"Dr. Dolittle is the epitome of an outstanding scientist for me"

"Hugh Lofting's novel ""Dr. Dolittle and his animals"" was published 100 years ago. An interview with the Germanist Prof. Dr. Irmgard Nickel-Bacon"

Francis of Assisi could supposedly speak with them. Hugh John Lofting has written stories about it. There is talk of speaking animals. "Doctor Dolittle and his animals" was published 100 years ago. Why are these stories so special?

Nickel-Bacon: We find talking animals in one of the oldest narrative genres, the fable after Aesop. Here, the animals serve as a mirror of the humans. This is not the case with Dr. Dolittle. The animals are individuals, with whom he gets involved as a doctor, whom he helps and who in turn assist him. While, according to the legend, Francis of Assisi mastered the language of the animals in the Dr. Dolittle volumes the impression is created that the animals are more likely to speak our language. However, at the beginning it is emphasized that Dr. Dolittle actively learns the language of the different animals from the parrot Polynesia just as we learn foreign languages. Narratively, however, this is hardly redeemed. Dr. Dolittle certainly has a deep understanding of animals in common with Francis of Assisi. For money he has little sense as well and lives in great insouciance in this respect. But Dr. Dolittle is also different from the saint, because he is a child of the Enlightenment. He practices what we call orthodox medicine today. When several monkeys became ill, he isolated the sick and vaccinated all healthy animals - we can think of some parallels to this in the current situation. So Dr. med. Dolittle practices a natural-scientifically oriented medicine and, as a natural scientist, has a profound knowledge of biology and geography. In the second volume, however, he also opens himself to the naturopathic knowledge of the Indians. In areas in which others know more than he does, he is willing to be taught. Healing, so is the message, is only a special case of problem solving. It is made possible by solid knowledge, but also by an understanding approach to all living beings.
Hugh Lofting has thus created a complex figure, which on the one hand is characterized by an almost childlike amazement about natural phenomena, and on the other hand has the scientific claim of exact observation. In this respect, Dr. Dolittle is the epitome of an outstanding scientist for me, who is always open to new insights and findings.

What makes Dr. Dolittle a classic of children and youth literature?

Nickel-Bacon: Classics of children's and youth literature are firstly characterized by the fact that they are passed on from generation to generation by people who consider these books valuable to pass on to their own children and grandchildren. Dr. Dolittle and his animals is a classic of children's and youth literature, especially in the Anglo-American world. It is less present in the German-speaking countries, but still well-known.
A second criterion for children's literary classics are various forms of media representation. There are cartoons and a feature film series about Dr. Dolittle, but also numerous audio books, which naturally come closest to the written text. An English version is freely available on the Internet. In 2019, a new audio version of Dr. Dolittle and his animals has been published in German by Rufus Beck. It meets the intention of the book particularly well, because the actor knows how to give the individual animals their own personality through intonation and dialectal echoes. The old wise Polynesia, the bustling monkey, but also John Dolittle himself come alive as individuals for the listeners.
Thirdly, I would like to mention something that is less mentioned in research, but which plays an important role: exciting stories alone are not enough to achieve a classic status. Long-lived classics of children's literature convey values that adult reference persons would like to pass on to the next generation. This seems to apply for me as well.

Kurt Tucholsky says in his criticism, which he formulated as Paul Panter in the Vossisch Newspaper in 1925 "- there is no joke in the whole book, but everything radiates with humor" and at another point "this is how this book was written in its almost biblical simplicity and warmth". How does he get there?

Nickel bacon: This is related to the figure of John Dolittle, this somewhat quirky maverick, and his attitude towards animals. John Dolittle acts in a spirit of tolerance, but also in a spirit of solidarity and willingness to help. This allows the single animals to evolve freely and they are particularly grateful for this. There is for example the crocodile, which John Dolittle would like to get rid of. When the animal says that it would not feel comfortable in the circus and cries thick crocodile tears, he cannot say no. On his trip to Africa he then finds a better solution. The humor, that Tucholsky names, arises from the understanding that John Dolittle displays. It always leads to problem solutions in the course of the plot, even if there are some dry spells. But Dolittle's opponents are also funny: 'self-aggrandising autocrats', like the King of Jolliginki or the Lion King, who does not want to help and then needs help himself. These figures are satirically exaggerated and also show humor.

