Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is one of the most enduring stories in English, still being read almost 300 years since it was first published. Its durability is due to its storytelling qualities though it is arguably more of a satire than a novel and the relevance of that satire may have diminished over time.
Lemuel Gulliver, a young man from Nottinghamshire, has considerable difficulty setting himself up in life. Unable to afford a Cambridge education, he becomes an apprentice surgeon, then serves as ship’s surgeon on a voyage of three and a half years. Returning to England, he marries and tries to set up a practice in London but still can’t earn enough to sustain himself and so sets off on voyage again aboard the Antelope.
Shipwrecked after a storm somewhere in the eastern Indian Ocean (or western Pacific Ocean), Gulliver manages to swim to shore and collapses from exhaustion. When he awakens, he finds he has been tied to the ground. Little people, not six inches high, are crawling all over him, speaking to him in a language he does not understand. When he tries to get up, they sting him with their arrows. Apparently great engineers, they load Gulliver onto a contraption to wheel him into their capital city, Lilliput, where they chain him.
While the Lilliputians discuss how to feed him, take care of him and what they are ultimately to do with him, Gulliver learns their language. He learns about their culture and customs, their systems of government and justice. The Lilliputians release Gulliver with a set of conditions and Gulliver tries to make himself amusing and useful to them. When a fire breaks out at the palace, Gulliver promptly puts it out by urinating on it which does not amuse everyone!
Gulliver also learns of Lilliput’s enemy – Blefuscu – the France to Lilliput’s England. Gulliver plans and carries out an attack on Blefuscu, snaring their entire navy together and pulling it away. But Gulliver stops short of annihilating Blefuscu and will not allow Lilliput to subjugate them.
Not long after, Gulliver learns of a plot to eliminate him and that articles of impeachment have been drafted against him. Most concern his refusal to destroy the Blefuscudians and suspicions as to why, but his urinating on the palace is still offensive to some.
WHEREAS, by a Statute made in the Reign of his Imperial Majesty Calin Deffar Plune, it is enacted, That whoever shall make water within the Precincts of the Royal Palace, shall be liable to the Pains and Penalties of High-Treason: Notwithstanding, the said Quinbus Flestrin [Gulliver], in open breach of the said Law, under colour of extinguishing the Fire kindled in the Apartment of his Majesty’s dear Imperial Consort, did maliciously, traitorously, and devilishly, by discharge of his Urine, put out the said fire […]
Gulliver escapes Lilliput, finds a boat and, with the help of the Blefuscudians, makes it ready to sail. With luck, he is found by an English ship returning from Japan and makes his way home. But Gulliver spends only two months with his wife and children before he decides to sail again.
In all Gulliver survives four voyages to bizarre lands and lives to tell the tale. He visits Brobdingnab where, in the converse of his experience of Lilliput, Gulliver is tiny and everyone in Brobdingnab is gigantic relative to him. On his third voyage he encounters flying islands and witnesses the folly of pursuing science for its own merit and of immortality without eternal youth.
His final voyage seems to have had the most impact on Gulliver. He finds himself in the land of the Houyhnhnms where humans are unintelligent animals and it is a species of horse that are intelligent. Explaining the ways of humans to the Houyhnhnms – of war and lawyers, money and trade – leaves Gulliver disgusted with his own species and he resolves to find a deserted island to spend the rest of his life.
I was chiefly disgusted with modern History. For having strictly examined all the Persons of greatest Name in the courts of Princes for an hundred Years past, I found how the World had been misled by prostitute Writers, to ascribe the greatest Exploits in War to Cowards, the Wisest Counsel to Fools, Sincerity to Flatterers, Roman Virtue to Betrayers of their Country, Piety to Atheists, Chastity to Sodomites, Truth to Informers. How many innocent and excellent Persons had been condemned to Death or Banishment, by the practising of great Ministers upon the Corruption of Judges, and the Malice of Faction. How many Villains had been exalted to the highest places of Trust, Power, Dignity and Profit: How great a share in the Motions and Events of Courts, Councils, and Senates might be challenged by Bawds, Whores, Pimps, Parasites, and Buffoons: How low an Opinion I had of human Wisdom and Integrity, when I was truly informed of the Springs and Motives of great Enterprises and Revolutions in the World, and of the contemptible Accidents to which they owed their Success.
Though he is persuaded to return to England he can barely stand the company of his own species, even his own family.
Gulliver’s Travels reminded me of a couple of other books I have read. The first is Don Quixote by Cervantes. Gulliver is very satirical and full of political allusions. It would probably be fair to say that the novel is mostly a vehicle for making such satirical and political points. Swift covers Torys and Whigs, Catholics and Protestants and various British and European monarchs in veiled and naked references. For example, during Gulliver’s Lilliput adventure, allusions are made to Charles I, the Duke of Marlborough, Lord Carteret, the Duchess of Kendal and several other political figures and events.
