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.
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.