Saturday, May 7, 2016

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift is a very famous book that I recently read for the first time. This work was completed in its final form in 1735. This story is a satire and a social commentary on the state of humanity. It examines various human foibles such as war, prejudice, religious conflicts and politics, to name just a few. Surprisingly, I found much of this commentary to be very relevant to our current times.

Over the course of various sea voyages, Gulliver travels to many strange lands. These include his famous visit to Lilliput, a land whose citizens are tiny. Conversely, Brobdingnag is a land of giants. Laputa is a floating island. Balnibarbi is a horribly dystopian society being wrecked by ideologues. Glubbdubdrib is a magical place where the dead are resurrected. Luggnagg is a land where a few folks are immortal but in a terrible condition. The Country of the Houyhnhnms is a place of sentient horses and with characteristics of a utopia.

 This work goes in so many directions in terms of social satire that it is difficult to write a comprehensive summary. In general, Swift takes aim at hypocrisy as well as absurdities that are ingrained in the society of his time. Many of the issues that the author tackles are still with us in the Twenty First Century.

At times, the criticism of humanity is lighthearted, at other times searing. Though the entire work is not negative, the narrative reaches an extremely cynical point during the visit to Glubbdubdrib. At one point, Gulliver convinces the island’s governor to summon various historical personages back from the dead. At the protagonist’s request, mostly leaders from the past are resurrected. After encounters with these ghouls, Gulliver draws some dark conclusions about government,

“Here I discovered the true causes of many great events that have surprised the world; how a whore can govern the back-stairs, the back-stairs a council, and the council a senate.   A general confessed, in my presence, “that he got a victory purely by the force of cowardice and ill conduct;” and an admiral, “that, for want of proper intelligence, he beat the enemy, to whom he intended to betray the fleet.”   Three kings protested to me, “that in their whole reigns they never did once prefer any person of merit, unless by mistake, or treachery of some minister in whom they confided; neither would they do it if they were to live again:” and they showed, with great strength of reason, “that the royal throne could not be supported without corruption, because that positive, confident, restiff temper, which virtue infused into a man, was a perpetual clog to public business.” 

This is a grim depiction of human governance indeed! Here and elsewhere narrative, it is apparent that Swift is not enamored with many human institutions. Government is but one of these institutions that bear the brunt of his ire.

This work was surprisingly ahead of its time. This is exemplified by an underlying theme throughout the work. That is, people need to be viewed as equals. Throughout the story, people of all shapes and sizes engage in the same foibles and exhibit the same virtues. Swift also points out that folks have a tendency to unfairly discriminate and look down upon people who are different. The giants of Brobdingnag disparage smaller races, and the Houyhnhnms think less of Gulliver because of his human appearance. This type of narrow thinking goes on wherever Gulliver ends up.

Another striking aspect of this book is Swift’s attention to detail. It is very impressive and ranges from the effects of the giant Brobdingnags’s booming voices on Gulliver’s eardrums to the menacing effect of giant flies to the clever way that the Houyhnhnms manipulate small objects with their hooves.

There are so many reasons to recommend this book besides the above. It is a very rich work and works on several levels. I will be sharing my thoughts of Swift’s take on colonialism in a future post. Furthermore, this is book is effective satire. Much of the humor here still works, as when Gulliver puts out a fire in the tiny Lilliputian castle by urinating upon it. It is also an engaging adventure story and travelogue.

I highly recommend this work to those who are familiar with the basic storyline as well as those who are not. This is an engaging book in many ways and on many levels. The classic is also still very relevant today.

40 comments:

JacquiWine said...

Great commentary, Brian. I was quite young when I read this book so I suspect that many of the Swift's observations on the broader society went right over my head at the time. As you say, certain aspects remain very relevant today.

Lory said...

This was one of the first "grown up" classics that I really enjoyed. The fantastic elements appeal to children, but the satire is very complex and adult. It's interesting to see how Swift mixes entertainment and social commentary - not so easy to do. I'm glad you finally got to read this and found it so worthwhile.