An article in Deutschlandfunk Kultur from 2014 deals with the question: "How can people understand the language of animals?" Using examples of talking parrots, smart dogs that understand up to 100 words or dolphin experiments, research is presented that illustrates the communication between humans and animals. But in the end, is language not the unique characteristic of humans?

Nickel-Bacon: In Dr. Dolittle, the so-called language of the animals is to be understood predominantly metaphorically as successful communication. Although it is reported that Dr. Dolittle learns the language of the animals, only the clicking of the tongue is presented as duck language, which is rather poor. Polynesia explains that animals often do not speak with their mouths, but with all kinds of their body parts. So the claim that Dr. Dolittle speaks the language of the animals rather indicates that he is willing to engage with each animal. Empathy seems to be the most important aspect for his communication with the animals and not the claimed translation of bird language into human language. If in some places the impression is created that each species of animal speaks its own language, such assertions never redeem the complexity of the human language system. Rather, the understanding of body language is emphasized, e.g. when the shy push-me-draw-me immediately can tell immediately that he can trust the doctor, or when the fisherman's boy says, 'You laugh like a friend'. Mimic gestural signals are taken seriously. The children's novel is mainly about an extended understanding of language in the sense of empathy.

In literature, there are many examples of speaking animals. The Jungle Book, the Wizard of OZ, Nils Holgersson, Alice in Wonderland, the Little Prince or the Chronicles of Narnia are among them. Can this parallel reality perhaps be used to better convey social criticism by letting animals speak?

Nickel-Bacon: Social criticism through speaking animals has a long tradition, as we can see in the fables of Aesop, which reflect human conditions. In his fable theory, Lessing emphasized that animals are used so that readers do not empathize too much. In Dr. Dolittle rather the opposite seems to be the case. Here, the talking animal is used to gain more understanding of the animal world. We find this tradition also in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and in fantastic literature. Fairy tale heroes, especially simple-minded people, but also childlike protagonists can easily communicate with animals. Since real animals cannot speak and real children cannot communicate with them linguistically, only those species are considered in which the impossible becomes possible. The communication of human protagonists with speaking animals can fulfill different functions: on the one hand the function of understanding, on the other hand a socio-critical function. Thus the animals' view of human conditions shows injustice, complacency and stupidity that people simply accept out of habit (or fear). The seemingly naive animal looks at such human naughtiness unprejudiced and exposes it.

Prof. Nickel-Bacon, Lofting wrote these little fairy tales as letter stories to his children back home from the war front. Is the book perhaps also an appeal to the human understanding of animals, which is more likely to be heard when it uses language?

Nickel-Bacon: The experience of the First World War, in which a real genocide took place, forms an important background for these children's novels. The volume, published in 1920, is followed by a series whose single, definitely adventurous episodes are imbued with a pacifist attitude throughout. Dr. Dolittle forbids the pirate Ben Ali to continue killing people and condemns him to grow birdseed as a peaceful farmer. He rejects the death penalty. This is a markedly progressive attitude for the 1920s, considering that Lofting died in the USA and the death penalty is still carried out there. The projection of Lofting's message of peace onto the animal figurative is due to the childlike address types, which, unlike many people, always acts in a helpful and solidary manner. In these books, sympathy is positively directed to all those living beings who use their abilities to cooperate and solve problems. In contrast, in the second volume, John Dolittle calls people who believe they can solve their problems with violence "fools". In this respect, the community of Dr. Dolittle and his favorite animals is also an utopian counter-concept to the destructiveness of human civilization.

Uwe Blass (Interview on 15.07.2020)


"From 2004 to 2009 Irmgard Nickel-Bacon developed the didactics of German literature at the University of Wuppertal and here taught from 2010 to 2020 as a university professor for didactics of German language and literature with the focus on didactics of literature."

More information about #UniWuppertal: