Social Surgery in H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau and “Under the Knife”

H.G. Wells believed intensely in the productive aspects of science and the potential of the human race. At the same time, he was also acutely aware that scientific knowledge placed in the wrong hands could result in evil caused by the darker aspects of humanity. Wells develops a brilliant metaphor in the form of surgery as a way to combine and comment upon the positive and negative divide of scientific advancement in the hands of a brute race. In both The Island of Dr. Moreau and “Under the Knife” Wells develops his idea that surgery will be necessary in order to attain his hopes for a utopian society.A utopian ideal was for H.G. Wells not a hopelessly unattainable possibility, but he was enough of a pragmatist to realize that it would require some unpleasant social construction. In “A Modern Utopia” he recognizes the obstacle in the path of a perfect society: “Then there are persons tainted with certain foul and transmissible diseases. All these people spoil the world for others. They may become parents, and with most of them there is manifestly nothing to be done but to seclude them from the great body of the population” (Wells 142). He offers up a very interesting solution to this problem, what he calls “social surgery” (Wells 142). He immediately goes on to admit that this kind of extreme social construction could result in disaster were those in charge to be cruel in its execution, but offers a glimpse of his innate optimism by suggesting that a true utopia be governed by benevolent leaders. Wells would return to the metaphor of surgery as a means of cleansing the body politic in both The Island of Dr. Moreau and “Under the Knife.”Although Wells is often accused of distrusting humanity and holding pessimistic views about the future and its possibilities, both The Island of Dr. Moreau and “Under the Knife” offer glimpses of hope within Wells that undermine that argument. The problem is that Wells outlook for humanity tends to confuse critics, as in this statement: “There is no doubt that The Island of Dr. Moreau is a deeply pessimistic book, and its Swiftian view of human nature is not a mere literary exercise” (Scheick 28). What Scheick and many other critics fail to realize is that just as Jonathan Swift’s Yahoos are not meant to be strictly equated with human beings, neither are the Beast Men in The Island of Dr. Moreau intended to represent the future of humanity. The whole point of Moreau’s experiments is that they prove that humans aren’t just animals; the spark of the divine exists within them. Wells hopes that the surgical knife could remove the ugliness preventing society from attaining utopian ideals, and he presents this wish in the novel in a unique way. Wells turns the table on his idea of surgical removing imperfection by having Dr. Moreau attempt to create a utopia not by removing the tainted members of society with his knife, but rather by attempting to repair and perfect them. By having Moreau fail, Wells succeeds in proving his original contention that those who foul and poison the populace should be removed. While it may be understandable how this idea could be misconstrued as pessimistic and distrustful of humanity, in fact it offers hope that problems can be resolved simply by admitting that human beings aren’t perfect and can be infected; like a cancer, the solution to better health lies simply in cutting them away.H.G. Wells’ conviction that the fate of society could be improved through surgical revolution is rooted in his embrace of the socialist values that view history through the lens of exploitation rather than as a divine plan. The lower class milieu into which Wells was born no doubt shaped his politics, which became more sharply formed after his embrace of socialist ideals. Early in youth Wells became an avid reader, and his education convinced him that, as one critic puts it, “Only through revision of the species can the species survive”(Reed 124). Revision and surgical application are two motifs evidence in much of Wells’ writing, but especially in The Island of Dr. Moreau and “Under the Knife.” Interesting, the symbolism of surgery as a means of correcting the ailments of the body politic is approached from two different perspectives, yet each reaches the same conclusion. Dr. Moreau attempts to surgically improve society by lifting the polluted and foul members to a heightened state of being, whereas the surgery in “Under the Knife” is used to remove the foul and infected part of man. Moreau overextends himself, attempting to usurp the position of God as creator. But man is not God; he cannot upset the balance of nature by improving it. Moreau’s utter failure to accomplish his goals doesn’t just stand as a testament to his non-divine status, but also as a testament to the futility of trying to improve society by changing human nature. Although Wells believed that knowledge was key to the success of socialist ideals, he also recognized that you cannot teach a person who refuses to learn (Reed 124). Survival of the species, therefore, requires not just education, but excision. The character in “Under the Knife” experiences a euphoric vision of what life could be like at its best, but that ideal can be attained only after the foul disease is eradicated.The actions of the character Prendick are another indication that Wells is not offering a pessimistic view of humanity in The Island of Dr. Moreau, but is rather holding out a ray of hope that all is not lost. The character in “Under the Knife” ponders the possibility that the higher qualities of humanity evolved from baser animal instinct and the question of what would be left if these higher qualities were removed (Wells 108). The answer can be found on Dr. Moreau’s island. Prendick comes into contact with creatures whose evolution has been surgically applied. The fit is not a good one, however; it lacks a natural bonding agent. While Dr. Moreau can graft animal to man, the psychic divide still exists. As a result, those higher qualities are capable of being removed, with the result being the return to bestial nature that Prendick witnesses. At first, of course, Prendick is aghast at these abominations, these men who aren’t quite men. Gradually he is imbue with a sense of sympathy, but following this expression of sympathy in the act of putting the leopard man out of his misery, Prendick falls into a state of apathy in which he becomes numb to the grotesque world around him. Prendick’s numb acceptance is both an answer to the question posed by the man in “Under the Knife” and Wells’ answer to why social surgery is necessary. If the higher qualities that separate humanity are allowed to slip away, he will revert to pure instinctual survival, and eventually society will grow more numb to the horror of that spectacle and accept it. The reason that the infected members of the populace must be surgically cut off in order to ensure the survival of the species is because if they aren’t, and they are allowed to continue infecting others, eventually everyone will reach a state of numbness like Prendick’s and society will begin a long, slow slide backward.Wells uses the experiments of Dr. Moreau to illustrate that that society’s ills cannot be corrected by surgical improvement and he shows in “Under the Knife” that for a utopia to ever exist, the social surgery must be utilized to cut away the ailments. The symbolism of surgery as a method for effecting great change is prevalent throughout both these works; in fact, it is integral to them. Dr. Moreau’s heinous and ill-advised attempt to improve the island through a mad attempt to enforce the finer qualities of humanity to animals can be read as a statement by Wells on the utter impossibility of this approach as a means of making society better. Wells’ vision of a utopia that is achieved by removing the sick and foul parts of it rather than trying to turn it into something better is expressed in “Under the Knife.” The character in that story fears that he will die as a result of the illness and imagines a better world without the constraints of the body. In the end, however, he is made better through scientific achievement. The contrast is evident; Wells believes that scientific advancement is not in itself inherently good or evil, but that rather the application of science that reveals good and bad. Works CitedReed, John R. The Natural History of H.G. Wells Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1982. Scheick, William J., ed. The Critical Response to H.G. Wells. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995. Wells, H. G. A Modern Utopia. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1967. Wells, H.G.. The Country of the Blind and Other Stories. London: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.Wells, H.G.. The Island of Dr. Moreau. New York: Signet Classic, 1988. 

