The Other

Illustration by Mike Hoffman

Illustration by Mike Hoffman

What’s up with “hyenaswine” in the URL? Because that’s my favorite character in The Island of Doctor Moreau.

There are four protagonists of non-human origin in the novel: M’Ling the bear-dog-ox man, the female panther who is in Moreau’s surgery in most of the chapters,  the Leopard Man, and the Hyena-Swine, the latter holding the longest tenure in the in-story chronology. Other Beast Folk are well-characterized and provoke strong opinions and actions in the main human-origin character, like the Fox-Bear woman, the Sayer of the Law, the Satyr, the Ape-Man, and the Dog Man, but they don’t hold the plot-agency of these four.

This was the exact edition.

I’ll back up a bit. When I was around nine or ten, my stepfather and I made weekly visits to the Monterey Public Library. He’d get big honking obscure record albums like Sibelius or Weill, and I’d hit the young fiction and science fiction sections again, going through four or five every week. I found myself checking out The Island of Doctor Moreau many times, until I bought a copy of my own, and also found it distinctly better than the other socio-intellectual older science fiction – far better than The Time Machine or other books by Wells, anything by Verne available to me then, anything by the younger Huxleys, or any of the “you like science fiction, read this” books shoved at me by most adults (Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Herbert). It seemed to me to have much more in common with Norman Spinrad, Fritz Leiber, Harlan Ellison … with the first films in the Planet of the Apes line …with the then-current and now long-lost crazy phase of Marvel Comics (Killraven, Woodgod, “Panther’s Rage” in Jungle Action, Warlock) … and even with those wicked ol’ pulp style stories, Robert E. Howard, Leigh Brackett, Edgar Rice Burroughs; and their newer forms being published even at that mid-70s moment, by the likes of Tanith Lee or Karl Edward Wagner …

And the character I kept returning to, hunting down every mention in the story, piecing together what he looked like, what he did and said, was the Hyena-Swine. I tried to draw him. I knew the story was also occurring from his point of view and that his confrontation with Prendick was one of the most emotionally-charged, wrenching moments. (Only grown-up readings yielded my understanding of the panther/woman in the laboratory; that didn’t make as much impression on me at the time save for its gruesomeness.)

I was developing a skill I’d only learn was important later, especially for reading 19th-century literature: that the narrator’s telling is actually one of the story’s events. I am not talking about “unreliable narrator” in the superficial sense, that he or she (or the author) is messing with you and the story becomes a deconstructionist puzzle. I’m talking about the way a narrator may simply be a character, with views and interpretations of his or her own, and that the reading experience simply knows this and pays attention to what is actually said and done by everyone as the larger context for how the narrator is judging and interpreting. Perhaps “narrator who is understandably and significantly wrong on occasion,” rather than “unreliable.”

Let’s take a look at the novel’s internal chronology.


The first couple of weeks of the story are action-packed. Prendick spends three days marooned on a raft, then several days on the ship which picks him up, concluding with a difficult day during which he is finally allowed onto Moreau’s island. The next three days are also difficult as he spends one night with the Beast Folk and another in a distinctive conversation with Moreau. Finally, this phase ends with the Leopard Man being socially humiliated, chased, and killed.

The next phase of the story is mysterious: Prendick doesn’t narrate any events at all regarding the following six weeks, although his earlier account and impressions of the Beast Folk drop some hints about what might have happened between them and him during this time.

The event-by-event account begins again when the panther, who’s been in surgery all this time and who even before the six-week silence was mistaken by Prendick for human both visually and vocally, breaks out of the lab. In the course of two or three days, Moreau is killed, and after some misadventures, so are Montgomery, M’Ling, and the Sayer of the Law. Prendick then takes about a day and a night to work out how he’s going to live with the Beast Folk, and they permit him to join them.

After that, ten months go by, not narrated outright but he describes his exact interactions with the Beast Folk more fully this time, if briefly. This phase concludes with the Beast Folk all reverting simultaneously over about a three-month period.

The final portion describes what life is like for Prendick following his return to England.

