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Fantasy/SciFi essays

As the Fantasy/SciFi course is almost at an end – and I’m certainly at the end of my enjoyment of it! – I thought I might post my favourite essays from the course.

The first is on The Island of Dr Moreau, and the second on Herland. Both are in some way linked to my MA research, which is why I think they are my favourites.

However, I really liked both of the readings, and they are probably my favourites from the entire course. I had never read The Island of Dr Moreau before, although I’ve read other H.G. Wells stories. Of course, I had a fair idea of the plot and themes, as they are pretty pervasive (my favourite inspired-by is this Mighty Boosh episode), but I really enjoyed reading the book itself. I have also read Charlotte Gilman Perkins before (The Yellow Wallpaper, natch), and some other similarly feminist utopian novels (e.g. Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666)), so I was always going to like Herland! For those who haven’t read The Yellow Wallpaper or The Blazing World, I would recommend them, providing you’re willing to stick with Cavendish’s seventeenth-century language.

As I’ve copied these essays from the Coursera website and read both the texts in an ebook format, you’ll have to excuse the odd citation formats!

Essay 1 on The Island of Dr Moreau
Erich Fromm describes “moral aloneness” as “a lack of relatedness” to the “values” and “patterns” of the world.1 I argue that Montgomery’s tragic death is a consequence of his moral aloneness in The Island of Dr Moreau.2

Montgomery first appears as a “medical man”, but we quickly learn that he has only done “some science” ten years before, making his position in society unclear.3 On the island, we learn little more about his position than that he is the “Other with the Whip”.4 Yet Montgomery does not identify with Moreau’s values and ideas. Distressed like Prendick “at first” on the island, Montgomery rejects Moreau’s amorality and indifference, instead “interfer[ing] in [the Beast People’s] affairs” and “half lik[ing] some” of them.5

Montgomery also cannot identify with Prendick, indicated by two parallel incidents. When Prendick first revives, Montgomery seems interested to hear his story, but then immediately reverts to discussing his former life.6 A few chapters later, Prendick interrupts Montgomery’s remembrances of London to question him instead on M’Ling’s ears.7 The men talk, but we sense that they do not share the same values or interests, and are unsurprised when no real friendship develops.8

Morally alone, Montgomery relies on drink and his quasi-amity with the Beast People. To him, drinking with a fellow represents a ‘normal’ activity, and when Prendick denies him again in the aftermath of Moreau’s death, we learn that it forms part of Montgomery’s bond with M’Ling. With the status quo destroyed, and unable to “join on” to society, Montgomery determines to have a final fireside carouse with the Beast People, which ends in a twisted echo of a bar fight. Prendick finds Montgomery dead, still entangled with his opponent, and M’Ling armed with a smashed whiskey bottle.9 At the last, Montgomery turns to drink and the Beast People, and so in death obtains some sort of relatedness to the patterns of behaviour he once knew in London.

1 – Erich Fromm, The Fear of Freedom (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 15.
2 – H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr Moreau (Adelaide: University of Adelaide, 2012).
3 – Chapter 2.
4 – Chapter 16.
5 – Chapter 14.
6 – Chapter 2. The topic of conversation recurs in Chapters 4, 8, and 19.
7 – Chapter 8.
8 – Chapter 17. See also Chapter 19, when Prendick states that Montgomery is “akin” to the Beast People and “unfitted” for human relationships.
9 – Chapter 19.

Essay 2 on Herland
Herland offers a feminised version of the Eden Complex, adopting five of the six characteristics set forth by Profession Rabkin while radically altering the final one.1,2

First, Herland is Edenic, “a land in a state of perfect cultivation” with well-tended forests supplying all their food requirements.3Second, the story is simply structured, focusing predominantly on the main protagonist, Van, and his two colleagues. Third, Herland depicts an Oedipal romance; the current generation seeks to surpass former ones, not only by efforts of self-improvement – “growth, always and always”4 – but specifically by returning to a bi-sexual state.5 Fourth, the book’s image system relies upon two main dichotomies, male-female and here-there; much of the book focuses on the contrasts between Herland and the world at large, and the male characters and their female counterparts.6 Finally, although Herland is structured upon the desire for continual growth and development, the inhabitants firmly believe that their society is limited. They are “prepared to believe [the outside] world must be better than theirs”,7 and we also learn that they had found themselves unable to support an increasing population despite their innovation and attempts at growth.8

However, nowhere in Herland do we find an isolated individual scientist who is (or strives to be) Godlike. Herland is characterised by communal living, each woman recognising her limitations and others’ superiority in certain spheres.9 This astonishes our male protagonists, who laud personal competition, try to “put in a good word for [it]”,10 and are troubled by Herland’s turning away from the obsessive individual motherhood known to them in the outside world.11

Therefore, while Professor Rabkin’s formulation of the Eden Complex foregrounds an individual scientist, usually male and typically in competition with his peers and with God,12 Herland offers a feminised version that focuses instead upon a society striving in unison for improvement.

2 – Professor Rabkin, lecture entitled Hawthorne and Poe – the Eden Complex.
3 – Chapter 1.
4 – Chapter 9.
5 – Chapter 8.
6 – See, for example, Chapters 4, 5 and 11.
7 – Chapter 5.
8 – Chapter 6.
9 – Chapter 7.
10 – Chapter 5.
11 – Chapter 7.
12 – Frankenstein, and ‘The Birthmark’. For discussions of the importance of competition to masculinity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, see Herbert Sussman, Victorian Masculinities, and R.W. Connell, Masculinities.
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