There were many books I was supposed to have read in school, and I’m pretty sure this is one of them. I can’t remember exactly, but it was probably the case with this one as well. But hey, I guess it just wasn’t the time yet. So I suggested to my reading group that we pick this one up, and I’m glad that we did. It was a wild ride, to say the least. An unexpected, wild ride. But we made it to the end. And while I’m not sure this will be one I read again, I am glad to have read it.
Swift offers the reader a lot to digest in Gulliver’s Travels. Coming off the height of the Age of Exploration and much political turmoil in the British Isles, Swift pokes fun at everyone, and likely even at himself. He weaves narrative with satire as only Swift can, leaving often as many questions for us to ponder as we began with. The book often reminded me of the book of Ecclesiastes or Proverbs, and I wonder if there was a reason Swift named his main character Lemuel. In the end, there is weariness in making many books, and of much study, there is no end. Furthermore, there is nothing new under the sun.
Even now after taking the time to digest the book, I feel as though I will not do it justice, so I will try to be brief. While this is a book satirizing traveler’s tales, which were often as false as they were true, Swift was also writing fantasy, which is as true as it is false. There were many quirks to the language that forced me to think deeply about what was being said. Though the story began rather slowly, it really picked up about halfway through and ended swiftly. Often, Gulliver reminded me of Odysseus in his travels, constantly having to repeat what he had gone through. Also, you get the brunt of Swift’s satire about two-thirds of the way through, and there you also can understand why this work was so hated by the politicians of England.
In each place Gulliver travels, you get a perspective on an area of human nature and its counterpoint. I won’t talk about each location, but there were a couple that stood out to me. There are the people who swell themselves with much talk, but in reality, they are little people. There are those who claim to value virtue, but then have such petty rules for small offenses that their size is almost comical. Up close, you can’t help but revile them. We find in Swift’s book that we like the things of other places that are like us but are often hesitant to let our perspective change, whether that be in location or status. Yet in doing so, we can understand that what is a small problem for one person is monumental to another. I was often reminded to be compassionate and generous to others.
But along the lines of nothing being new under the sun, Swift points out disagreements between political philosophies that seemed avant-garde for the time and old hat today. For example, some enlightened and progressive thinkers of one land, at first glance, seemed like the height of technological advancement. Gulliver was impressed. But as he got closer to what was really happening, he realized these thinkers did only what was new, not necessarily what worked. Destroying what came before, they were traveling full force into their own destruction. Gulliver came to love some groups at the expense of his own family, hating even himself, loving the eventual end of people. By the end, he believes the propaganda he’s lived with for years and goes insane with his “learning.”
I found Gulliver less and less likable as the story went on. His abandonment of his family, his incapability to hold to any worldview, and his eventual shunning of humanity were uninspiring. But, I think that is partially what made this book so good. Unlike other traveler’s tales, Gulliver is no hero. He’s not a philosopher or great thinker either. He is the shell of a man who we put on to engage with ideas. Not to say that Gulliver is a flat character. No, he develops (or undeveleops?) as the story progresses. But this is what makes this book a classic and good fiction. It’s not just about the story but about the truth in the fiction. Here, in the land of fantasy and satire, we engage with ideas in an honest manner that we, and apparently also the politicians of England, are afraid to face. Here in fiction, we can see logical conclusions behind the safety of pages. And hopefully, in reading, we can keep those conclusions for fiction rather than letting them play out in the real world again and again.
Overall, I am glad that I read this book with all its oddities. However, I probably wouldn’t hand this book to anyone younger than an older middle schooler. While the complex ideas within can and should be discussed with a parent, there are some scenes and language that are untasteful. It would be good for a parent to read this book before handing it to their child. And it should be. This is a piece of classic literature for a reason. It forces the reader to think and expands the vocabulary (including my own) in addition to forcing us all to deal with our perspectives and perhaps misconceptions about the world.
Blessings to you and yours,
~Madelyn Rose Craig