Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver's Travels
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Thus, gentle Reader, I have given thee a faithful History of my Travels for Sixteen Years, and above Seven Months; wherein I have not been so studious of Ornament as of Truth. I could perhaps like others have astonished thee with strange improbably Tales; but I rather chose to relate plain Matter of Fact in the simplest Manner and Style; because my principal Design was to inform, and not to amuse thee.”

This book took me a long time to read. I couldn’t figure out why it was taking me so long until I started quoting sections to my sister and my spouse and on my blog and realized just how much translation English from this era requires. So, I let myself off the hook a little bit and just tried to enjoy my leisurely reading pace. I’m glad to have read this book, but I’ll also be glad to move onto to something written in more contemporary language.

I admit, I think a fair amount of this book was lost on me. Throughout it I was unsure about whether the opinions Gulliver expressed were meant to be his alone or if they reflected Swift’s opinions as well. For example, there’s the very funny section in which Gulliver goes off about lawyers and judges. I found it absolutely hilarious and read it aloud to my sister (the attorney) over the phone one night. In retrospect, it may have been a little rude to read it to her. As an attorney, she’s well aware of the variety of lawyer jokes out there; it was probably unnecessary to bring to her attention eighteenth-century lawyer jokes.

In addition, since I’m not intimately acquainted with the history of England during this (or, really, any) period, I couldn’t really tell when he was making fun of the culture or political structure of the time and when he was just telling the story. I mean, in the first section, he goes into great detail about where and how he excretes among the diminutive Lilliputians and how astonished they are at his prodigious passage of urine. Are these scatological asides meant to tell the reader about Gulliver’s character (like when he notes that his personal habits of cleanliness have often come into question and he’s interested in setting the record straight), or are these descriptions themselves part of the satire? Are they spoofs of travel writing of the time? Being unfamiliar with either the culture or the travel-writing genre of eighteenth-century England, I couldn’t say. Same thing with the rather sexual nature of some of his experiences among the giants of Brobdingnag.

However, even amid my confusion several bits struck me as quite funny. As a homeschooler I quite appreciated Gulliver’s observation that, in Lilliput, “Parents are the last of all others to be trusted with the Education of their own Children.” Even more amusing was the Lilliputians’ reasoning for why parents are unqualified to educate their children: that a child’s parents likely were fairly unintentional about bringing that child into being as their “Thoughts in the their Love-encounters were otherwise employed.”

There are several sections that seem like a criticism of contemporary Western culture, including one of my favorite sections of Part III. Gulliver travels to the city of Lagado on the island of Balnibarbi where the people have embraced a thoroughly intellectual manner of problem-solving. New innovations will improve building, manufacture, agriculture, and every pursuit in which the city might engage. Among the benefits promised: “one Man shall do the Work of Ten; a Palace may be built in a Week…all the Fruits of the Earth shall come to Maturity at whatever Season we think fit to chuse, and increase an Hundred Fold more than they do at present.” Trouble is, these methods haven’t been perfected, and the people are suffering for it, going without adequate food and safe shelter as they wait for the innovations to catch up with their needs.

Rather than changing course, the people of Lagado persist: “Instead of being discouraged, they are Fifty Times more violently bent upon prosecuting their Schemes, driven equally on by Hope and Despair.”

I found it interesting that after both his visit to the giants in Brobdingnag and his visit to the rational Houyhnhnms, Gulliver ends up feeling an aversion to his own image in a mirror. In the first situation, the giants have developed a worldview in which a creature’s worth is directly proportional to its size, so when Gulliver looks in the mirror, he’s reminded of his own insignificance. In the second, he has developed such a positive opinion of the moral and honest Houyhnhnms (rational Horses) and so internalized their revulsion towards the Yahoos (the feral humans on that island) that he cannot stand to see the reminder that he is, in fact, a Yahoo and not a Houyhnhm. It’s like Gulliver experiences a kind of Stockholm syndrome in every place he visits. I wonder if this is a comment on how people who are exposed to pretentious views can adopt them as their own and then do all they can to class themselves with their “betters” and distance themselves from their true nature.

Oh, and if you read Gulliver’s Travels, I highly recommend going back after you’re done and re-reading, “A Letter From Capt. Gulliver to His Cousin Simpson” that’s at the beginning of the book. His comments about Yahoos and Houyhnhnms make a lot more sense—and are a lot more amusing—now that I’ve read the whole book.

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