Main Themes of “The Island of Dr Moreau”
As time goes on what keeps these ideas relevant is the science and ethics e.g. change the experiments from vivisection to gene splicing or stem cell research and you can create a parallel to the arguments in Victorian Society. Now in the 21st century although it is established that experimenting on live animals is wrong, there are still questions around the ethics of science and how it is integrated into daily life. For example, cloning people and animals such as dolly the sheep who was cloned, experimenting on animals for science to engineer new medicines (which is quite similar to what Dr Moreau does) There is currently a petition in Australia demanding that animals who are tested on are rehomed unless they are significantly damaged as legally they have to be put down once they have been experimented on. Ideas such as manipulating genetics in order to create the perfect crop or human in which case you could eliminate certain diseases, create the child you would want. And even though in the 19th cenutry they were still quite far off the actual science to make these things happen, a lot of these concepts were written about and debated. For example Frankenstein explored the idea of what could happen when a scientist takes things to far. From the Earth to the Moon was published, the plot was centered around building a massive gun that can shoot people into space.
The Island of Dr Moreau is about a man named Prendick who gets shipwrecked and rescued by Dr Moreau’s colleague, he is invited to their island. Prendick discovers the island if full of animals that are being turned into people and Dr Moreau has been vivisecting them. These creatures are the Beast Folk and they follow their own code that is meant to stop them from reverting back to their animal roots. If they act like the animals they are, they will be experimented on by Dr Moreau. Dr Moreau’s goal is to make them fully human. Moreau later dies and the Beast Folk start becoming more animalistic without him there to punish them. Upon escaping to London, Prendick’s perception of people is altered dramatically and he constantly sees the primitive nature of the beast folk in humanity. To successfully express all these ideas the writing style is incredibly descriptive with elongated sentences, that maintain a happy medium, they are long but not too long and provide necessary information. But they aren’t straight to the point either and as the story comes from first person many pieces of information are not revealed until later. This first person narrator allows Prendick to share his thoughts around what is happening.
While today, its generally agreed that experimenting on live animals without any sort of anaesthetic is ethically wrong and cruel, in Victorian society it was a huge topic of debate as many Victorians believed animals had no souls and couldn’t feel pain like humans could. Morals and Ethics are to Dr Moreau, highly subjective and personal. While Prendick feels that vivisection is horrific and cruel, Dr Moreau sees it as necessary for mankind and human history. Moreau genuinely believes that he is doing the right thing. This text relates to ambiguity of evil because Dr Moreau is a morally ambiguous character.
While Moreau’s actions seem wrong he argues that there is no morality in nature “To this day I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter. The study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature.” Dr Moreau doesn’t see any sort of morality in nature. And this simile is absolutely correct, nature has no remorse or moral code because morals and ethics are socially constructed ideas. This statement is hypocritical because if nature does not require morality then why does he enforce a code of living on the beast folk? Dr Moreau is quite a hypocritical character because despite how often he claims to believe in the natural order, he forces the beastfolk to abide by the same social constructs that people believe in which goes against their primitive nature.
- “Not to go on all-Fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?”
- “Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?”
- “Not to eat Flesh or Fish; that is the Law. Are we not Men?”
- “Not to claw Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?”
- “Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?”
The repetition of the statement “that is the law. Are we not men?” shows that Dr Moreau is trying to civilise the natural world. And do something incredibly unnatural with the beastfolk. He gives them human standards to live by and creates ‘laws’. The 1970s band Devo had a song Jocko Homo which referenced these ideas with the lines “are we not men? We are devo” devo being short for devolution. The song implores us to ask that question as humanity leans towards a herd mentality abandoning critical thinking as our society gets dumber, therefore de evolving.
