Ian "Marvin" Graye's Reviews > Gulliver's Travels

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
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it was amazing
bookshelves: swift, reviews, read-2014, reviews-5-stars, re-read
Read 2 times. Last read June 24, 2014 to June 26, 2014.

Swift's Satirical Fantasies

This was another re-read of a novel that I had read as a child and that had left me with very vivid memories.

For the most part, I enjoyed it just as much as I did then. Unlike "Tristram Shandy", it wasn't really a precocious work of Post-Modernism. It was more a collection of satirical fantasies, albeit reliant on a realistic narrative style. Still, it packs a punch I don't recall from my first reading.

Tales of a Traveller Returned Wanting

The novel purports to be a travelogue that documents Gulliver's travels into several remote but imaginary nations of the world, including Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa, Glubbdubdrib, and the land inhabited by the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos.

It would be enough to constitute a novel that these worlds be imaginary. However, what is most subtle and rewarding about a re-read as an adult is the opportunity to observe Doctor Lemuel Gulliver change over the course of the four discrete voyages. There is a clear character development, some would say for the worse, although that could be debatable.

Most of us who have travelled realise that we learn about the world more effectively by travelling. However, not only do we learn much from or about our destinations, we learn something about ourselves by effectively being placed in the position of a fish out of water.

Swift's novel highlights the obvious fact that we can also return to our own country with a changed frame of mind, that sometimes might find our country or our circumstances wanting. For this very reason, I've always sworn never to make a major personal or career decision within two months of returning from a holiday.

Contrast and Comparison

Swift's modus operandi is to describe the world Gulliver experiences in terms of relativities:

"Undoubtedly, philosophers are in the right, when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison."

He lures us into this perspective by starting with Lilliput and Brobdingnag. The inhabitants of the former are one-twelfth of Gulliver's size, while those of the latter are 12 times his height. Much of the narrative concerns the logical consequences of their relative physiques. In one world, Gulliver is the source of wonder; in the other, he finds wonder everywhere.

The Lilliputians calculate that every meal Gulliver must eat and drink as much as 1,724 of them. He soon becomes a liability. A Brobdingagian puts him to work as a diminutive freak in a sideshow:

"I really began to imagine myself dwindled many degrees below my actual size."

He finds that his littleness has started to expose him to "ridiculous and troublesome accidents," like hungry pets and wild birds. More lewdly, some of the women of the court would strip him naked and lay him "at full length in their bosoms" or get him to sit on their nipples!

The king, "a prince of excellent learning", asks Gulliver about the English parliamentary system, after which the king opines:

"I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth."

A Most Irreverent Reverend

Up to this point, Swift gives an irreverent account of politicians that we can all relate to. The king's judgement is all the more tolerable, because it doesn't purport to come from the author or his narrator.

In the third part, the Laputians, who live on a floating or flying island, are subjected to similar criticism, though we identify with Gulliver.

On Glubbdubdrib, he encounters sorcerers and magicians, who conjure up philosophers and rulers from the past for him to question. He is disappointed to learn of the "true springs and motives of great enterprises and revolutions", and emerges with a lower opinion of historical wisdom and integrity.

Pretending to Reason

In the final part, we meet the noble horse-like Houyhnhnms and the "filthy...odious" humanoid Yahoos.

The former are unfamiliar with lying and false representation. They detest falsehood and disguise. It's interesting that, given the co-existence of two species in this land, Swift primarily contrasts the culture and politics of the Houyhnhnms with the English rather than the Yahoos. In fact, the Yahoos come off pretty lightly compared with the English, the reason being that the English "pretend to reason". Swift criticises the English for the enormity, brutality and barbarity of their crimes and vices.

Swift is particularly critical of lawyers (who manipulate words and truth in the corrupt pursuit of personal wealth), politicians (who progress by way of insolence, lying and bribery) and colonialism, the latter motivated by "the luxury and intemperance of the males and the vanity of the females".

Gulliver's master infers he must be noble to be so virtuous, yet Gulliver explains that the quality of his education was responsible.

This resonates with the Houhynhnms who believe that reason alone should be sufficient to govern a rational person. It is the foundation of decency and civility.


The Return of a Misanthrope

In contrast, Gulliver regards the Yahoos as unteachable; they are cunning, malicious, treacherous and resentful. Gulliver realises that humans are most like the Yahoos. He even learns that he is sexually attractive to the Yahoo women.

Before his return, Gulliver starts to feel ashamed of his family, his friends, his countrymen and the human race as a whole. When he arrives home and is greeted by the joy of his wife and children, he feels the utmost shame, confusion and horror.

It's clear Gulliver/Swift felt that eighteenth century English society left a lot to be desired, that it needed to lift its game and that it was hypocritical in promoting and enforcing its values in its colonies, which he considered were "no means proper objects of our zeal, our valour, or our interest."

Gulliver/Swift asserts that he writes "for the noblest end, to inform and instruct mankind".

For all of the wit and style and wisdom of the novel, it's confronting to experience how close it gets to straight out misanthropy, possibly because of Gulliver's sense of repulsion by his own family.

At the same time that you experience the shock of recognition, you have to ask whether the tone of the satire hasn't become too harsh and unforgiving.

You have to wonder about Swift's judgement and his capacity for mercy, but then perhaps his novel might not have been as effective or enduring if it had been sanitised.

Though, to be honest, I still haven't quite recovered.


Blancmange - "Living on the Ceiling"


Telemann - "Loure der gesitteten Houyhnhnms & Furie der unartigen Yahoos"


Jessica Dragonette - "Faithful Forever" [1939 Soundtrack]


OST - "It's a Hap-Hap-Happy Day" [1939 Soundtrack]


OST - "All's Well" [1939 Soundtrack]


Swift Smarts: "Gulliver's Travels"

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
February 23, 2011 – Shelved
April 29, 2014 – Shelved as: swift
June 24, 2014 – Started Reading
June 25, 2014 –
June 26, 2014 – Shelved as: reviews
June 26, 2014 – Shelved as: read-2014
June 26, 2014 – Shelved as: reviews-5-stars
June 26, 2014 – Shelved as: re-read
June 26, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by Praj (last edited Jun 26, 2014 08:26AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Praj Outstanding!! A soundtrack , please.

message 2: by Mkfs (new)

Mkfs I re-read this myself last year, as part of a similar "let's see how these books strike me thirty years on" project.

Gulliver's travels certainly hold up. I was particularly impressed by the use of the novel as a vehicle for criticizing contemporary society -- a must, given the queen's reaction to Tale of a Tub.

Oddly, I hadn't considered it as an actual travelogue. Interesting point about how travel changes the man. The Gulliver who left England was most certainly not the Gulliver who returned!

David Sarkies Great review. A very wise decision never to make any major changes within two months of returning from holiday.

message 4: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Thanks, David. I loved your review.

message 5: by Hamna (new)

Hamna Ranazai Amazing! i got this very helpful for my assignment :)
Thank You!

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