The Pequod Review:
Jonathan Swift reached new heights as a satirist with Gulliver’s Travels, a fictional travelogue that combines elements of realism, science fiction, fantasy and politics to reveal deep truths about human nature and human societies.
The story describes four failed voyages of the sailor Lemuel Gulliver, each of which ends prematurely, leading him to come ashore and discover strange and exotic foreign civilizations. In Lilliput (Part 1), he encounters a society in which everything, including its people, is one-twelfth the size of our own world. In Brobdingnag (Part 2), he finds the opposite: humans as tall as church steeples, grass as tall as a tree, and wasps the size of turkeys. In Laputa and nearby islands (Part 3), he discovers a kingdom ruled by an elite that resides on a flying island. In the land of the Houyhnhnms (Part 4), he finds a world of gentle horses, who reveal themselves to be superior to humans in their inability to lie and deceive.
Throughout the book Swift gets all of the physical details right, which adds to its credibility. When on Lilliput everything is one-twelfth our size, he ensures that every element of the story includes objects that are precisely proportional. And the story is told in an effectively straight-faced, humorless way, with the earnestness of contemporary travelogues. As the narrator says, “I could perhaps, like others, have astonished thee with strange improbable tales, but I rather chose to relate plain matter of fact in the simplest manner and style, because my principal design was to inform and not to amuse thee.”
More than anything, what gives Gulliver’s Travels its power is the way Swift uses the surreal features of these fictional societies to illustrate the pettiness, irrationalities and injustices of our own world. In Liliput for example, when the political parties are shown to be bitterly divided between those who wear heels on their feet and those who don’t, we are reminded of our own trivial and narrowly-focused topical debates. He observes how native speakers view foreign languages in ways that mirror our own prejudices: “each nation priding itself upon the antiquity, beauty, and energy of their own tongue, with an avowed contempt for that of their neighbor.” And the deep rationality of the Houyhnhnms illustrates how much humans are governed by passions, pride, and power rather than thought and logic.
Furthermore, Swift is a precursor to Proust in his appreciation of everyday objects; one of the recurring pleasures of the book is how he invites the reader to step back and truly observe what we constantly overlook. He examines a woman’s gigantic breasts: “the nipple was about half the bigness of my head, and…so verified with spots, pimples and freckles that nothing could appear more nauseous.” Gulliver is revolted as the queen of Brobdingnag “would crunch the wing of a lark, bones and all, between her teeth, although it were nine times as large as that of a full-grown turkey; and put a bit of bread into her mouth as big as two twelve-penny loaves.” And Swift's description of how Gulliver’s wristwatch appears to the Lilliputians is so good that it deserves to be quoted in full:
Out of the right fob hung a great silver chain, with a wonderful kind of engine at the bottom. We directed him to draw out whatever was at the end of that chain; which appeared to be a globe, half silver, and half of some transparent metal; for, on the transparent side, we saw certain strange figures circularly drawn, and thought we could touch them, till we found our fingers stopped by the lucid substance. He put this engine into our ears, which made an incessant noise, like that of a water-mill: and we conjecture it is either some unknown animal, or the god that he worships; but we are more inclined to the latter opinion, because he assured us, (if we understood him right, for he expressed himself very imperfectly) that he seldom did anything without consulting it. He called it his oracle, and said, it pointed out the time for every action of his life. From the left fob he took out a net almost large enough for a fisherman, but contrived to open and shut like a purse, and served him for the same use: we found therein several massy pieces of yellow metal, which, if they be real gold, must be of immense value.
Almost 300 years after its publication, Gulliver’s Travels remains a delightful mix of satire and entertainment, of philosophical insights and vulgar comedy. It steps wrong only once, in the disjointed and unfocused Book 3 (which nonetheless has other charms). It is a book for everyone — for adults, for children (who themselves must feel like Lilliputians in our world), for literary critics, for political scientists, and for philosophers. It is one of the great books of Western literature.