JoAnn said...

This is a classic I've never been particularly drawn to, but I think you just changed that.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - I think that a lot of things that we read when young yield more results when we read them latter on. In terms of this book I think that it is true for many of us.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lory - These things are all very true. As an adult I also very much enjoyed the fantastical elements :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks JoAnn.


This had also been off my radar. Over the last few years I have been digging into older fantastical stories. I am glad that I trued this one.

Harvee Lau - Book Dilettante said...

I did a major college paper on a lesser known work by Swift - The Draper's Letters to the People of Ireland.Just love his satire!

Jonathan said...

I love Gulliver's Travels and I've read it now a couple of times as an adult. It contains one of my favourite quotes of all time - it's the Houyhnhnms' comment on humans after Gulliver has been describing human behaviour to them:
“I cannot but conclude that the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.”

BTW Are you a big-endian or a little-endian?

thecuecard said...

How iconic that picture of Gulliver on the front cover. I can't even remember what happens to him once he's tied up. He breaks loose but then what? The story seems way ahead of its time, with Ole Gulliver. Quite a classic.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jonathan - That is awesome quote! This work is full of them.

Like all rational and ethical people I am a little-endian :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - He actually stays captive but is eventually feed when he earns the trust of the Lilliputians.

The passages that take place on the Lilliputian beach have indeed entered our cultural consciousness.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - I just Googled The Draper's Letters to the People of Ireland. They look interesting.

The satire in this work was superb.

James said...

Like so many others I love this novel. Swift was a superb satirist and, as you point out, so much of this work was ahead of its time. I am not sure that the complete novel is appreciated sufficiently in our age. Thanks for your excellent commentary.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

I really liked this book when I read it, years ago, even if I didn't see it in the same light as you. I know now that timing is crucial - you look at a book with different eyes when you read it later on in life, especially something like "Gulliver's Travels". I remember not particularly liking "Alice in Wonderland" a few years ago but I expect my opinion might change if I were to read it again.

Tracy Terry said...

One of my favourite all time reads. I have a copy which belonged to my mam when she was a girl. Well read now as it was also one of her favourites I'm looking for an illustrated copy.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Your point about the entire novel not being appreciated is a good one. It seems that folks tend to concentrate upon the Lilliputian. the entire novel is strong and full of insights.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - You raise such a great point. I read so many things when I was younger that I could not appreciate at the time.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - This is a good pick for a favorite book. I do not have an illustrated copy. I would like to pick up a high quality one.

Guy Savage said...

Like Jacqui, I read this when I was young and now realize that it was so much more than a children's story.

Sharon Henning said...

This is such a good book and your review makes astute observations. I know Swift was a cleric but I was surprised at some of the risque treatment as concerned those female giants and their handling of little Gulliver.
It's been years since I read it and I never finished it. I am now inspired to do so.
Thanks for a great review, Brian!

seraillon said...

I find it difficult to think of another work that so tremendously rewards the reader who, having first encountered the book as a child, returns to it as an adult. Hilarious, biting, eternally relevant.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I think that a lot of books often read by children contain lots of great stuff for adults.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Scott - All the things you said I agree with. This book is immensely enjoyable.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon,


It interesting that this book was more risqué then novels written a century later by the Victorians.

I think that you would really like this if you read this now.

So many books, so little time said...

I was sure I had commented on this, I have it on my tbr but haven't yet read it. I am sure we saw the televised movie as a child. I love how you read so deep into so many themes in books! I will need to revist your review when I finally get round to reading and reviewing mine.

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

R.T. said...

It is too bad that so few people have read this book in recent years. I think -- except for a few book bloggers and a couple of other dedicated readers -- only English majors in college have encounters with Gulliver. Perhaps the not-so-good film versions in the last 40 or 50 years inspired some readers. I remember my first encounter: Classics Illustrated comic book version way back in the mid-50s. My next encounter was college, and I discovered more than I had suspected was relevant to the 20th century. And I still find myself too often surrounded by Yahoos!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi R.T. - Indeed it seems like those who have read this did so when they were so very young.

