(Thesis submitted May 21, 2012 in partial fulfillment of the requirements for
the Degree of Master of Arts, Master of Arts Program in the Humanities,
University of Chicago. Advisor: Maud Ellmann, Preceptor: Will Small)
There is a moment in the first chapter of The Island of Doctor Moreau that signals the importance of hands to the novel. After a collision sinks his ship, lay-scientist Edward Prendick is trapped on a lifeboat with two other survivors, Helmar and a sailor. Adrift for eight days, they are parched and starving. Helmar and the sailor debate who among them should be cannibalized for the survival of the other two. Prendick refuses to participate.
I would not draw lots however, and in the night the sailor whispered to Helmar again and again, and I sat in the bows with my clasp-knife in my hand, though I doubt if I had the stuff in me to fight; and in the morning I agreed to Helmar’s proposal, and we handed halfpence to find the odd man. The lot fell upon the sailor; but he was the strongest of us and would not abide by it, and attacked Helmar with his hands. (8)
The hand fulfills three functions in two sentences. First, it is a tool-using organ; here it is in the mode of self-defense, as Prendick lies in the boat with knife at the ready. Second, it is an organ for manipulating chance, deciding who will live and who will die. Third, it is an organ that may itself be used as a weapon, as when the sailor attacks Helmar, ending in the destruction of both men as they fall overboard and drown. In each function, the hand is the organ of life and death.
The hand also divides the civilized from the brutish. Due in part to his “dexterous-looking fingers,” Doctor Moreau is a gifted vivisector (70). Exiled from London society for his experiments on animals, Moreau creates Beast People on his island, animal hybrids vivisected to resemble humans. Unlike the dexterous doctor, Moreau’s Beast People have only rough and unsuccessful simulations of hands. “The hands were always malformed… almost all were deficient in the number of digits, clumsy about the fingernails, and lacking any tactile sensibility” (82). Hands make it easy to tell who is a human and who is a beast.