Wells’ Caustic Attack on Vivisection in The Island of Dr. Moreau

Vivisection, an issue explored by many different scholars, including religious, scientific, and literary, has engendered a fierce debate since its inception. Philosophers early as Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas began addressing issues concerning mankind’s relation to animal, which had great implications in shaping societal views on vivisection during later years. Such views were shaken, however, when Darwin began publishing his work delineating the relationship between animals and humans. H.G. Wells, a student of science and a well-acclaimed science fiction writer, employs a unique setting in his novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, to question supporters of vivisection. Wells attacks the act of vivisection by providing the reader with acoustic filled descriptions of the suffering experienced by the animals, satirizing the traditional Christian belief system, and discussing Darwinism and its implications on the relationship between animals and humans. One of the primary means by which Wells attacks vivisection is through his descriptions of the pain the animals are forced to undergo. These descriptions are important because they draw empathy from the reader. Wells focuses his descriptions on stimulating the reader’s acoustic senses to draw such empathy. For example, Prendick, when describing the howling of the puma, states, “A sharp, hoarse cry of animal pain came from the enclosure behind us. Its depth and volume testified to the puma. I saw Montgomery wince” (36). The diction used here, such as “sharp” and “hoarse,” is important because it allows the reader to actually hear the cries of the puma rather than simply reading about them. Moreover, hearing these cries, the reader empathizes with the puma to a greater extent because the reader is essentially hearing the pain the puma must be experiencing through these cries. Montgomery’s wince is also important because it reveals to the reader that even after several years Montgomery has not grown accustomed to these cries of pain-that is, the pain experienced by the animals each time is real, and the howls and moans never seep into the background. Prendick continues to describe these howls when he states, “I found myself that the cries were singularly irritating, and they grew in depth and intensity as the afternoon wore on. They were painful…” (37). The fact that each of the cries is “singularly irritating” is significant because Wells is emphasizing that each cut during the vivisection process is uniquely painful. This idea draws further empathy because the reader sees that the puma feels a sharp, acute pain each time it yelps as opposed to growing accustomed and experiencing a general, dull pain. Furthermore, Wells uses this idea of uniqueness to convey to the reader that animals are unique beings just like humans, and thus the act of vivisection should not be justified.Eventually, these cries become so strong that Prendick starts to feel the pain. The pain he speaks of is important on two levels. On the surface, this pain simply arises from the intensity and sharpness of the cries and howls that Prendick hears. On a deeper level, the pain Prendick feels actually represents the puma’s real pain-that is, the pain from the vivisection is transferred from the puma to Prendick through the acoustic medium. Eventually, Prendick cannot stand the cries any longer when he states, “The emotional appeal of those yells grew upon me steadily, grew at last to such an exquisite expression of suffering that I could stand it in that confined room no longer” (37). At this point, the reader is already empathizing with the puma. Wells’ writing strategically here because, by having Prendick leave the room, Wells in effect forces the reader to exit the scene, leaving the reader with echoes of the puma’s worst cries and wondering what will become of her.In addition to utilizing such descriptions to attack vivisection, Wells crafts his novel into a religious satire to debunk the philosophies of those supporting vivisection through religious convictions. Before exploring the satirical features of the novel, however, it is important to understand Christianity’s relationship with and stance towards nonhuman animals. In general, as Rod Preece, a professor of Political Philosophy at Wilfrid Laurier University, states, “…the reputation of the Christian tradition has fared poorly in the burgeoning literature on the history of attitudes to nonhuman animals” (399). The reason for this may be due to the writings of early scholars, especially those of St. Thomas Aquinas, a philosopher and theologian of the Church. In one of his most famous works, Summa Theologica, published in the mid to late thirteenth century, St. Aquinas states, “According to the Divine ordinance the life of animals and plants is preserved not for themselves but for man. By a most just ordinance of the Creator, both their life and their death are subject to our use” (20). Thus, St. Aquinas clearly believes that God has planned the creation animals and plants for mankind’s use. Many have analyzed Christian tradition by examining a key passage in the Book of Genesis, which states, “Then God blessed them, and said to them, Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (149). Most scholars have interpreted this passage to represent how the Christian tradition disregards the rights of animals and justifies the use of vivisection. These thoughts continued to resonate during the late nineteenth century, when The Island of Dr. Moreau was published. For example, Edward Evans, an author and educator at the time, interprets the passage from Genesis when he writes: “Upon the being thus arbitrarily created absolute dominion is conferred over every beast of the earth and every fowl of the air, which are to be to him for meat. They are given over to his supreme and irresponsible control, without the slightest injunction of kindness or the faintest