Creators and producers of creative works over the last two centuries have been increasingly embracing the use of metamorphic bodies to bring out the central themes of the productions (Jeffery 12). Human-animal, animal-animal, and human-machine hybrids are gaining prominence in the creation of works of fiction. However, there is mounting criticism about the processes involved in the birth, composition, and destiny of these metamorphic bodies.
This practice is highly discouraged by scientific research because the methods of creating such bodies are unethical and are considered to be cultural aberrations. In both Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, metamorphic bodies are used to explain how scientists are attempting to improve human capabilities by “enhancing” the human body. The viability and ethics of body-altering technologies are brought into sharp focus in the two works. This paper explores the creation and composition of hybrid bodies and their negative impacts on nature and human life.
Comparison of the Hybrid Bodies in Modern Times and The Island of Dr. Moreau
In The Island of Dr. Moreau, one encounters a crazy vivisectionist working off the coast of a remote Island. In his work, the scientist dissects live animals and splices together various parts of different animals in an attempt to make them as human as possible (Frankenheimer). He takes glory as being the only scientist who dares to perform vivisection on animals and blurring the distinction between beasts and human beings. It is evident from his creations that his main objective is to make a creature with the brute strength of a beast and the intelligence of man. On the other hand, in Modern Times, the central theme is a factory worker who is continually being programmed to function like a machine (Chaplin). In the story, the tramp is fed bolts and other inedible stuff forcefully by a dysfunctional machine.
Fictional literature is replete with characters that offer insight into the allure of morphing the human body into a more functionally effective species (Cruz 2). In the history of human culture, there have been numerous attempts by people to experience “otherness” through genetic improvement of embryos or the fusion with other animals and machines. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, the scientist is obsessed with trying to make animals as intelligent as human beings by splicing their body parts with those of other animals and people (Frankenheimer). However, in Modern Times, there is no attempt to achieve superior performance by mechanically joining the body parts of various animals with those of human beings. In this comedy, the metamorphosis occurs through interaction with machines and classical conditioning.
To illustrate the difference in the way the hybrid bodies are created and their composition the examples of M’ling from The Island of Dr. Moreau and the tramp in Modern Times are compared. M’ling is a sophisticated member of the beast folk in the novel who serves as Montgomery’s manservant and bodyguard. He is intelligent enough to protect, cook, and clean for Montgomery but hideous enough to scare the protagonist Prendick. The latter describes him as the epitome of Moreau’s crazy obsession with vivisection and research into hybrid bodies. The protagonist describes him as a fusion of a bear, a dog, and an ox with furry ears and bright eyes.
The “hybrid” character in Modern Times is not even a hybrid at all. He is completely human physically. His metamorphosis is primarily mental as he at times interacts better with machines than humans. While working in the factory, he is obsessed with keeping pace with the machine’s increasing rate of work (Chaplin). The idea of metamorphosis is clear in both works of fiction but the composition is markedly different.
Just like their composition, the origins of the tramp and M’ling are very different. M’ling is created through vivisection while the tramp experiences no such physical experimentation. The beast is made in the lab by Dr. Moreau. The scientist obtained various body parts from an ox, a bear, and a dog and joined them in his lab to create M’ling, a powerful beast with enough intelligence to cook, clean, and protect (Frankenheimer).
On the other hand, the tramp is a human character who is socialized to behave like a machine. His employer trains him to eat exceptionally fast and on the job to ensure that he wastes no time. The attempt by the factory president to abolish the lunch break and the trial of the feeding machine gives insight into how the hybrid character in the movie is created. Later on, in the slapstick comedy, the tramp suffers a nervous breakdown and behaves like a machine and has to be rehabilitated in the hospital to restore his human functionality.
The contrasting mechanisms of metamorphosis are presented in the two works of fiction in different ways. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, the character of M’ling is “upgraded” to have the intelligence of human beings and to retain the brute force of beasts. On the other hand, the tramp in Modern Times is mentally corrupted to function like a machine. His employer succeeds in making him faster at work by increasing the rate at which the machine supplies him with bolts to tighten, and conditions him to reduce breaks during his shifts.
This metamorphosis is retrogressive since it corrupts the mind of the protagonist and harms him. Eventually, he gets himself into many accidents due to his nervous breakdown and requires medical intervention to function normally. He even prefers the solitude and comfort of his jail cell to the quick pace of life outside the walls of the jail.
The fate of the hybrid bodies and minds of the tramp and M’ling are also dissimilar. It begins with the unwillingness of M’ling to lead the life of a human being despite spending an inordinate amount of his time with them. He sleeps in a Kennel in Moreau’s compound instead of a room in the enclosure (Frankenheimer). Also, he prefers to use his teeth as weapons instead of the hatchet that his owners have provided him with. His humanness eventually unravels after he tastes blood for the first time since his vivisection.
His animal instincts begin to return and he re-joins the rest of the beast folk after his creator dies. His regression to animalism indicates that the metamorphosis is unsuccessful and the experiments are a work in progress. The tramp, on the other hand, struggles to retain his human identity throughout his metamorphosis. However, his efforts to retain his human identity are aided by his socialization with the Gamin, the heroine of the comedy. Eventually, he ends up with the girl and hopes for a brighter, more prosperous future with his girlfriend as the comedy draws to a close.
