The Scientist as Artist in The Island of Dr. Moreau

Dr. Moreau seems, initially, to be a nightmarish example of a hyperscientific mind. Cold, calculating, and unfeeling, he nevertheless makes unprecedented scientific advances in his island laboratory. One might conclude, then, that the figure of Dr. Moreau is meant to be an indictment of a scientific ethos that supposedly values knowledge over humanity and that regards sympathy as an obstacle to new discoveries. And superficially this might be true, but it fails to account for one really interesting aspect of the text, and that is the way in which Dr. Moreau is described not as a scientist, but as an artist. Prendick remembers hearing of Moreau in his youth as a physiologist known for his “extraordinary imagination”—a phrase that resonates much more in discussions of art than of science (36). Later, Moreau explains to Prendick why he chose to model his chimera-animals on humans: “I suppose there is something in the human form that appeals to the artistic turn of mind more powerfully than any animal shape can” (74). He describes his work of vivisection and reconstruction in terms of sculpture, telling Prendick, “These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes” (72). And Prendick himself buys into Moreau’s perception of himself as artist, calling the Beast People “these strange creations of Moreau’s art” (82). It is hard to see Moreau simply as scientist-gone-wrong with all of these art terms floating around the book.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this characterization of Moreau as artist, but I do have some ideas. We know that by the end of the nineteenth century, when The Island of Dr. Moreau was written, the division of branches of knowledge according to what John Guillory calls “a hierarchy of rationalities—scientific, moral, aesthetic” was the dominant organizing principle for education. So we might conclude that in Moreau’s practices, these bases of reason are all out of balance—too much science without enough awareness of the moral implications, or perhaps too much aesthetic sensibility tainting the scientific mindset, or something of this sort. In this kind of reading, Moreau’s problem could be a lack of moral philosophy or an excess of aesthetic sentiments, rather than simply a surfeit of scientific ambitions. Or, imagining Moreau as an artist could have another purpose. It diminishes the distance between author and character; the author invented these creatures that Moreau reconstructs, and imagined the world that Moreau creates. Maybe the point is that artist and scientist are not so different after all. I think this may be an especially significant possibility because Prendick himself is a writer, having authored this narrative that his nephew discovers among other papers. And as repulsed as Prendick may be by Dr. Moreau, in the end they are not so different—upon Moreau’s death Prendick steps into his shoes, calling himself the Master and threatening a return of the House of Pain.

One final note: while reading this book, I found myself continually drawing parallels between Dr. Moreau and Kurtz of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Certainly their similarities invite comparison—both are men isolated from their own societies, living among either humanized animals or humans described as animals, and assuming a God-like role among these people; and both, in turn, become inhuman themselves. I think this link is relevant because, although I’ve been discussing whether Moreau’s problem is that he’s a bad scientist or too good of a scientist or an artist masquerading as scientist, on another level Moreau’s problem may not even be about science at all. The colonization narrative is present in this book as well, and if we read it from a political rather than epistemological viewpoint then it seems pretty clear we are grappling not just with issues of scientific ethics, but also with the practical and psychological consequences of domination and subjugation.

Cari Hovanec

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~ by Cari Hovanec on February 4, 2009.

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