NEMLA 2019 Panel: The Animal-Human Divide in Victorian Fiction
The quest for science and progress at the expense of ethical concerns of (animal) pain is laid bare in Chapter XIV, “Doctor Moreau Explains,” of H. G. Wells’s science fiction The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). In this chapter, Edward Prendick, protagonist and narrator, discovers that the creatures he has previously encountered on the deserted island are not “animalized victims . . . animal-men," but what Moreau refers to as “humanized animals—triumphs of vivisection” instead. At this juncture, Prendick hears from Moreau “‘[his] colourless delight of . . . intellectual desires,’” which has led the doctor to experiment on different animals to gauge their malleability and submission to human will. To justify his use of violence, Moreau nonchalantly says, “‘[t]he study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature.’” What can we say about a storytelling of human action that brings into existence an incommensurability, on which the animal-human divide or the nature-culture split depends? What is this thing called humanity that qualifies certain agents—but not others—to arbitrate and decide between inclusion and exclusion? The rational (and scientific) needs to “scale up our imagination of the human” or “to attribute to us a force [capable] of mass extinction of species,” as Dipesh Chakrabarty argues, carry with them universalized assumptions or narratives about human agency that are problematically reductive and potentially dangerous, which Doctor Moreau registers and represents in various ways. With all this in mind, this panel takes up questions concerning the animal-human division, its assumptions and ramifications, as represented in Victorian fiction.
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