suggestion of any duties or obligations toward them” (89). Thus, Evans, like many other authors and scholars at the time, interprets the passage in Genesis in a manner that mirrors the ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas. Wells, frustrated with scholars rationalizing their reasoning through Christianity and the idea of a centralized, planned world in which God created mankind with purpose, attacks the source directly. That is, Wells crafts a satire out of religion to debunk the source of justification for the many scholars who refer to religion when justifying vivisection. Early in the novel, Wells’ questioning of the central importance of human life, and thus traditional Christianity, becomes apparent. Prendick’s emotions and tone are often dissonant with the events that surround him. For example, after observing his fellow men scuffle on the lifeboat and eventually fall overboard to their deaths, Prendick states, “They sank like stones. I remember laughing at that and wondering why I laughed. The laugh caught me suddenly like a thing from without” (2). Foremost, these thoughts manifested early in the novel are disturbing to the reader as Prendick finds humor in the deaths of fellow humans. By interlacing humor with death, Wells uses this situation to force the reader to question the seriousness and importance of human life. Furthermore, this incident introduces Wells’ idea concerning the lack of sacredness or holiness to mankind’s existence-that is, there may not be a divine figure that has placed humanity in a centralized and planned life. Wells continues to attack traditional Christianity and the idea of a divine figure through other characters. For example, Montgomery, after discussing his life or lack thereof for the previous twenty years, exclaims, “What’s it all for, Prendick? Are we bubbles blown by a baby?” (111). Foremost, one generally thinks of bubbles blown as moving in random motion without any importance to their paths. Wells uses these bubbles to create such imagery and represent the lives of humanity, and thus argues that our lives are not necessarily of central importance to the functioning of the world. Furthermore, Well creates a mockery of the idea of a divine figure by having a baby blow the bubbles. What kind of planning is devised for human life if a baby is blowing such bubbles in a haphazard manner? These ideas again allow Wells to stir up thoughts of confusion and uncertainty in the reader’s mind. Wells forces the reader to look critically upon those who support vivisection through religion, especially when this justification is based on assumptions such as the unique importance of human life and the presence of a divine figure, both of which Wells renders tenuous through his satire.Wells continues this satire on religion when discussing the laws of the Beast People. The Beast People continually chant, “Not to go on all-Fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Notto suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to east Flesh or Fish; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to claw Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?” (61). These laws are analogous to the Ten Commandments set forth in Christian Bible (310). Wells creates parallels between the two in various ways. Foremost, looking at the written structure of the laws of the Beast People and the Ten Commandments, one can see that both are written in short statements that repress the follower from performing certain actions. While the Ten Commandments repeat the phrase “thou shalt not,” the laws of the Beast People repeat “not to.” In addition, similar to the traditional Christian belief system, the Beast People are encouraged to repeat these laws. Wells is creating a satire of religion once again through the Beast People’s laws. In fact, when Prendick encounters these laws for the first time, he states, “I realized I had to repeat this idiotic formula. And then began the insanest ceremony” (60). Wells directly conveys his own thoughts on religion through Prendick’s views. Words such as “idiotic” and “insanest” serve as caustic remarks against traditional Christianity. Once again, Wells, by attacking the source of rationale, persuades his readers that religion cannot serve as a justification for vivisection. In addition to crafting a satire of religion, Wells explores of Darwinism, which serves has his third angle of attack against vivisection. Although Christianity had convinced many that vivisection was rationalized because God created animals for the use of mankind, these views were suddenly challenged when Darwin published his research on the relationship and links between mankind and animals. Darwin proposed that man had evolved from animals and that there existed an irrefutable link of common ancestry between the two. Specifically, in his work Descent of Man, Darwin describes the similarities between humans and animals when he writes:All have the same senses, intuitions and sensations-similar passions, affections and emotions, even the more complex ones such as jealousy, suspicion, emulation, gratitude and magnanimity; they practice deceit and are revengeful; they are sometimes susceptible to ridicule, and even have a sense of humour; they feel wonder and curiosity; they possess the same faculties of imitation, attention, deliberation, choice, memory, imagination, the association of ideas and reason… (Descent of Man, 89) Thus, Darwin draws large similarities between animals and mankind, especially concerning feelings and emotions. This is important because, as discussed below, Wells places a large emphasis on showing how both the Beast People and humans revert back to their baser instincts or emotions, which reveals the direct influence of Darwinism in Wells’ work. Thus, Darwin’s work clearly revolutionized societal views towards the treatment of animals, influencing and molding the thoughts of many scholars and authors at the time. For example, Thomas Hardy, a novelist and poet, writes:The