My class read this right after finishing Robinson Crusoe, which, I think, was a perfect decision on my professor's part. In addition to making bold statements about colonialism and slavery, satirizing the hell out of European government and rulers and scientists and just about everything else, Swift is using Gulliver's Travels to write the longest, best parody of Robinson Crusoe ever. He takes Defoe's long-winded, preachy, boring survival story with racist and imperialist overtones, and turned it into a fun adventure story that never misses an opportunity to mock the exploration-story genre or break out some inappropriate jokes (don't worry, I'll get to those.)
The book is divided into four parts, each describing Gulliver's adventures in a different undiscovered part of the world. Part I is Lilliput, which everyone knows about already; Part II is Brobdingnag, where everyone is much bigger than Gulliver (in contrast to Lilliput); Part III is Laputa and some other stuff (it's the worst of the bunch, and reads like it was dashed off at the last minute and shoved in to round out the page count); and Part IV was my favorite, mostly because Gulliver goes to an island inhabited by super-intelligent horses. (10-year-old Madeline: Squeeeee! Talking horses!) It's all funny and exciting (except for previously-mentioned Part III, which is a total slog), but it does have some boring parts. For instance, every time Gulliver is on a ship he has to tell us the exact details of the voyage and dump a bunch of nautical terms on us, and he likes describing things in step-by-step detail. But that's the great thing: by doing this, he's satirizing Daniel Defoe and his boring book about some jackass getting stranded on an island. There are tons of digs at Robinson Crusoe, and my favorite has to be when Gulliver is describing one of his meals on an island and then says, "This is enough to say upon the subject of my diet, wherewith other travellers fill their books, as if the readers were personally concerned whether we fared well or ill." Cue everyone who had to sit through pages of Crusoe's food descriptions breathing a huge sigh of relief.
As I mentioned, Swift is also having fun sticking in some dirty jokes. Right off the bat, when Gulliver is describing his life pre-voyage, he mentions being apprenticed to a man named Bates. We think it's a pointless detail, but then Gulliver refers to him, just once, as Master Bates. My professor assured us that this was very intentional.
The best one was on Lilliput, when the king asked Gulliver to stand with his legs apart so the Lillputian army could ride underneath him like a bridge: "His Majesty gave orders, upon pain of death, that every soldier in his march should observe the strictest decency with regard to my person; which, however, could not prevent some of the younger officers from turning up their eyes as they passed under me. And, to confess the truth, my breeches were at that time in so ill a condition, that they afforded some opportunities for laughter and admiration."
There you have it, folks. This may be the only book on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die that features the narrator pausing to inform us how absolutely colossal his penis is.
Read for: Colonial Imagination