The contrasting ends of the two characters can be attributed to the way the hybrid creatures are treated by their masters. On the one hand, the tramp is configured to perform highly repetitive and tedious work, just like a machine. Just like when a machine malfunctions, his nervous breakdown is treated in the hospital and he is advised to refrain from considerable excitement. It is akin to reconfiguring a machine in an assembly line. In contrast, M’ling is socialized to behave like a human being. He is handed the hatchet, a weapon used by human beings and he is taught how to cook and clean (Frankenheimer). These skills are unnatural among the beast folk, where animal instincts reign supreme. However, in the end, the innate characters of these hybrid characters get the better of them and they revert to their natural behaviors and settings.
The death of the hybrid is not necessarily physical, like in the case of M’ling, it is the mental and behavioral breakdown that underpins the vanity of trying to experience “otherness.” In M’ling’s case, the death of the hybrid occurs when the creature integrates into human life and the subsequent failure of the experiment. Deep down, the creature has always maintained its animalism. Despite the willingness of the beast folks to blend in with humanness, the hybrid bodies eventually dissolved due to their inability to maintain the cognitive ability of humans. The tramp also faced a similar conundrum, albeit in different ways.
The machines he was working with were much faster physically and their automation made his job much more challenging. They did not have the cognitive ability of humans and therefore would not wait for him to catch up. Consequently, his human nature was slowly dying and he began functioning unwittingly, like a machine.
Responses to the Historical and Cultural Changes
The science-fiction narrative in The Island of Dr. Moreau focuses on the transformations of the human body with the aid of technology. Metamorphic characters have been consistently used in advancing the knowledge about humanoids and hybrid bodies throughout the history of literature and cinema (Jeffery 3). Human beings have always been fascinated with the possibility of having superhuman strength and better cognitive abilities than they currently have. The historical context of the classic work represents the earliest attempts by human beings to “upgrade” the mental and physical capabilities of human beings. Dr. Moreau attempts to create an army of beasts he can use as manservants to make life easier. He advances the idea that a future with stronger, more intelligent creatures is desirable and economically viable.
This obsession with superhuman ability has evolved over the years. Such works as The Island of Dr. Moreau paves way for the creation of more works of science fiction in which human bodies are enhanced to perform tasks at a faster rate than ordinary human beings. Modern heroes in science fiction movies and works of art have the capabilities that Dr. Moreau desires in his creatures. The beast folks in the book that have undergone successful vivisection are socialized to behave and think like human beings while retaining their brute strength and abilities. For instance, the creation of M’ling betrays the scientist’s desire to create beings that can do things that human beings cannot.
On the other hand, Modern Times approaches the issue of superhuman abilities in a markedly different dimension. The comedy was created in the historical setting of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The average American worker had to work harder to counter the effects of the crash of the economy. It is therefore understandable that some cultures such as the customary lunch break had to be changed. Employers had to find a way to increase the output of their employees for the economy to recover.
The tramp fell victim to an overzealous boss who wanted to ‘configure’ and condition his employees to work much faster. He responded to the changing culture by attempting to introduce feeding machines that would be used to deliver food to his employees while at work. Capitalism is most evident in the comedy when the boss appears on a giant screen when the tramp takes a bathroom break and orders the Little Tramp to go back to work.
The industrial revolution plays a huge role in increasing the need for superhuman workers. As the world’s largest economies began the process of industrialization, there was an upsurge in the demand for cheap labor. In both works, this need is illustrated by the desire of the masters to have workers who would help them achieve their goals. Dr. Moreau is attempting to meet this demand for cheap labor by splicing together various body parts of different animals into human appendages.
These beasts would only require food and shelter in return for their labor, unlike their human counterparts. However, in the absence of such workers, the tramp’s boss in Modern Times resorts to making his employees more productive. In the tramp’s case, he continually increases the speed with which the machine rotates to tap into the hero’s obsession with keeping up with its speed. The cumulative effect is more productivity at a much lower cost than usual.
Despite all the advantages of transforming the human body into a hybrid one for better performance, there are contentious issues that have slowed the process of metamorphosis (Cruz 2). Currently, there are human rights that prohibit cruelty against animals, which are violated by such experiments as Dr. Moreau’s vivisection procedures. His subjects, such as the female Puma experience intense pain during the procedures that Prendick worries that he might be next (Simeone 4).
Additionally, the high rates of failure and weaknesses of the hybrid body make the procedures risky and counterproductive. Similarly, the tramp’s boss would have been on the receiving end of countless lawsuits for his experiments and exploitation of his workers in the era of the unionization of workers. Therefore, neither boss would have found current policies favorable for their ventures.
The creation and composition of hybrid bodies with superhuman capabilities have had a considerable effect on human culture. Current scientific explorations about improving the human body have been met with different ethical issues that have slowed research into how people can experience ‘otherness.’ The concept of ‘otherness’ is brought out in both Modern Times and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Despite the differences in the creation, composition, and death of the hybrid creatures in the two works, there are historical and cultural changes that prompt the research into the modification of human bodies. Scholars and scientists need to find humane ways to improve human capabilities or desists from all sorts of modifications altogether.
Chaplin, Charlie. Modern Times. United Artists, 1936.
Cruz, Ronald Allan Lopez. “Mutations and Metamorphoses: Body Horror Is Biological Horror.” Journal of Popular Film and Television, vol. 40, no. 4, 2012, pp. 160–168. Taylor & Francis Online. Web.
Frankenheimer, John, director. The Island of Dr. Mureau. New Line Cinema, 1996.
Jeffery, Scott W. Superhuman, Transhuman, Post/Human: Mapping the Production and Reception of the Posthuman Body. University of Stirling, 2013.
Simeone, Rosanne. “Man, Woman, Puma, Leopard: Technology and the Body.” 2002 Annual Conference.