[You may notice a lot of discrepancies between the novel and every one of the seven film treatments it’s received. The relevant ones here include: the Beast Folk are taken for human by every single person who meets them unaware, even upon prolonged contact. Not a single Beast Person “reverts” in the blood-crazed manner the other characters fear. They do not revolt against Moreau and storm the compound; it’s destroyed by Prendick, on accident. The majority of the novel’s chronology occurs after Moreau’s death, during which period the most violent and unpredictable character is Prendick himself.]


How the Hyena-Swine figures into it:

  • Upon Prendick’s arrival and during his first contacts with the Beast Folk, the Hyena-Swine is absent.
  • He is introduced briefly during Prendick’s general reflections on the Beast Folk.
  • During the Leopard Man incident regarding the devouring of a rabbit, the Hyena-Swine is introduced as the former’s crony and possible instigator of his crimes. He displays a sneering, cynical attitude, masking his complicity with piety toward Moreau, easily turfing the blame to the Leopard Man, and eyeing and grinning at Prendick in a hostile fashion.

Like this.

  • He is not mentioned in any context regarding the six mostly-mysterious weeks of the story.
  • During the Panther Woman’s escape, the deaths, and the destruction of the compound, the Hyena-Swine is not present; notably, he does not participate in killing either Moreau or Montgomery.
  • After their deaths, Prendick initially tries to set himself up in the semi-divine status the Beast Folk had assigned to them, with mixed success. The Hyena-Swine approaches him. When Prendick pulls his gun and shouts, “Salute! Bow down!” he shows his teeth and angrily delivers his only reported line in the entire story: “Who are you, that I should -“ at which point Prendick shoots him, maiming his hand. (Note: he did not leap at Prendick or anything like that.)

Like this.

  • During the time Prendick lives among the Beast Folk, it must be said, he is quite an asshole to everyone. The Beast Folk keep the Law (“We love the Law and will keep it; but there is no pain, no Master, no Whips for ever again”), and the Hyena-Swine decides to live by himself – but Prendick first tries to incite the Beast Folk to hunt him down, and upon failing, begins a campaign with his loyal Dog Man of stalking and ambushes to try to kill him. Only then does the Hyena-Swine begin to stalk him back.
    • The Hyena-Swine kills and eats one whole rabbit during this time; he does not attack other Beast Folk.
  • As all the Beast Folk revert over during the latter few months of Prendick’s time on the island, the Hyena-Swine does so along with them; first he kills the Dog Man (who is effectively now entirely a dog), and then – having lost all understanding of Prendick’s gun – leaps at him and is shot dead.

There’s a bunch of biological, philosophical, and thematic points to be made which you’ll see in my book (yay for March!). To stick with the simplest and most relevant point, the Hyena-Swine figured out that his God and his Church are bullshit well before Prendick ever showed up. He’s not shown going “Urh?” and cocking his head about anything; instead, each time Prendick is presented as or claims to be greater-than-nature, he is already unconvinced. Unlike his late friend the Leopard Man who trembled and suffered in the grip of his sins, he merely grins and acts the part as he needs to.

But isn’t the Hyena-Swine simply a threat to Prendick anyway, by dint of being a hyena and a pig and a rabbit-eater and a liar and a friend-betrayer (biting and sucking blood from his neck no less) and the most appalling hypocrite? Prendick thinks so.

… I meant to kill this brute – the most formidable of any now left on the island – at the first excuse. It may seem treacherous, but so I was resolved. I was far more afraid of him than of any other two of the Beast Folk. His continued life was, I knew, a threat against mine.

