You know, popular culture has really ruined this story for me. As a kid and as a teenager I believed Gulliver’s Travels was all about a man who somehow ended up in a world where the inhabitants were much smaller than he was in size and they therefore took him to be a giant and tied him to the ground. This is the scene most mini-series promos would show, and this seems to be most often the scene chosen for the cover art (I present exhibit A to the right). However, while I did enjoy the book, it isn’t quite as fun as all of that…it is just as silly, but not as fun.
Gulliver’s Travels is a satire that uses fantasy to evaluate and criticize different issues of the society Jonathan Swift would have been familiar with. The book presents a satirical view of the European government, and also of petty differences between religions that cause great conflict. Through Gulliver’s travels to many different lands over four parts in the book, the point is seen that no form of government is completely ideal: the land of the giants has streets filled with beggars; the land of the talking horses (no joke) does not have a word for lying, but that doesn’t mean they don’t do it in their own way; the land of the tiny people only six inches high is viewed by Gulliver as being vicious and unscrupulous; and the floating island is full of intelligent people interested in science and discovery, but they have no idea how to use their research (or sometimes do the research itself) in a way that is actually useful. All forms of government that Gulliver encounters have good points - Gulliver is even reluctant to leave the land of the talking horses, the Houyhnhnms (no, I don’t know how to say it either) – but none of them are perfect. And oftentimes Gulliver is able to discuss the European form of government with the rulers of whichever land he is visiting, and the land of the giants in particular, who enjoy public executions, see Europe as vicious and unscrupulous, which is the same way Gulliver viewed the Lilliputians.
The book in its entirety is far too deep to be considered a children’s book. However, it is often classified as such because of the popularity of the Lilliput section (the people six inches high) as a children’s story. It is even possible to buy the book with only an edited version of the Lilliput section inside.
The book could also be seen as a parody of the travelers’ tales literary sub-genre.
As mentioned under the genre section, Swift satirizes different forms of government and different beliefs as he travels from place to place. When entering each land, Gulliver meets and describes the people, and once they have figured out how to deal with his presence, the reader then gets a closer look at the people and how they operate as a society. Eventually, a massive flaw is pointed out and then Gulliver either escapes, or is rescued, or is expelled (sadly, form the one place he wanted to stay), or simply leaves and returns home.
Gulliver also ends up on the shores of these places mostly by accident, and these accidents become more difficult to maneuver as time goes on. First he is shipwrecked, then abandoned, then attacked by pirates, and then, as if being attached by pirates wasn’t bad enough, he is attacked by his own crew. He doesn’t choose to end up in any of these places. Gulliver’s love of travel proves to be his downfall. Despite his continuous misadventures and stronger and stronger vows to never travel again after each one, Gulliver finds himself going back out again only to have another accident happen to him and throw him onto a strange land. He does eventually stop traveling, but only after (spoiler alert!) the Houyhnhnms, whom he adored, expel him because, although he looks like the savage human Yahoos they rule over, his intelligence is considered a threat to their current way of life. So Gulliver returns home, only to be disappointed and disgusted in all other Yahoos, which would include his wife, family, and most tragically, himself. He becomes a recluse, and spends several hours a day talking to the horses in the stable. This is also the final stage in Gulliver’s transition from a cheery optimistic travel to a reclusive man disenchanted with the entire human race, not just Europeans, which are both groups he is more than annoyed to be a part of.
Each of the four parts and four lands are usually contrasts to another one that Gulliver visits. In Part I Gulliver is small, in Part II he is big, in Part III he is wise, in Part IV he ignorant. Also, in Part I, the country is complex, in Part II the country is simple, in Part III the country is largely scientific, and in Part IV the country is based in the natural. The lands also contrast with their respective counterparts in how they compare to Europe. To Gulliver, the Lilliputians are vicious, but the Brobdingnags (land of the giants) think the same of Europe. Gulliver also thinks the Laputians are unreasonable, but they Houyhnhnms think the same of the human race. So as Swift criticizes others, he turns the tables and has his own land as well as the human race criticized.
Also, no matter what types of adventures or misadventures Gulliver has on a respective land, he finds at least one person he treats and communicates with as a friend.
It is said that Gulliver’s Travels can be read as a rebuttal to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Swift may be going against Defoe’s optimistic outlook on human capability that I even feel is present in both Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. Gulliver’s adventures would definitely refute the idea that the individual precedes society due to all of the different pictures of government and society Swift gives his readers.
Much of the material in Gulliver’s Travels reflects Swift’s own experiences in politics. For instance, before the Tory government fell, Swift had wished to stay in England and receive a church appointment there. However, Queen Anne did not reward his political efforts of the preceding years, so he had to settle for the Deanery of St. Patrick’s, Dublin. When the Whigs returned, Swift left England and returned to Ireland in disappointment like an exile. This situation mirrors what happened to Gulliver in the land of the Houyhnhnms. He wanted to stay, but he was deemed to dangerous because of his intelligence and ability to reason, so the expelled him with little care to how he felt about it. It was after all of this that he would write Gulliver’s Travels, and Alexander Pope (who I will cover soon) was among his friends that helped him publish it under the pseudonym of Lemuel Gulliver.
Next week we will take a quick detour into the linguistic with Sonja Laneheart’s African American Women’s Language: Discourse, Education, and Identity. The post will definitely have a different feel, but hopefully I can still make some sense of the research Dr. Laneheart and others have done in the field of the language of African American women.