Gulliver’s Travels is so pervasive in the culture that I didn’t expect to be surprised by it, and for the most part I wasn’t. Certainly the beginning covered exactly the territory I was expecting, with Gulliver’s journey to Lilliput, where he is a giant among a society of tiny people. But even though I hadn’t been waiting for the specifics of his subsequent travels, I was ready for them, generally. Overall it was a pleasant and fairly quick read, interesting above and beyond the fantastic.
The book is a first-person chronicle of the travels of Gulliver, as he heads to sea over and over and meets astonishing troubles over and over. It reminded me quite a bit of Sinbad the sailor in this regard, where after the second or third voyage, you have to wonder why he doesn’t just stay home already. But Sinbad and Gulliver both heed the call of the sea, and no amount of misfortune seems to sway them from it.
Gulliver has four journeys, each to a land more fantastic than the last:
- Lilliput is his first destination, where he is a giant among tiny people, which is the most widely known adventure from the book. I saw a cartoon of this as a child and remember very clearly the scene where he is tied down on the beach.
- Brobdingnag is where he lands next, and here his situation is reversed, as he is the tiny man among giants. As soon as I saw that this was the nature of his second adventure, I began wondering what he would do for the third and fourth.
- Laputa and associated locations occupy his third and even stranger adventure, as Laputa is a flying island populated by a strange race of would-be astronomers and mathematicians who are paradoxically not very good at anything.
- The Land of the Houyhnhnms proves the strangest of all of his adventures, and the most transformative for him as well. Here the land is populated by talking horses who live in an idyllic society of peace and plenty, which also contains an inferior race of people known as Yahoos, who are loathsome and who it becomes clear are actually humans.
As an adventure story, Gulliver delivers tolerably well. The jams he gets into are interesting enough, and Swift narrates well and with sufficient, apt detail. As satire, of course, it shines, sending up the idiocy of humans on any number of levels. In the first adventure he seems to be mocking life at court, where we learn of a great feud between one emperor and another rooted in which side of an egg should be opened first. In the second adventure we get more of the same, with less of a societal bent and more of a personal one, as Gulliver is made into the plaything of the queen. In the third adventure we get a roasting of the intellectual, who pretends to know so much and is in truth helpless and clueless in the world. And in the final adventure, we get the darkest tale, where Gulliver is forced to confront the base nature of humanity itself, branding every one of us Yahoos. I haven’t read Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, but I gather this was Swift’s response to that book, and so there is a layer of literary satire on top of the whole thing. All in all, a good bit of work from Swift.
That said, I felt myself maintaining an intellectual distance from the work which dampened my enjoyment. I was acutely aware while reading that the whole thing was a scaffolding upon which to hang Swift’s satire, and it kept me from investing in the story or any of the characters too much. By the second voyage I was already guessing what the third and fourth adventures would focus on, and I found myself impatient to get there. Undoubtedly I am wrong to wish that every book be first and foremost a good and engaging story, but here I am. Whenever an author leads with satire or spins a parable or invests too much in their metaphor, I find that the characters become driven to the narrative rather than the other way around, and this makes them ring a bit less true as humans. It’s hard to knock a book for not being a thing it is not, but that’s my critique in the end.