I’d prefer to embed this quote in about a dozen relevant passages across as many chapters, to show that Prendick’s fear is about way more than physical harm. At this point in the story he is dead certain that the Beast Folk will act vengefully toward him, now that Moreau and Montgomery are dead, and that his only hope is to instill religious fear in them such as the other men held. My book explains how this is thoroughly counter to what the Beast Folk experience and how they act, especially toward him, and even he unwittingly acknowledges that he’s not being sensible within a few paragraphs later:

Then I came round to the Hyena-Swine. I felt assured that if I did not kill that brute he would kill me. The Sayer of the Law was dead – worse luck! [here Prendick misses the fact that the Sayer of the Law was the slayer of Montgomery and would definitely not be the protector he imagines – RE] They knew now that we of the Whips could be killed, even as they themselves could be killed …

Were they peering at me already out of the green masses of ferns and palms over yonder – watching until I came within their spring? What was the Hyena-Swine telling them? My imagination was running away with me into a morass of unsubstantiated fears.

How truly he writes in that last part. No Beast Person “springs at” Prendick in the way he fears, then or later. The Hyena-Swine never instigates others against him or initiates hostility toward him – later, exactly the opposite happens instead. When he approaches the Beast Folk asking for shelter and food, they welcome him into their huts and he lives with them – as he describes! – without threat, and with them keeping the Law (with no Whips) until they revert. And even then, none attack him – ever. Lots of public sex, yes; bloody rampage to devour Prendick, no.

In a larger context, the whole “taste of blood” thing is a red herring, a trap all three human-born characters fall into and work themselves into a frenzy about, over nothing. The Beast Folk are not subject to berserk rage upon tasting blood, nor does doing so induce “reversion” from their surgical alteration. The most egregious and unremorseful blood-taster among them, the Hyena-Swine, is the most sophisticated and self-monitoring of the bunch rather than the least, and he reverts exactly when all the others do, irrespective of diet.

Something else is happening here. Psychologically, Prendick is projecting a lot of things onto the Beast Folk and especially onto the Hyena-Swine, and the latter’s very character flaws make it all the more easy to do. After all, Prendick is the one who agreed to eat human flesh in the beginning of the story, saved from it only by accident (the ship captain is not merely shouting insults when he calls Prendick a cannibal). Even more so, the Hyena-Swine never revered him, never feared him, never set him (Prendick) as rightfully higher than himself – never relegated himself to mere animal in the presence of, as Moreau puts it, rational Man. And Prendick cannot stand it.

The Other as a term is used for a wide range of things. I’ll restrict it to one tiny meaning more-or-less cribbed from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, the unpleasant sensation and characterization that results when someone sees you doing something which you would rather not be part of your own self-image and social-presence. The way they look at you now isn’t fitting in the story you would prefer to star in. Their very existence becomes noxious, alien, impossible to tolerate. You are not you to them, not as you would like to be and to be known. Think of the times you’ve observed someone becoming enraged simply because someone else looked at them, and how the person insists the way they were looking mattered somehow … whereas what mattered is that this person knew they were being looked at, at all. Just riffing on my own, now, I suggest that at its most extreme you ascribe all the bad things about what you were doing to them, who were guilty of nothing but witnessing it, because in your internal experience, they are actually guilty of making those things real.

(More recent usages of The Other as a term aren’t incompatible with this one – one of the essential features of demonizing other humans is their capacity for reporting things about your behavior that you don’t want to acknowledge are real, such as your effort to preserve privilege and profit.)

The Hyena-Swine knows Prendick’s desired self-and-social image isn’t true, and thus Prendick, unable to see this as anything but contempt and lethal hostility, is suffused with murderous hate. He then gives him plenty of reason to return the sentiment. I know which of the two I identified with.

In the spring of 2014, I attended an evening of talks and performances about humanity and animality, much of which was excellent and fascinating. However, to my disappointment, they had to show Island of Lost Souls, which I am happy to acknowledge is a very good film … but which was taken both in the talks and in the general experience of the evening, as The Island of Doctor Moreau. It simply isn’t. The novel exists in one place only, in the pages of that book. Far more even than the contents of Frankenstein (which has received considerable re-reading and re-understanding), its contents have become invisible.

Read it and see. You might not be ready for who will be looking back at you.

Links: The Look (a decent summary of Sartre’s point)

Next: Against it, I say

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14 thoughts on “The Other

  1. The War of the Worlds opens with the gaze of the Other fixated on Earth. Our whole planet is an object in some other’s eyes: it isn’t a world for humans to extend their projects — it’s a watery rock on which things squirm under a superior gaze.

