Gulliver’s Travels

Gulliver's TravelsJonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels is as excellent a satire today as when it was published in 1726. Lemuel Gulliver is a surgeon with the soul of an explorer. Gulliver’s Travels purports to be the tale of his voyages, including descriptions of the strange peoples and sites he encounters. Most readers are familiar with his iconic adventures in Lilliput, a land populated by beings six inches tall, where Gulliver towers over the inhabitants like a giant. Gulliver is initially mistrusted and even held captive in Lilliput until he enters into the service of the king. Over time, Gulliver learns that Lilliput is at war with neighboring country Blefuscu over which end of the egg it is most proper to break—the little or the big. When Gulliver refuses to help Lilliput fight her enemy Blefuscu, he is charged with treason. He manages to escape and is rescued by a ship and returns home.

It’s not long before he’s at sea again and winds up in the land of Brobdingnag, a land populated by giants. Gulliver now finds himself in a land where he is of Lilliputian size in comparison to the inhabitants. He is cared for by a Brobdingnagian girl and exhibited as a curiosity. This time, his leave-taking is accidental as an eagle snatches the traveling box in which he’s being carried and drops it into the sea, where he is once again rescued.

On his third voyage, Gulliver visits several more interesting countries, including Japan, which I found curious as it’s the only “real” country described in the novel. The flying island of Laputa, with its focus on mathematics and music, was really interesting to me, especially in light of their impracticality. It reminded me a little bit of Donald in Mathmagic Land. You remember seeing it in school?

The final voyage, which Gulliver undertakes after swearing off exploring for good, takes Gulliver to the land of the Houyhnhnms, who are horse-like creatures. Gulliver comes to admire the Houyhnhnms more than people. The people he encounters in the land are course, uncivilized Yahoos. In this final voyage, Gulliver learns to appreciate the Houyhnhnms over his own kind, which he afterward refers to as Yahoos.

I think Lemuel Gulliver is a huge jerk. He abandons his family. His wife was pregnant when he left on his last voyage. When he returns, he rejects his family and prefers to spend time with a pair of horses he has procured. He passes judgment on the people he encounters. I found the Houyhnhnms to be haughty and proud and certainly couldn’t understand Gulliver’s adoration of them. Perhaps it is Swift’s way of asking the reader to think about why they look up to anyone. As usual, Swift’s satire is razor-sharp. I admit some of the book surprised me. Gulliver talks quite a lot about his bodily functions, and I admit I didn’t expect that out of a book written during that time, but I suppose it makes sense given that this is not the prim Victorian period. The book had some enjoyable moments. I liked the parts set in Brobdingnag and Laputa the best. I’m glad I read the book despite finding its protagonist to be hard to sympathize with, but I think a book about Gulliver’s wife would have been interesting, too. I would have kicked his sorry tail out the door, and good riddance. I think one of the chief ironies of the book is that Gulliver criticizes so many of the societies, ultimately idolizing the Houyhnhnms (undeservedly, in my opinion) and despising his own race, without seeing that he is one of the least likable, least worthy, and most fallible of them all. Ultimately, I just like to read about protagonists I can care about more. I found myself hoping Gulliver would suffer harm. A good frying pan over his head and kick in the ass administered by his wife when he showed up after the Houyhnhnms kicked him out would have redeemed the book nicely for me.

I read this novel via DailyLit.

Rating: ★★★½☆

2 thoughts on “Gulliver’s Travels

    1. It seemed odd when I was reading it, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. Swift's something of a rationalist, I believe, and it would stand to reason that he wouldn't be bothered with delicate sensibilities. It is more Victorian, I suppose, to feel that way. My favorites is "gentleman cow" for bull.

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