And he feels he is doing something good for humanity. “But,” said I, “I still do not understand. Where is your justification for inflicting all this pain? The only thing that could excuse vivisection to me would be some application—”
“Precisely,” said [Moreau]. “But you see I am differently constituted. We are on different platforms. You are a materialist.” This dialogue reveals that Dr Moreau sees himself as thinking about the big picture. He is willing to cause suffering for some individuals for what he perceives as the good of humanity. With the justification that “the end justifies the means” ultimately in relation to the entire universe, his actions aren’t that bad. He hyperbolizes to emphasise how large the universe is in comparison to how small his actions are”It may be that save in this little planet, this speck of cosmic dust, invisible long before the nearest star could be attained—it may be, I say, that nowhere else does this thing called pain occur.” Is Dr Moreau evil if he honestly believes he is doing the right thing? He does not match the trope of an evil character who inflicts pain on others with the intention on ruining lives. Whether intentional or not, Dr Moreau thrives on power and exerting control over the beast folk, playing god on his island and creating his own form of law and order. This power is expressed through the punishment and strict rules the beastfolk follow.
This is similar to the reasoning in the Prince by Machiavelli where he argues that a good ruler knows when to do bad things for the sake of his people, he adopts a consequentialist philosophy, where all decisions that are made should be based of what whether or not the consequences or good or worth it. “a ruler who wants to stay in power is often forced not to be good” Despite both of these text’s superficial differences they explore similar ideas that have the power to transcend context around ethics and good versus evil. And the relevance of these ideas can be seen in more modern retellings of the Island of Dr Moreau such as the films from 1977 and 1996 along with the parody in the Simpson’s Treehouse of Horrors. In these versions animal vivisection is replaced with stem cell research and genetic splicing to make them more contextually relevant and relatable for a modern audience.There is no conclusion as to Dr Moreau’s actions are right or wrong which forces him to remain morally ambiguous to the reader.
Machiavelli also argues that a leader must sometimes to things that are wrong to maintain power and stability writing that “What you have to understand is that a ruler, especially a ruler new to power, can’t always behave in ways that would make people think a man good, because to stay in power he’s frequently obliged to act against loyalty, against charity, against humanity and against religion.”
Machiavelli accumulates a variety of things rulers must go against for success to emphasise to the reader, who is intended to be Lorenzo de Medici what a ruler needs to sacrifice and what will be required of him to take power. This raises questions around the greater good and whether or not it is ever truly necessary to do something evil. Machiavelli argues that it is and that “Good sense consists in being able to assess the dangers and choose the lesser of various evils.” In this statement it is implicit that for a lot of decisions a prince will have to do something evil and weigh it against doing something even worse. This is similar to how Dr Moreau weighs up the morality of vivisection and how much net suffering he would cause in comparison to to how much net progress he thinks will come from his actions. Machiavelli discusses killing people who oppose your leadership for the sake of security and power. “Moses, Cyrus, Theseus and Romulus couldn’t have got people to respect their new laws for long if they hadn’t possessed armed force.” This historical and biblical allusion to notable past leaders in history has been selected to support his ideas to the reader that to be a legendary, ruler such as Romulus who allegedly founded Rome, violence is necessary. Without it no one will respect their new ruler and their new society and laws. It is necessary to commit acts of violence against people who would reject your authority because ultimately it will demonstrate strength and result in long term stability which is ultimately worth it to Machiavelli.
These sorts of moral dilemmas presented by Machiavelli are similar to the ones that Dr Moreau needs to deal with. In order to manage all the beast folk he must punish the ones who disobey him and create disorder. Dr Moreau’s island is symbolic of society and even referred to at one point as “society in miniature” and demonstrates a practical application of a lot of Machiavelli’s ideas albeit on a much smaller scale. Both of these texts relate to the rubric in how they address the same ideas and both of these texts put the responder in a position where they are forced to come to their own conclusions about the morality of their actions, allowing these texts themselves to remain morally ambiguous.
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As time goes on what keeps these ideas relevant is the science and ethics e.g. change the experiments from vivisection to gene splicing or stem cell research and you can […]