Monogamy vs Polyandry: How Sexual Practices Affect the Power Balance between Genders

When I read in the Longman Anthology introduction, the line “The medical establishment backed the conventional view that women were physically and intellectually inferior, a ‘weaker sex’ that would buckle under the weight of strong passion, serious thought, or vigorous exercise” (1061) was incredibly interesting. It occurred to me that one of the few mentions of female Beast People in The Island of Doctor Moreau was the fact that the “pioneers” of the ignoring “decency” – that is, ignoring the need for clothes – were “all females” (96-97). So the females are clearly portrayed as the weaker sex, quicker to succumb to the pressure of animalistic desires and all the “indecency” that entails.

But what if Wells was using one of his brief mentions of females to make some social commentary? The Longman Anthology also mentions that marriage was a complete loss of identity for a woman: “A woman lost the few civil rights she had as she became ‘one body’ with her husband” (1062). Monogamy allows males to have more control over the females, to – in a way – absorb them and become one unit in the eyes of the law. This idea, of two humans coming together to create one being, can be traced back to Plato’s Symposium – although his ideas had more to do with love than unions for profit or improved social standing.

Monogamy is a way to increase control over the female’s children, (supposedly) assuring the male that the female’s children are his (should the female stay faithful) and ensuring that his genetics will continue on. However, monogamy is not the only way of life – polygamy is Mormon practice, and sexual unions of animals are all over the map from polygamy to polyandry (polyandry being the practice of one female mating with multiple males so that all of the males help raise the child/children in the hopes that they are protecting their genes from extinction). In this dynamic specifically, females hold all the power – whereas in monogamous relationships, they hold almost none.

The female Beast-People in The Island of Doctor Moreau attempt to form monogamous bonds as per the Law – although Wells makes sure to point out that since the female Beast-People were “less numerous… [they were] liable to much furtive persecution” (62). While some animals are monogamous, most are not – and trying to force monogamy on them only decreases the power of the females even further, as they are taught that monogamy is the Law and yet, they are still accosted by multiple males who are stronger than they are, bringing them a fear of punishment from breaking the Law.

However, the female Beast-People are the first to ignore the need for decency as the Law starts to decay (96-97). By ignoring clothing, the female Beast-People are better able to advertise their availability for sexual union – many female animals have a sort of display to indicate that they are ovulating. Biological Anthropology: The Natural History of Humankind (3rd edition) explains that “around the time of ovulation, the rump of a female primate may change color, produce a fluid-filled swelling, or emit odors, any of which will signal males in the vicinity that she is ready to mate” (204). Advertising her availability allows the female to attract males, giving her the choice of who she would like to mate with, rather than the male having all the power in the decision of who to mate with – that is, marry – as often happens in human society.

Wells shows, with his few mentions of female Beast-People in The Island of Doctor Moreau, that monogamy allows human males to strip females of their independence – but that some of this independence can be regained in a more free sexual society, one that was beginning to bloom in the time after Queen Victoria’s death.

2 thoughts on “Monogamy vs Polyandry: How Sexual Practices Affect the Power Balance between Genders”

  1. I also found this to be a very interesting passage that explored the place of the female beast people within this new formed society. I agree with the argument that you make about sexual freedom potentially empowering women and that monogamy takes that power away as it is practiced in society. I’m curious about whether you think that this empowerment is viewed as positive or negative within the story? The book seems to oscillate between sympathy with the beast people and disgust at their practices. Are women the forerunners of a new society or the harbingers of societies destruction?

  2. The idea that monogamy symbolizes the oppression of the female population whilst polyandry encourages freedom through the practice of sexual liaisons with multiple partners is extremely intriguing. (I always wonder how much of the premise of “female freedom through sexual liberation” is rooted in the patriarchy’s desire for greater sexual yearning in women and more numerous sexual encounters with “liberated women.” It always seems like a double-edged sword, but I digress.) However, what I find even more fascinating and a bit ironic is the language that you used in order to describe how “monogamy allows human males to strip females of their independence.” By portraying the autonomy of the female beasts through their rejection of clothing and monogamy, Wells allows the females to quite literally “strip” themselves of social conventions before any male figure is given the ability to oppress them.

Comments are closed.