ENGL 405: Medicine and Mystery in Victorian Literature
Professor Stephanie King
18th April 2010
The Scientist and his Creation in Frankenstein and The Island of Doctor Moreau
In both The Island of Doctor Moreau and Frankenstein, the scientist, in seeking to conquer encompassing Nature by subjecting it to the reductive scientific processes, inevitably fails in the enormity of his goal. In Frankenstein, Shelley critiques this desire in the deformity of Victor’s monster; yet, the scientist of Shelley’s world is still able to- in the contemplation of the untouched element in the natural world through a retreat into the Sublime- able to obtain a degree of reprieve from the horror of his creation. However, in the post-Darwinian dystopia of Doctor Moreau where Science has succeeded in controlling all natural processes to the extent of re-creating society and human nature, the Sublime is no longer obtainable, as there is no longer anything in Nature that the scientist can seek to uncover. In the grotesqueness of the Beast People, Wells addresses the ethical issues that may arise in this mythical situation. Furthermore, in his satiric portrayal of the inhumane Moreau and the ‘Fallen Man’ in Pendrick's ‘devolution’ as the latter increasingly assimilates into the Beast People’s society, Wells addresses civilised man’s proximity to the beast within him. In this, he proposes the idea that evolution may not be a diachronistic process towards an ‘Ideal Man’, but a synchronistic process wherein the notion of ‘progress’ is ambivalent. Thus, through the use of contemporary Victorian concerns like vivisection, he essentially provides a critique, essentially, of the humanism and increasing optimism that arose with the advent of 20th century modern medicine and its subsequent promises of creating a supreme man outside Nature’s processes. Such a desire, Wells states, is contradictory as it ostensibly hands Man the divinely-ordained right at the top of the evolutionary order, as it were- neglecting to address the fact that there is no intrinsic mandate that places Man above Nature’s supreme power.
According to Burke, the Sublime is the “Astonishment” created by “the great and sublime in nature”. This Astonishment is “that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror” (Burke). The astonishment created by beholding the great Sublime, thus, is inextricable from a profound feeling of awe and respect one feels at Man’s littleness at the threshold of the vast universe. In the scientist’s world, the admiration of Nature through the Sublime can be said to be the gateway to a solace that arrives with the knowledge that there is, ultimately, an element in Nature that is beyond human comprehension and hence, will always remain unconquerable. This knowledge extricates the scientist from some of the burden of responsibility present in scientific creation, as it attributes the greater sum of creative responsibility to the potent powers of Nature whose immutable laws set an all-encompassing standard by which the world balances on.
In Frankenstein, the scientist (re)acknowledges the supremacy of Nature’s power in his beholding of the Sublime, and in this he remains an ethical figure possessing human empathy. Even though his scientific pursuit results in the creation of a monster, the Frankenstein scientist- because he is driven by the essentially innocent desire to behold Nature’s wonder- is redeemed, no matter how briefly. Victor’s fall, in this light, can be attributed to the largeness of his dream to “renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption” (Shelley 48). Such a dream questions the supremacy of Nature, and thus- in the Shelley universe wherein Science has not possessed the divine principle-, it inevitably results in madness, despair, and guilt.
Victor states that his essential goal for recreating human life is to save humanity from the pains of disease. Here, he echoes the popular sentiment of the modern scientific pursuit at that time- namely, the belief that an “elixir of life” would “banish disease from the human frame” through the realization of a new, rational science” (Ellwood 40). Thus, man could, essentially, evolve into a God-like figure, “command(ing) the thunders of heaven, mimic(king) the earthquake, and even mock(ing) the invisible world with its shadows” (Shelley 44). However, this grandiose ambition can be said to be a mere cloak for a hidden desire to rediscover- in the (re)creation of man- gratitude and affection attributed to the lost realm of his childhood, where Nature was a bounteous entity providing endless wonder and discovery. In this lost kingdom, the scientist rekindles the sensation of “a child picking up shells beside the great and unexplored ocean of truth” (38). Likewise, Victor evinces a gladness “akin to rapture” in “learning the hidden laws of nature” (36) as a child. Early on, he describes a “fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature” (37) and states he disdains “the structures of languages… the code of governments”, preferring the “inner spirit of nature and soul of man” found in the “secrets of heaven and earth” (37). The scientific curiosity he possesses is linked to his “ardent imagination” (40) and a childish desire to discover secrets hidden in Nature’s womb that would bring about an ‘Astonishment’ similar to that which an individual feels in the face of the Sublime. For example, Victor describes an experience he had when fifteen in which, through the witnessing of a “most violent and terrible thunderstorm… from behind the mountains of Jura”, he is filled with “curiosity and delight” (40). However, this childish wonder quickly dissipates when he enters the “modern system of science” (39) that university advocates and thence, is dragged away from the unbridled, innocent pursuit of knowledge in the individual sphere and domestic environment into an institutionalised, structured education. He loses the feminine influence- the realm of feeling connected to the joy of exploration and discovery- in embracing the reductive science of natural philosophy. The kingdom of ‘subliminal science’ linked to vast, insurmountable Nature is thus reduced to the rational, reductive science governed by logic, reason and numbers.
