Gulliver’s Travels

by Jonathan Swift
Throughout Time reading list


 

Gulliver is a man who travels as a ship surgeon, leaving his wife and children at home for years at a time. This book is a record of some of his more unusual adventures, in uncharted lands. He comes across a land of tiny people, and one of giants. He is taken up onto a flying island that is part of a country where the citizens are obsessed with mathematics and music , and frequently are so caught up in introspection that they stop interacting with others around them. They are also terrible at seeing the big picture, and the country is sent into famine and poverty as they pursue ‘scientific advancements’ which would possibly save time if they were not entirely impossible. Anyone who continues with the old ways is thought stupid, despite the fact that they actually are doing things that work. He visits an island where necromancy is used to fill all the lower jobs- eg your housemaid is a ghosts- and sometimes as a source of entertaining companions.  He stumbles upon a land where horses are the superior, intelligent rulers, and a race called Yahoos- which are very, very similar to humans- are despicable beasts.

At the start of these journey’s Gulliver seems like a fairly normal sort of man- perhaps a bit more open to wondrous and odd things than the usual person- but also somewhat opaque. We don’t know much about his life on land except that he has a wife and children, and has been involved with some sort of law suit. Everything we learn about him is through the reflection of how he contrasts the lands and people he visits with himself and his fellow Englishmen. We initially see him try to defend the English institutions and ways of doing things, and accidentally portraying them in a negative light. But with each new culture he visits, his explanations of England and western culture become more and more negative, acerbic and cynical. Each place he visits deviates from what we would see as normal by a greater degree, and each time he returns home, he is less at home there. His final voyage, to the land of the horses (Houyhnhnms in their language) shows him become so disconnected from humanity that he despises his home, his family and his country. I believe we see him tip over into insanity. And with this in mind- we have to ask, did that point perhaps occur earlier? How much of these travels were in his mind?

 

I initially found the book to be a bit slow- the adventures among big and little people were mostly about the amusement that can be taken from describing the unusualness of the people/objects, with a little reflection on the structure of society. Among the giants we start to see Gulliver see himself and England as the giants might- as insignificant and mean. The last 2 voyages this theme is expanded on and the cynicism comes out into full bore. The situations Gulliver finds himself in are crazier, and the psychological and societal commentary factors are more prominent. I found the last two voyages were more fun to read.

I think it is worth giving the book a go. It was interesting to see an Englishman in the 1700s criticising his country, and criticising colonialism. I think we have a view these days, that England dominated the history books and portrayed itself in a positive light for so long, and it is only our generation that is acknowledging the negative aspects of colonialism and so on. But here is Jonathan Swift making scathing remarks,  and burns that are greater than most made today, almost 300 years ago.

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