Chapter I: In the Dingey of the Lady Vain 

The narrator, Edward Prendick, begins by saying that he does not intend to recount the tale of the Lady Vain, the boat on which he set out from South America, explaining that enough is already known about its sinking and about the plight that its crew subsequently endured. Instead, he says, he will tell his own story, which he claims is even more terrifying and bizarre. It begins with Prendick and two others escaping the sinking Lady Vain in a dingey. The three survivors float on the sea with no food and limited water for eight days, hoping for rescue and pondering how they might survive. On the sixth day, Helmar, one of the survivors, proposes a solution that Prendick declines to describe because he finds it so objectionable. Reluctantly, the men draw lots to decide which of them will sacrifice himself for the others, but the sailor who is chosen refuses to accept the results. Instead, he attacks Helmar and the two men fall overboard, sinking to their deaths and leaving Prendick alone on the dingey. Two days later, a schooner arrives and a delirious Prendick finds himself being lifted up by two men, one with freckles and red hair, and the other with a dark complexion and nightmarish appearance.  

Chapter II: The Man Who Was Going Nowhere 

Prendick awakens in a messy cabin and meets his rescuer, a peculiar man by the name of Montgomery. Over the muffled noises of growling animals and arguing crew, Montgomery informs Prendick that he is a practitioner of medicine and a former student of biology, mentioning how he used to dissect earthworms and snails. Prendick says that he himself was a student of natural history. Montgomery explains that the ship they are on, the Ipecacuanha, is piloted by a drunkard, Captain Davies. The ship set out from Peru and is bound for Hawaii. Montgomery intends to disembark along the way at the unnamed island where he lives. Montgomery continues to care for Prendick, providing him with food and clothing, but he reveals little to Prendick about himself, the ship’s cargo, or his destination.  

Chapter III: The Strange Face 

Prendick leaves the cabin where he has been convalescing and ventures out with Montgomery. They immediately encounter the black-faced man, whom Prendick describes as shockingly misshapen, and yet, somehow, also familiar. The deck is filthy and loaded with an assortment of animals, including a hutch of rabbits, a llama, a caged puma, and several snarling hounds, chained and muzzled. The black-faced man approaches, causing a commotion among the hounds, and freezes in front of them. Just then, the captain appears behind the black-faced man and punches him in the square of the back, sending him tumbling into the throng of dogs. Montgomery angrily confronts the captain, arguing that he has no right to attack his passengers in such a way. The captain, disgusted by the filthiness of animals and the black-faced man, whom he calls a devil, replies that he will do as he pleases on his own ship. Prendick, noticing that the captain is drunk and that Montgomery is seething dangerously with anger, decides to intervene. He manages to prevent the two men from coming to blows, but at the cost of drawing the captain’s ire.  


Prendick goes out of his way to insist that he does not plan to tell the story of the novel’s inciting incident, the shipwreck of the Lady Vain, presumably because it is old news to his readers. This begs the question of why he mentions it at all, especially since it has little to do with the strange events that later unfold on the island. But the sinking of the Lady Vain serves an important symbolic purpose as an abrupt cessation of the tenuous forces that once kept Prendick afloat. Although we know virtually nothing about Prendick prior to the shipwreck, it soon becomes clear that he is a highly civilized Englishman with a much stronger sense of moral duty than his fellow survivors on the dingey.

Adrift and facing death by privation, Helmar and the sailor soon entertain thoughts of cannibalism, but Prendick resists, claiming he would rather jump overboard than engage in an act of savagery he is too squeamish even to name. Yet even Prendick comes to realize that civility serves no purpose on the merciless sea. Like the sunken Lady Vain, his morality is a pretentious vanity that will not save him from the harsh realities of nature. After Helmar and the sailor fight and fall overboard, Prendick finds himself completely alone, with death all but certain.  

Prendick’s rescue by the schooner gives him new life, but not a return to civilization. When he emerges from delirium, he finds himself a passenger on a strange voyage that he can scarcely fathom. Although his rescuer, Montgomery, seems kind enough, he is also evasive about the purpose of his voyage and his strange animal cargo. Signs of savagery and hostility abound on the ship, arousing feelings of apprehension that Prendick struggles to explain. From his cabin, Prendick can hear the disquieting sounds of growling and snarling, but he cannot identify their source. When he finally goes on deck and discovers the caged animals, he cannot guess their purpose, nor can he extract a straight answer from Montgomery. His encounter with the black-faced man, who is later identified as M’ling, proves equally vexing. Prendick notices his strange physical features and behavior but does not understand why the drunken captain, the crew, and even the staghounds revile him.  

 The story’s setting in the South Pacific provides some clues as to the symbolic meaning of Prendick’s bewilderment. The shipwreck’s occurrence just west of Callao, Peru, suggests a connection to the voyages of Charles Darwin, who visited the nearby Galapagos Islands in 1835. Darwin’s observations there played a significant role in the development of his theory of evolution, which shook the foundations of Western civilization in the nineteenth century. The Judeo-Christian creation story posited humankind’s superiority over the animal kingdom. Humans had been created in God’s image and endowed with a higher purpose, unlike the beasts of the field. In contrast, Darwinism proposed a continuity between humans and animals, arguing that they shared a common ancestry. Symbolically, the sinking of the Lady Vain represents Darwinism’s wrecking of the illusion of humankind’s special purpose.  Like civilized society, Prendick survives this philosophical shipwreck, but he struggles to make sense of his new voyage, where the vestiges of his civilized worldview serve him poorly. At this point in the novel, it remains to be seen where Prendick’s strange voyage will take him—and the reader.