Likewise, Victor is initiated into the realm of reductive science by “a man of great research in natural philosophy” (41) who, in explaining the grandeur of a thunderstorm in terms of the “laws of electricity”, provides Victor with the promise that the scientific pursuit can- through processing the knowledge of Nature’s processes- fulfill the curious wonder Victor felt as a child. However, Victor eventually realises that there is no place for wonder and astonishment in the rationality of his university professors’ modern science as feeling and emotion is replaced with the ‘hard’ science of numbers and deductive reasoning. Magical wonder, thus, degenerates into cold analysis as the scientific realm does not accommodate the ‘Astonishment’- when contemplating the mysteries of the cosmos- that attends the acknowledgement of what is unfathomable to mere man. The Sublime that is inherent in Nature, thus, has no normal place in the scientist’s world as he is driven to probe and reduce all of her elements to the disparateness of its parts. In this light, Victor’s act of creation can be seen as an attempt, in his seeking of “the active principle of life” (51), to rediscover the pure joy of wonderment which he recalls in his childhood desire for discovery and for knowledge before being seduced into the kingdom of rational science.
Victor’s pursuit for this ‘lost principle’ present in Nature, however, becomes intrinsically farcical, as he digs the “unhallowed damps of the grave” and “torture(s)… living animal(s)” with an ironically “supernatural enthusiasm” (51) to “animate… lifeless clay” (54) in a parody of Prometheus. He desires to theorise the creation myth itself, mistakenly thinking that the root of life comes from the grave. He becomes an ‘anti-God’, pulling together disparate parts from the recesses of churchyards. His belief that one has to “first have recourse to death” through the study of cadavers in order to “examine the causes of life” (51) cites the absence of a superstitious fear in death as an unknown, ominous, indeed unknowable entity. His studious belief that ‘wonderful man’ will have victory over death shows the delusion the scientist may be under when the scientist thinks he can master Nature with his instruments of rationality. The scientist, at close proximity to his microscope and in conquering disease, gains the false impression that the grandeurs present in all-encompassing Nature can, likewise, be tamed. Here, Shelley highlights the modern scientist’s compulsive drive to conquer Nature through knowledge and his conflicting desire to rediscover the spiritual satisfaction and childish wonder inherent in quiescent contemplation of Nature’s insurmountability. In other words, the scientist “might dissect, anatomise, and give names; but her immortal lineaments were still a wonder and a mystery… (keeping) human beings from entering the citadel of nature” (40). The failure to understand this vital truth results in a psychological regression, wherein the scientist inevitably feels an inexorable desire to ‘retreat’ into Nature’s womb to recapture the lost wonder felt when one witnesses the “most violent and terrible thunderstorm” (39).
However, in Victor’s world, the scientist is still able to retreat into the Sublime and find a degree of solace in acknowledging that there is, indeed, something ‘out there’ beyond man. After creating his monster, Victor feels such a “breathless horror and disgust” that “he rushe(s) out of (his) room and continued a long time traversing (his) bed-chamber, unable to compose (his) mind to sleep” (57). In his immense regret at the unspeakable horror of his creation, Victor acknowledges the scientist’s mistake in thinking that he can, in fact, subvert the natural laws of reproduction through the asexual creation of man. He discovers that when man attempts to wield the power of the (re)creation of the ‘life principle’, he cannot conjure the ‘Astonishment’ that Nature arouses in the Sublime, but elicits horror and disgust instead. He realises that, as mere scientist, he has trespassed into a territory of Nature that was never meant for mere man to possess. His acknowledgement of the scientist’s mistake, thus, grants him the brief reprieve he feels in the contemplating of the majesty of Nature when he journeys to the North with Clerval in a journey akin to the Romantic retreat into the Sublime. By admiring the “sight of the awful and majestic in nature” (79), he returns the rightful power of creation to Nature, understanding there are some natural laws that are immutable and thus, unable to be possessed.
