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Review of the Norton Critical Edition - Text, Context, and Criticism
on November 2, 2013
While other reviews seem focused on Swift's original novel, it would seem to me that anyone reading the reviews for this particular edition would be far more interested in the quality of the contents of the Norton Critical Edition, rather than the text itself. The text, after all, is a seminal classic satire, and even the worst printing and editing would find it very difficult to obscure it. Swift is brilliant, but that is not the focus of this review. Rather, I will be discussing the merits of this particular critical edition of his work.
This Norton Critical Edition is, as all Norton Critical Editions are, split up into three main parts - an authoritative version of the text with footnotes, a selection of works contemporary with the original text, and a selection of critical works dating from the original release down to the present.
The text is presented in its full form, complete with the original frontispiece, illustrations from the original edition, and footnotes where appropriate. The text is reproduced faithfully, and any decisions made by the editor are duly noted in footnotes. In fact, the editor has remained so true to the original text that he has retained the 18th century convention of capitalizing every single noun. This could, conceivably, be off-putting for some modern readers. Yet, for the scholarly audience doubtless intended for this edition, it seems appropriate that such a level of faithfulness be maintained. Indeed, the intended audience seems to color the entire volume, for, if a novice reader completely new to the text were to pick up the novel for the first time in this edition, the reader might find himself occasionally bewildered. The footnotes added by the editor are judicious, but perhaps too few. If a reader is not already somewhat familiar with the conventions of 18th century London or the accompanying vocabulary, he may need to come prepared with a dictionary. This, however, is no major problem; by and large the footnotes are accurate, informative, and brief, offered only where they need offering, and never rambling on in a vain display of the editor's knowledge.
The "Contexts" section is the shortest part of this edition, but is still an enjoyable and enriching read. Included in it are such sundry selections as an advertisement for Gulliver's Travels, Swift's correspondence to such contemporaries as John Gay and Alexander Pope, Pope's own poems inspired by Gulliver's travels (written through Lilliputian, Houyhnhnm, and Brobdingnagian personas), and a few selections from 18th century travelogues. These are all excellent editions to this edition - the travelogues in particular give modern readers a good sense of how Gulliver's Travels parodies a genre which has all but vanished from the modern literary scene.
The "Criticism" section greets the inquisitive reader with a wealth of lenses through which to view Swift's novel. Articles dating from shortly after the novel's release right down to modern times provide erudite and clear stances on how one might read the novel. Topics discussed include reading through the lenses of: satire and allegory, virtue and truth, politics, the novel as a genre, race and gender, science, the extent to which Swift's writing was influenced by London's obsessions with the peculiar and extreme, the author-character-reader interrelationship, and how the novel's frontispiece and paratexts can be read as an integral part of the novel. Reading all of these critical pieces gives one a diverse and well-rounded appreciation of the multifarious nature of Swift's unique satirical work.
While some minor quibbles could be made here and there, overall this is a very solid and effective scholarly edition. As long as those approaching this volume approach it with respect for its intended audience and are willing to engage with it as a scholarly book (and not just a children's adventure novel, as is so often the unfortunate case), this clear and entertaining edition of one of the greatest works of satire ever written props the original text up on a well-polished pedestal of context and criticism, all to the reader's delight.