Sherwood Schwartz, creator of Gilligan's Island,
receiving a star on the
Hollywood Walk of Fame, 2008.
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
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
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:
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
- - - - - - - - -
Publicity photo of Bob Denver with Dwayne Hickman
Danielle De Metz, from the television show
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,
Note: Northrop Frye and Paul Ricoeur both talk about
images of fall and exile.