discovery of the law of evolution, which revealed that all organic creatures are of one family, shifted the center of altruism from humanity to the whole conscious world collectively. Therefore, the practice of vivisection, which might have been defended while the belief rules that men and animals are essentially different, has been left without any logical argument in its favour. (11)Hardy argues that if animals and humans were different, vivisection may have been rationally defended. However, now that it has clearly been shown that the two are not different, no logic can be used to justify vivisection, which is what Wells emphasizes through his novel.The theme of Darwinism becomes immediately apparent from the beginning of the novel when Prendick discovers that the ship that has saved him up is bound from Africa to Hawaii (7). This is significant because the journey maps what many believe to be the path of migration and evolution for mankind. Furthermore, Wells uses such plot structure for foreshadow his discussion of Darwinism later in the novel. Wells is keen to inject Darwinism into all aspects of the book because it allows him to drive the theme of Darwinism into the reader’s mind before the reader even begins to read about the vivisection. Thus, Wells reinforces the mind early with connections between animals and mankind so that when the reader does arrive at the vivisection, the descriptions will be even more terrifying and draw greater empathy.Wells further discusses Darwinism as he draws parallels between Moreau’s explanations of the animals and mankind’s disposition. For instance, Moreau, when discussing with Prendick the details of his experimentation, states, “…just after I make them, they seem to be indisputable human beings. It’s afterwards as I observe them that the persuasion fades. First one animal trait, then another, creeps to the surface and stares at me…” (81). Thus, the animal instincts always seem to dominate and resurface. This phenomenon is analogous to Wells’ descriptions of the humans characters in the novel. For example, Prendick’s thoughts and actions, after listening to the puma, shed light on the human innate human disposition: “…but their constant resurgence at last altogether upset my balance. I flung aside a crib of Horace I had been reading, and began to clench my fists, to bite my lips, and pace the room” (37). The pain that the puma feels strongly affects Prendick, almost as if he feels a direct connection to the puma. Moreover, Prendick’s actions here mirror those of what one generally attributes to animals. Thus, Wells shows that humans, just like the animals with which Moreau experiments, revert back to their base instincts and emotions. Because both the Beast People and humans such as Prendick ultimately return to a common set of instinctual emotions and actions, Wells is essentially putting forth the argument of Darwin-that is, humans and animals arose from a common background and the distance that separates the two is not nearly as large as many previously believed. Thus, Wells argues that the act of vivisection should not be condoned, especially because mankind is inflicting pain on its own type. Wells furthers the theme of Darwinism when Prendick, during the chase of the Leopard Man, thinks, “…but now, seeing the creature there in a perfectly animal attitude, with the light gleaming in its eyes, and its imperfectly human face distorted with terror, I realized again the fact of its humanity…I slipped out my revolver, aimed between his terror-struck eyes and fired” (98). Prendick clearly sees the terror in the Leopard Man’s eyes, an emotion that, according to some, only humans should be able to experience. Moreover, it is significant that Prendick’s description create a dichotomy. The Leopard Man’s animal attitude stands perfect, yet its human face is distorted and imperfect. Wells argues that the innate emotions and thoughts of animals cannot be penetrated or altered, which is why the “animal attitude” stands perfectly. In contrast, the artificial manipulation of the face, to make the Leopard Man appear more human like, will easily be overtaken by the base emotions, which in this case is terror, an emotion recognized universally. Finally, it is to recognize that, by having Prendick kill the Leopard Man, Wells is making a statement on the amount of pain and torture caused by the vivisection and related experimentation-that is, death is more desirable than returning to the House of Pain. Finally, even when Prendick returns to civilization, he cannot escape Darwinism, as he states, “Then I would turn aside into some chapel, and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered Big Thinks even as the Ape Man had done; or into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey” (139). Prendick’s experiences on the island have allowed him to see the increased connection between mankind and animals. The fact that such notions are ingrained into his mind even as he returns to civilization, is important because it extends the Wells’ use of Darwinism to all parts of society instead of limiting it to an isolated island. Again, Wells is arguing that if so much similarity exists between mankind and other animals, then one cannot justify the acts of vivisection when these animals are simply our fellow beings.Thus, during a time in which issues such as vivisection and evolution are hotly debated, Wells offers compelling arguments through science fiction writing. Not only does Wells draw empathy from the reader but also incorporates the important issues surrounding vivisection, such as religion and Darwinism, to formulate a caustic attack. Ultimately, Wells makes it evident that he believes vivisection is an inexcusable process by which mankind is inflicting pain on its own kind. Works CitedPreece, Rod. “Darwinism, Christianity, and the Great Vivisection Debate.” Journal of the History of Ideas 64.3 (2003): 399-419.Wells, HG. The Island of Dr. Moreau. New York: Random House, Inc., 2005.

