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

August 20, 2019 by Essay Writer

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. 

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