Dr. Moreau and the Art of Storytelling

Reading H. G. Wells’ Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) I am reminded that the best novelists are good storytellers. Everything else is secondary, even style. This is true of the occasionally heavy prose of Cooper, Dickens and Melville. The bottom line is that they have something interesting to say about their characters. Otherwise easy to read novels (including a few by Wells himself) that tell a bad story are a waste of paper.

The other lesson to be drawn from Dr. Moreau is the lost art of respecting your reader. The tale is bizarre and even grotesque, yet as with other classic authors treating similarly outlandish themes (e.g., Dante or Swift), Wells wrote at a time when certain things could be conveyed by allusion and understatement. Even Wells’ religious skepticism and Darwinian musings can be passed over, if one chooses, because the reader is allowed to keep his distance.  When Prendick, the main character, confronts a drunken captain, Wells flawlessly conveys a personality that is vile and brainless without spelling out (in Justin Halpern fashion) everything that a lowlife seafarer might utter. We can fill in the blanks. By contrast, modern novelists are claustrophobic in their intellectual and physical details.

Anyone who is familiar with the Houyhnhnms of Swift’s story will spot the obvious parallels between Prendick and the misanthropic Lemuel Gulliver. After the narrator finally returns to England from Dr. Moreau’s island, he is haunted by shadows of the animal people that seem to lurk in the ordinary human beings around him. That said, the closing lines of the story are some of the best that Wells ever penned:

I have withdrawn myself from the confusion of cities and multitudes, and spend my days surrounded by wise books,– bright windows in this life of ours, lit by the shining souls of men. I see few strangers, and have but a small household…. There is – though I do not know how there is or why there is – a sense of infinite peace and protection in the glittering hosts of heaven. There it must be, I think, in the vast and eternal laws of matter, and not in the daily cares and sins and troubles of men, that whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope. I hope, or I could not live.

Related post: H. G. Wells’ Invisible Man

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