The Body as a Site of Horror in Gothic Fiction

‘Our experience of the world is through the transitory experience of embodiment’.[1] This statement by Marie Mulvey-Roberts exemplifies as to why the body is so prevalent when horror is depicted in the gothic; we exist only within our bodies and preservation of that body is key to our survival, and that body being compromised becomes the ultimate horror. Both terror and horror are key components to the gothic. Terror is fright, and the fear of what could be, whilst horror is terror becoming actualized. More specifically, terror seems to relate to the threat of damage to the body whilst horror is that corporeal threat being realized; in the form of damage caused by violence or illness, or even the evolutionary loss of the human body as we know it. This essay explores the idea that the response of horror when faced with the transgressed body is rooted in either a fear of death or the loss of humankind as a whole.

Pain infliction, as well as subsequent gore, is a common theme used to convey horror in gothic fiction. This trope becomes horrific due to the suggestion of our corporeal vessel being compromised and the corresponding implications. The further the body is beaten through violence, the further it resembles a corpse; a lifeless thing rather than a living human. And the more pain is inflicted the further the possibility of an actual death arises (‘the cruel one wishes to put me to death by draining away my blood drop by drop’,[2]Justine). The infliction of violence to the body carries with it the ability to turn a person from ‘human’ to ‘thing’ in the space of minutes. In Steven Bruhm’s Gothic Bodies: The Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction Bruhm states that ‘absolute pain is an aesthetic experience that threatens to render us unconscious, oblivious to any sensation or aesthetic experience’.[3] Thus, pain has the ability to strip one from all human experience, even if the end result is not physical death. Furthermore, there are many suggestions across philosophical literature that humans can experience pain empathy, which suggests that reading others experiences of pain can induce feelings of imagined pain onto the recipient. Philosopher Edmund Burke theorized that ‘the mind imagines a certain physical experience which it reproduces on the body as the experience of pain […] we feel the “wound” in our limbs or organs through a kind of sympathetic identification, one produced by the imagination’.[4] There are some refutations of this, with Adam Smith suggesting that ‘the emotions of the spectator will still be very apt to fall short of the violence of what is felt by the sufferer’.’[5] What can be concluded is that we empathize with pain sufferers, yet find some relief in that we are not in the same position; the morbidity of vicariously experiencing pain elicits the reaction of horror, but the relief of affirmed safety of the Self in contrast to the suffer keeps us engaged and able to enjoy the genre. Moreover, violence toward the body can also transgress the body into the unfamiliar and abhuman (she would open with her bloodstained fingers the wounds wherewith you would have mutilated her’,[6]Justine). Evolutionary instincts render humans disgusted by abhumaness, as explored by Darwin, adding another layer of horror to depictions of violence against the body. Though novels such as Justine predate these scientific acknowledgments, the historical behavior of man is accounted for in displaying this innate behavior.

The instinctual human fear of mortality is embodied in Bram Stoker’s antagonist Dracula, in his 1897 gothic novel of the same name. Here the vampire acts as an abhuman entity which is simultaneously living yet not alive; a sentient personification of the dead. Not only making the human confront death due to its presence, but also proactively seeking out the living in order to turn them into the living dead. No peace can be found in death as this outcome is threatened by the vampire who seeks to extend one’s death, forcing one to experience it for eternity. One of the few compensations of death – that you do not have to experience it – is in this case taken away. As well as the vampire forcing the reader and human characters to confront the fear of death by engaging with a sentient representation of it, the vampire’s form also elicits an abject response of disgust, acting as an unwelcome foreshadow to ‘the inevitability of abhuman identities as theorized within Darwinism’[7] a few decades before the publication of the novel. Vampires continue to be a source of horror in the present day, but what makes Dracula so pertinent in the Victorian time period in which it was conceived is the vampire’s parallel with the infected body (‘As the Count leaned over me […] I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank’[8]). Not only do vampires mirror the infected body in characteristics such as pallor and smell, but a new vampire endures a period of being fatally unwell after being inflicted, before meeting a potentially eternal death (‘Lucy was breathing somewhat stertorously, and her face was at its worst, for the open mouth showed the pale gums.’’[9]). Infection was one of the primary causes of premature death in the Victorian period[10] and these dramatized depictions of the infection and infected body reflect the fear of death by infection and is used to elicit a response of horror in the gothic.

As Leila S. May suggests in “Foul Things of the Night”; ‘Significantly, Dracula, the walking, waking emblem […] disease and contagion infects not men (although the threat that he might do so pervades the text) but women, who, much like prostitutes, act as ‘reservoirs of infection’ and ‘potential pollutants of men’.[11] When turned, female vampires gain seductive characteristics, both in their behavior and their voluptuous appearances (‘there was a deliberate voluptuousness […] as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips’[12]). This connects the promiscuous woman with contamination, reflecting anxieties about female sexuality. In 1791 Sade’s Justine his female protagonist epitomizes innocence and is sexually exploited against her will, whilst in 1897 the innocent female is at risk of gaining sexual traction herself (‘Lucy Westenra, but yet how changed. The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness’[13]). She also carries the risk of corrupting the male and infecting him; ‘There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips’.[14] This somewhat supports May’s statement that ’the greatest anxiety seems to be that of moral and social decomposition, as if the stench of death might be detected in the very galleries of society’.[15] Though, building on that statement, whilst societal fears are displayed in Dracula and are the cause of horror, the basis of the fear is still one of human death. In this case fatal infection is the feared result of widespread promiscuity; promiscuity being a societal Victorian fear.