Excerpt from Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift
I had settled my little economy to my own heart’s content. My master had ordered a room to be made for me, after their manner, about six yards from the house: the sides and floors of which I plastered with clay, and covered with rush-mats of my own contriving. I had beaten hemp, which there grows wild, and made of it a sort of ticking; this I filled with the feathers of several birds I had taken with springes made of Yahoos’ hairs, and were excellent food. I had worked two chairs with my knife, the sorrel nag helping me in the grosser and more laborious part. When my clothes were worn to rags, I made myself others with the skins of rabbits, and of a certain beautiful animal, about the same size, called nnuhnoh, the skin of which is covered with a fine down. Of these I also made very tolerable stockings. I soled my shoes with wood, which I cut from a tree, and fitted to the upper-leather; and when this was worn out, I supplied it with the skins of Yahoos dried in the sun. I often got honey out of hollow trees, which I mingled with water, or ate with my bread. No man could more verify the truth of these two maxims, “That nature is very easily satisfied;” and, “That necessity is the mother of invention.” I enjoyed perfect health of body, and tranquillity of mind; I did not feel the treachery or inconstancy of a friend, nor the injuries of a secret or open enemy. I had no occasion of bribing, flattering, or pimping, to procure the favour of any great man, or of his minion; I wanted no fence against fraud or oppression: here was neither physician to destroy my body, nor lawyer to ruin my fortune; no informer to watch my words and actions, or forge accusations against me for hire: here were no gibers, censurers, backbiters, pickpockets, highwaymen, housebreakers, attorneys, bawds, buffoons, gamesters, politicians, wits, splenetics, tedious talkers, controvertists, ravishers, murderers, robbers, virtuosos; no leaders, or followers, of party and faction; no encouragers to vice, by seducement or examples; no dungeon, axes, gibbets, whipping-posts, or pillories; no cheating shopkeepers or mechanics; no pride, vanity, or affectation; no fops, bullies, drunkards, strolling whores, or poxes; no ranting, lewd, expensive wives; no stupid, proud pedants; no importunate, overbearing, quarrelsome, noisy, roaring, empty, conceited, swearing companions; no scoundrels raised from the dust upon the merit of their vices, or nobility thrown into it on account of their virtues; no lords, fiddlers, judges, or dancing-masters.
I had the favour of being admitted to several Houyhnhnms, who came to visit or dine with my master; where his honour graciously suffered me to wait in the room, and listen to their discourse. Both he and his company would often descend to ask me questions, and receive my answers. I had also sometimes the honour of attending my master in his visits to others. I never presumed to speak, except in answer to a question; and then I did it with inward regret, because it was a loss of so much time for improving myself; but I was infinitely delighted with the station of an humble auditor in such conversations, where nothing passed but what was useful, expressed in the fewest and most significant words; where, as I have already said, the greatest decency was observed, without the least degree of ceremony; where no person spoke without being pleased himself, and pleasing his companions; where there was no interruption, tediousness, heat, or difference of sentiments. They have a notion, that when people are met together, a short silence does much improve conversation: this I found to be true; for during those little intermissions of talk, new ideas would arise in their minds, which very much enlivened the discourse. Their subjects are, generally on friendship and benevolence, on order and economy; sometimes upon the visible operations of nature, or ancient traditions; upon the bounds and limits of virtue; upon the unerring rules of reason, or upon some determinations to be taken at the next great assembly: and often upon the various excellences of poetry. I may add, without vanity, that my presence often gave them sufficient matter for discourse, because it afforded my master an occasion of letting his friends into the history of me and my country, upon which they were all pleased to descant, in a manner not very advantageous to humankind: and for that reason I shall not repeat what they said; only I may be allowed to observe, that his honour, to my great admiration, appeared to understand the nature of Yahoos much better than myself. He went through all our vices and follies, and discovered many, which I had never mentioned to him, by only supposing what qualities a Yahoo of their country, with a small proportion of reason, might be capable of exerting; and concluded, with too much probability, “how vile, as well as miserable, such a creature must be.”
I freely confess, that all the little knowledge I have of any value, was acquired by the lectures I received from my master, and from hearing the discourses of him and his friends; to which I should be prouder to listen, than to dictate to the greatest and wisest assembly in Europe. I admired the strength, comeliness, and speed of the inhabitants; and such a constellation of virtues, in such amiable persons, produced in me the highest veneration. At first, indeed, I did not feel that natural awe, which the Yahoos and all other animals bear toward them; but it grew upon me by decrees, much sooner than I imagined, and was mingled with a respectful love and gratitude, that they would condescend to distinguish me from the rest of my species.
When I thought of my family, my friends, my countrymen, or the human race in general, I considered them, as they really were, Yahoos in shape and disposition, perhaps a little more civilized, and qualified with the gift of speech; but making no other use of reason, than to improve and multiply those vices whereof their brethren in this country had only the share that nature allotted them. When I happened to behold the reflection of my own form in a lake or fountain, I turned away my face in horror and detestation of myself, and could better endure the sight of a common Yahoo than of my own person. By conversing with the Houyhnhnms, and looking upon them with delight, I fell to imitate their gait and gesture, which is now grown into a habit; and my friends often tell me, in a blunt way, “that I trot like a horse;” which, however, I take for a great compliment. Neither shall I disown, that in speaking I am apt to fall into the voice and manner of the Houyhnhnms, and hear myself ridiculed on that account, without the least mortification.