1001 Reads

Regularly updated blog charting the most important novels of the last 2000 and something years

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

25. Jonathan Swift - Gulliver's Travels (1726)

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Francisco: This is a brilliant book, it can be read in so many different levels, that make it all that much better. If you don't know much about 18th century Europe or are a bit dimwitted or a kid it's a great fantastical adventure story. IF you do care about the history it is a pretty funny and quite smart criticism of the state of affairs.

It is funny, not to say that I agree with most or even all of the points that Swift attempts to make in his satire. I also disagreed with the contents of Tale Of A Tub, and it's Swift's merit that he manages to be funny and elicit laughter wven when you strongly disagree with him, it's a mark of genius.

The race of horses, the Houyhnhnms, in the last book is a good example of some of the ideas I really dislike. The horses are supposedly the paragon of justice and perfectness, but there is at a time a meeting which seems out of a WWII movie, where the horses are deciding if they should exterminate the humans because they are dirty and useless, the horses are asexual, all their weddings are arranged and are an all around boring yet fanatical people who Swift seems to admire so.

Also the only people in Europe that Swift praises, other than the occasional Englishmen are the Portuguese... which is all right with me!

Vanda: I don't know, I don't think I was really in the mood to read this book. It seemed to me that Swift, as per usual, was trying to be very clever and not quite getting there. I think he writes quite well, but I don't think the book is all that could have been, as most of the satire and social commentary is just too visible, and heavy-handed.

I just didn't find it funny as Mr. Cisco did. It had touches of Rabelais once in a while, and you all know how much I loved that. Ahem.

Everybody will know this book from their childhood, and yes, you should probably read it again now if you're a bit older, since revisiting books with several layers is always interesting, but, honestly, I really wouldn't make it a priority.

Final Grade

Francisco: 9/10
Vanda: 7/10


From Wikipedia:

Major themes

Gulliver's Travels has been called a lot of things from Menippean satire to a children's story, from proto-Science Fiction to a forerunner of the modern novel. Possibly one of the reasons for the book's classic status is that it can be seen as many things to many people. Broadly, the book has three themes:

* a satirical view of the state of European government, and of petty differences between religions.

* an inquiry into whether men are inherently corrupt or whether they become corrupted.

* a restatement of the older "ancients v. moderns" controversy previously addressed by Swift in the Battle of the Books.

In terms of storytelling and construction the parts follow a pattern:

* The causes of Gulliver's misadventures become more malignant as time goes on - he is first shipwrecked, then abandoned, then attacked by strangers, then attacked by his own crew.

* Gulliver's attitude hardens as the book progresses — he is genuinely surprised by the viciousness and politicking of the Lilliputians but finds the behavior of the Yahoos in the fourth part reflective of the behavior of people

* Each part is the reverse of the preceding part — Gulliver is big/small/sensible/ignorant, the countries are sophisticated/simple/scientific/natural, forms of Government are worse/better/worse/better than England's.

* Gulliver's view between parts contrasts with its other coinciding part — Gulliver sees the tiny Lilliputians as being vicious and unscrupulous, and then the king of Brobdingnag sees Europe in exactly the same light. Gulliver sees the Laputians as unreasonable, and Gulliver's houyhnhm master sees humanity (well, Yahoos) equally so.

* No form of government is ideal — the simplistic Brobdingnagians enjoy public executions and have streets infested with beggars, the honest and upright Houyhnhnms who have no word for lying are happy to suppress the true nature of Gulliver as a Yahoo and equally unconcerned about his reaction to being expelled

* Specific individuals may be good even where the race is bad — Gulliver finds a friend in each of his travels and, despite Gulliver's rejection of and horror toward all Yahoos, is treated very well by the Portuguese captain, Don Pedro, who returns him to England at the novel's end.

Of equal interest is the character of Gulliver himself — he progresses from a cheery optimist at the start of the first part to the pompous misanthrope of the book's conclusion and we may well have to filter our understanding of the work if we are to believe the final misanthrope wrote the whole work. In this sense Gulliver's Travels is a very modern and complex novel. There are subtle shifts throughout the book, such as when Gulliver begins to see all humans, not just those in Houyhnhnm-land, as Yahoos.

Despite the depth and subtlety of the book, it is often derided as a children's story because of the popularity of the Lilliput section (frequently bowdlerised) as a book for children. It is still possible to buy books entitled Gulliver's Travels which contain only parts of the Lilliput voyage.


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