Whereas the body in both Dracula and Justine are used to engage the human instinct to preserve the Self, the transgressed body in The Island of Doctor Moreau is effective in playing on man’s instinctual urge to preserve the human species as a whole. ’Anxieties regarding the period’s progress in science, and how it could have a detrimental effect on humanity, is reflected here as Moreau intercepts the biological human design renders them animalistic in their behaviour and habits. As seen in Dracula, the bodies of the beast people elicit a reaction of disgust to Prendick, for not adhering to a typical human form. But whilst the vampire in Dracula can pass for human, the beast people – whilst having many human characteristics – are not quite human in appearance and movement, making them uncanny. The uncanny is a concept defined as a being or object that is very similar to a human but subtle with differences, which creates a response of uneasiness and disgust (‘I saw only their faces, yet there was something in their faces […] that gave me a queer spasm of disgust’,[16]Moreau). As Xavier Aldana Reyes discusses in Body Gothic: Corporeal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film, ‘the suspicions that something ‘other’ lies just beyond what the eye can see creates a sense of uncanniness that generates horror; the Beast folk are ‘unnatural’ and ‘repulsive’ and eventually threatening’.[17] But not only are the Beast People uncanny, their uncanny, non-human characteristics are primitive and regressive, making them particularly disturbing and horrific due to their implication of evolutionary regression (they swayed from side to side in the oddest way, and beat their hands upon their knees […] these grotesque dim figures,’[18] Moreau). These components account for Prendick’s continual disgust when faced with the beast people. Kelly Hurley argues that ‘with new understandings of the body (Darwin, criminal anthropology, contemporary psychology) the exciting discovery of the possibilities of the human body is […] also fraught with extreme fear about its limits’,’[19] though, as seen in Moreau, the real horror is that transgression of the body through science can be limitless, with the results being more grotesque the further the digression from evolutionary norms. Throughout the novel are also references to Moreau being comparable to a God. Gorman Beuchamp suggests that ‘the pain that Moreau inflicts upon the creatures of his little island re-enacts microcosmically the macrocosmic process of evolutionary creation through suffering. God is thus Moreau writ large’,[20] though Moreau’s evolution is unwanted. The promotion of evolutionary progression is inherent in man, but those with a cognitive bias towards creationism rather than evolution can still outwardly fear Moreau. Moreau is a demonised personification of scientific breakthrough and brings to life religious anxieties which would be heightened at the time due to scientific advancements. He embodies the theist’s ultimate fear by having supreme power over humanity and actively regressing God’s creations into something abhuman.

To conclude, the body is commonly used as a site of horror in gothic literature. The pained, transgressed, violated or infected body conveys unease due to uncanniness, pain empathy, fear of infection and more, with the underlying crux being man’s instinct for self-preservation. These elements are effective in generating horror it ‘relies on the readers’/viewers’ awareness of their own bodies, particularly of their vulnerability and shared experience of projected pain through vicarious feelings’.[21]

[1] Marie Mulvey-Roberts, Dangerous Bodies: Historicising the Gothic Corporeal, 2016, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), p. 1.

[2] Marquis De Sade, Justine (Toronto: Joe Books Inc, 2005), p. 92.

[3] Steven Bruhm, Gothic Bodies: The Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), p. 6.

[4] Bruhm, Gothic Bodies, p. 16.

[5] Bruhm, Gothic Bodies, p. 16.

[6] Sade, Justine, p. 25.

[7] Kelly Hurley,The Gothic Body Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 26.

[8] Bram Stoker, Dracula (London: Penguin Group, 1994), pp. 28-29.

[9] Stoker, Dracula, p. 92.

[10] L. S. May, ‘’Foul Things of the Night’’: Dread in the Victorian Body’, The Modern Language Review, 93.1 (1998), 16-22 (p.18).

[11] May, ‘Foul Things of the Night’, p. 18.

[12] Stoker, Dracula, p. 51.

[13] Stoker, Dracula, p. 253.

[14] Stoker, Dracula, p. 51.

[15] May, ‘Foul Things of the Night’, p. 18.

[16] H. G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau (Tunstin: Xist Publishing, 2005), p. 15.

[17] Xavier Aldana Reyes, Body Gothic: Corporeal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2014), p. 4.

[18] Wells, Moreau, p. 35.

[19] Hurley, The Gothic Body, p. 5.

[20] G. Beuchamp, ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau as Theological Grotesque’, , Papers on Language & Literature, 15.4 (1979), p. 408 (p. 408).

[21] Reyes, Body Gothic, p. 2.

The Body as a Site of Horror

Horror can be defined as the feeling excited by something shocking or fear-inducing[1]. The physical or represented form of the body certainly can induce these feelings given the appropriate circumstances and contexts. The present paper will discuss the possibility of the body as a site of horror, not only physically but also within the mind, such as the corruption of morality and the effects this has regarding the body. This will involve the inclusion of the gothic tropes of entrapment and monstrosity, and how these may enhance the elements of horror within the body.

Other definitions of horror state that it is constructed from ‘alarmingly concrete imagery designed to induce fear, shock, revulsion and disgust’[2],[3]. Fred Botting notes that ‘horror is evoked by encounters with objects and actions that are not so much threatening as taboo’[4] and states that ‘horror appears when fears come a little too close to home’[5]. In other words, immoral objects and actions that are restricted in society, and the reality of why they are prohibited is what induces the fear associated with horror. Douglass H. Thompson claims that ‘elements of horror render the reader incapable of resolution and subject the reader’s mind to a state of inescapable confusion and chaos[6]’. Therefore, fear in the reader of gothic literature is also due to the impossibility of a resolution and the anarchy this causes in the mind. Entrapment may be defined as the ‘condition of being entrapped or caught by artifice’[7] or to bring someone ‘into a position of difficulty or danger’[8]. Entrapment, therefore, is a device for horror used in gothic literature, as the sense of containment and claustrophobia contribute towards a sense of helplessness[9], generating fear in the character or reader. One may experience physical entrapment, such as being trapped inside a space without the relief of escape, although the present paper will also focus on mental entrapment. If one is mentally entrapped, they are ‘being confined to a certain state of mind’[10], eventually leading to madness or becoming trapped within one’s own impenetrable mentality. Monstrosity describes something that is ‘abnormally developed or grossly malformed’[11], and in the eighteenth century, the label ‘monster’ signified ugliness, irrationality and unnaturalness[12]. The elements of entrapment and monstrosity may certainly induce feelings of fear, shock and disgust, and therefore horror.

