Sleeping Dictionary (Film Analysis)

Immaculate Conception Major Seminary

Philosophy Department

Submitted to: Rev. Fr. Dario Cabral
Mass Media
February 11, 2010
A young and naive Englishman, John Truscott, went to the British colony ofSarawak, Borneo to try and apply his father’s work to the Iban society. He tried to civilize them, building schools and providing education for the Iban people. He was startled to be met by a tattooed native who speaks perfect English, and who introduced himself as Belansai. Belansai took him upriver, where he met Henry Bullard, who was governor of the district. Truscott was assigned a hut, a cook (who cooked well, but drunk heavily), and, to his surprise, a “sleeping dictionary“. A sleeping dictionary, he was informed, is a young woman who will sleep with him and teach him the local language.
Truscott was shocked, and upset, although he felt very attracted to Selima. He refused to sleep with her, but offered to learn the language from her. Bullard was angry, because he was rocking the boat and refusing to follow tradition, even though this was the way things have been done for centuries.
Selima became his “sleeping dictionary”, who taught him the language and the habits of the locals. Despite their intents, the two found themselves falling into a forbidden love. John was eager to marry Selima despite the longhouse not allowing it. When John told Henry about his plans to marry her, they locked Selima up. Selima then agreed to marry in the longhouse and they parted ways. On the other hand, Bullard’s wife, the manipulative Aggie, pushed Truscott him to marry her daughter Cecilia.
A year later, John was seen marrying Cecilia. He still struggled to get over his past with his sleeping dictionary. With Cecilia, he decided the best thing to do was go back to Sarawak to continue his work over there. Returning to Sarawak, Cecilia noticed John’s desire for Selima with his constant distance from her. Cecilia demanded to know more about Selima and John replied by saying that she’s married to Belansai and that the couple had a baby together.
While at the lake collecting rocks for research, John saw Selima with a baby. He believed the child to be his and asked Famous to arrange a meeting with the pair. Soon back at the house, Selima walked in unaware that John was there. John begged to see his son and soon Selima walked away not before John can stop them. Here, John met his son Manda for the first time. When Belansai heard news that John was spending time with his wife, he sneaked in to try to kill John but only managed to hurt him with a razor. The next morning, Henry revealed his past to John about his own “sleeping dictionary”, which resulted in the birth of another child: Selima. When Belansai was caught for trying to kill an officer, he was sentenced to hanging. Selima was not happy with the fact that Belansai will be killed as he’s been a good father to Manda. Not wanting to kill Belansai, a friend of his, John went through with announcing Belansai’s hanging as he had no other option. Later that night, Selima tried to break Belansai out, not knowing John that was already there. When she walked over to the jail cell, she saw John breaking Belansai out and handing him a gun. As Belansai escaped, John asked Selima to meet him at the dock so they can escape on the boat. Selima told him he won’t come as they’ll catch him. John turned to Selima and said: “Then I’ll tell them I’d rather have you than a country… or a language… or a history”. They embraced as the rain was pouring behind them.
The next day, Cecilia announced she’s pregnant, shocking John. Although he still has plans to be with Selima and their son, he wrote a note but stopped as Cecilia caught him. The couple then talked about John’s love for Selima and how Cecilia wanted John to be happy. Aggie was not happy that Cecilia and Henry have allowed both John and Selima to run away together due to that fact that she never left Henry’s sight, fearing he’d go with his sleeping dictionary. Aggie then sent Neville to stop them.
John searched for Selima as she’s left to believe that John didn’t come to the place of arrangement. They reunited as Neville came through with a gun. He told them to cuff themselves around the bamboos and told them of his plans to kill John, Selima and their baby. They’re then rescued by the Ibans, who killed Neville.
John decided to stay with Selima and their son with the rest of the Iban community.
1. What is selfishness? What is individualism? How are they related? Is there anything wrong with it?
Selfishness denotes the precedence given in thought or deed to the self, i.e., self interest or self concern. It is the act of placing one’s own needs or desires above the needs or desires of others.
Individualism is a term used to describe a moral, political, or social outlook, which stresses human independence and the importance of individual self-reliance and liberty. Individualists promote the unrestricted exercise of individual goals and desires. They oppose any external interference with an individual’s choices – whether by society, the state, or any other group or institution. Individualism is therefore opposed to collectivism, which stresses community and societal goals over individual goals.
Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook that stresses “the moral worth of the individual”. Individualists promote the exercise of one’s goals and desires and so independence and self-reliance while opposing most external interference upon one’s own interests, whether by society, or any other group or institution.
Individualism has a controversial relationship with selfishness. While many individualists are selfish, they usually do not argue that selfishness is inherently good. Rather, they argue that individuals should not be constrained by any socially-imposed morality; they believe that individuals should be free to choose to be selfish if they so desire.
For me, being selfish is not at all bad or evil. In fact, all of us are selfish. It is necessary for survival. To breathe is selfish; to eat is selfish; to love is selfish; to live is selfish. Everything that is good for you is in your self-interest. No one can survive without selfishness; no one can take care of themselves without acting in their own self-interest.
2. When is selfishness a virtue?
The popular usage of selfishness is for a sinful adjective where one person behaves in total disregard to consequences of his/her actions on others. Such selfish person will be ever ready to do anything just to satisfy whims.
Throughout history, man has been offered the following alternative: be “moral” through a life of sacrifice to others—or be “selfish” through a life of sacrificing others to oneself. Ayn Rand blasts this as a false alternative, holding that a selfish, non-sacrificial way of life is both possible and necessary for man. Ayn Rand rejects altruism, the view that self-sacrifice is the moral ideal. She argues that the ultimate moral value, for each human individual, is his or her own well-being. Since selfishness (as she understands it) is serious, rational, principled concern with one’s own well-being, it turns out to be a prerequisite for the attainment of the ultimate moral value. For this reason, Rand believes that selfishness is a virtue. Rand writes that the “exact meaning” of selfishness is “concern with one’s own interests”.[2]
