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ClassicsOnline Home » SWIFT, J.: Gulliver's Travels (Abridged)
Gulliver’s Travels is renowned as a playful and comic children’s classic. The book itself, rather than the bowdlerized versions that have been derived from it, is a savage, rude and brilliant satire, timeless in its appeal and unerringly accurate. The images of Gulliver among the miniature Lilliputians and the giants of Brobdingnag, the crazy scientists, and the rational horses create a series of novel delights and challenging insights.
Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World was
published under the name of Lemuel Gulliver in 1726, to mask the true author,
Jonathan Swift, the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. On one level Swift’s mock
travel book is a hoax; the satirist’s friends, Pope and Gay, playfully reported
to Swift that some readers had gone to their atlases to look up Lilliput. Swift
gleefully countered that an Irish Bishop had said of the book that it was “full
of improbable lies, and for his part, he hardly believed a word of it”. That
“hardly” is a deft stroke of irony.
Swift’s great satire has been read “from the cabinet council
to the nursery” ever since its first publication. Its comedy and inventiveness
have rightly made it a classic of children’s literature.
Rarely has the interplay between the perspectives and
separate value systems of small and large people been so wittily explored.
Unfortunately, many adults remembering children’s versions of the first two of
the four books of Gulliver’s Travels have underestimated this great work.
Anyone bringing such preconceptions to Gulliver’s Travels will be surprised by
the sophistication and savagery of Swift’s satire and the rudeness of some of
his jokes, none of which has been edited out of the version recorded here.
Gulliver’s Travels plays tricks with perspective and
relativity not only with the physical world (which is encountered diminished by
a scale of 12 to 1 in Lilliput and enlarged by the same proportion on
Brobdingnag) but also with the moral and political assumptions of the nations
that Gulliver encounters. Gulliver’s persona is that of a bluff and
sometimes-naive empiricist. He shows himself unequal to the political intrigue
that besets the court of Lilliput in the first book, the moral largesse of the
King of Brobdingnag in the second, the ineffectual abstractions that preoccupy
the inhabitants of the flying island and the crazy scientists in the third, and
the pure and passionless rationality of the horses (the Houyhnhnms) in the
Gulliver shows himself to be easily drawn into local
allegiances and prejudices. In learning the languages of the nations he visits,
he also becomes naturalized to their perspectives: he describes a little girl
in Brobdingnag who is forty feet tall as small for her age, and he simply
accepts the Houyhnhnms’ view of themselves as the perfection of nature. Its
satire attacks corruption in politics, luxury and self-indulgence, absurd faith
in science and progress, callous pride in the so-called valiant achievements of
man in warfare, colonialism, and subduing the natural world.
Gulliver is at times an absurd jingoist, extolling the
Excellencies of his “own dear native country” to the King of Brobdingnag, but
unconsciously disclosing its fatal political, constitutional and ethical
weaknesses. In the academy of Lagado, Gulliver expresses his enthusiasm for
ingenious projects and reveals a naive faith in the capacity of man for
improvement: this attitude is the very inverse of the satirist’s cynicism.
Gulliver waxes eloquent about the seemingly limitless benefits of immortality,
only to be humbled by the true horrors of the immortal Struldbruggs, who have
tipped over the edge into despair faced by the terrible prospect of never
Gulliver makes a comparative study of several parallel
worlds and finds many human follies to be universally shared. He also betrays
the blind spots
in his own outlook and thus allows the Western reader to see
the culture of
the West with fresh eyes. Gulliver’s uncritical account of
England (in the second book) invites the reader to re-examine his assumptions:
the innocent observer is somehow wiser than the sophisticated one. In
Gulliver’s Travels a kind of irony is generated that dissolves habits of
belief: this ironic technique has been much admired and imitated. By the final
book, the satire is not limited to evils that are merely local or national:
Swift attacks the pride of mankind as a whole. Thackeray has condemned the
final book of Gulliver’s Travels most famously as “filthy in word, filthy in thought,
furious, raging, obscene”.
Many have regarded Swift’s most radical satire as despairing
and misanthropic. You will have to decide for yourself. In my view, having read
and re-read Swift’s most famous work over many years, I always find it to be
invigorated by an awesome negative energy that attacks, infuriates, and
challenges the reader. Its satire is fresh and its relevance is timeless: it
never fails to amuse and intrigue.
Notes by Daniel Eilon
Neville Jason trained at RADA where he was awarded the
Diction Prize by Sir John Gielgud. He has worked with the English Stage Co.,
the Old Vic Company and the RSC as well as in films and musicals. In television
he has appeared in popular serials such as Maigret, Emergency Ward 10 and Dr.
Who, as well as playing classical roles such as Orestes and Horatio. Formerly a
member of the BBC Radio Drama Co., he can be frequently heard on radio.
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SWIFT, J.: Gulliver's Travels (Abridged)