Unfortunately the world is full of Yahoos!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lainy.

I remotely remember seeing a screen version of this as a child also.

If you read this I would love to know what you thought.



Caroline said...

I read this in high school but don't really remember much. It felt more philosophy in fiction format like Utopia or Voltaire's stories. What I'm trying to say is that the style didn't seem as literary. But it's so long ago. Very interesting ideas but a bit dry style- wise.

Maria Behar said...

AWESOME review as always, Brian!

I have never read this novel. Also, when I was a kid, I thought it was supposed to be a children's book. Of course, as you have said, it can be read on many levels. I was quite surprised, though, to discover the word "whore" in this novel. That means it's questionable reading for kids.

By the way, the name of that island, "Laputa" literally means "the whore" in Spanish. It's two words instead of one, though, because the word "la" is the feminine form of "the" in Spanish. I wonder if Swift was aware of this, and intentionally used that crude Spanish word as the name of his fictional island.

From your analysis, the satire in this novel has a lot of cynicism. As you pointed out, this work is really ahead of its time, so I would say it has an existentialist point of view. All the various lands that Gulliver traveled through actually become a "theater of the absurd". This now makes me wonder whether the existentialists, especially Kafka and Camus, were at all influenced by this novel.

I really like the fact that Swift satirizes the human tendency to discriminate against those who are different in some way. This is indeed a very sad component of human nature. I went through bullying myself when I was a kid, and it was because I'm a Hispanic. So I can really appreciate Swift's barbs regarding prejudice!

Overall, in spite of some crude elements I honestly don't care for (Gulliver urinating on that castle to put out a fire is another one), this novel does seem to be a very interesting read. It frequently happens that fiction can drive a point home much more effectively, and with fewer words, than nonfiction can. That certainly seems to be the case here!

Thanks for your thoughts!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - There really is a lot of philosophy contained here so I think that you have a point.

I found the humor and at times light tone prevented the narrative from becoming too dry for me.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

You raise such a good point about this work influencing some of the existentialists. I think that it did.


On the other hand, based on the narrative, I get the sense that despite his dark view of humanity, Swift believe in solid morality. He was just very negative about people's lack of it. Thus he did not go as far as the twentieth century thinkers.

Prejudice and bullying is such a negative aspect to human existence, Swift really conveys that in this work.

The Wikipedia article on "Laputa" speculates that the use of the word was intentional. It may haver something to do with the fact that the women of Laputa have a tendency to have affairs.

R.T. (Tim) Davis said...

Postscript:
FYI, I have changed my blogging address and focus; here is the link:
http://theernesthemingwayblog.blogspot.com/

I hope you and your many visitors will stop by and join the discussions. Yahoos, however, will be blocked. Hmmmm. Thanks!

Stefanie said...

Isn't this a good one? I read it long ago but liked it a lot. Sad that it is still so relevant. The more things change, etc. My husband is currently giving it a reread by listening to it on audio. He provides me with regular updates :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi R.T. - Thanks for letting me know. I am adding your new site to my blog reader right now.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephanie - It is great to read a book second hand through one's spouse. I have done it myself :)

Though I am a believer that the world is getting better, it is striking how relevant this book still is today.

The Bookworm said...

I have never read Gulliver's Travels but have watched a film version. I think it is a clever storyline and the book sounds interesting!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - The book is so inventive. I think that most of the film versions only cover a small portion of the book, namely Gulliver's visit to Lilliput. There is a lot more to the story.

ebookclassics said...

Great review! I haven't read Gulliver's Travels, but must have seen a cartoon because I always remember the part with the Lilliputians. It's amazing how the themes in classic literature resonate with us today.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CJ - This book has really remained part of out culture. It seems that so many of us were first introduced to this work through the cartoon.