Hierarchies in H. G. Wells’ "The Island of Doctor Moreau"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

11 Pages, Grade: 1,7



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Society on the Ipecacuanha

3. Doctor Moreau’s Hegemonic Construct

4. Hierarchies within the Beast Folk

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

H. G. Wells is predominantly known for his revolutionary science fiction novels. Though, in many of his works, apart from science, his political view as a socialist also seems to play an important role. In The Outline of History Wells states that societies created by subjection can never work whereas an equal voice for everybody is a necessary feature for a stable society (cf. Partington 234). Furthermore, in his later work The World of William Clissold, which is often considered a rather philosophical work portraying Wells’ ideas on society, the protagonist illustrates his critique on malfunctions of authoritarian institutions such as churches, monarchies or old-fashioned schoolmasters (cf. e.g., 1: 13-15), trying to motivate each individual person to think for himself. He seeks to replace these old authorities and established institutions with a new world order that works for the sake of all men (cf. e.g., 2: 186-87). Although these books belong to Wells’ later works, his first books also seem to contain such forms of critique. The Time Machine, for instance, could be read as a critique on the expanding gap between working class and upper class. In the Island of Doctor Moreau, in contrast, society appears to be more complex due to the greater network of character constellations. However, there also seem to be topics of subjection and hierarchy within the story. Therefore, the question arises, in how far Wells’ critique on authorities and hierarchical structures can also be detected in his book The Island of Doctor Moreau. I want to argue that Wells creates microcosms of society which represent certain forms of hierarchies in The Island of Doctor Moreau. By illustrating their malfunctions, he shows that such hierarchical forms fail to persist and Wells thereby implicitly critisises the social hierarchy system.

The social microcosms, which shall be examined, are either classified by their geographic or cultural confines. Thus, the society on the ship Ipecacuanha works as a starting point of analysis, followed by the examination of the overall hierarchy on the island. Afterwards hierarchies within the Beast Folk are illustrated. Raewyn Connell’s definition of hegemonic systems shall provide a framework, which serves to identify primarily striking characters matching Connell’s systems and their relations within these social microcosms. Thereby, also performative aspects of these characters are taken into account.

2. The Society on the Ipecacuanha

The first microcosm to be scrutinized is the community on the ship which at the beginning of the story saves Prendick from his impasse on the Lady Vain. The hierarchy in here is especially illustrated by Captain Davis. Montgomery introduces him by explaining “‘. . . [the] silly ass who owns her – he’s captain too’” (100-1). With Montgomery’s introduction, the reader is already exposed to the attribute of “institutional power” which Connell names as one feature of hierarchical schemes (cf. 77). Indeed, the ship which Captain David owns is not a common institution like churches, governments or corporations, but nevertheless it creates paradigms which equal these institutions, since they curtail the society living on the ship in its habits and its freedom. Concurrently, with the pejorative introduction of Captain Davis, the image of an authority is juxtaposed to Montgomery’s antipathy, foreshadowing the overall attitude towards unqualified authorities within the story. Furthermore, the word “captain” itself reinforces the notion of Captain Davis as an authority, implicating the image of a leader. On a more explicit level, the atmosphere which Wells creates on the ship underlines the hierarchical structure within this social microcosm, also indicating the overall oppressive atmosphere of the story. There are staghounds “fastened by chains to the mainmast” (104), “a huge puma . . . cramped in a little iron cage” (104), “big hutches containing a number of rabbits” (104) and “[a] solitary llama . . . squeezed in a mere box of a cage” (104). Of course, keeping animals in cages does not seem extraordinary, especially when they are transported on a ship, however, the way how these animals are kept reminds of an oppression being exercised by an authority. Particularly, the contrasts and the image of restriction this description creates highlight the image of oppression: “huge – little”, “cramped”, squeezed”.

