If you are following along in the Summer Read, we’ve now finished the first voyage in Gulliver’s Travels.
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), in his well-researched publication on the writings of Jonathan Swift, discussed his opinions on Gulliver, ranging from high praise for the first two voyages to utter disdain for the final voyage (building suspense!). I found his description of the voyages to be striking:
“No word drops from Gulliver’s pen in vain. Where his work ceases for a moment to satirize the vices of mankind in general, it becomes a stricture upon the parties, politics, and courts of Britain; where it abandons the subject of censure, it presents a lively picture of the vices and follies of the fashionable world, or of the vain pursuits of philosophy, while the parts of the narrative which refer to the traveller’s own adventures form a humorous and striking parody of the manner of old voyagers.”
Layers. First and foremost, Swift is known for his satire. Satire is defined by the good folks at Bing as “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” In other words, Gulliver is picking at humanity. Peel that layer and he’s picking at politics. Peel that layer and he’s picking at fashion, philosophy, even the adventure novel itself – particularly Robinson Crusoe. (published 1719, seven years before Gulliver) Swift is regarded by many as being among the greatest satirists of all time, alongside Twain, Rabelais, etc.
And speaking of varied layers, J. Paul Hunter makes the case that Gulliver is not a novel at all. Hunter matches the style of Gulliver to a parody, a comedic imitation. Swift, apparently, is also the Alfred Matthew Yankovic of his generation? He uses the “adventure novel” as the springboard, so the resemblance to that style will be striking, even if the details draw out a certain level of absurdity. In the end, he uses this platform to hold up a mirror to his world.
Why do I bring this up now?
There is a randomness to Gulliver‘s Travels. He moves from one day to the next, one topic to the next, one kingdom to the next in a manner that can be unsettling. In a matter of pages, he leaves one island, greets another, plans his escape, returns home with a boatload of miniature animals, gains wealth, settles family affairs, and is again on the sea. This after spending nearly equal space discussing the contents of his pockets (which, in and of itself, was a jab at one of the oft-mocked blunders of Robinson Crusoe) in Chapter II.
I typically waffle between two feelings while I’m reading the story. On one level, I feel the biting human commentary, which will only grow stronger by that fourth appalling journey (oh, the suspense!). On another level, I am thankful for footnotes because I feel like I’ve missed a joke. If you feel the same, you’re not alone! But it is the nature of this story to dwell in unpredictability and loose ends – all in the name of social commentary.
As an example, I’d like to share a few of the helpful footnotes:
Chapter I: Robinson Crusoe is also a third son.
Chapter I: Lilliputians reminiscent of pygmies who attacked Hercules.
Chapter I: Abundant urination stories reminiscent of Gargantua by Rabelais.
Chapter II: Emperor’s resemblance thought to describe George I.
Chapter III: Flimnap thought to be Sir Robert Walpole, head of the Whigs
Chapter IV: High heels = Tory/High Church; Low heels = Whig/Low Church
Chapter IV: Big-Endians = Catholics; Little-Endians = Protestants
Chapter V: Visit from Blefuscudians references Bolingbroke’s visit to the French Court in 1712.
Chapter VI: Firefighting probably reflects Swift’s relationship with Queen Anne.
Chapter VII: Visit mocks the Whig Committee of Secrecy.
These are just a few of the many, many contemporary references that season our story. There are more than 80 explanatory footnotes in the nerd version of Lilliput! Layer after layer after layer, Swift draws in various relevant figures and literary works to create a blended story. Where he is truly viewed as a master is in doing so with any sort of appeal. A story doesn’t thrive for nearly three centuries without manufacturing a certain broad and fascinating attraction. Historians can pick the story apart, children can wonder at the absurd circumstances, and we all reside somewhere in between.
Personally, I appreciate the broad mirror he holds up to humanity, even if I often miss the specific historical irony.
Sir Walter Scott goes on to say of Daniel Defoe (author of Crusoe), and subsequently Swift as well:
“He was well aware that the course of human life is as irregular and capricious as the process of natural vegetation.”
Maybe irregularity can relate a story to our hearts differently than epic regularity (another term from Scott) because our thoughts and lives, at times, seem to be random. I suppose I would be excited if the zigzag chain of thinking that permeates my typical day spilled out onto a page sounding like Gulliver’s Travels.
For now, I’ll have to settle for reading the next voyage. Bring on Brobdingnag!