Book Review: Gulliver’s Travels

GulliverOne of the categories for the Back to the Classics challenge was a banned or censored book. After perusing several banned book lists, I thought I’d have to skip this category, because what few books I found interesting on the lists were ones I had already read. Then I spied Gulliver’s Travels on a couple of lists. I had heard of it, of course, but had never read it, so I decided to give it a try.

The full original title in 1726 was Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships. I’m thankful it was eventually shortened. ūüôā It was written by Jonathan Swift, an Irish Anglican clergyman, politician, and writer best known for his scathing satire.

I knew about Gulliver’s waking up on an island and finding himself tied down by 6-inch people called the Lilliputians, but I hadn’t known of his other travels. The book opens with a very short account of his background, and then launches into his first voyage as a ship’s surgeon. The book is divided into four parts:

Part 1: Lilliput. Gulliver’s boat is shipwrecked and he appears to be the lone survivor. He washes up on an island and wakes up realizing that he can’t move. Swift’s writing is nice here in that he gradually makes us aware through Gulliver’s eyes of what has happened, with the realization that his every limb and even his hair is tied down, to noticing a little person making his way up his body to speak to him. Gulliver and the Lilliputians can’t understand each other, but they are able to make signs to one another, and they eventually take him to their king. Gulliver has a facility for languages, thankfully, and soon can communicate easily. Once he assures the king that he will be loyal to him and careful of his subjects, he’s given free reign to go about the land. In a war with the Lilliputian’s enemies in¬†Blefuscu, Gulliver saves the day by single-handedly capturing their fleet. The Lilliputian king wants Gulliver to help him subdue all his enemies, but Gulliver will not be persuaded to enslave a free people. The king says he understands, but things are not quite the same between them afterward. Then when the queen’s house catches fire, and¬† people are passing along these pitiful thimble-sized buckets of water to Gulliver to pour on the flames, he realizes he has a better way: he needs to urinate and voluminously does so on the queen’s house, putting out the fire, but seriously offending her. A friend at court alerts Gulliver that plans are being made to put out his eyes and starve him, so he escapes to Blefescu and eventually find an abandoned boat in his size and returns home.

Part 2: Brobdingnag. After a short while at home, Gulliver sets out on another voyage, wherein storms blow his ship off course, and they stop at an island to search for fresh water. Suddenly Gulliver notices that his boat is quickly making out for sea without him, and then notices there is a giant twelve times the size of an ordinary human wading out into the sea after the ship. Gulliver runs the other way and finds himself in a field, where one of the workers notices him and at first thinks he is a bug or animal. He is taken to a farmer and goes through the same method of first signing, then pointing to objects and asking their names, to eventually being able to communicate quite well. The farmer decides to charge to “show” Gulliver several times a day to people for a fee, exhausting him. Eventually he is given an audience with the queen, who buys him from the farmer. The queen treats him well but views him almost as a doll. He encounters problems with flies, rats, and even a monkey. When Gulliver complains of anything, he’s not taken seriously. The king discusses the politics and history of England with Gulliver but belittles them, saying, ‚ÄúI cannot but conclude that 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.‚Ä̬† A search is made for a woman of Gulliver’s size for him to mate with, but he is thankful that none is found, for he would not want to produce a family just to be shown like circus animals. There seems to be no escape for him. But one day a servant takes him in a little box that the queen had made for him to the seashore, where a bird snatches up the box by the clasp on top. When the bird is attacked by other birds, it drops the box into the sea, where it floats until it is found by a ship of men Gulliver’s own size, and he is returned home.

Part 3: Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg,and Glubbdubdrib. Gulliver’s wife does not want him to sail again, but his love of travel and desire to see the world sets him out once more. This time pirates attack his ship, and he maroons an another island. He notices something in the sky and realizes it is a floating island. He gets the attention of the people on it, and they lower a chair to bring him up. The people are his own size, but their “heads were all reclined, either to the right, or the left; one of their eyes turned inward, and the other directly up.” They were all so absorbed in their own thoughts that they had to hire “flappers” to bop their ears when they needed to listen and their chins when they needed to answer. It took Gulliver a while to convince them he didn’t need that aid. The island was called Laputa, and the king lived there, ruling over the land of Balnibarbi below. The island moves by a magnetic lodestone, and one of the ways the king exerts pressure on his subjects is by centering the floating island above an area so that it receives neither sun nor rain until the people acquiesce. When Gulliver asks to visit the land below, he finds academies and labs full of ludicrous experiments, such as “an operation to reduce human excrement to its original food,” “a new method for building houses, by beginning at the roof, and working downward to the foundation,” using spider webs instead of silkworms, a method of language reduced to nouns and using objects instead of words. Yet in practical matters, their clothes weren’t measured to fit, their buildings were were not built well, their fields were barren (and one man who worked his fields in the ‘ancient’ manner and had them lush and green was looked down upon.) He eventually finds a voyage back home.

Part 4: The Country of the Houyhnhnms. Gulliver sets sail once again, this time as the captain of a vessel. Several of his men die en route, so he hires men from islands he comes across on the way. But the new hires had been buccaneers and soon persuaded his men to mutiny against him and leave him on the first bit of land they came to. As Gulliver tries to find people on the island to trade with for supplies, he discovers some hideous creatures with long hair on their heads and chest and claw-like nails. They block his path, and he swings his sword to try to fend them off without cutting them. He races to a tree, but they climb up it and defecate on him. Suddenly they all run away, and Gulliver sees a horse on the path, looking at him with wonder. Another horse comes along, and they seem to be conversing. Soon he discovers that horses called¬†Houyhnhnms are the ruling animals here. He is startled and horrified to discover that the creatures he first encountered, called Yahoos, are actually human. The¬†Houyhnhnms think he is¬† Yahoo as well, but agree that he has more reason than the others do. One takes him into his home. Gulliver admires the virtues and reasonableness of the¬†Houyhnhnms so well that he is ashamed to be a lowly Yahoo. The¬†Houyhnhnms are something like Vulcans: big on reason but short on emotion. When Gulliver is grieved at being expelled from the area because it’s not seemly for a¬†Houyhnhnm to have a Yahoo in his home, and finds passage back to England, he can’t stand the sight and smell of other humans, associating them with Yahoos, even though they show great kindness, like the captain who finds and provides for him. He is repulsed by his wife and children, but buys a couple of horses and converses with them several hours a day.

Many points in this book would have been so recognized at the time that it was published anonymously and Swift’s publisher edited out some of the most offensive sections. In a later edition, Swift added a fictional letter as if from Gulliver to his cousin fussing about the alterations, saying. “I do hardly know mine own work.” Wikipedia, SparkNotes, Shmoop, and CliffsNotes all had good information about what the satire referred to, though they disagreed in a couple of particulars. Cliifsnotes was the most extensive, and their Philosophical and Political Background and Essay on Swift’s Satire and Gulliver as a Dramatis Persona were quite enlightening. Shmoop’s character list and analysis gave a fairly succinct explanation of who or what the different characters represented.

But Swift satirizes several things in this book that one can easily pick up on without knowing the references. Travel books, for one: he mentions several times that he is telling the “truth,” not like so many other travelogues that exaggerate and make up stories. He pokes fun at the fact that every government thinks it is the best form, at academia that is so wrapped up in the theoretical that it is impractical, at the bluster and self-importance of people like the Lilliputians, who could have been easily crushed if Gulliver had had a mind to, the arrogant exaltation of reason that lacks empathy and emotion, the tendency of “big government” to be so far removed from the needs of the “little people.” The silly rope dances that people who wanted to advance in the kingdom had to do easily makes fun of the hoops similar officials have to jump through that have little to do with skill. The conflicts between the Big Endians and Little Endians over the right way to break an egg and those who prefer high heels or low heels satirizes how ridiculous some conflicts between factions can be (as well as an heir to the crown who hobbles because he wears one big heel and one low heel to please both sides). And, finally, he satirizes man’s faults and foibles in general.

I can understand why the book has been censored, aside from the political views of its day. There’s quite a lot about bodily functions in addition to Gulliver’s urinating on the queen’s quarters to put out a fire. There are also some parts that would be considered risqu√©.

Excepting one particular section, I enjoyed the book and am glad to know some of these cultural references. I hadn’t realized that the term yahoo as “an uncultivated or boorish person” originated here.

I enjoyed the audiobook narrated by David Hyde Pierce, who did an excellent job. I especially liked how he pronounced Houyhnhnm and some of the Houyhnhnm words with a little whinny in his voice. I also reread some sections more closely in the Gutenberg version online.

(Sharing at¬†Semicolon‚Äės Saturday Review of Books)


6 thoughts on “Book Review: Gulliver’s Travels

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  3. I never knew all this about Gulliver’s Travels, especially that it was censored and contain the views and things that it did. I’ve only seen children’s adaptations on film. Great review.

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