A virtue is an action by which one secures and protects one’s rational values—ultimately, one’s life and happiness. Since a concern with one’s own interests is a character trait that, when translated into action, enables one to achieve and guard one’s own well-being. Therefore, it follows that selfishness is a virtue. One must manifest a serious concern for one’s own interests if one is to lead a healthy, purposeful, fulfilling life.
Selfishness is related to one’s own self. A person will be selfish only when the person is independent; true to mind, thoughts and values. All the actions by such person will be out of convictions; will go through all kinds of difficulties and obstacles but will never compromise with the values and thus be selfish. The most distinguishing feature of that person will be ‘integrity’ i.e. such a person will ‘walk the talk’. And will never sacrifice others for own needs or will indulge in any ‘desire-satisfaction’ acts. Such a person will be ready to suffer all kinds of hardships to live for the “self – values”; and most importantly a selfish person will never be hypocrite.
The popular usage of selfishness as sinful behavior implies acts which are done for whim-fulfillment, and not for “self”. Every person has some biological and psychological needs and these needs are “objective”. A person will always strive to fulfill these needs. Humans live in social world and to satisfy the objective needs there will be interactions and those interactions has to have the virtues of benevolence, rationality, integrity etc. (to be fulfilling). Hence such persons will never act in disregard to others rather act in regard to oneself. So the ‘real’ selfish acts will never be sinful.
In fact if one has to judge whether the feeling of love, friendship, respect or admiration is true or not then one should see if the person exhibiting such a feeling is selfish or not. If for that person love, friendship, respect etc are catering to the objective needs then it is a true feeling and the person will always be committed. If they are just for whim-fulfillment then those feelings are shallow and there will be no commitment. To understand ‘Self’ is the prerequisite to selfishness. A person is most true when he/she is selfish. Love, friendship and respect is nothing, but token of satisfaction of those objective needs.
In the film, this is very true. The decision of John to leave Cecilia and reunite with his “sleeping dictionary”, Selima, is an expression of selfishness. It is a virtuous selfishness because he just did it because he loves Selima and not Cecilia.
Another is that when John and Cecilia got married. This happened to preserve the reputation of John as an English officer (because it is a shame for an officer to fall in love and marry his native sleeping dictionary).
Another scene that showed selfishness as a virtue was when John has chosen to disown his being an officer for the sake of his love for Selima. He was supposed to perform his duty but because of his love for the girl, he has forsaken it. Isn’t it selfish to forsake your duty just because you love somebody? For me, it is. But it is also a noble and virtuous act – to forsake your duty and follow what your heart dictates and what will make you happier.
3. How are you going to explain this film using Adam Smith’s theory of moral sentiments?
When we consider the character of any individual, we naturally view it under two different aspects; first, as it may affect his own happiness; and secondly, as it may affect that of other people.
The preservation and healthful state of the body seem to be the objects which Nature first recommends to the care of every individual. The appetites of hunger and thirst, the agreeable or disagreeable sensations of pleasure and pain, of heat and cold, etc. may be considered as lessons delivered by the voice of Nature herself, directing him what he ought to choose, and what he ought to avoid, for this purpose. The first lessons which he is taught by those to whom his childhood is entrusted, tend, the greater part of them, to the samepurpose. Their principal object is to teach him how to keep out of harm’s way.[3]
Smith departed from the “moral sense” tradition of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume, as the principle of sympathy takes the place of that organ. “Sympathy” was the term Smith used for the feeling of these moral sentiments. It was the feeling with the passions of others. Sympathy arose from an innate desire to identify with the emotions of others. It could lead people to strive to maintain good relations with their fellow human beings and provide the basis both for specific benevolent acts and for the general social order. Thus was formed within the beast the psychological basis for the desire to obey natural laws.
In the film, we can see some of the analogous feeling as what A. Smith called as “sympathy”. Looking back at the film, we learned that Henry sympathized with the feeling of John towards his sleeping dictionary. Henry told his story that he was also once an officer and had his own sleeping dictionary. Like what happened to John and Selima, Henry also fell in love with his sleeping dictionary and had a child with her. The fruit of that love affair with Henry and his sleeping dictionary was Selima. So here, in this particular scene, we can prove Adam Smith’s theory.
Another example from the film that applies the moral sentiment theory of Smith is between Aggie and her daughter Cecilia. As I can firmly remember in the film, Aggie warned Cecilia to take watch over John as what she did to Henry for fear of going back to his sleeping dictionary. Here, both of them are afraid to be abandoned by their husbands go back to their sleeping dictionaries. This is how sympathy was portrayed in the film.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments culminated in man as self-interested and self-commanded. Individual freedom, according to Smith, was rooted in self-reliance, the ability of an individual to pursue his self-interest while commanding himself based on the principles of natural law.

[1] Reference: WIKIPEDIA free dictionary.
[2] The Virtue of Selfishness, vii (VOS)
[3] Theory of Moral Sentiments; Adam Smith; Chap. VI; Sec. 1.2

About harksarmiento

Filipino. 27. Licensed Teacher of English. Writer. Leader and Team-builder. Speaker. Affiliations: PALT, Inc. (Active Member); PNU Manila (MA ELE); ONHS Main (English Department). Areas of Interest: Research, Philosophy, Psychology, Logic, Languages, Music, Politics, and Religion. Inclinations: blogging, watching movies, writing, reading. Hobby: badminton. Personality: Passionate, straightforward, tenacious.

Posted on February 11, 2009, in Education and Teaching, Film Analysis and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: