Linguistic Determinism and H. G. Wells

            Reading The Island of Dr. Moreau can be a rather troubling experience, not least because the entire novel comes mediated as the firsthand account of the gentleman-scientist/shipwreck victim Prendick.  Because we are forced to see everything from his perspective, as it were, there is a sense in which the text co-opts us into the narrative, insisting that we contend with the ethical and moral issues that emerge because of Moreau’s experiments on the island.  There are moments when the reader must confront Predick’s own partial absorption into this ethically fraught system throughout the novel, but for the majority of the time, our sympathies are seemingly meant to be firmly directed towards our narrator’s position.  His assessments prove true (or his foreshadowing circumscribes the moments in which he is incorrect), his acts of character diagnosis turn out to be valid, and in the end, his survival strengthens the idea that his choices have been “correct.”  However, there are moments when his overarching interpretive skills becomes quite problematic, most notably in his subtle discrimination based on linguistic capacity. 

            Throughout the novel, Prendick describes the human-animal chimeras as having markedly degraded linguistic skills in opposition to full-fledged humans.  Even for the most “human,” in terms of physical appearance, of Moreau’s creations, M’ling, his clumsiness with language marks him, for Prendick, as somehow different from the deckhands and others aboard the rescue ship.  M’ling “seemed to [Prendick] to talk gibberish” when in conversation, and once he reaches the island, the inhabitants seem to speak “in odd gutteral tones” or to “chatter[ ] . . . excitedly.”  In these instances, the reader must ostensibly congratulate the narrator on his perspicacity—such assessments of speech prove that he has unconsciously perceived the “beasts’” true natures.  As animals, these creatures’ “speech” would of course seem to be “gibberish” to the human ear,  and thus this speech marker would seem to be one of the first clues for Prendick that things on the island are not as they appear.  This simple correlation, while not unproblematic (a contemporary reader perhaps cannot help but link the racially explicit ways that the chimeras are coded to these dismissive assessments of linguistic capacity), functions straightforwardly in the narrative.  Problems begin to arise when the reader considers Prendick’s other linguistic biases, which make the novel’s (and perhaps even the novelist’s) view of language much more complicated than might have been imagined. 

            These problems emerge almost straightaway as the novel opens—Prendick is immediately repulsed by Montgomery’s “slobbering articulation” because of a lisp, and by the captain’s “vile language” which issues in “a continuous stream.”  Again, Prendick’s intial linguistic assessments prove true—the captain is a blackguard who soon throws the helpless castaway from his ship, and Montgomery is later revealed to be a weak-willed, drunken washout.  Here, though, the fact that their linguistic dexterity (or lack thereof) proves an indicator of their true natures and a harbinger of later behavior is troubling.  With these brief observations, Prendick makes his first, and arguably most insidious, gesture towards the concept of the parity between humans and beasts that so haunts him at the end of his narrative, once he has escaped to “civilization.”  Prendick subtly, perhaps unwittingly, judges Montgomery to be deficient because of his speech impediment, attributing a dehumanizing, and thus moral, force to it.  Prendick favors the “simple,” “plain and comprehensible” speech of Moreau to the “jabbering” of the ape man (and then the minister in London) or the “slobbering” of Montgomery.  By blurring the line between human and beast and by assigning moral signification to linguistic dexterity (which is itself subjectively assessed), the novel shores up Prendick’s final nightmarish vision of society, but it also plays into linguistic stereotypes of the time.  The idea that “foreign tongues” sound animalistic or that speech impediments indicate deficits of character are surprisingly unscientific biases for the scientifically enlightened Wells to tap into (though the fact that they occasionally still crop up in modern discourse is noteworthy), but they provide further evidence of the inextricable merging of science and cultural discourse in Victorian society. 

Heather Freeman 

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~ by Heather on February 5, 2009.

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