Gulliver’s Travels is so well known in the culture that I didn’t expect to be surprised by it, and for the most part I wasn’t. Certainly the beginning covered exactly the territory I was expecting, with his journey to Lilliput, where he is a giant among a society of tiny people. But even the subsequent travels to other places, although I hadn’t been waiting for the specifics, I was certainly ready for them, generally. Overall it was a pleasant and fairly quick read, and interesting above and beyond the fantastic.
The book is a first-person chronicle of the travels of Gulliver, as he heads to sea over and over and meets astonishing troubles over and over. It reminded me quite a bit of Sindbad the Sailor in this regard, where after the second or third voyage, you have to wonder why he doesn’t just stay home already. But Sindbad and Gulliver both heed the call of the sea, and no amount of misfortune seems to sway them from it.
Gulliver has four journeys, each to a land more fantastic than the last:
- Lilliput is his first destination, where he is a giant among tiny people, which is the most widely known adventure from the book. I remember seeing a cartoon of this as a child, and remember very clearly the scene where he is tied down on the beach.
- Brobdingnag is where he lands next, and here his situation is reversed, as he is the tiny man among giants. As soon as I saw that this was the nature of his second adventure, I began wondering what he would do for the third and fourth.
- Laputa and associated locations occupy his third and even stranger adventure, as Laputa is a flying island populated by a strange race of would-be astronomers and mathemeticians who are paradoxically not very good at anything.
- The land of the Houyhnhnms proves the strangest of all of his adventures, and the most transformative for him as well. Here the land is populated by talking horses who live in an idyllic society of peace and plenty, which also contains an inferior race of people known as Yahoos, who are loathsome and who it becomes clear are actually humans.
As an adventure story, Gulliver delivers tolerably well. The jams he gets into are interesting enough, and Swift narrates well and with sufficient, apt detail. As satire, of course, it shines, sending up the idiocy of humans on any number of levels. In the first adventure he seems to be mocking life at court, where we learn of a great feud between one emperor and another rooted in which side of an egg should be opened first. In the second adventure we get more of the same, with less of a societal bent and more of a personal one, as Gulliver is made into the plaything of the queen. In the third adventure we get a roasting of the intellectual, who pretends to know so much and is in truth helpless and clueless in the world. And in the final adventure, we get the darkest tale, where Gulliver is forced to confront the base nature of humanity itself, branding every one of us Yahoos. I haven’t read Robinson Crusoe, but I gather this was a response to that, and so there is a layer of literary satire on top of the whole thing. All in all a good bit of work from Swift.
That said, I felt myself maintaining an intellectual distance from the work which dampened my enjoyment considerably. I was acutely aware throughout that the whole thing was a scaffolding upon which to hang his satire, and it kept me from investing in the story too much. Probably that’s just as well, and I’m silly to imagine that every book must be first and foremost a good and engaging story. But I wasn’t more than two chapters into the second voyage before I was guessing what the third and fourth adventures would entail, and I found myself impatient to get there already. It’s hard to knock a book for not being a thing it is not, but that’s my critique in the end. I don’t know that satire always needs to be so heavyhanded, but personally I like my fiction with a lighter touch.