June 19, 2012

Moreau vs. Frankenstein



I just finished reading The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G.Wells.  A fascinating book on so many levels. 

H.G., the ultimate science fiction writer, was prescient in so many ways.  He predicted nuclear weapons, biological warfare, the moon landing, genetic engineering, lasers, and World War II. Course, we aren’t yet able to be invisible or travel in time.  Give it a few years.

Moreau was the book upon which H.G. made his name.  He called it “an exercise in youthful folly” and I think I read somewhere that he was surprised at the outrage it caused ~ which of course only made it more popular.

You probably know the story or have read it.  Edward Prendick’s ship goes down and he’s in a lifeboat with two other men, and right away we’re thrust into the thick of it.  In the first couple of chapters, the boat’s three inhabitants decide to draw straws to see which one gets killed for water and food. Gack! Reviews don’t often mention that part.

Then he gets picked up by a boat going to a mysterious island that has repulsive animalistic men on board. Montgomery is in charge there, but then he’s a drunkard and turns out to be the right-hand man of the evil genius Dr. Moreau, who tries to “mold” animals into men through vivisection, which of course is also ghastly torture. 

I can’t help comparing it to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.  Same themes ~ the power of science to create and destroy, an investigation into human nature ~ but very different books.  Frankenstein aims higher and achieves more, somehow.

The subtitle of Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus. You might remember that Prometheus was a Titan who taught humans the arts of civilization and brought them fire.  For that, Zeus punished him by having his liver (or heart) eaten out every day by an eagle, only to have it regenerated.

So it is with Frankenstein.  He is a monster that is created by Dr. Frankenstein, and in the beginning he is good (saves a little girl’s life) but he has no love.  He tries to get the Dr to make him a mate, the Dr refuses, and the monster turns bad and murders the Dr’s family.  Like Prometheus, he does good but his maker rejects him and tortures him.

The difference between Moreau and Frankenstein is striking.  In Moreau, H.G. tries his best to shore up the difference between animal nature and man’s higher nature.  Sure, he does undercut it at the end by making humans seem nothing but animals, but he never seems to raise the animals to human level.  He has them strive but inevitably be pulled “backwards.”  My modern sensibility kept expecting some kindness ~ not just loyalty ~ from the animals, something that would turn the stereotype on its head, but we don’t get that.  The animals remain animals.

In Frankenstein, the monster is more human than the Dr.  He is capable of kindness, while the Dr is consumed with science and his own selfish needs.  The book seems to say that the monster, the animal, is more capable of human kindness than the human.

Also, in Moreau, we are firmly resting in Prendick’s point of view.  And it’s not a very likable point of view.  He’s kind of a dick, all the way around.  Self-interested, hateful, just as soon “put someone out of their misery” as anything else.  He doesn’t seem to have much compassion, and we’re stuck in his head for the whole book.

In Frankenstein, we’re in the monster’s head too, and we empathize so much.  Here’s this helpless newborn, even if he is a monster, who is thrust out into the world all on his own, and he has to learn how to feed and clothe himself, to learn language, to figure things out, and he has the disadvantage of being horribly repulsive.  And the one who should care for him the most, his maker, rejects him utterly.

It’s going to make me think a lot about craft, about how the monster is such a sympathetic protagonist, even as he eventually does horrible things, while Prendick comes across as pretty unsympathetic.  What are the craft considerations behind it?  What would have made Prendick more sympathetic and the monster less?


"As We Speak" said...

Well, I have to say, you have given me alot to think about. Great post!

Tamara said...

Thank you! Yeah, I'll be thinking about it for days. :-)