Shipwrecks, Giants, and Horses — What More Could One Want?

GT Cover

Besides real Diseases, we are subject to many that are only imaginary, for which the Physicians have invented imaginary Cures.

For many years now, Gulliver’s Travels has been wrongly categorized as a children’s adventure book. While the plot involves journeys to various places, this novel is in no way a children’s adventure book. Gulliver’s Travels is a satire on miscellaneous topical issues such as warfare, politics, and science. Even the locations of Gulliver’s journeys are nonsensical plays on words. Perhaps whoever originally thought of the idea of adapting Gulliver’s Travels as a children’s book wanted to excise the satire and only leave the “adventure”. However, doing this completely ruins Swift’s magnum opus and defeats its main purpose as a satire.

Fortunately, many editions, such as the Oxford World’s Classics edition pictured above, have revived Swift’s magnum opus by not only not excising the satire, but by providing excellent scholarly introductions and meticulous footnotes. One might say, though, at barely 400 pages, Gulliver’s Travels not a very substantial book. However, as I have learned from reading books in the past, a book doesn’t have to be substantial to convey meaning — and this book is a perfect example of that. Gulliver’s Travels is divided into four parts and is centered around an ordinary Englishman named Lemuel Gulliver, who, after his business collapses, chooses to go to sea. Each part contains a different adventure and satirizes different 18th-century issues.

Part 1 takes place on the island of Lilliput, where everything is very, very tiny. The average height of an inhabitant is six inches, and their tallest infrastructure is no taller than Gulliver’s waist. Gulliver soon becomes a court favorite and is even given permission to explore Lilliput under the condition that he doesn’t step on anything. However, the Lilliputians devise a plan to utilize his giant body as a war resource to attack the neighboring kingdom of Blefuscu, with whom they share conflicted sentiments on cracking eggs. In this part, Swift mocks warfare because Lilliput and Blefuscu are at war for a very petty and laughable reason. Lilliput and Blefuscu symbolize England and France respectively.

Part 2 takes place in Brobdingnag, where everything is very, very large. The average height of an inhabitant is sixty feet (even the “dwarves” are thirty feet!) and the native insects have stingers about two yards long. Gulliver is spotted by a farmer who sells him to the queen. Gulliver once more becomes a court favorite, always entertaining the royal family. However, the Brobdingnagians’ limited knowledge gets on Gulliver’s nerves. For example, the king knows nothing of politics, and Gulliver has to educate him on politics. In this part, Swift mocks knowledge because of the Brobdingnagians’ ignorance.

Part 3 takes place in Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg, and Japan. Laputa is a flying island inhabited by mathematicians and scientists whose constant scientific research is impractical and out of reality. Furthermore, Laputa seems to be oppressive, for they hurl rocks at their kingdom of Balnibarbi, the land that is underneath; and it is in Balnibarbi where Gulliver witnesses the extremely foolish scientific research (like harvesting sun from cucumbers, mixing paint by scent, and softening marbles for using in pillows). The stupidity of the Balnibarbians is so extreme that the emperor funds the kingdom’s entire savings just on quixotic research. One can lucidly see how Swift perceives scientists.

While in GlubbdubdribGulliver witnesses and interacts with major historical figures such as Julius Caesar and Aristotle. Gulliver realizes their true identities, which are much different from those in books. Luggnagg is inhabited by immortals called Struldbrugs who don’t have a childhood and have to eternally suffer the consequences of old age; they are legally considered “dead” at age eighty. Gulliver finally goes to Japan and sails back to England. In this part, Swift mocks science (because of the Balnibarbians’ and Laputans’ quixotic scientific research), history (because of the true identities of major historical figures), and age (due to the Stuldbrugs’ constant suffering of old age).

Part 4 takes place in the Country of the Houyhnhnms [WHIN-ni-nims]. The Houyhnhnms are an intelligent race of talking horses who keep Yahoos, savage and hideous manlike beasts, as their slaves. Gulliver begins to grow fond of the Houyhnhnms, learning their language and narrating to them his voyage. Gulliver becomes misanthropic after seeing the Yahoos, adhering to only the Houyhnhnms’ lifestyle. The Houyhnhnms treat Gulliver with kindness and compassion, which makes him even fonder of the horses. This leads to his decision of seeing all of humankind as brutish Yahoos and only accepting the Houyhnhnms as moral beings. In this part, Swift essentially retold Utopia and Republic. Similar to how the two books talk about the ideal world, the Country of the Houyhnhnms is literally the ideal world. Swift also uses coarse metaphors to describe humans by creating the Yahoos. It becomes quite clear how Swift perceives humankind.

I would recommend Gulliver’s Travels to anyone who loves satire, politics, different perspectives of the human race, and classic world literature. Reader beware: although knowledge of 18th-century politics is not completely necessary to read this story, I would recommend either studying it online or buying an edition of this novel which includes a solid introduction and footnotes of 18th-century politics because you can truly understand the underlying themes in the story. I believe the Oxford World’s Classics edition is a good choice for one to savor this classic.

Click here to buy this marvelous satire.

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