and kill all the animals they find alive inside, even though many of them, assumedly, possess at least a moderate amount of human intelligence. Prendick also sets the Beast Folk upon each other when it suits his purposes and kills several of them himself whenever he deems them a threat to his own safety. Prendick even takes up residence among the Beast Folk he so despises, seeing it as his best chance at survival and his only available companionship after Moreau and Montgomery have been killed. Though he had once detested the way that Montgomery fraternized amongst the creatures, when it becomes his best odds at survival, Prendick wastes no time ingratiating himself with their society. Under the right conditions, what once seemed detestable may come to seem morally justified.
Though organized religion or cultural tradition may view morality as a fixed set of rules, universal for all people, dire situations of life and death often contradict that notion. Prendick, though seemingly a man of conscience, is forced to adjust his sense of right and wrong to the circumstances at hand, discovering that, in desperation to live through the day, morality may be far more circumstantial than he had once believed.
Morality, Survival, and Circumstance ThemeTracker
Morality, Survival, and Circumstance Quotes in The Island of Dr. Moreau
I would not draw lots, however, and in the night the sailor whispered to Helmar again and again, and I sat in the bows with my clasp-knife in my hand—though I doubt I had the stuff in me to fight. And in the morning I agreed to Helmar’s proposal, and we handed halfpence to find to the odd man.
But certainly when I told the captain to shut up I had forgotten I was merely a bit of human flotsam, cut off from my resources, and with my fare unpaid, a mere casual dependent on the bounty—or speculative enterprise—of the ship. He reminded me of it with considerable vigor. But at any rate I prevented a fight.
But as I say, I was too full of excitement, and—a true saying, though those who have never known danger may doubt it—too desperate to die.
I say I became habituated to the Beast People, that a thousand things that had seemed unnatural and repulsive speedily became natural and ordinary to me. I suppose everything in existence takes its color from the average hue of our surroundings: Montgomery and Moreau were too peculiar to keep my general impression of humanity well defined.
[Montgomery] cracked his whip in some trepidation, and forthwith [the Beast Folk] rushed at him. Never before had a Beast Man dared to do that.
“Children of the Law,” I said, “He is not dead…he has changed his shape—he has changed his body,” I went on. “For a time you will not see him. He is…there”—I pointed upward— “where he can watch you. You cannot see him. But he can see you. Fear the Law.”
We locked ourselves in, and then took Moreau’s mangled body into the yard, and laid it upon a pile of brushwood.
Then we went into the laboratory and put an end to all we found living there.
I was perhaps a dozen seconds collecting myself. Then I cried, “Salute! Bow down!”
[The Hyena-Swine’s] teeth flashed upon me in a snarl. “Who are you, that I should…”
Perhaps a little too spasmodically, I drew my revolver, aimed, and quickly fired…[and] knew I had missed.