Gulliver’s Travels

Gulliver in Lilliput, illustration from a 19th-century edition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

If you don’t count the children’s Great Illustrated Classics version of Gulliver’s Travels, then my first encounter with Jonathan Swift’s writings was “A Modest Proposal.” I loved it. Swift’s type of satire is one reason people are still saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Words are powerful, and if used well they can re-make society, destroy high-ranking people, and quite possibly get the writer in serious trouble.

Gulliver’s Travels was one of the first novels I chose for my Classics Club book list. I’d read excerpts from the Lilliput section when putting together a high school British literature course for my homeschooled brother, but this was the first time I’d read the entire novel.

The first two sections — “A Voyage to Lilliput” and “A Voyage to Brobdingnag” — read most like a fantastical travel-log, and if not for the footnotes in my Norton Critical Edition I would have missed quite a bit of the satire here, because so much of it was specific to Swift’s time period and to certain people in power while he was writing. The last two sections — “A Voyage to Laputa” and “A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms” — contained more general satire about the human race, which I think translated better to today. Here, we have priceless descriptions of things like lawyers:

I said, there was a Society of Men among us, bred up form their Youth in the Art of proving by Words multiplied for the Purpose that White is Black, and Black is White, according as they are paid. To this Society all the rest of the People are Slaves. For example, if my neighbour has a mind to my cow, he has a lawyer to prove that he ought to have my cow from me.  I must then hire another to defend my right, it being against all rules of law that any man should be allowed to speak for himself.  Now, in this case, I, who am the right owner, lie under two great disadvantages: first, my lawyer, being practised almost from his cradle in defending falsehood, is quite out of his element when he would be an advocate for justice, which is an unnatural office he always attempts with great awkwardness, if not with ill-will.  The second disadvantage is, that my lawyer must proceed with great caution, or else he will be reprimanded by the judges, and abhorred by his brethren, as one that would lessen the practice of the law. …

Gulliver in discussion with Houyhnhnms, 1856 illustration by J.J. Grandville

“It is a maxim among these lawyers that whatever has been done before, may legally be done again: and therefore they take special care to record all the decisions formerly made against common justice, and the general reason of mankind.  These, under the name of precedents, they produce as authorities to justify the most iniquitous opinions; and the judges never fail of directing accordingly.”

By the end of the novel, I didn’t like Gulliver as a character, but as a narrative vehicle for Swift’s satire he was perfect. He’s annoyingly narrow-minded and Anglocentric for much of the narrative, until he completely flips the other direction after living with the Houyhnhnms. It’s a marvelous bit of writing. First, his criticism of the unfamiliar Lilliputian, Brobdingnag, and Laputa cultures highlights what is most laughable or deplorable in our own society. But just when we’re ready to condemn humanity for it’s lack of logic, ridiculous methods of government, insistence on violence, and a whole host of other flaws Swift brilliantly satirizes, Gullliver decides he hates the very people he’s been defending this whole narrative.

Once he’s expelled by the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver would literally rather die than go back to living among humans. He can’t stand the smell, touch, or society of people who lack the Houyhnhnms “Government of Reason.” You might think Swift is saying, along with Gulliver, that people are disgusting and that’s his take-away message. Yet it is Gulliver who has now become ridiculous, and I think Swift finishes this book by satirizing his own narrator’s conclusions about the human race. Just because Swift notices the flaws in society and his fellow man doesn’t mean he abandons all hope for us.

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