Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

A review of the classic satirical travelogue novel Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.

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It’s far too easy for readers to dismiss Gulliver’s Travels as a mere children’s story. This is a real shame, as this dryly satirical travelogue is quite possibly the most iconic work of fantastical literature ever put to paper. In fact, it is arguably the best-known novel ever to spring from the mind of the great Irish satirist, Jonathan Swift, a man widely celebrated as a genius of his day, and for good reason.

Partially intended as a parody of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Swift published Gulliver’s Travels in 1726 as a twisted ‘traveller’s tale,’ a humorous adventure story intended to “vex the world” (his words) and featuring an array of unusual locations designed to expose human flaws with almost heretical zeal. Given that Swift was a clergyman, it tends to be forgotten how Gulliver’s Travels sermonises from the pulpit of misanthropy and seems to share no love at all for the human race.

Gulliver’s Travels tells the story of naval surgeon Lemuel Gulliver who embarks on a journey to a multitude of strange, fictional worlds populated by many unusual inhabitants. It’s a testament to how iconic the story remains by dint of the fact that most readers will easily recall the scene in which Gulliver wakes up bound with rope on the island of Lilliput and surrounded by tiny people. (Though admittedly, this could be more due to the endless slew of terrible movie adaptations released within the last century).

That being said, the original story is far more ambitious in that by placing Gulliver in such incredulous circumstances it only underscores Swift satirical message – that human beings are no more or no less rational than animals. Gulliver’s quest leads him to the aforementioned world of Lilliput (where he is a giant in a land of tiny people), Brobdingnag (where he is a tiny person amongst giants), Laputa (a flying city), and the land of the Houyhnhnms (a place populated by talking horses).

Each fictional realm Gulliver explores is intended to satirise 18th century politics and society. The first world Gulliver encounters sees a war being played out between Lilliput (a.k.a. Britain) and Blefuscu (a.k.a. France), so Gulliver’s role as a giant helps him to see the absurdity of war from on high, as it were. Needless to say, the reasons for the war (religion) loom large with satirical ire, as does Swift’s critique of imperialism. Straight off the bat, Swift tackles the big concerns of his age with literary gusto.

The next world Gulliver reaches in his quest is a land populated by giants, Brobdingnag, where he becomes something of a carnival show attraction due to the fact that he is so tiny. Since he finds fame, it is here Swift tackles humanity’s ridiculous propensity for novelty and entertainment, as well as highlighting how people who are perceived as unusual are treated differently. Clearly, you’ll see a pattern emerging here in how Swift regards humanity’s foolish beliefs and its senseless vanities.

By the time Gulliver reaches the flying city of Laputa, Swift launches a full-blown satirical assault on modern science – it’s a world in which ‘scientists’ persuade the inhabitants of other worlds with their point of view by dropping rocks on them. Clearly, as a religious man, Swift disliked how science’s greatest proponents of his time were overly dogmatic and it’s hard not to disagree with this message nowadays. After all, how was dropping an atom bomb really so different in a modern context?

Finally, the land of the Houyhnhnms is where Gulliver finds utopia, though we later discover this world is far from perfect. Populated by talking horses, Gulliver initially finds himself at home in this place in that it is the first peaceful species he has encountered on his travels so far. However, he later discovers that humans are called yahoos in this realm, and are subjugated by the horses, seemingly kept as slaves. It’s here where Swift’s 1720s satire tackles racism and slavery head on, which is remarkable when you think that it wasn’t until 1833 that slavery was abolished.

By the novel’s conclusion, Gulliver is so disillusioned with the human race that he has no more faith in reason. His encounters have shaken his trust in society and its accompanying moral certitudes to the point where upon returning home he spends the rest of his days talking to animals. This bitter pill may not sound particularly amusing to swallow, of course, but for those who appreciate satire, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels remains a masterful gift to the world which has lost none of its bite. I recommend sinking your teeth into it if you ever get the chance.

Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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