Oscar Wilde’s novel Dorian Gray certainly elicits feelings of horror by producing fear, shock and disgust in the reader and in the characters. As the novel begins however, we understand that the titular character is someone beautiful, likened to mythical Greek men who are renowned for their appearance: ‘this young Adonis, who looks as if he was made out of ivory and rose leaves … my dear Basil, he is a Narcissus’[13]. Furthermore, the reader discovers that aside from his physical appearance, Dorian may also be considered beautiful within, as he is described as having ‘something in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candour of youth was there as well as all youth’s passionate purity’[14], suggesting him to also be innocent and moral. The initial introduction of Dorian does not frighten or alarm, suggesting that the body cannot be a site of horror so long as it is beautiful. One of the first instances of horror occurs within Dorian’s own mind. Through Henry Watton, Dorian realizes the value of his beauty and begins to fear for the deterioration of his looks and youth: ‘Now wherever you go, you charm the world. Will it always be so? […] When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you […] we never get back our youth’[15]. It is Dorian’s internal fear and anxiety of possessing nothing worthwhile that begins his pursuit of immoral pleasure and self-destructiveness, which ‘becomes increasingly (and misguidedly) desperate in his pursuit of beauty’[16], suggesting that it is the anxieties within his mind that are the cause for the vast majority of other horrors within the novel.

Dorian’s fear of aging may be considered a form of gothic entrapment as well as a device for horror, as initially, he is literally and physically trapped within his own decaying body: ‘the life that was to make his soul would mar his body. He would become dreadful, hideous and uncouth’[17] […] ‘Youth is the only thing worth having. When I find that I am growing old, I shall kill myself’[18]. At this point it becomes clear that the revelation of his own beauty has altered his mind, also suggesting mental entrapment. In addition, Dina Al-Kassim writes that Dorian’s body is ‘frozen in a narcissism that is the product of influence’[19], further suggesting that ‘his narcissistic entrapment’[20] now resides within his own immorality, which is a consequence of his beauty. Dorian states that Basil’s compliments ‘had not influenced his nature’, but he is aware that Harry’s words evidently have been influential[21]. Dorian himself seems to feel the revelation of aging physically, ‘as if a hand of ice had been laid upon his heart’[22], thus cementing the mental entrapment of the realisation that there is no escape from his aging body. When Basil Hallward views the decaying image of Dorian’s body, he is undoubtedly shocked at what his artwork has become: ‘an exclamation of horror broke from the painter’s lips as he saw in the dim light the hideous face on the canvas grinning at him’[23], suggesting horror to be in the bodily form. Although, as Luckhurst notes, ‘Victorians, trained in moral physiognomy, believed that sin was written on the body, so despite the ugly rumours, no one can believe anything ill of the unageing beauty of Dorian’[24]. This confirms that Basil is not only shocked at the appearance of the portrait, but also in shock that Dorian must have committed such awful acts for the portrait to appear so deformed[25]. In this instance, it is Dorian’s physically preserved beauty that acts as the device of horror, due to the stark contrast between his physical beauty and his mental immorality represented in the portrait.

This also reveals the degree of mental entrapment Dorian experiences. He is aware that he has corrupted his soul, but this does not suggest he is entirely comfortable with his situation. After murdering Basil, it is not remorse or guilt he feels but relief: ‘The friend who had painted the fatal portrait to which all his misery had been due had gone out of his life. That was enough’[26]. That his ‘misery’ is acknowledged suggests that although he has had his ‘prayer’ answered in remaining young, he is fundamentally unhappy. Perhaps there is a battle within his mind between the corrupt, pleasure-seeking Dorian and the charming, innocent Dorian from the past, and he is literally trapped within his own mind arguing his own morality. Thus, the ‘true’ Dorian is trapped within himself and the moral consequences of his choices. The goodness in Dorian’s mind seems to prevail towards the end of the novel when he decides he is ‘going to be good’[27], but this results in Dorian’s shock that his good actions have not altered his portrait and further, his soul. Raitt notes that ‘instead of being invigorated by looking at the portrait, by the end of the novel Dorian feels only fear when he thinks of it. Instead of protecting him, it seems to threaten him […] it’s very existence makes him vulnerable to exposure[28]. This leads him to fear the image of his body and the representation of corruption and evil it has become, revealing not only his painted body to be a site of horror, but the conflict and resulting madness in his mind to be also.

