Skip to main content

Book Review: The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis by Max Shulman


A book review by Joan Hall

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, originally published in 1951, is an uproarious set of short stories telling the romantic adventures of a young man attending the University of Minnesota.

The writing is delectable, the characters are cute, and the plots are hilarious, putting the protagonist in improbable situations, and then letting Murphy's Law take its course.

I discovered this book back when I was in college, and I've loved it ever since.

The book was also, of course, the inspiration for the hit TV series of the same name.

University of Minnesota

University of Minnesota

About the author

Max Shulman (1919-1988) was an alumnus of the University of Minnesota. While in college, he wrote for the school's humor magazine, a similar rag to the one described in the story "She Shall Have Music".

He started writing Dobie Gillis stories in 1945. The stories were published in humor magazines. In 1951, the stories were collected and published as a book entitled The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.

He wrote other books and plays as well, several of which dealt with college life.


What I like about "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis"

I love Max Shulman's writing. His language is vivid and precise. His sentences are beautifully crafted to shape a story just so, the words put together in a way that is almost musical.

In my job working at a private school, I've been looking at the high school curriculum standards for reading and composition. They want the students to know how to use precise language, good action verbs, sensory details, appropriate modifiers, words with the right connotations. "The Many Loves" could almost be used as a textbook for English composition. The book is also very nicely punctuated, but I don't know if that's Mr. Shulman's work or the work of an editor.

The stories themselves are light-hearted and give a sense of the exuberance, and sometimes naïveté, of youth.

And did I mention that they're funny? They're really, really funny. I mean laugh-out-loud-while-you-read funny. I mean starting-to-laugh-all-over-again-every-time-you-remember-a-passage funny. I mean making-your-kids-sit-down-so-you-can-read-it-aloud-to-them funny.

Buy "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" by Max Shulman

The many incarnations of Dobie

The main character in each story is named Dobie Gillis and is a student at the University of Minnesota. But his character is not the same in every story. Different stories cast him with different majors, different personalities, and different interests. The only common element throughout is an interest in the opposite sex that gets him into wild predicaments.

Pin-up girls from a U.S. Army magazine in the 1940s

Pin-up girls from a U.S. Army magazine in the 1940s

Is there anything I don't like about the book?

Over and over, the thing that Dobie is drawn to and cherishes most in his women is their physical appearance. Even when he gets tangled up with a girl who is completely his opposite in temperament and character, her looks keep him coming back.

And he implies that his preoccupation with looks is the normal response that anyone would have. This is from the story "The Sugar Bowl":

"Why then, you may ask, did I cling to her? If you could but see her, you would not need to ask. One look at her expensive hair, her costly eyes, her exorbitant skin, her overpriced torso, her bankrupting legs, and you would understand. You would cry, even as I, 'Hang the expense! I got to have this dame!"

And this from "She Shall Have Music":

"I had been immediately smitten. And who would not have been? What healthy male would not have succumbed to her wise but frolicsome eyes, her firm but succulent lips, her sturdy but graceful throat, her youthful but mature form? What man could have resisted her manifold graces, her myriad charms?"

Again, the implication is that all men, not just Dobie, view women primarily as collections of body parts to be desired or rejected based on their shape, size, color, and smoothness.

Scroll to Continue

I still find the book riotously funny and always enjoy reading it, but that one thing does get on my nerves.

It's interesting, though. At the same time that "Dobie" places such a premium on physical beauty, it's clear that the standards of the day for feminine desirability were quite different from the standards that women are held to now. The original book has illustrations (about one per story) showing Dobie having various misadventures with the objects of his desire. But the gorgeous gals who are depicted in the line drawings would be called "chubby" by today's beauty industry.

Something that makes me wistful

When I read this book, it's hard for me to imagine a time when men were so interested in making a commitment. Dobie and the rest of the young men described in the stories are looking for young ladies to go steady with, and then marry. I know that it's fiction, but it is indeed true that a lot more guys back then were looking for wives.

Warning: I'm going to go old school for a minute --

I remember when that book "The Rules" came out. It was telling women that by following certain rules, they could get men to quit playing the field and marry them.

That's funny, I thought that the whole purpose of the Sexual Revolution was that people wanted to practice free love and not be bound by rules. But it turned out that there were enough men (not all, but enough) who really were dogs, who really wouldn't buy the cow if they could get the milk for free. So now come "The Rules", which women are supposed to study and keep a secret from men.

Back in the day, there was only one rule, and it wasn't a secret. Everybody knew The Rule: No sex before marriage. And, by golly, men actually showed an interest in marriage!

(end of old-fuddy-duddy ranting)


The eleven short stories from "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis"

I wrote a little blurb on each story and gave you a tiny excerpt from the text of each one.

All images are from Wikimedia Commons. Each one is a picture of something that is mentioned in the body of the story.

Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman

Story I -- The Unlucky Winner

When Dobie, a less-than-brilliant freshman, falls for a girl with an exhausting social life, his studies begin to suffer. His girlfriend, a schemer, claims to have the perfect solution, which leads Dobie into a sticky situation that gets worse and worse.

Of all the stories in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, this was the one that had me laughing out loud the most.

"Then she argued some more, but I was firm as a rock. It took her more than twenty minutes to talk me into it.

For the next three days, as tragedy mounted on tragedy, I was numb with fear. I'll tell you how numb I was: a practical joker in my political science class put a tack on my seat and I sat on it all through the class . . ."

Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City

Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City

Story II -- She Shall Have Music

Dobie, an emotional soul who is on the staff of a struggling college magazine, proposes a plan to rescue the mag from its financial troubles. But it's really only a ploy that he hopes will reunite him with his true love.

"I must say that I have never behaved quite so calmly as on my first meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Hammer. I did not leap or spin; I did not cavort, dance, kick, whistle, or roll. Perhaps I twitched a few times, and I blinked a bit, and once I wrapped my hands around my head, but otherwise I was the very model of sedateness.

I cannot say, however, that the Hammers were impressed with my composure . . ."


Story III -- Love Is a Fallacy

Dobie, an amazingly intelligent (to hear him tell it) law student, figures that he needs a wife who is beautiful, graceful, and smart. When he finds a girl with two of those three qualifications, he is confident that he can mold her into the perfect mate.

This was the first story I ever saw from The Many Loves. It was in a college literature book.

This story is often used in classrooms to teach about logical fallacies.

"Cool was I and logical. Keen, calculating, perspicacious, acute and astute -- I was all of these. My brain was as powerful as a dynamo, as precise as a chemist's scales, as penetrating as a scalpel. And -- think of it! -- I was only eighteen.

It is not often that one so young has such a giant intellect. Take, for example, Petey Bellows, my roommate at the university . . ."

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

Story IV -- The Sugar Bowl

Dobie, a mechanical engineering major, is at the mercies of two women -- one a high-maintenance diva, the other a frumpy English major. Will he end up with the girl he wants, or the girl he can afford?

"What did I do then? I can't remember clearly. I think I grasped my lapels and ripped them off. I think I banged my head against the wall. I can't, as I say, remember. All I know is that when I got home the lapels were off my coat and there were lumps on top of my head . . ."


Story V -- Everybody Loves My Baby

Dobie, a journalism student, meets a girl who is kind-hearted to a fault. Who would have thought that loving a girl who is too nice could be such a problem?

"One afternoon as I was walking across the campus with my head turned to observe a likely looking girl about ten yards to my left, I ran into the outstretched arm of the statue of William Watts Folwell, first president of the university. I fell to the turf, my head ringing like a great gong. Almost instantly a girl appeared beside me. She fell to her knees, cradled my reverberating head in her lap, stroked my brow, crooned compassionate endearments. I accepted her ministrations happily for several minutes and then opened my eyes. As soon as I could focus, I knew I had found the right one . . ."


