The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle has a variety of settings, both common and exotic. Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, where Doctor Dolittle resides, is an ordinary small English port town in 1839. In contrast to the town's ordinariness, is Doctor Dolittle's cozy home and its fantastic Garden of Dreams, an Edenic place where snakes stand on their tails listening to flute music and all the animals live in houses without locks.
In the more realistic exotic locations, Lofting tries to give a simplified but accurate picture of how the people might live. In the Spanish Capa Blanca Islands, for example, Doctor Dolittle and friends eat fried bananas and foods cooked in olive oil. They see cafes with merry tables and people who never seem to go to bed, and they listen to guitar music.
On the imaginary Spidermonkey Island, however, Lofting allows his imagination full play. The inside of the island is hollow and filled with air so that it continually floats. When it drifts too near the South Pole and cold weather threatens the inhabitants, Dolittle calls on the whales to push the island back towards Brazil. The inhabitants of the island—the Popsipetels and the Bag-jagderags—have not discovered fire, a problem which allows Lofting to speculate on the life of very primitive humans. They eat raw fish and have keen eyesight for seeing in the dark. When Dolittle strikes a match, they worship the fire and try to pick it up with their bare hands to play with it....
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Lofting's talents lie in storytelling, in portraying swift action with multiple settings and crises. The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle is richer in literary techniques than The Story of Doctor Dolittle. For example, Dolittle himself does not appear until the third chapter of the story. The reader's curiosity about him is aroused and heightened by the cat's meat's man's stories about him and by Tommy Stubbins's descriptions of the outside of the Doctor's home. The Doctor's character is skillfully delineated by Lofting's use of a foil character, the Colonel, who treats Tommy so condescendingly. Lofting even develops a more complex point of view, telling his story through Tommy's eyes rather than an omniscient narrator's.
Though Lofting's prose is usually plain and simple, he occasionally tries for evocative descriptions. In speaking of caged lions, Doctor Dolittle passionately asks, "What are they given in exchange for the glory of an African sunrise, for the twilight breeze whispering through the palms, for the green shade of matted, tangled vines, for the cool, big-starred nights of the desert, for the patter of the waterfall after a hard day's hunt?" Lofting's poetry, however, is not especially successful. The natives' hymn in praise of Doctor Dolittle, for example, has irregular rhythmic patterns and commonplace sentiments.
The strength of Lofting's prose lies in its appeal to the senses. In the fidget's few words of English...
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In the 1960s as social consciousness about black Americans arose, so did criticism of the racism in the Doctor Dolittle books, particularly in the portrayal of Prince Bumpo. Bumpo is a friend of Doctor Dolittle's but also a figure of ridicule. The most offensive episode with Prince Bumpo occurs in The Story of Doctor Dolittle when Bumpo dreams of becoming white after a woman he believed to be Sleeping Beauty rejects him as being too dark. Doctor Dolittle puts a zinc ointment compound on Bumpo's face, which turns white for a time, and his eyes turn a "manly grey." Words such as "coon" and "nigeress" were also used.
Treatment of Bumpo in The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle were similarly offensive. In the 1970s critics accused Dolittle of being a racist figure of British colonialism. Lofting was denounced for portraying blacks as comic and childlike figures with ridiculous customs. His illustrations of Africans were decried as grotesque and insulting.
Though Bumpo is supposed to be an African prince and Oxford scholar, he is characterized as a man of brawn but little brain. His malapropisms—Spidermonkey Island is a "pecurious phenometer"—may have been meant by Lofting to be humorous (he seems to have great affection for the character) but can also be interpreted as a caricature of a simple-minded African trying unsuccessfully to imitate white men. The problem with using such a character as Bumpo for humor is that there are no...
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Topics for Discussion
1. What is the Colonel's role in the story? How would the story be different without him?
2. What kind of relationship does Tommy Stubbins have with his parents?
3. How effective is the choice of point of view in the novel? How different would the story be if Polynesia told it?
4. Discuss the types of humor that you find in the book? Are there important differences in these types? 5. Why does Doctor Dolittle not appear until the third chapter of the story?
6. Find passages that appeal to the senses—sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.
7. Which adventure of Doctor Dolittle's—the saving of Luke, the bullfights, or the Spidermonkey Island war—did you like best? Why?
8. What is the function of the word definitions in the book? Do you find them a distraction from the story?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle was written by Hugh Lofting after he served in World War I. Based on Doctor Dolittle's comments about war and the war between the Popsipetels and Bagjagderags, how do you think Lofting felt about the war?
2. Though The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle is a book for children, it has only one major child character in it, Tommy Stubbins. How much is Doctor Dolittle like a child, and why does he appeal to children?
3. Create an imaginary land for Doctor Dolittle to visit. Describe the kind of animals, either real or fantastic, he might meet there.
4. Do the illustrations add to the story, or would it be just as good without them?
5. Compare one of the animals in The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle to at least one other famous animal character, such as Wilbur of Charlotte's Web, Toad of Wind in the Willows, or Miss Bianca of The Rescuers. How much do these characters seem like animals? Why are animals so popular in children's stories?
6. Discuss Lofting's satire on the criminal and legal system in the episode of Luke the hermit.
7. Explain the significance of the adventure to the Capa Bianca Islands. What point is Lofting making about human treatment of animals?
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The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle is the second Doctor Dolittle book. The first, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, describes Dolittle's becoming an animal doctor, learning to speak animal language, traveling to Africa to cure sick monkeys, fighting pirates, and saving a boy's uncle who was abandoned by the pirates on a rocky island. It establishes the pattern of a doctor who cares for animals and travels on fantastic voyages. The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle is a longer and more artistic work. It adds poetry and a more complex point of view. It also introduces the character Tommy Stubbins, who will narrate the rest of the books.
The popularity of the Doctor Dolittle books inspired Lofting to continue writing them until his death, his most prolific period being from 1920 to 1928. Dolittle's adventures take him on caravans, to circuses, and even to the moon. All of the Dolittle books follow the basic multi-adventure pattern and express the need for humane treatment of animals and the elimination of war. Each book also stands pretty much on its own and provides necessary background from previous books.
The success of Walt Disney's film Mary Poppins inspired other movie studios to attempt musicals based on popular children's books. One result was the filming of Doctor Dolittle, which has since become known as one of the great disasters of Hollywood. Starring Rex Harrison as the Doctor, it was released in 1967 and lost...
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For Further Reference
Cameron, Eleanor. The Green and Burning Tree. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962. Estimation of Lofting's importance as a children's author, especially his talent for fantasy in Doctor Dolittle in the Moon.
Carpenter, Humphrey, and Mari Prichard. The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984. Short biography of Lofting and description of his works.
Dixon, Bob. Catching them Young: Sex, Race, and Class in Children's Fiction. London: Pluto Press, 1977. Discussion of racism in the Doctor Dolittle books.
Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. The Junior Book of Authors 2d ed., rev. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1951. Short biography of author and his beliefs on writing for children.
MaCann, Donnarae, and Gloria Woodward, eds. The Black American in Books for Children: Readings in Racism. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1972. Includes Isabelle Suhl's indictment of Lofting's racism in the Doctor Dolittle books.
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