Once upon a time, many years ago – when our grandfathers were little children – there was a doctor, and his name was Dolittle – John Dolittle, M.D. ‘M.D.’ means that he was a proper doctor and knew a whole lot.
Have you, like me, managed to live to an adult age without having properly read a Doctor Dolittle story? If so, you might think you can guess what they’re about nonetheless. Test yourself with the following easy quiz.
Which of the following best describes what The Story of Doctor Dolittle is about?
- A kind-hearted man who goes on wonderful adventures after befriending and learning to communicate with animals
- An introverted academic on the autism spectrum who blunders between well-meaning endeavours, buoyed only by luck and the help of friends, oblivious to the damage he does to others along the way
- A metaphor for, and celebration of, compassion and innocence in a cruel and war-torn world
- The pushmi-pullyu.
Having just finished this first Doctor Dolittle book, I think the answer is (5) All of the above. Let us examine the evidence in turn.
1. Doctor Dolittle, the kind-hearted adventurer and animal lover
I remember the day I first became aware of Doctor Dolittle. A cousin had just been given a copy of the book – I must have been about six. The adults, in happy reminiscence, started to try and remember the story from their own childhoods. ‘He can talk to animals,’ Dad said to me. ‘And there was an animal called a pushmi-pullyu which had a head on each end.’
Even though I never read the actual books back then, I’m grateful for having learned about the story as a child – because I can still remember how hooked I was by the mere idea of talking to animals. For years I actually ached to be able to talk to our cat, or the birds on the wires, or the animals in the zoo. It pained me with a kind of intense, agonising melancholy that I was so close to being able to really know these animals, get inside their minds, but that it was always going to be just out of reach. And to not just understand animals, but to be such good friends you got to meet a whole new species – that was the icing on the cake.
I’m glad to have experienced this as a child, because as I read the book now I get, every now and then, a glimpse into how I’d be reacting if I were reading it as a kid, and it’s brilliant. He has a crocodile living in his yard! The monkeys make a bridge for him to walk over a ravine! If he gets lost in the middle of the ocean he can ask any passing dolphin for directions! He has a friend who’s a 182 (or 183)-year-old parrot who has stories of being on pirate ships! Awesome.
And I was so happy to read about how Doctor Dolittle learns to speak to animals. Blissfully, there’s no Eddie Murphy animal voice-over type shit going on here, as if animals can talk English whenever they want if they can just find someone they like. Instead, as Polynesia the Parrot explains, most animals don’t even communicate by noises anyway:
‘Looks to me as though he were scratching his ear,’ said the Doctor.
‘But animals don’t always speak with their mouths,’ said the parrot in a high voice, raising her eyebrows. ‘They talk with their ears, with their feet, with their tails – with everything. Sometimes they don’t want to make a noise. Do you see now the way he’s twitching up one side of his nose?’
‘What’s that mean?’ asked the Doctor.
‘That means, “Can’t you see that it has stopped raining?”‘ Polynesia answered. ‘He is asking you a question. Dogs nearly always use their noses for asking questions.’
I love this, because underlying it seems to be a great and humble respect for animals. It reminds me of Temple Grandin, the autistic engineer, who speaks so wonderfully about how she can get into the mind of animals in her books.
2. Doctor Dolittle, the eccentric, blundering, negligent, accident-waiting-to-happen
Doctor Dolittle may be a hero to kids and animals (even when he’s poor, all the ‘dogs and cats and the children still ran up and followed him through the town’) but as an adult in society he seems to have some problems functioning.
These problems include his management of business (he runs his medical practice into the ground, closely followed by his veterinary practice), money (he has none), relationships (when his sister/housekeeper warns he’s ruining both their lives, he tells her just to leave if she doesn’t like it – so she does), hygiene and organisation (the house is only tidied when the animals do it), and planning or responsibility (even though he’s looking after a whole menagerie of animals he doesn’t even think to stock up on food for the winter, and they start to starve).
The imminent starvation is the point at which Dr D hears word that all the monkeys in Africa are dying of a disease and desperately need a doctor. Then and there, he decides to sail to Africa and help out. After pulling in a few favours to borrow a boat, he puts himself into the hilarious position of actually sailing away from the wharf before stopping and realising he should probably have asked someone how to get to Africa.
