The subliminal message of Doctor Dolittle

This post was written by Megan on May 16, 2012
Posted Under: burnout and society,burnout and the workplace

Doctor Dolittle cartoon

I keep thinking about Doctor Dolittle…and whether a subliminal message is being sent through this children's classic by its sneaky author, Hugh Lofting. 

It all began with an absurdly long title: Doctor Dolittle: Being the History of his Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts Never Before Printed. Well that was the first book, published in 1920, of the Dr Dolittle series. Subsequent titles embraced the joy of brevity.

The story is essentially about a doctor who refuses to treat humans after learning to talk to animals, thanks to the lingual teaching skills of a parrot called Polynesia. Polynesia spoke over 2,000 languages (including Dodo and Unicorn). From then on, Dolittle's patients became those of fur, scales and feathers.

To me, Doctor Dolittle is Rex Harrison. Once you've seen the 1967 movie Doctor Dolittle, there really is no other way to picture him. Unless you've seen Eddie Murphy's versions (Doctor Dolittle 1 and 2) which I can't bring myself to do.


My question is this: Why call the main character Doctor Dolittle?

He goes off to Africa to cure some monkey epidemic and has a multitude of adventures along the way. In short, this guy seems to do a lot. Not a 'little'. There must be an answer as to why ol' Hugh decided to call him this. Perhaps he was doing little while sitting in the trenches during World War I, where he began writing the story as letters to his children. Hard facts explaining why 'Dolittle' are beyond my googling skills.


Is 'Dolittle' referring to animal behaviour?

I've been watching some David Attenborough documentaries lately – wild photography (boom boom) – and have noticed that animals can spend a lot of time doing very little. For documentary success, there is a big reliance on heavy editing and breathy narrative anticipating things that don't end up happening.

In the animal kingdom, it seems the bigger you are, the more hammock-living suits you. Short spurts of hunting with long periods of digestion is the go. With this in mind, I'm currently looking at Lewis, my ginger cat who's draped across my waffle-weave blanket like Cleopatra, and recall what happens on Tiger: Spy in the Jungle. Pretty much the same thing, except the tigers are draped on a bed of grass or over rocks in a small river (where they drink AND pee and still survive – nature is incredible).


The pushmi-pullyu mystery

Does Doctor Dolittle's pushmi-pullyu – a lama-like animal with two heads and no behind – also have significance? If you are pushed and pulled at the same time, you don't go anywhere. You can't even go to the toilet. There is no real action. Or am I looking too deeply into this?


Does nature have some answers?

Perhaps animals – real ones with bottoms – have something to teach us about our health. Or, at least, about the pace of our lives. Is being a 'Dolittle' a bad thing, or is it only natural?

What do you think? Leave a comment.


This post was written by Megan Hills. Megan is a writer and cartoonist who often walks in two different directions at once.  Find out more about Megan

Reader Comments

my favourite piece of yours so far Megan :) I am relaxing into increasing levels of do-little, not without a good deal of animal talking and highly recommend it… thank you!!

Written By brie on May 16th, 2012 @ 2:53 pm

Thanks a bunch, my fellow do-littler :) Was speaking to a friend recently who was having a terrible time wrestling with the guilt of taking some time out to do little. Guilt is such a party pooper, isn’t it? Enjoy your quiet time, Ms Brie.

Written By Megan on May 16th, 2012 @ 3:32 pm

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