Another feature of hierarchical authority is the violent attitude Captain Davis incorporates. Although Connell explains that a correspondence between cultural ideal and institutional power is a more successful way of claiming authority, she still adds that “violence often underpins or supports authority” (cf. 77). The captain’s violent attitude is primarily displayed when he “deliver[s] a tremendous blow between [M’ling’s] shoulder-blades with his fist” (105) for no reason but his antipathy towards him. In this scene, also Connell’s aspect of correspondence between the cultural ideal and the institutional power of the captain’s authoritarian success is illustrated, as “the sailors forward shouted to them [i.e. the staghounds] as though it was admirable sport” (105) while “[n]o one attempted to help him [i.e. M’ling]” (105). The sailors seem to accept the captain’s acts as they are acclaiming his violence. Their communal antipathy towards M’ling thereby fortifies the captain’s authority. The captain justifies his act by saying “‘[m]y men can’t stand him. I can’t stand him’” (106). By not simply saying “we can’t stand him” but by creating a climax instead, it becomes obvious that Captain Davis distinguishes himself from his crew, naming himself in the second place to emphasise the importance of his own opinion. Simultaneously, on a performative level, he puts himself above the crew by calling it “my crew”, forming the concept of possession. Though, it needs to be considered that this phrase is not unusual in nautical language and therefore should not be read too critically. Because of this incident, Montgomery tries to make the captain accept M’ling, as “‘[t]hat man’s a passenger’” (106). The captain on the other hand refuses by saying “‘[g]o to hell! . . . Do what I like on my own ship’” (106). Here again his authoritarian attitude comes to surface, clearly illustrating that he is the totalitarian ruler on this ship. Even more explicitly he displays his authority exclaiming “‘. . . I’m captain of the ship – Captain and Owner. I’m the law here, I tell you – the law and the prophets’” (107). With this exclamation, the captain impersonates two further institutions of authority, namely a judicial and a religious authority, representing himself as a ruler in every possible dimension. As the reader however knows that the captain is usually drunk, it is not clear, in how far he is really being serious about his statements. He even contradicts his perception of judicial authority when he explains “‘[l]aw be damned! I’m king here’” (113), which attributes the captain a parodic feature.

While Montgomery and Prendick tend to dismiss Captain Davis, his crew seems to be bound to him. The moment Prendick is to be expulsed of the ship, he “even bawl[s] entreaties to the sailors” (113) but everything that counts is the captain’s voice. The duality of Prendick and Montgomery dismissing the captain while the sailors are being subordinated to him portrays the complexity of this social microcosm, as it illustrates that the hierarchy on the ship depends on the individual rank. The captain is not equally respected by everyone and therefore also prefers his subservient crew to which he clearly is the totalitarian ruler. Judith Butler states a Hegelian view, which equals this hegemonic situation, explaining that “the general will supersedes the individual wills of which it is composed” (22), whereas the individual is being “nullified” (22). While the crew accepts that will, Montgomery and Prendick form own individuals and their opinions are therefore being unappreciated by the Captain. Interestingly, at the end of the story Wells again reminds of the captain, after every authority has died, when Prendick says: “The men in it [i.e. the boat] were dead. . . . One [man] had a shock of red hair like the captain of the Ipecacuanha, and a dirty white cap lay in the bottom of the boat” (216). The fact that the men in the boat “had been dead so long that they fell to pieces when [Prendick] tilted the boat” (216) could demonstrate Wells’ critique on the captain’s authoritarian behaviour. With the unidentifiable but similar to the captain looking corpse, Wells leaves the question open if the person on the boat perhaps is the captain. But if the reader supposes that the comparison between the captain’s and the corpse’s red hair might not be coincidental, he will probably also understand that the captain’s totalitarian, ignorant authority has probably been the trigger for his death.

3. Doctor Moreau’s Hegemonic Construct

On the island of Doctor Moreau there are new branches of social microcosms which demonstrate hierarchical structures. On the highest level, Doctor Moreau impersonates the functions of an absolute monarch on the island. Prendick experiences his superiority at first glance when Montgomery “nod[s] his head hopelessly at the grey-haired man beside him, to indicate his powerlessness to help [Prendick]” (113). Wells directly introduces the theme of power, foreshadowing that it is Doctor Moreau’s voice which counts and even Montgomery has to take up a subordinate role towards him. Also on a physical level Doctor Moreau seems to embody a strong masculinity as “[h]e was a powerfully built man” (116) and is therefore able to lift Prendick “as though [he] was a little child” (140). Interestingly, as the crew of Captain Davis is no longer part of the story, Prendick is directly confronted with a new crew, when he tells: “. . . from [Doctor Moreau] my eyes travelled to [ his ] three men, and a strange crew they were” (117). Again, the image of a subservient crew establishes a hierarchical structure within the story. The shift from Captain Davis’ crew to Doctor Moreau’s crew might indicate that the island is a new but similar hierarchical microcosm, implicating that hierarchy is a necessary feature in The Island of Doctor Moreau. However, while the captain respects his crew, Doctor Moreau “[stands] holding in a tumult of six dogs, and bawling orders over their din” (117). In contrast to Captain Davis’ crew, which seems to work in sympathy with him, Doctor Moreau’s crew is, as the reader finds out, driven by fear and force. This fact contradicts Connell’s statement that “hegemony is likely to be established only if there is some correspondence between cultural ideal and institutional power” (77), making the social microcosm on the island appear more artificial and thus more fragile.