Story VI -- Love of Two Chemists

Dobie, who has no interest in anything academic, chooses chemistry as a major in order to win the heart of an idealistic young woman whom he hopes to lead astray.

"Marie broke a carboy that day. Nobody in the long history of the university had ever broken a carboy. Even at Dupont, I understand, where thousands of carboys are handled daily, it is a rare event. It is by no means easy to break a carboy; they stand as high as a man's waist and their glass is like steel. But Marie did it.

Obispo turned white, then red, then purple, then white again. He hopped on one leg, then the other, then both. For upwards of five minutes only strangled sounds came from his throat. Then he found his tongue and with it delivered an oration on Marie's unfitness for chemistry, for college in general, and for the human race as a whole . . ."

Radio host

Radio host

Story VII -- The Face Is Familiar But ---

Dobie meets Ms. Right, but he doesn't hear one important thing that she tells him. Now he'll try every trick in the book to get the missing information without revealing his ignorance.

"At 7:30 Saturday night I got into my rented tux and picked up my rented car. At 8:30 I called for my date and was told that she had come down with the measles at 7:30. So I shrugged my rented shoulders, got into my rented car, and went to the dance alone.

I had taken my place in the stag line when Petey Burch rushed up to me, his face flushed with excitement . . ."


Story VIII -- The Mock Governor

A sweet and lovely girl lives with her shady and egotistical uncle who has delusions of becoming the next governor of Minnesota. To have any chance with her, Dobie must win him over as well.

"'But you're not supposed to stand up in a boat.'

'A myth,' she said lightly. 'Indians did it all the time.'

I got up shakily. 'I'll tip over the boat,' I said.

'Nonsense,' said Pearl as I tipped over the boat . . ."


Story IX -- Boy Bites Man

Dobie, an ambitious journalism student, is in his element when he is assigned to work for a couple of weeks in a newspaper office. But it's a less comfortable environment for his sweet but dim girlfriend. When a story he's covering starts looking a bit suspicious, can Dobie prove himself as an investigative reporter and keep Lola out of trouble at the same time?

"Sometimes, I'll confess, I would become a little irritated at Lola. Like the time she locked her keys inside her car for safekeeping. Or the time she tried to buy a ticket for the football game between Minnesota and Open Date . . ."


Story X -- The King's English

Dobie, a sensitive English major, must choose between his love for the spiritual things in life and his love for a calculating coed who lives to cook up money-making schemes.

"I was obviously going to get nowhere with this girl. And even if I did, what was there to look forward to? What kind of romance would we have? What in the world would we talk about? She had a violent antipathy toward art; I was totally indifferent to business and finance. Clearly, the wise thing to do was to let this affair die aborning.

And yet, looking at the body that encased her grubby soul, I could not bring myself to let her go . . ."


Story XI -- You Think You got Trouble?

This is the longest story of the book. Dobie, an Egyptology major, is determined to get to an exam on time, but a comedy of errors ensues involving cars, police, and a well-bred girl who is trying to set her own direction in life.

"At this she burst into a perfect torrent of tears. Now, I am not a man who is reduced to jelly by the sight of a crying woman -- that is, if the crying woman is ugly. I can walk through a whole pavilion of ugly crying women without experiencing any feeling except, perhaps, dampness. But the sight of a lovely woman crying is quite another thing. This makes me limp. This destroys my will, my resolution, my very tissue. Even at the movies this is true. When I see Joan Fontaine or Lana Turner in tears, ushers have to be summoned to assist me from my seat. Many theaters in St. Paul do not admit me to sad pictures . . ."


Be one of our many loves! - Drop a comment!

Fay Favored from USA on November 19, 2014:

I didn't know that the show was actually based on a real character, but maybe that's because I haven't seen it. It's funny how you recognized the differences in the written language between the two time periods. I can agree that it's very hard to teach some basics these days with so many changes in communication. Nice job Joan.