Luckily some of the animals can show him, but Dolittle’s own insane lack of forethought shows up again and again. Examples: only realising he hadn’t organised transport out of Africa while he’s saying goodbye to all the monkeys:
‘What I am wondering,’ said the Doctor, ‘is where we are going to get another boat to go home in … Oh, well, perhaps we’ll find one lying around on the beach that nobody is using. “Never lift your foot till you come to the stile.”‘
(Luckily Prince Bumpo has a ship handy.) Other examples: Sneaking up behind a man who’d just escaped from pirates. (He gets punched in the face but is OK. Everyone laughs.) Not being at all worried about developing a plan when the rats tell him his ship will sink within two days. (His animals steal a pirate ship that conveniently comes by.) Not having the faintest plans about how to pay back his debts. (Polynesia and the Pushmi-Pullyu come to the rescue with an idea.)
Reading as a child it’s charming and funny and daft. Reading as a child-like adult it’s a warming metaphor about how things will always work out for you if you’re good and kind. But reading as a slightly cynical adult makes me think things like this:
The people in the world who do most evil are often not the most vicious, but the most oblivious. An example is given in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, where scientist Felix Hoenikker creates weapons of mass destruction not because he’s a villain, but because he’s a child-like introvert who never learns to think about people other than himself. Doctor Dolittle’s complete lack of empathy for his sister comes to mind as creepily similar to Hoenikker’s coldness towards his daughter. And then when the mice and rats run off Dolittle’s ship at each port he calls in to, all I can see is environmental decimation propagated unwittingly by this single-minded simpleton, and all the other potential disasters that could be unleashed by Dolittle’s lack of forethought.
Dolittle’s saving grace, however, seems to be demonstrated when his morality is tested directly and he sticks to his guns. He refuses to let the Pushmi-Pullyu get stuck in a zoo or cage. He doesn’t let the pirates get eaten by sharks. He pays back all his debts promptly. So ultimately he’s not empty of morality like Hoenikker, just a bit ditzy. Still, I’d hope that in the next few books he develops some kind of adult life skills otherwise tragedy will always be around the corner.
3. Doctor Dolittle: a metaphor for kindness amidst man’s inhumanity to man (and horse)
My version of the book contains the following blurb:
[Lofting] fought in the trenches during the First World War and it was whilst observing the lack of compassion shown to the horses on the battlefields that the idea for Doctor Dolittle was born.
It’s not hard to see the influences of wartime experiences on the book. It’s a story by a man who is sick of human society. When the Doctor visits Africa he’s treated with suspicion because the previous people there had ruined the environment to get gold and killed the elephants to get ivory. Dolittle and his animal friends are constantly astounded at the absurdity of money, and appalled that without it you could be left to starve.
But the book isn’t so shallow as to then say all people are bad (the fishing village shows him great hospitality and affection), or all animals are nice (the lions don’t help him, until they realise they need his help), or even that all things child-like are good (when Chee-Chee explains zoos to the African monkeys their reaction is, ‘These people are like thoughtless young ones – stupid and easily amused.’). In the end, the story show us, all that’s important is that you’re nice to others.
As I read the book I felt like Lofting was being healed during the process of writing the story. Dolittle’s encounters with other people seem like they become more intimate and comfortable as the story progresses.
4. Doctor Dolittle: the book with the thing with two heads
The Pushmi-Pullyu always seemed to me to be a kind of gimmick – if you’ve got a premise as great as talking to animals, why do you need something extra and flashy like a horse with a head on both ends? But in the book it’s introduced by the animals of the jungle as a thank you gift. It’s a sign of their respect that he’s the only human to be introduced to one, and it’s a sign of their thanks that he can use it to make money when he returns by showing it at fairs. And of course, he asks it first.
tl;dr – want summary now
Despite all my ramblings about Hoenikker and stuff I am really fond of this book.
Doctor Dolittle’s compassion is his super power that makes everything turn out OK. No character in the book is demonised or caricatured or judged based on their status or profession, either by Dolittle or by Lofting. (I’m glad the publishers decided to edit out the old-fashioned parts that today would be racially insensitive – Lofting would approve, I think.)
And Dolittle embodies Vonnegut’s (have you noticed I’m a Vonnegut fan?) dictum that ‘We are on this earth to be nice to other people.’ And I like that, and I like this book.
But probably not enough to be motivated to read the sequels.