As the reader finds out, the members of Doctor Moreau’s crew belong to the Beast People. This circumstance creates a bigger gap between Doctor Moreau and his crew than between Captain Davis and his crew, since Doctor Moreau’s crew is not human. As a matter of fact, the Beast People, in contrast to Captain Davis’ crew, do not benefit from what Connell calls “the patriarchal dividend” (79). While the sailors depend on the captain’s instructions and can benefit from his role as a leader, the Beast People do not necessarily need Moreau. This seclusion makes Doctor Moreau’s regime appear even more absolute. On the island, the “patriarchal dividend” shifts from Captain Davis’ crew to Montgomery, who seems to benefit from Moreau’s authority. While Doctor Moreau incorporates the absolute ruler, Montgomery can still claim an authoritarian rank, however, subordinate to Moreau and closer to the Beast People. Montgomery therefore functions as a mediator between Moreau and the Beast People, building the link in this hierarchical structure, like an ambassador between king and common folk. His death in the end, after Moreau has been killed, could highlight his dependence on Doctor Moreau, similar to the dependence of the crew towards the captain. Especially Montgomery illustrates an interesting feature of critique, when he explains that he has come to the island after “‘being bullied by nurses and schoolmasters at their own sweet will’” (195). The oppression in his old society has led him to a newly built society, in which he can have an authoritarian rank. It is rather ironic that Montgomery himself incorporates a schoolmaster when he teaches the Beast People “the Law”, also sometimes representing character traits of a bully when it comes to M’ling. Montgomery’s experience and his own behaviour exactly represent Antonio Gramsci’s notion of socially superior groups or persons imposing their thoughts on socially inferior groups, not respecting their own culture (cf. Gli Intelletuali 116-17).

An authoritarian image which is even more prominent on the island than on the Ipecacuanha is violence. Every act towards the Beast People seems to happen by means of force and violence, therefore excluding the factor of “cultural ideal” as a usually necessary feature of hegemony (cf. Connell 77). Doctor Moreau’s violent attitude is implicated when Prendick says: “These creatures I had seen were the victims of some hideous experiment!” (142). Afterwards Prendick realises that “. . . this island was inhabited only by these two vivisectors and their animalized victims” (143). Here, the overall hierarchical structure becomes apparent, as the parties of offender and victim come to surface. However, Doctor Moreau’s violence differs from the captain’s, as it is not reasoned by antipathy and ebriety but by intimidation and scientific curiosity. Doctor Moreau claims his authority primarily by his intellect, forming together with Montgomery the intellectual elite on the island, again reminding of Gramsci’s notion of intellectual superiority as an indicator for hegemony. This intellectual superiority especially comes to surface when Moreau codifies his language by using Latin, the language of science, to be silhouetted against the Beast People: “‘ Hi non sunt homines, sunt animalia qui nos habemus... vivisected’” (156). Ironically, Doctor Moreau explains: “‘. . . most of the kindred evidence that will recur to your mind has been demonstrated, as it were, by accident – by tyrants, by criminals, by the breeders of horses and dogs, by all kinds of untrained clumsy-handed men working for their own immediate ends’” (161). Although Moreau distances himself from these men, as he considers himself more competent, he still incorporates tyrannical attitudes, also working for his own immediate end. Doctor Moreau impersonates what the protagonist in The World of William Clissold seeks for, namely an elite of science, however his motive and methods contradict this notion, thus also leading to Moreau’s death. The missing dimension of moral, which Gramsci considers as a crucial feature for hegemonic balance (cf. Selections 181-82), is also trigger for the failure of Doctor Moreau’s regime. As Sherryl Vint rightly claims, Doctor Moreau betrays his role as a scientist as he turns “objectivity, detachment, distance, narrow and specific focus . . . into sadism” (87).


Excerpt out of 11 pages


Hierarchies in H. G. Wells’ "The Island of Doctor Moreau"
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
H.G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Evolution, Hierarchies, Performativity, Hegemonic systems, authorities
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2017, Hierarchies in H. G. Wells’ "The Island of Doctor Moreau", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/497566


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