I am still on the classics kick as you can see! After the mammoth Bleak House, I thought the relatively slim Gulliver’s Travels would be a cakewalk. Not true at all! In some ways, this was a more challenging read.
Anyway, on to the synopsis:
Gulliver’s Travels really is a compilation of 4 different journeys:
- Journey to Liiliput
- Journey to Brobdingnag
- Journey to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Gluggdubdrib and Japan
- Journey to the land of the Houyhnhnms
Lilliput: This is the most popular story, and one that I read (an abridged version) in childhood. Of course at that time, the satire went completely over my head. This time, things were a lot more understandable. In this story, Gulliver gets shipwrecked onto an island occupied by miniature people. These people are very similar to our own with the same vices we have. And Swift uses these people as a mirror to highlight our own follies (focusing primarily on politics and kings).
Brobdingnag: In this second voyage, Gulliver is shipwrecked onto an island occupied by giants. At first, he is contemptuous of them, thinking them an ugly race, but as he spends more time, he begins to appreciate the king and his government. The king and Gulliver have long discourses together comparing their ways of living and Gulliver comes away feeling embarrassed about England and it’s government.
Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Gluggdubdrib and Japan: I found this book the weakest among all the books. It was all too fantastical for me – a floating island, a race of immortal people, servants of ghouls…there was just a bit too much squeezed into this section for my taste. In addition, Swift uses this journey to satirize scientists who are always working on impractical discoveries. Somehow, this section was not really convincing. I mean, if scientists did not spend time and money trying to invent new things, then how would the human race have actually grown so much so fast?
Houyhnhnms: This is probably the most savage and the most pessimistic of his journeys. In this journey, Gulliver finds to his amazement that men have degenerated into savages (called Yahoos) and are now being ruled by an intelligent and benevolent race called the Houyhnhnms (who are horses that have evolved into intelligent beings). Gulliver is devastated to find out this degeneration and after several discourses with his master Houyhnhnm, he decides he wants to continue living with them. Unfortunately for him, he is not one of them, and is soon asked to leave. He returns home and struggles to re-adjust himself to mankind’s treacherous, lying ways.
My thoughts on the book
First up, I want to say that I found Swift’s language and grammar rather difficult to adjust to. He had an unfortunate habit of inappropriately (at least in today’s English usage) capitalizing words right in the middle of sentences. An example is the opening sentence of this book:
I hope you will be ready to own publicly, whenever you shall be called to it, that by your great and frequent Urgency you prevailed on me to publish a very loose and uncorrect Account of my Travels; with Direction to hire some young Gentlemen of either University to put them in Order, and correct the Style, as my Cousin Dampier did by my Advice, in his Book called, A Voyage round the World.
Oh, and did I mention he was verbose? 😉 It took some time to get used to such a style, but was able to ignore it once the story starts to get going.
Another thing that bothered me was his use of satire. I generally prefer humor to be more subtle. In many places, it felt that Swift was using a hammer to convey his point when a sharp prod of a knitting needle would have been more effective. In places, his jokes are vulgar and gross too.
I was also expecting some kind of adventures in the book, and although he does have adventures, the focus is really on the dialogues…and there are pages and pages of extremely pessimistic dialogues :(. Reading this book made me feel that Swift must really be quite a misanthrope, and that does not really suit me.
But in spite of it all, I think this is a book that people should read. It’s not easy reading, but he does make some good points that I can appreciate, and I can understand why this book is termed a Classic. In spite of my negative points on this book, I am glad I read it
Btw, it’s so cool that two words which are commonly used today probably originate from this book:
- Lilliputian is now a word that is used to refer to something that is small.
- Yahoo is now slang used to refer to uncouth people living in remote places.
Isn’t that so cool?
- The philosophy embedded within each story
- Dated writing, hard to read
- Satire isn't very subtle