However, in the Moreau universe in which Wells has created an island subscribing entirely to the Darwinian laws that govern evolution, the sublimity of Frankenstein is no longer obtainable. In the godless, mythical island of Doctor Moreau, the natural processes of divinely-ordained Nature has been replaced- in a hypothetical experiment on Wells’s part- by the man-made principles of Darwinism. The Scientist- in desiring to manipulate the natural order for the betterment of the humanity through an ethical eugenics (the kneading of the “plasticity of living forms” (Wells 222) to create a human-like race, in Moreau’s case)- puts himself at the top of the evolutionary ladder, positing himself as an ‘Ideal’ above Nature. Here, Wells criticizes not only the humanism present in the Scientist’s attempt to limit the sublimity of Nature to the confines of the body, but also his pseudo-religious belief that- as creator of Darwinism- the Scientist is, somehow, a superordinate figure with the divine purpose of creating a ‘New Man’ that is to be the ideal end and completion of all creation. The idealism embedded in the former arises from the scientist’s delusion that he can, in fact, create a body immune to the inexorable decay of Nature and independent of the regular reproductive faculty; it is, thus, similar to the optimism expressed in Frankenstein that- through a new Science- man may supplant Nature’s power in the bridling of Death. Likewise, even though Moreau successfully squelched the subliminal forces of Nature in the creation of mutable, powerful bodies that operate outside natural imperatives of pain and reproduction and the categories of species, he ultimately becomes a victim of his own science in an ironic Darwinian twist in which his creatures outstrip him and ‘kill’ him through their superior physical strength. Wells, thus, criticizes the idealism of Darwinian evolution inherent in its promise to provide man with “one inescapable rise to divinity” as “mankind (becomes) more and more noble, more and more divine, slowly rising towards perfection” (Gomel 150).
For Moreau and on his island, there is an undercurrent of perpetual conflict between Darwinian evolution and the Judeo-Christian belief that ‘God’ is, indeed, creator of the universe- in other words, that divine Nature holds sovereignty over Man. The latter concept places a divine inheritance on man, positing him as an ideal being created by an ideal God and thus, superior to Nature through an essential birthright. Moreau’s island, unlike the lab of Frankenstein, is governed by the Darwinian laws of natural selection that dictate the strongest will survive, and the weakest will perish. The island dictates its own rules, killing off the ‘weaker’ and allowing only the physically strongest to survive. Survival, in this case, depends not so much on intellectual prowess or ethics, but on one’s physical stature. This is, initially, apparent in the way the native inhabitants of the islands- the Kanakas- are gradually killed off in a series of mysterious but seemingly natural deaths by drowning, poisoning by the island’s plants, or, in the case of the last Kanaka, a death by Moreau’s ‘Thing’ (which can be seen as the epitome of the ‘superior’ body rendered in human form in being somehow beyond human and animal and thus, a step above man in the evolutionary ladder). Moreau falsely thinks that he has full control over his creatures, thinking his place as creator-‘God’ puts him one evolutionary rung above his creations- thus, he is no longer subject to the laws of natural selection that govern the Moreau island through Darwinian principles (which are, in themselves, a human creation and hence, potentially flawed). He manifests the Scientist’s paradoxical belief that- as a figure possessing the knowledge of Nature and her machinations-, he is evolutionarily superior to the apes that came before him and thus, is somehow above the laws of ‘natural selection’. Moreau describes himself as having “seen more of the ways of this world’s Maker… (having) sought his laws… all (his) life” (225) and falsely attributes some ‘divine law’ that called him to the island, stating “the place seemed waiting for me” (226). However, his pseudo-spiritual belief in a natural order dictated by God conflicts directly with his belief that “(he had) never yet heard of a useless thing that was not ground out of existence by evolution sooner or later” (225) and also his belief that the rational, modern scientist would displace the “tyrants… criminals… breeders of horses and dogs… (and all other) kinds of untrained clumsy-handed men working for their own immediate ends” (223). In placing himself one step above men whom he judges as inadequate by virtue of perceived intellectual, physical, or moral inferiority, he bestows a divine right of creation on himself, forgetting that these unworthy, contemptible traits may exist within himself. Likewise, he describes the Beast People, initially as “fear-haunted, paint-driven things, without a spark of pugnacious energy to face torment,- they are no good for man-making” (226), alluding to his belief that Man is always the Ideal that the scientist works towards. The scientist, in this case, becomes an ironic, farcical figure in his paradoxical beliefs that he can create a creature beyond Nature, yet not succumb to the very principles that govern his created Darwinian law in which it is not ideals, but brute strength that reigns supreme. In this light, Moreau’s death can be seen as the natural outcome of his inability to recognize the scientist’s own position as existing within the limits of his own creation, suggesting the idea the scientist may not, in fact, be altogether divorced from the Frankensteinian Nature and the creationist principles that govern that world.
