The Madness of Gilligan’s Island

Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from this tropic port
Aboard this tiny ship

With these words began the tragic tale of the SS Minnow and its ill fated passengers; Mary Ann, the Professor, Ginger, Thurston Howell III and his wife Lovey, the Skipper, and, of course, Gilligan. Seven strangers who headed out for what was to be a three-hour boat tour but what turned into a harrowing encounter with a furious storm, leaving them shipwrecked on “an uncharted desert isle.

I am not going to discuss the history or backstory of Gilligan’s Island (which ran from 1964 to 1967, with the 1963 pilot airing in 1992). Instead, as I stay at home, and watch these episodes for the first time in decades, I cannot help but wonder, what is really going on here? So much of this show just doesn’t make sense. Yes, I could accept its outlandish plots as a product of early 1960s writing, but I find satisfaction in examining a seemingly carefree show with a cynical eye to uncover its darker “true” meaning, and in the case of Gilligan’s Island, the darkness runs deep as the sea.

I would to confirm, first of all, they’re not trapped in hell or purgatory. Nothing the castaways experience amounts to suffering or stagnation, except for the fact they cannot escape the island. If they were suspended in some otherworldly dimension, I would suggest heaven. After all, their desert isle does provide them with a steady supply of food and water. Their clothes never wear out. They never need medical attention. They live comfortably in humble shelters, and most important of all, they have come together from different backgrounds and found happiness and friendship.

So that’s it. They all died in the storm and they’re in heaven. End of analysis.

Except it’s not.

The sticking point for me is Gilligan. Everything we experience on the island is through his eyes. He is focal point of every episode. Either a situation is his fault or he plays a significant role in its resolution. It is important to note that Gilligan is responsible for the Minnow’s wreck. During the storm, he tossed the ship’s anchor overboard, but without the rope attached. This act of complete incompetence by the first mate caused the Minnow to be dragged along with the storm and subsequently wrecked. It was all his fault.

This is the key to Gilligan’s Island. This is why everyone is happy and healthy and capable of forgiving Gilligan for every transgression, including the one which caused them to be there. Because they are not there. They never were. The SS Minnow did set sail with seven passengers. It did encounter a storm. It was wrecked. But, everyone perished. Everyone, except for one person.

Gilligan does not live on a desert isle. He lives in a small room with a screened window overlooking a manicured lawn. He spends his days tended to by doctors and nurses, and never once, since he was brought here in 1963, has he been aware of any of this. How can he? To acknowledge reality is to accept his gravest failure caused six deaths, including the man who trusted him the most. Yet, an event this powerful cannot be completely willed away, so to protect itself, his mind created an alternate reality to move beyond it, to a dawn which found Gilligan and the others are stranded but alive.

This is why the stories are from Gilligan’s perspective and fairly simplistic or downright silly (a wayward gorilla horny for Mrs Howell?), and why the Professor’s inventions seem birthed from a child’s imagination. I will not even touch upon the lack of sexual attraction between anyone, with the Howells possibly excluded.

When we watch the castaways engaging in their twenty-two minute long antics, we are viewing the fantasy world of a broken soul, striving to make peace with himself, knowing there is no redemption, no second chance, no forgiveness. There is only escape, to here on Gilligan’s Island.

1 comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    Excellent piece. In many ways, Gilligans Island was similar to what some of the avant-garde writers (think Sartre and Camus) were creating. I’d never thought about it from that perspective, so thanks for sharing this insight.

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