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No More Excuses - It's Time to Read Gulliver's Travels
on August 10, 2005
I am certain that nearly every person in the Western world (and some beyond it) is familiar with the quintessential scene of "Gulliver's Travels," that of a man tied down to the ground and surrounded by tiny humans. I am equally certain however, that only a very small percentage of these people have actually read Jonathan Swift's satirical novel, first published in 1726. If you consider yourself a serious reader, then "Gulliver's Travels" is essential reading, one of the many classic novels that you simply *have* to read before you die.
Divided into four parts, "Gulliver's Travels" is presented as the historical memoirs of Lemuel Gulliver who narrates his strange adventures in undiscovered countries. In doing so, Swift explores and satirises almost every conceivable issue important in both his time and in ours: politics, religion, gender, science, progress, government, family and our basic ideas of defining humanity. As well as this, the novel is full of wonder and humour (some of it bordering on the vulgar!) and Swift's exploration of imaginary societies and countries is satire at its peak - no one before or since has reached Swift's mastery of this style.
Some of the more direct parodies concern people and events that have long since passed away, and as such an index or extensive background is required in order to fully understand the allusions that Swift is making. However, a far larger portion of the text discusses issues that are still relevant to today's readers, especially in the responsibilities of power and the limits to technological/scientific progression.
Part One: "A Voyage to Lilliput" is the most famous segment of the novel, and the context of the afore-mentioned "hostage episode". After taking leave of his family and country, Gulliver is washed up on the shores of an island inhabited by humanoid beings not more than six inches tall. Though at first suspicious, Gulliver soon earns the trust of the Lilliputian people who enlist their newfound giant in defending them from their enemies on the bordering island of Blefufeu - who likewise are desperate to use the giant in their war against Lilliput. Hmm, a squabble over what is considered a weapon capable of mass destruction. Sound familiar? This ability to place modern day references over older texts and their meanings is what separates literature from books - universal themes and concerns that do not age with time.
In Part Two, Gulliver reaches the polar opposite of Lilliput in "A Voyage to Brobdingnag", a country of giants where he becomes the helpless victim of a greedy farmer who exploits his diminutive stature to his own advantage. Displayed as a freak of nature, the tiny Gulliver is forced to perform circus tricks till he finally comes into the care of the royal court. Despite being cared for by the gentle farmer's daughter Grildrig, Gulliver has to survive wasp-attacks, hungry cats and a malicious dwarf before he is finally seized by a hunting bird and set adrift at sea.
One of the most appealing things about Gulliver's travels in both Lilliput and Brobdingnag is the disorientation he feels on re-entering the company of humans of a normal stature - each time they seem either too small or too big and Gulliver is constantly slouching or tip-toeing in an attempt to reconcile his body to what his mind tells him he should see. The best part is that we share this confusion with him, as we ourselves become accustomed to life in the tiny and giant worlds.
Part Three is the least known of the four parts, and for those who have read the novel, the least popular. I consider this unfortunate as it is more full of variety and wonderment than the other segments, contains some of his sharpest parodies and is my personal favourite `voyage' in the novel. Titled "A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Gluggdubdrib and Japan", it is easy to see that it this episode is filled with Swift's most creative inventions. It is here that Gulliver discovers a floating island, a race of immortals, a university in which they attempt to discover the answers to all things and an island of spirits who summon historical figures up out of the past. With everything from inward-eyed people to Alexander the Great to exploding dogs, Part Three has it all.
Finally, in Part Four, the novel reaches its most critical and thought-provoking statement on humankind in "A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms". Gulliver reaches a country inhabited by a remarkable race of horses with the intelligence of humans - perhaps with even *more* intelligence than humans. Also living here is a disgusting race of beings known as "Yahoos" - filthy, greedy, slothful, lecherous creatures who embody every vice known to mankind - and who are suspiciously humanoid in shape and form. Gulliver is faced with a crisis of the soul: does he really come from the race of Yahoos? Will the Houyhnhnms accept him as one of their own or as a Yahoo? And how can he ever return home with the devastating wisdom he has gained? Swift presents a fascinating study on the dark side of humanity and the nobility of animals in the climax of the novel that is the most controversial, the most studied and the most memorable.
"Gulliver's Travels" is not an easy book to read; like all older literary novels it requires the attention and patience of the reader, has complicated and contemporary issues to discuss and a tendency to be a bit long-winded at times. But regardless of this, "Gulliver's Travels" is a fascinating and enjoyable read and one of those books that just *has* to be read during your lifetime - if not for any other reason but to say that you *have* read it. Though the scanty amount of reviews on this page is disheartening, "Gulliver's Travels" is a must-read, pure and simple.
I also recommend the Hallmark adaptation of Swift's novel - NOT to be watched instead of reading the book, but as a surprisingly faithful and intelligent miniseries that accompanies the novel well.