Gulliver’s Travels ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Irish writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift lived from 1667 to 1745. His most famous work, Gulliver’s Travels (complete title: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships) was first published in 1726. It’s an account, in four sections, of the seafaring adventures of one Lemuel Gulliver, ship’s surgeon, and his sometimes-bizarre adventures among the strange inhabitants of strange lands that nobody in Europe ever heard of or knew about. It’s always through misfortune that Gulliver has his adventures. First he is shipwrecked and finds himself in the land of Lilliput, where the people are about six inches (according to Gulliver’s measurement) tall. The tiny people don’t trust him, of course, because he is so big and might take it into his head to smash them to pieces. It takes many hundreds of them to tie him down, including by the hair of his head. Eventually they come to trust him, though, and let him roam freely. He falls out of favor with the King and Queen, though, because he puts out a fire in the tiny Queen’s chambers in the castle by urinating on it.
He returns home to his wife and children in England after his adventures in Lilliput, but he is a seafaring man and just can’t stay away from the sea. He is only home for a few months before he sets out again. This time misfortune brings him to Brobdingnag, a land where all the inhabitants are giants compared to him. He is kept as a pet or a curiosity in a “traveling box” and eventually ends up in the royal court, where he spends many hours conversing with the king in the king’s native language, which Gulliver quickly learns. On a trip to the seaside, the box in which he is traveling is snatched up by an eagle and dropped into the sea, where Gulliver is rescued by sailors and returned to his native England.
On his next seafaring adventure, Gulliver’s ship is attacked by pirates; he is marooned and soon picked up by the “flying island” of Laputa. The people of Laputa aren’t overly big or small, but they are strange. They blindly pursue science without any practical results. They use great resources and manpower to research preposterous schemes such as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, softening marbles for pillows, mixing paint by smell, and uncovering political conspiracies by examining the excrement of suspicious persons. After his sojourn in (or on) Laputa, Gulliver is awaiting passage to Japan when he visits the island of Glubbdubdrib, where he visits a magician’s dwelling and discusses history with the ghosts of historical figures, including Julius Caesar, Brutus, Homer, and Aristotle, among others. On the island of Luggnagg, he discovers the immortal race of people known as the struldbrugs. They don’t have the gift of eternal youth, though; they get old and stay old forever.
On his fourth and final adventure, Gulliver returns to sea as captain of a merchantman. His crew mutinies and keep him tied up below deck for weeks, after which they leave him on the first piece of land they come to and then continue as pirates. He comes across a race of hideous humanoid creatures, which he finds out later, are known as Yahoos. The Yahoos are filthy and savage, human beings in their basest form. We learn that Yahoos are merely what pass for people back home. This is Swift’s statement about the human race and his not-very-high opinion of it.
Soon he meets the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent talking horses. He finds them to be everything humans are not: kind, caring, thoughtful, considerate, selfless, and completely alien to the idea of lying, war and warfare. In short, they lack all the qualities that make human beings so odious.
Gulliver is treated well by the Houyhnhnms and comes to admire them among all creatures he has ever encountered. He comes to want to be like them and live as they do. Much to his dismay, however, an Assembly of Houyhnhnms decides that Gulliver, as a Yahoo, has too much reasoning ability for his own good and poses a threat to the Houyhnhnms. They expel him, even though he would like to live among them forever, and he thereby returns to England. He is unable to reconcile himself to living again among the Yahoos, even though he is one of them, and remains a recluse in his own home in England, avoiding his family and all other people, and spends his time in the company of his horses in the stable.
Gulliver’s Travels exists on several levels. It is a satire, a science fiction story, a fantasy, an adventure story, and a forerunner to the modern novel; strangely accessible and readable, almost three hundred years after its first publication. Jonathan Swift stated that one of his purposes in writing the story was to write it for all, the high-born and the low, and to vex the world rather than divert it. It became an instant classic upon its publication and a huge literary success.
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp