Demonstrating quite vividly the difference that a few years and a sense of humor can make, Gulliver’s Travels is a very different tale from its closest comparative, Robinson Crusoe. It is one of those books that most undergraduates encounter in full or in part (the latter was my case), read through, think that they understand, and then forget. This is a shame, because what Jonathan Swift did in writing this tale was rather more subversive and world-beating than anything that Defoe ever dreamt.
On its simplest level, Gulliver’s Travels may be read as the story of an English sailor, Lemuel Gulliver, who has a series of adventures as a part of his career at sea. These adventures take him to a land of extraordinarily small people, then a land of enormous people who dwarf him. He then travels to a floating island, a land below the floating island, and finally reaches Japan. In his last voyage, he arrives on an island where men are little better than feral, savage beasts, and the highest intelligence is represented by horses.
What readers won’t be expecting from this 1726 novel (revised in 1735, and never out of print since) if they have only ever encountered Gulliver in one of the tedious television or film versions is the bawdy humor, the biting satire, and incisive wit which has made Gulliver a success since its publication. No version starring Ted Danson or Jack Black is ever really going to do more than tell a “funny” (and I use the term loosely) story about a big man among tiny people, or a little man among giants, or something of that sort.
As the reader follows Gulliver from one adventure to the next, there are many other things at play than just the bare bones of the story. References to contemporary and ancient events are rife in Swift, and if a reader is planning to attempt this book, they should have a good version of the book to read (for example, the World’s Classics edition, published by Oxford University Press, follows the text with 72 pages of endnotes). More importantly, however, the sometimes savagely satirical pen of swift cuts a swathe through the humbugs of his day. Gulliver’s Travels is a funny book as well, although some of the jokes require some explanation, but it has aged well for being nearly three hundred years old.
There is a definite pattern to each of Gulliver’s adventures. He is either shipwrecked or marooned, whereupon he meets the locals. He is taken into the presence of the King or Emperor, where the two exchange views on philosophy and government. Gulliver then finds that he must either escape, or that the locals have taken against him and wish to exile him, to “send him back whence he came.” In Part I, he is washed ashore in Lilliput, where he finds that the humans are extremely small. In Part II, he is abandoned by his shipmates and arrives in Brobdingnag, where the locals are vastly taller than him. In Part III, he is marooned by pirates who capture his ship, and encounters a floating island in Laputa, travels to Balnibari, Luggnagg, and Glubbdubdrib, and eventually winds up in Japan. And in Part IV, Gulliver abandons his humanity altogether to join the noble horses of the Houyhnhnms, and comes to view his own kind, the degenerate Yahoos, as monstrous and deformed animals. When he finally returns to his own people, he gives every evidence of some form of Stockholm syndrome, adopting the manners and customs of his former horse overlords.
I know that it was not the point of the story, but I did spare more than a thought for his long-suffering wife and family, who put up with this nonsense for nearly twenty years and ended up with some sort of peculiar man-horse sulking around the house, refusing to even eat in their presence. Enlightened modern though I am, I think I would probably have given Mr Gulliver the boot at that point, and suggested that the find accommodations in a stable more to his liking.
Sadly, however, the presence of sustained and biting satire in a book from the early 18th century will make most readers suddenly realize something. Satire… isn’t new. In fact, it’s been around since the ancient Greeks, when it was sometimes an even more vicious affair (that’s why they made you read Lysistrata when you were at university, remember?). The Daily Show and Jon Stewart didn’t invent satirical comment, although they sometimes did it very well. But as its first major exponent in English, Swift was a brilliant and effective satirist, and satire in the 18th century was an important force. But the broken institutions, the webs of law and jeopardy, the wealth and power and abuses thereof against which Swift plied his acid pen: those are still there, and just as powerful as ever. Satire, as Swift ultimately ends up reminding us, is a great way to make the little guys feel better about being little. It shows that they/we are aware of their/our status, as opposed to being television-addled drones consuming, doing, and thinking what we are told to by the oligarchs. If we can still think and learn and form our own opinions, then we are still free.
Reviewed 10 November 2015.
Find your copy of Gulliver’s Travels from booksellers around the world at AbeBooks.com (title links directly t0 search results; there are so many versions of this book that I have limited the search to the Oxford University Press edition that I read, which has many pages of helpful notes).