[The King] was perfectly astonished with the historical Account I gave him of our Affairs during the last Century, protesting it was only an heap of Conspiracies, Rebellions, Murders, Massacres, Revolutions, Banishments, the very worst Effects that Avarice, Faction, Hypocrisy, Perfidiousness, Cruelty, Rage, Madness, Hatred, Envy, Lust, Malice, or Ambition could produce.
[…] then taking me into his Hands, and stroking me gently, delivered himself in these Words, which I shall never forget, nor the manner he spoke them in [: …] I am well disposed to hope you may hitherto have escaped many Vices of your Country. But, […] I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.
At times it verges on the cynical. For example, Gulliver’s third voyage experiences of witnessing people pursuing science for its own sake and not for practical purpose, of ‘absurd’ research and of being so obsessed with it that they are themselves absent-minded and clumsy is apparently a dig at the Royal Academy and at Newton.
Gulliver’s Travels is very clever in its satire and a reader can’t help but admire its wit and imagination. But, like Voltaire’s Candide, this aspect to the story may have lost its relevance over time and may only endure in general terms. Coupled with the fact that it is not the most engrossing read, it reminded me of Don Quixote in that my admiration for the skill of its satire was almost matched by the effort that I had to make to keep reading it.
It helps that the story at times moves very quickly with little build up. It also helps that the story, especially the first voyage to Lilliput is often funny as well.
Another Professor showed me a large Paper of Instructions for discovering Plots and Conspiracies against the Government. He advised great Statesmen to examine into the Diet of all suspected Persons; their times of eating; upon which side they lay in Bed; with which hand they wiped their Posteriors; To take a strict view of their Excrements, and from the Colour, the Odour, the Taste, the Consistence, the Crudeness, or Maturity of Digestion, form a Judgement of their Thoughts and Designs. Because men are never so Serious, Thoughtful, and Intent, as when they are at Stool, which he found by frequent Experiment: For in such Conjunctures, when he used merely as a Trial, to consider which was the best way of murdering the King, his Ordure would have a Tincture of Green, but quite different when he thought only of raising an Insurrection or burning the Metropolis.
The other book Gulliver reminded me of was Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for a couple of reasons besides the obvious one of both being first-person accounts of far-off adventure. Firstly, like Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver was one of my favourite stories from childhood. Unfortunately, my love for them may only be for the abridged children’s versions I read as a child and will not transfer to the original texts. The original versions still contain the essence of what made these stories compelling for me as a child, whether it was the fantastic settings and events or the appeal of the characters. But that leaves long periods of story that are less interesting, written in English that is a little difficult for the modern reader.
Which brings me to the second thing they have in common. Robinson Crusoe (first published in 1719) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726) both represent early forms of the novel in English and should be understood in that context. They are the literary equivalent of watching silent film and ought to be appreciated and respected for the ground they broke but are understandably less engrossing to modern readers. An example for how the passage of time impacts the reading of Gulliver comes from the words used (the edition I read is based on the 1726 first edition). In almost any book from the past the writer will be using words that are unfamiliar to us or using them in unfamiliar ways. In Gulliver I found this to be more extreme; sentences that seem perfectly sensible to a modern reader actually have a very different meaning because one familiar word, still in use, is being used with a very different meaning no longer in use.
Otherwise the two works contrast each other quite strongly. Crusoe is a self-sufficient individualist who masters his predicaments though the use of reason and who tries to make the reader believe his story by emphasising its realism. Gulliver, whether in London or a fantastical land, is a somewhat impotent person, sceptical of reason and encourages the reader to doubt the veracity of whatever they read with his dubious tale.
Robert Demaria Jr, a Professor of English at Vassar College, echoes some of these thoughts of mine in his introduction to the Penguin black classic edition I read. He suggests that Gulliver’s Travels is more of a satire than a novel or a story, but its storytelling qualities explain its durability and repeated adaptation even though the satire is often lost in such retelling.
Demaria describes Swift’s deep involvement in politics during a tumultuous time including the execution of Charles I, the Tory crisis and the death of Queen Anne. Swift only wrote Gulliver’s Travels after leaving his political life behind, suggesting that the fictional medium was a safer place for him to say what he thought. Despite this Demaria cautions readers for assuming that Gulliver, his thoughts and beliefs, are a reflection of Swift, saying the relationship between the two is complex.
The original Gulliver’s Travels may have been a little disappointing to me having been fond of an abridged version in childhood. Its format and style is not very difficult given its age, but it may not be very engaging to a modern reader and most of the targets of its satire have ceased to be relevant. Still, it ought to be appreciated for the ground it broke and the inspiration and influence it provided future satirists, two in particular that I have read recently – Butler’s Erewhon and Voltaire’s Candide.