Great Novel No. 5: “Gulliver’s Travels”

Travels Into Several Remote Nations of The World, In Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver

By Jonathan Swift


The image of Lemuel Gulliver lying on the beach, tied down by a multitude of ropes, and surrounded by tiny Lilliputians is one of the most enduring of literature. It is also only a very small sampling of the wild imagination that makes up the book we call Gulliver’s Travels.

Jonathan Swift was a member of the Irish Anglican clergy who was born in Dublin, raised in London, and ultimately lived out a good portion of his life moving between the two. He became a prolific writer of political pamphlets and essays, and known for his biting satirical wit. Being politically active made him both friends and enemies. He eventually found himself relegated to the position of Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, a post he held until his death. Gulliver’s Travels is undoubtedly his best-known work to modern readers, but his ferocious essay “A Modest Proposal” (in which he proposes a system to sell Irish babies to England as a gourmet delicacy, since adults were treated little better) is still found on many school reading lists.

Swift’s satirical cynicism casts a wide net here, with almost no aspect of his society and culture that isn’t tangled up in it. Law and government, science and religion, war and relationships, all is caricatured to a degree of ridiculousness that would make most cartoonists envious. Popular literature itself is spoofed by casting everything in the form of a travelogue; in the Age of Discovery there were numerous accounts by European sailors (genuine and otherwise) with strange tales of exotic lands, people, and animals. But in a way, this aspect of Swift’s writing is more than just satire. What better way to point out the failings of home than by comparison and contrast with the foreign? The filter of elsewhere is still often used by writers of fantasy and science fiction. A master storyteller can prove that there are no aliens in outer space — only ourselves in a different form.

It’s also possible to read in Gulliver’s Travels a kind of contrast to that other famous story of a world traveller from the early 1700s: Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe finds himself marooned on a deserted island with almost no other soul for company. Gulliver runs into entire civilizations and societies. Defoe holds up Man as an individual to represent the best of human achievement. Swift uses the Brobdingnagian king to call humans “the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.”

Gulliver as a character and narrator changes a great deal as the book progresses, particularly in the fourth part. As he sets out on the voyage which will take him to Lilliput, he is excited at the prospect of adventure. At some point during each voyage he finds he can’t wait to see his wife and children at home once more. But in the fourth journey he takes, he comes to the country of the Houyhnhnms and finds a paradise where horses are the wisest, kindest, and most virtuous creatures — and humans (called Yahoos) are disgusting, barbaric animals. Seeing this is almost a spiritual revelation to Gulliver on the state of humanity and he only leaves when the Houyhnhnms force him out because of their prejudice against Yahoos. On his return he becomes what we would call insane, preferring to converse with the horses in his stable and shunning the company of the family he once held dear.

Gulliver’s Travels is also something of a landmark in this list of mine. It’s the first work of any length to be divided into parts. And each part is further divided into chapters. There are still helpful guides to the reader at the head of each chapter, describing something of its contents. The now expected method of organizing novels is beginning to take shape. But even so, the book is like so many others of its period: a challenge for today’s readers who prefer an interesting plot. The story is not one based around things that happen, but things that the narrator sees. Much of it is written as exposition and description or conversations between characters, though with little of what we would call actual dialogue.

Jonathan Swift died in 1745, and the poor state of his mental health at the time creates a final irony. In his will he left his life savings to found St. Patrick’s Hospital for the Insane, the first institution of its kind in Ireland. A quote from one of his poems seems an appropriate note to end on.

He gave what little wealth he had,

To build a house for fools and mad:

And showed by one satiric touch,

No nation wanted it so much.

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