Likewise, even though Moreau is able to subvert the laws that govern Nature dictating that one must live, die and feel pain, he becomes an inhumane, ‘mad’ figure, despising imagination and human interaction, creating grotesque beings from the remnants of living animals. He is absolutely devoted to his craft, regarding Pendrick’s arrival as a “personal inconvenience” and reprimanding him for what he calls “youthful horrors” arising out of his “confounded imagination” (221). Moreau disregards Pendrick’s personal welfare, thus, silently tolerating his presence in so long as he is able to proceed, undisturbed, with his vivisectionist experiments. Furthermore, his criticism of Pendrick’s imagination can be seen as a blatant rejection of the initial, child-like joy Victor feels in his childhood when he delves into Nature, “seeking to penetrate (her) secrets” (Shelley 37). Imagination, in the Shelley universe, is a vital component in driving the scientific pursuit, the end of which is a spiritual fulfilment that arrives from discovery. Moreau’s goal, in contrast, is a relentless humanism to obliterate pain and pleasure through the manipulation of the potential plasticities of the living shape. Even though his is a creative goal, it is subtracted from the imagination’s realm as it rests on a totalising desire to create a stringent ‘New World’ whereby Man has complete control over natural processes, thus subjugating Nature’s ultimate power. While the creative scientific pursuit present in the Frankenstein ideal results in release and pleasure, the latter is defined by politics of power and consumption. Naturally, Moreau becomes a brazenly remorseless figure divorced from social relations and possessing an obsessive single-mindedness in his pursuits. He desires, ultimately, absolute control through creative means and it is the incongruous nature of these goals that results in Moreau’s inhumanity.
Moreover, as the ‘Nature’ present in the Moreau island is not the divinely-ordained entity of Frankenstein but one governed by the human-created laws of Darwinian evolution, grotesqueness results, alluding to the assertion that, when the “immutable laws” (Shelley 40) that govern the world are handed to Man, he inevitably creates the grotesque, rather than the beautiful. The creatures are described as “grotesque caricatures of humanity” (Wells 214) that wriggle, gabble, and whistle with a deformed animality. They are ‘Things’ and ‘lumps’, “crooked creature(s)” without faces and possessing “strange red eyes” (247). M’ling, likewise, is described as a “misshapen man, short, broad, and clumsy, with a crooked back, a hairy neck” (180). His face protrudes like “a muzzle… (with a) huge half-open mouth showed as big white teeth as (Pendrick) had ever seen in a human mouth” (180). In the creation of a new creature outside the Creationist principle, thus, natural congruency inherent in the forms of animals can possess is exchanged for monstrosity, as the conglomeration of human and animal inevitably results in a deformity that can only be described as grotesque. Like Victor, who seeks to re(create) man from “minuteness of parts” (Shelley 53) as he digs the “unhallowed damps of the grave”, Moreau- in his tearing apart of the natural shapes of animals to create the Beast People- themselves creatures existing beyond Nature and thus, containing an excess- creates a grotesque creation.