    “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being *watched* keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were *scrutinised* and *studied*, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. …. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, *regarded* this earth with envious *eyes,* and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”

    Humans can possess empire or possibly extend missionary work towards Mars. But what might be grand ambitions for humanity are but “little affairs” and of no weight in the planning of the Martians.

    The reversal of perspective reminds me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It opens with the narrator speculating about what the Romans felt as they sailed up the Thames into unknown territory. As the Britons were to the Romans, so are Africans to the English and Belgian imperialists. As we are to the microbes and animals of Earth, so are the Martians to us.

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    • I never did like the ending to War of the Worlds. I’m not going to moan about why the super-intelligent Martians don’t know anything about microbes, that’s not my point. It’s simply that everything turns out OK, and removes the force from the punch. Everything you say and quote about it is awesome and then … oh, it’s averted. Even acknowledging that microbes are more powerful than man isn’t really enough to satisfy my bloody, grim need for an ending that crests from the action rather than nullfies it. I haven’t read all of Wells’ fiction, especially not from his later life, but of what I have read, The Island of Doctor Moreau seems to me to be the only one which ends on the strengths of its content throughout. Since its climactic events and conclusion are not the safer and more-familiar “bad science, don’t meddle” message, they’re not only narratively satisfying but all the more hard-hitting.

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      • I thought that the narrative conclusion might have been justified by an allegorical intent: the losses of British troops in sub-Saharan Africa to disease were staggering. But the moralizing of “pride goeth before a conqueror’s fall” comes at the expense of the characters dealing with the aftermath of the alien invasion. The opening narration assures the reader that humanity has been chastened by its experience of invasion. The story is being told by a voice that has digested the experience and has put it behind him/her.

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  2. Saturday I’ll be playing a wolf-turned-man in the Whateley’s Mysterious Island larp. Rather than being a human sailor who arrived on the island, my character is a beast-man who has escaped the island to become a sailor- until of course the shipwreck brings us all back there.

    Should be fun!

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  3. I read the book today specifically so I could continue reading the blog at and beyond this point without having it spoiled for me. It was good, though of course I didn’t see quite everything you did having read it dozens of times. (That is, I didn’t get outside of Prendick’s head and perception as much as you have.) But your missionary aims have been fulfilled. Hope you’re happy. 🙂

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  5. I imagine the upcoming book makes this point, but by your interpretation the Hyena-Swine’s viewpoint actually wins in the end. I have almost no memory of reading “The Island of Dr. Moreau” except that in the closing paragraph the human narrator, upon returning to London, is deeply troubled that he now sees his fellow humans as Beast Folk. Prendick survived a traumatic experience, but at the cost of now seeing his existence, or that of his peers’, through the Other’s eyes.

    Frankly Moreau’s mistake was not fitting the Beast Folk out in medieval armor and giving them atomic steeds. I’m sure it would have worked out a lot differently under those circumstances.

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    • Right. The book demolishes human exceptionalism, and most significantly, not by saying people are “mere beasts” in the sense that the latter are grunting idiots. Instead, the Beast People are indeed people who display the ordinary if admittedly grubby details thereof. Both exalted rational Man and poor silly-dangerous Beast are revealed as twinned fallacies.

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      • Yeah. It seems that the point Wells is trying to make is that Man and Beast aren’t different in kind, but rather in degree–or maybe even in something less than degree: simply style. Once you get to that perspective, certain ethical stances seem almost obligatory. For example, I’d imagine your book goes briefly into the late 19th C. British anti-vivisectionist movement, given your own involvement in the spiritual successors to the experimentation-without-cruelty boards that emerged around that time.

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        • “Briefly?!” Surely you jest. Try two solid chapters with a lead-up from the first section, including an investigation of Darwin’s and Huxley’s participation in the first Anti-Vivisection Amendment, and a presentation of how Moreau’s project could be actually done with today’s technology, without pain, with an attendant ethics analysis.

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