Carmel Aaron on December 31, 2010:

You do a great job of making lenses. I haven't read the book, but, I have watched the early Dofie Gillis series. They were great.

Thumbs up

gods_grace_notes on December 04, 2010:

LOL... I remember WATCHING the Dobie Gillis show, although I've never read the book. Yikes, I just really dated myself, didn't I... What a great lens!

resabi on August 30, 2010:

This lens makes me grin. I was a fan of the tv series and I read all of Shulman's books. I even own Teenage Dwarf. That's where I learned the word "propinquity." I really enjoyed the memories this lens evoked. Lovely job. Thank you.

Indigo Janson from UK on June 30, 2010:

This is just as wonderful as the last time I visited. Saw you were looking out for a blessing for others, and wanted to leave you one. It wasn't hard to find a deserving lens! ~*~* Angel Blessed *~*~

anonymous on February 05, 2010:

I have never heard of Dobie Gills Joan, but your enjoyment of the books shines through on this lens. Congratulations on your Purple Star.

JoyfulPamela2 from Pennsylvania, USA on December 21, 2009:

Wonderful job, Joan! Congratulations on your nomination - you deserve it!

Rhonda Albom from New Zealand on December 17, 2009:

Well Done!

Indigo Janson from UK on December 09, 2009:

A wonderful review of an unusual book choice. Really enjoyed reading through it - congratulations on a well-deserved nomination.

clouda9 lm on December 09, 2009:

Really fabulous review! Congrats on your Giant Squid Award Nomination!

Linda Hoxie from Idaho on December 02, 2009:

Wonderful lens, I love how you have put your heart and soul into this with your own thoughts on the book, well done! Congratulations on being nominated in the 2009 Giant Squid Awards in your category, Anyone can vote for their favorites at Vote Now for the 2009 Giant Squid Awards . Best of luck, Linda

Sherry Venegas from La Verne, CA on December 01, 2009:

Your review has done the trick. I want to read this book! The pic for the StoryII looks like the end of the Minneapolis human rabbit trail.

Laniann on November 30, 2009:

Wonderful book review! Congratulations on being nominated for the 2009 Giant Squid Awards.

myraggededge on November 28, 2009:

Very comprehensive review! I might just get hold of a copy of this book. Good luck in the GS awards!

Jennifer P Tanabe from Red Hook, NY on November 28, 2009:

Great review! Never read The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, but now I'll look out for it!

Nancy Tate Hellams from Pendleton, SC on November 27, 2009:

I've heard a lot about this book but haven't read it. Congrats on your purple star and your nomination for the 2009 Giant Squid Awards.

Dianne Loomos on November 20, 2009:

I used to watch the TV show once in a while but I did not know it was based on a book. Congrats on the purple star!

Allan R. Wallace from Wherever Human Rights Reign on November 20, 2009:

I loved the TV show when I was growing up, I Think Maynard G. Krebs (the beatnik) was a major influence on my life. I have read other books by Max Shulman, yet had never associated him with Gillis. Thank you for the fun memories.

religions7 on November 19, 2009:

Great lens, blessed by a squidangel :)

Carol Fisher from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK on November 10, 2009:

What a great book review. I too now want to read the Dobie Gillis stories. Blessed by an Angel.

sciencefictionn on November 03, 2009:

Thank you for sharing this beautiful book! 5*

GrowWear on September 26, 2009:

Have never read Shulman's book, but want to RIGHT NOW. :) Great review!

Cynthia Sylvestermouse from United States on September 24, 2009:

This is a wonderful, enlightening book review. It makes me want to run out and get the book. Great lens

anonymous on September 24, 2009:

Marvelous book review! I'm pretty partial to the authors of the past they had a wit and style that I find lacking in many of the contemporary authors.

Related Articles