by Jeremy R. Strong
The Colonial Threads in Science Fiction: Dissecting Anxieties in H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau
Unraveling the yarns of colonial influence in science fiction opens up an avenue for rich and insightful dialogues. John Rieder, in his influential book, “Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction” (2008), defines colonialism as the expansive process through which European economic and cultural values penetrated and transformed the non-European world over the last five centuries. This perspective provides a robust framework for exploring the acclaimed work of H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), and specifically the anxieties and interactions with the Beast Folk.
Edward Prendick, the novel’s protagonist, first encounters the Beast Folk from a position imbued with a sense of colonial superiority. His journey in the book reflects his shifting viewpoints about the Beast Folk. His initial observations and eventual assumptions about the Beast Folk are based on their perceived racial attributes, thus underlining his colonial mindset.
When Prendick first encounters the Beast Folk in The Island of Dr. Moreau, he describes them as having “the oddness of the brown faces of the men who [are] with Montgomery” (29). He then proceeds to compare them to non-European ethnic groups. This tendency to categorize ‘the other’ by appearance is a clear indication of his colonial viewpoint. Moreover, his interpretation of the Beast Folk speaking a “foreign language” (35), despite them speaking English, further highlights his bias in associating foreign appearance with foreignness in every aspect.
Further, Prendick’s belief in his racial superiority is evident in his quest for power over the Beast Folk. As he learns about the Beast Folk’s true nature—animals engineered to resemble men—he moves from cataloguing the Beast Folk to understanding their society and their place within his world-view, firmly rooted in British ethnocentrism. Emulating the British colonial project, he attempts to assert his dominance over the Beast Folk, ordering them to “Salute” and “Bow down” (158) after the deaths of Moreau and Montgomery. His later claim, filled with an air of superiority, that he “dismissed my three serfs with the wave of a hand” (161) reveals his adherence to his colonial mentality.
However, as the narrative progresses in The Island of Dr. Moreau, Prendick learns to feign notions of equality to gain acceptance within the Beast Folk community, thereby more securely exerting his power. Prendick transitions from viewing himself as superior to portraying himself as a mere leader among his fellows, stating, “I sank to the position of a mere leader among my fellows” (164). This significant shift is culminated in chapter twenty-one when Prendick admits: “In this way I became one among the Beast People on The Island of Dr. Moreau” (165). Through these actions, Prendick embodies the essence of colonization as described by Rieder; he penetrates the culture of the Beast Folk.
Prendick’s journey underscores a cruel truth about the colonial enterprise—it results in a shared loss of human integrity for both the invader and the invaded. His feigned equality emboldens the Beast Folk to mimic the cruelties they had previously witnessed, highlighting the inherent pitfalls of colonial attitudes.
In conclusion, the exploration of The Island of Dr. Moreau and Prendick’s interactions with the Beast Folk invites readers to delve deeper into the complexities of the colonial mindset, the racial categorizations, and the destructive nature of colonial power dynamics. Moreover, it sheds light on Wells’ motivations in writing this narrative, which has become a pivotal science fiction text intricately entwined with colonial themes.
Rieder, John, “Colonialism And The Emergence Of Science Fiction”. New York: Wesleyan University Press, 2008. Print.
Wells, H. G. “The Island Of Dr. Moreau”. New York: Random House, 2002. Print.