In H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, the body is shown to be a site of horror explicitly so in the form of the beast-folk. On a superficial level, this horror is firstly presented in the explicit mutilation of live animal bodies in the form of vivisection, which in turn results in the creation of monsters. The original definition of a monster is a ‘creature which is part animal and part human, or combines elements of two or more animal forms’, and later, more general definitions add that a monster is a creature that is ‘large, ugly and frightening’[29]. It is undeniable that the beast-folk fit into both early and later definitions, as they literally are human-animal hybrids which induce fear due to their deformed bodies. Multiple times in the novel, the creatures are referred to as ‘monsters’ by both Prendick and Moreau, cementing their place in the category of horror. Contemporary critics were clearly affected by Wells’ hybrid creations, stating ‘the horrors described by Mr Wells in his latest book very pertinently raises the question of how far it is legitimate to create feelings of disgust in a work of art[30]’. That they were disgusted in the human-animal hybrid concept as well as their physical descriptions proves that the body is indeed a site of horror.

The possibility of the vivisection of men would encourage feelings of horror in the contemporary readers of Wells’ novel, not only causing fears of pain due to ‘the arbitrariness and indifference to suffering’[31] but also ‘the stress on blood and the business of surgery would have added to the distaste’[32] of the novel and increasing contemporary fears of the horrors of science. These readers may fear that scientists have the same attitude as Moreau, particularly his disregard for pain: ‘I have never troubled the ethics of this matter’ […] ‘pleasure and pain have nothing to do with heaven or hell’[33]. Regardless of the vivisected individual being man or beast, the brief but gory representation seen in the novel would be enough to excite the readers’ imagination for the true horrors of vivisection and further, science, leading the readers to fear the possibilities of science upon the body, showing it to be a site of horror. However, they are only fearing the possibility of such outcomes, and thus this also suggests again the mind being the site of horror as this is where the anxieties reside. Chris Danta confirms this by stating that ‘the manufacture of quasi-human monsters […] might strike the reader as incredible, Wells wants to claim that this is nonetheless possible […] in other words, as telling the kinds of things that might – scientifically – happen’[34]. Furthermore, there is the consistent theme of evolution and degeneration in the novel. The publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man in 1871 ‘had by the 1880’s and 1890’s been assimilated, initially by the scientific community and then by much of the general public’[35], and despite Origin of Species ending ‘with an extremely positive exhortation that man was evolving always upwards towards perfection’[36], fears emerged that ‘if it was possible to advance up the evolutionary scale it was equally possible to decline’[37]. This firstly shows the body to be a site of horror as humans were found to be closely linked to ‘primal’ animals through anatomical evidence, which is also pointed out by Moreau to Prendick, ‘the great difference between man and monkey is in the larynx’[38]. Bergonzi notes that readers would have taken offence at the suggestion that ‘there is no essential differences between man and animal, nothing which cannot be affected by surgical manipulation’[39]. As Moreau’s creations are ‘an attempt to link beasts to “superior” humanity[40]’ this would have lead readers to doubt their biological superiority. McNabb states that at the time, many believed that ‘humans were a perfected species; for others, they would soon be so. Very little in the Victorian world experience contradicted this, but Wells was keen to rectify this misconception’[41], doing so through presenting the similarities between man and beast in his creations. The resulting fear that humans are not as perfect as originally believed certainly would have evoked feelings of fear and disgust in contemporary readers. When Prendick first encounters Moreau’s creations, he regards them as deformed but still human: ‘He was, I could see, a mis-shapen man […] the facial part projected, forming something dimly suggestive of a muzzle, and the huge half-open mouth showed as big white teeth as I had ever seen in a human mouth’[42]. This explicitly relates to the trope of monsters and monstrosity, with these creatures being unnaturally abnormal and malformed, setting them further apart still from the human ideal. Ania Rucinska writes that ‘while monsters in Moreau are humanoid, their physical familiarity to people is both a source of empathy and discomfort’[43] as again, Wells is showing the close link between man and beast. Danta also notes that ‘what shocks Prendick about the Beast People […] is their literal anthropomorphism. As they cannot help but betray their animal origins to him, their semblance of humanity becomes for them the very source of their monstrosity’[44]. It is important to note that in Wells’ first draft, the beast folk lived in a more sophisticated community with built houses, books and even a police force; McNabb writes that ‘their society is a pale reflection of men’s, mirroring the rudiments of an ethical society’[45]. That Wells’ did not include this in the final draft is significant: the Victorian readers would have feared the close similarities between themselves and the beast-folk, further encouraging fears of degeneration seeing their own bodies and society mimicked by animals. When it is later revealed that these are in fact animals ‘manufactured’ to appear human[46], Prendick, as does the reader, although still shocked by the morality and ethics involving vivisection, seems to relax somewhat. This is due to humans viewing animals as inferior beings, and so whilst the ethics of mutilating the body of an animal are questionable, the circumstances are not as severe now that it is understood that humans are not being experimented on, suggesting that the body may only be a site of horror if it is the human body in question. The feelings of shock, fear and disgust elicited from the use of gore, vivisection and monstrosity certainly show the body to be a site of horror, as the body is where these actions and concepts take place. Abnormal appearances of beast men and partially grafted animals meet the descriptions of monstrosity, and the consequences of moral corruption for the sake of beauty result in entrapment both physically and mentally. Simultaneously, physical traits such as beauty may suggest that the body is not a site of horror, however there is sufficient evidence to prove that the primary site of horror may be the mind, for in both novels discussed, it is the possibility of what could be that produces feelings of horror, more so than actions done to the physical body itself. However, with the mind being a part of the brain and therefore the body, it is difficult to draw a distinct line between mental and physical features of horror, but it is undeniable that certainly to some degree, the body is a site of horror.