In both novels, the scientific creation is seen to be in conflict with the principles of Nature, deforming, rather than perfecting it. However, the absence of the Nature principle in Wells’s universe makes redemption for the scientist impossible. As the Darwinian, rather than natural, law presides over all, there is no longer anything on the island that has not been rightfully conquered by Man in terms of Science and Nature. Thus, there is no longer the wonderment Man may feel in the contemplation of an untouched element hidden in Nature. In Wells’s bleak portrait of a world successfully conquered by rational principles where deformity reigns as the only code of ‘beauty’, he criticises the rationalism embedded in Darwinism science’s humanism.
Furthermore, Pendrick’s fall and his descent into animalism, as he spends increasing time amongst the Beast People and their created society, can be seen as a further critique of Darwinism’s humanism implicit in the notion that man is in fact, the ideal result at the end of the evolutionary chain. Just as Moreau’s inhumane nature alludes to the potential bestiality man can possess when divorced from society’s ‘taming’ effects, Pendrick’s ‘devolution’ into a savage state can be seen as revealing Man’s proximity to the beast within him. As Montgomery, Moreau and the House of Pain disappear, Pendrick “under(goes) strange changes” (263). His clothes start to “(hang) about (him) as yellow rags”, his hair grows long and his eyes “(acquires) a strange brightness, a swift alertness of movement” (263). He forges a friendship with one of the ‘things’, calling it his “St. Bernard Dog Man” (261), acknowledging, in addressing it as a pseudo-equal, its similarity to him. Likewise, when he is rescued, he states he “felt no desire to return to mankind” (266) as society grows increasingly bestial in his eyes. Pendrick states he “could not persuade (himself) that the men and women (he) met were not also another Beast People, animals half wrought in the outward image of human souls… that they would presently begin to revert,-- to show first this bestial mark then that” (267). Multiple times, he sees the ‘bestial mark’ present in his fellow men, as his preacher ‘gibbers’ “Big Thinks, even as the Ape-man had done” (268). The narrative, ultimately, ends with Richard concluding that- with his newfound knowledge that the ‘beast’ lies not above, but inside man, his only solace is that “whatever is more than animal within” (268) will continue to be ‘tamed’ by the societal cultivation of morality and ethics. In the Darwinian universe wherein the divine principle is obliterated and man stands at the top of the evolutionary ladder, the ‘beast’ within re-emerges in the scientific creation, ironically displacing man’s better nature. The replacement of the divinity of Nature present in the Frankensteinian Sublime with the ‘Biological Sublime’ of man’s creation through Darwinian science, thus, results in a sacrifice by which the scientist, if not dead in the hands of his creation, becomes as grotesque as his monstrous creations. Thus, Wells presents the impossibility of a universe in which Science presides over all present in the humanistic idea that medicine will obliterate disease in humanity through a taming of natural processes with the tools of reason.
Both Frankenstein and The Island of Doctor Moreau address eminent concerns that arose with the advent of modern medicine at the turn of the 20th century. While Frankenstein addresses the possible outcomes that may result when the scientist fails to acknowledge his subordinacy and smallness in the face of imperious Nature, The Island of Doctor Moreau paints a bleak fable of the ultimate fulfilment of the scientific aspiration wherein Darwinian principles have fully conquered Nature, and hence, the logic of Science reigns pre-eminent, making the Sublime unobtainable. In the farcical painting of the ‘mad scientist’ and the grotesqueness of his created race of beings, Wells criticises the humanism in the notion that evolutionary science governed by reason can provide the ultimate elixir to mankind’s problems, positing the idea that the powers of Nature present in concepts of the Sublime cannot be so easily put aside without horrific consequences. Furthermore, in the characters of Pendrick, Moreau and Montgomery and their interactions with the Beast People, he suggests that the bestial nature may lurk within Man rather than below him. Thus, the scientist’s dream of creating an ‘Ideal Man’ independent of Nature becomes intrinsically flawed in its notion that- through a naturally ordained supremacy-, Man has an assumed place at the top of the evolutionary ladder.
"Burke, Edmund. 1909. 14. On the Sublime and Beautiful. Vol. 24, Part 2. The Harvard Classics." Bartleby.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2010.
Ellwood, Robert, ‘Myth, Gnosis, and Modernity,’ from The Politics of Myth: A Study of C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell (SUNY Press, 2004), 1-35. Print.
Gomel, Elana. Bloodscripts: Writing the Violent Subject (The Theory and Interpretation of Narrative Series). Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003. Print.
Shelley, Mary. Making Humans (New Riverside Editions). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002. Print.