Sherwood Schwartz, creator of Gilligan's Island, receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, 2008.

Sherwood Schwartz, creator of Gilligan's Island,
receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, 2008.


Gilligan's Island:
Exiled in Paradise

by Ken Sanes

One of the themes of this site is that fiction is about our efforts to overcome our state of exile from the better world we know should exist. An obvious example of this precept is the 1960s television comedy, Gilligan's Island, which tells a story much like Genesis, but one that is a farce rather than a tragedy. Gilligan's Island shows us a group of castaways who once lived in a paradise of consumer abundance known as America, with its world of hamburgers, television sets, bathtubs, and other instruments of fulfilled desire. In place of being exiled by a wrathful God, they go on a three hour tour and are lost in a storm. And instead of finding themselves trapped in the prison of nature and history, as are Adam and Eve -- and humanity -- they wake up on a tropical island that separates them from home.

Stuck in a world not of their own making, the castaways of Gilligan's Island form a microcosm of human society, one of many indications that they are a symbol of ourselves. This miniature society includes a knowledge class (the Professor); a leader (the Skipper); the girl next door (Mary Ann); a celebrity (Ginger); the younger generation and exploited working class (Gilligan, played by Bob Denver); and the idle rich (the Howells), who neither spin nor weave, but live off the labor of others.

Like humanity, the castaways of Gilligan's Island long to be saved. They are forever on the lookout for the coming of the savior who will take them back to their lost paradise of technology and consumer delights: Mr. Howell to the rest of his money (in addition to what he is hoarding on the island); Ginger to her audience; and the Professor to his laboratory equipment.

Fortunately, for the characters, some lifeline to the outside world frequently seems to appear on this unusually well-traveled island -- a radio, a boat, a spacecraft that will fly overhead and see them -- and the castaways begin to organize and make repairs, doing whatever is necessary to prepare their escape. Then, inexplicably, something always seems to go wrong at the last minute, taking them from joyous hope to the despairing recognition that they are still stuck on the wrong side of the ocean.

Frequently, it is Gilligan, in his never-ending quest to be helpful and win recognition as an adult, who ends up giving in to some temptation and screwing things up. He catches the radio with his fishing line and throws it into the ocean or his pants catch fire and he accidentally kicks burning logs, so they spell "SOL" instead of "SOS", and the astronauts flying overhead think that islanders on the earth below are saying hello to Sol the astronaut. In each of Gilligan's little disasters, in which he gives in to some temptation, causing himself and others to miss out on the chance to be saved, we see humanity's continuing inability to escape its own state of exile. (Unless, of course, one prefers to see in Gilligan's pathetic innocence a more sinister figure we also know from Genesis.)

Repeating this simple plot line, and others similar to it, Gilligan's Island gives us something that is much like cartoon chases, in which we sympathize with characters who yearn to fulfill uncomplicated desires, while, at the same time, we sadistically enjoy their failure to do so. The castaways on Gilligan's Island are Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoon; Sylvester the Cat, and all the other pathetic predators of animation who are stuck in a broken record of seeking the object of their desire, getting close and closer still, and then falling off a cliff, smashing into a canyon or getting hit on the head with a broom. Like cartoons, Gilligan's Island lets us laugh at a story that is at the heart of human life, the one in which we are all castaways in a state of exile from home (or from tasty prey), who never quite catch on to the fact that we are responsible for our own failures.

At the same time, the program replays, in its own dumb way, a disguised account of someone's fantasies about families, in which the youngest child -- Gilligan -- always has to take the rap for what goes wrong. Gilligan is the family scapegoat and perpetual child whose job it is to keep the family intact and be an object of derision for the failure of family members to get what they want.

Despite the existence of these subtexts, Gilligan's Island is a particularly bad work of fiction. In part that is because the stories are so trivial and foolish that most adults (in America, anyway) aren't psychologically drawn into the story. In addition, the characters are so two-dimensional, so close to type (in fact, they are intended to be stereotypes), and so lacking in the nuance that is a sign of personality, most adults never get very far when it comes to identification and sympathy. Even some cartoon characters do better than that. Throw in the fact that we never see any personal growth, and we end up with characters who are mostly useful as objects of ridicule, offering us a simple parable of our own foolishness.

Nevertheless, Gilligan's Island has its moments. One moment, actually. The scene that is shown at the end of every episode offers an interesting symbol of the human condition. The castaways sit on the beach, they just sit, apparently soon after being washed ashore, stuck in circumstances over which they have no control, and uncertain what to do next. In a rare touch of irony, their exile will take place on a tropical island that looks like a dilapidated version of paradise.

What they end up doing is what makes Gilligan's Island a parable in its own meager way. While they are waiting to be saved, they form a society and they live their lives. That is a lesson humanity seems to know as intuitively as it knows that there is something better on the other side of the ocean.

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Gilligan's Island Cast:
Bob Denver: Gilligan
Alan Hale Jr.: The Skipper
Jim Backus: Thurston Howell III
Natalie Schafer: Mrs. Lovey Howell
Tina Louise: Ginger Grant
Russell Johnson: The Professor
Dawn Wells: Mary Ann Summers

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Publicity photo of Bob Denver with Dwayne Hickman
and Danielle De Metz, from the television show
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, pre-Gilligan's Island.

Creative Commons license information for images

Note: Northrop Frye and Paul Ricoeur both talk about images of fall and exile.