Review: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

At school, reading assignments could be likened to a game of Bingo: I noted whichever passages fit the professor’s lecture, then dug for a theme to tie a paper together. Reading the classics is almost fun again now. I say almost because Gulliver’s Travels goes on too long after making its points, but the first two sections are brilliant. The Writing and Style are very dated, but the Reader will adjust within a Chapter or two.

From the back cover:
Shipwrecked and cast adrift, Lemuel Gulliver wakes to find himself on Lilliput, an island inhabited by little people, whose height makes their quarrels over fashion and fame seem ridiculous. His subsequent encounters—with the crude giants of Brobdingnag, the philosophical Houyhnhnms and the brutish Yahoos—give Gulliver new, bitter insights into human behaviour. Swift’s savage satire views mankind in a distorted hall of mirrors as diminished, magnified and finally bestial species, presenting us with an uncompromising reflection of ourselves.

Gulliver washes up on Lilliput with a sense of entitlement and allows the Lilliputians to attend to his every need. He describes the enormous effort it takes to sustain him as though he isn’t a blight on their society. Everything on the island is miniature, even the plants and animals, so his cooking abilities are limited unless he wants to eat whole animals, but the Lilliputians cook and deliver his meals:

He ordered his Cooks and Butlers, who were already prepared, to give me Victuals and Drink, which they pushed forward in a sort of Vehicles upon Wheels until I could reach them. I took those Vehicles, and soon emptied them all; twenty of them were filled with Meat, and ten with Liquor, each of the former afforded me two or three good Mouthfuls, and I emptied the Liquor of ten Vessels, which was contained in earthen Vials, into one Vehicle, drinking it off at a Draught, and so I did with the rest. (31)

Gulliver eats food for 1700+ Lilliputians daily and sleeps on 150 beds. In exchange, they draw up a chore list and expect him to contribute to society. Gulliver is stunned by the indignity of the tasks, most of which involve ferrying Lilliputians or resources short distances—short by his standards. Once he proves his worth in a sea battle, he uses his war-hero status to wiggle out of his least favorite chores (pretty much all of them).

If you’re reading this book before writing a paper on satire and British Imperialism, this opening section has everything. It showcases a British man lording his ‘natural advantages’ over the inhabitants of a tiny island while receiving foods and gifts in exchange for protection. That’s a lot to focus on, so while I was in school we rarely touched upon the best part: the humor. Gulliver is ridiculous and a jackass. He’s inordinately proud of himself for his minor contributions which tend to come at little or no cost to himself. His obliviousness is a key part of the satire and keeps him from being too appreciated by the Lilliputians.

Part 2 is amusing in the sense that it turns Gulliver’s time with the Lilliputians on its head. Among the Brobdingnagians, Gulliver is the little one and he sees them as the Lilliputians saw him: huge and disgusting. He can’t stand to see their blemishes and signs of infirmity blown up to monstrous proportions:

This made me reflect upon the fair Skins of our English Ladies, who appear so beautiful to us, only because they are of our own size, and their Defects not to be seen but through a Magnifying Glass, where we find by Experiment that the smoothest and whitest Skins look rough and coarse, and ill coloured. (87)

But despite his size, Gulliver maintains his positive self-image. He narrates his skirmish with a rat in the same grand tones as a legend. Though he’s kept around as a bit of entertainment, he flatters himself that his company is charming. His pluck is admirable, but he still malingers whenever it suits him. His laziness isn’t problematic in this section because it doesn’t put anyone to much trouble—the Brobdingnagians aren’t as inconvenienced by his needs or whims. As a result, he becomes a bit more likable.

These first two sections complement and balance each other so well that Part 3 can’t help being anticlimactic. The biting social commentary that makes Gulliver’s Travels a classic is all present in the first half; as you read, you’ll think: “Oh, right, I understand that [random cultural reference] now.” With the exception of calling idiots “yahoos,” I’m not sure many people reference the second half. It’s just not memorable. Even with Swift’s incredible wit, it loses its lively spark as it winds down to a surprisingly grim ending. With flying cities, immortals, and talking horses, the story becomes too fantastic for its own good. To offer a good social critique, a story should be grounded in the real world. If the exaggerated flaws and vices of the fictional world go too far, some of the sting is lost. For all their strangeness, the Lilliputians keep a grip on relatability, which makes them the best part of the book. They hold up a bizarre mirror to the social faults that Swift wishes to mock.

Overall: 4.0 Surprisingly solid and it’s still funny after all these years. The score would be higher, but with the second half of the book dragging it down, I can’t go over 4.

Translation: Read it! Er, part of it, I mean.

Book 1 of the Reading Ireland Month 2017 Challenge
Next Up: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde




4 thoughts on “Review: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift”

  1. Fabulous, I’ve just started reading this with one of my university classes, French learners of English, we are reading an adaptation by the BBC Learning English team, so it’s condensed into ten episodes, with lots of excellent new vocabulary and a grammar lesson in each episode. Nice to see someone else reading it at the same time!

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