Classics Challenge #7- A classic travel or journey narrative
Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift
I’ve read Gulliver’s Travels many times before in abridged children’s versions, but this was my first time reading through the whole thing. While I still hold that Gulliver’s Travels should be read in its full (if tedious) glory, I can see why most editions cut it down to focus on Lilliput and maybe one or two of the other islands.
“In a little time, I and my family and friends, came to a right understanding: but, my wife protested I should never go to sea anymore; although, my evil destiny so ordered, that she had not power to hinder me; as the reader may know hereafter. In the meantime, I here conclude the second part of my unfortunate voyages.”
The account of Guliliver’s time in Lilliput/ Blefuscu and Brobdingnag are the most interesting. In the two little islands of Lilliput and Blefuscu, Gulliver’s superior size makes him not only a curiosity to the locals but also a potential threat or valuable ally. But on top of being a neat twist to the story, Gulliver’s greater size seems to give him greater perception, and he can see how petty the little locals really are. In Brobdingnag he is again a curiosity, but this time without the dominance. Instead some of the locals take advantage of him while others pick him up and stroke him like a hamster. The pettiness he witnessed in the Lilliputians has now been turned on him, which is proved as he chafes when the Brobdingnag king points it out.
“I lamented my own folly and wilfulness in attempting a second voyage against the advice of all my friends and relations. In this terrible agitation of mind I could not forbear thinking of Lilliput, whose inhabitants looked upon me as the greatest prodigy that ever appeared in the world; where I was able to draw an imperial fleet in my hand, and perform those other actions which will be recorded for ever in the chronicles of that empire, while posterity shall hardly believe them, although attested by millions. I reflected what a mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this nation, as one single Lilliputian would be among us.”
Part three, while still thought-provoking in its own way, didn’t hold my interest as much as parts one and two. Gulliver travels the most in this section, visiting Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and…Japan. But the sense of adventure is lost. Here Gulliver is neither threat nor pet, merely a foreign visitor. Laputa held potential. The idea of a floating city is alone a fascinating one, and I also enjoyed the concept of a people so intellectual that they were idiots. But Gulliver doesn’t stay long.
“On the other side, after having seen all the curiosities of the island, I was very desirous to leave it, having being heartily weary of those people.”
The final book takes place mainly on the island of the Houyhnhnms, inhabited by rational horse-like creatures and irrational human-like creatures. It is here where I found things to be the most disturbing. Gulliver believes he has found the perfect rational being in the Houyhnhnms, and does what he can to imitate them. He thinks himself enlightened, but instead of having his character improved, Gulliver returns home in a terrible state. He now sees everyone, even his wife and the kindly Portuguese captain who brings him home, as a revolting Yahoo.
“When I thought of my family, my friends, my countrymen or human race in general, I considered them as they really were, Yahoos in shape and disposition, perhaps a little more civilized, and qualified with the gift of speech; but making no other use of reason, than to improve and multiply those vices, whereof their brethren in this country, had only the share that nature allotted them.”
It was depressing to find that Gulliver seems to have gleaned nothing lasting from his experiences. Despite recognising the arrogance in the Lilliputians, he can’t see it in himself. The humility I thought he gained in Brobdingnag is replaced by the false humility of his ‘enlightened yahoo’ mentality. Like the Laputians, his increased value of reason has left him imbalanced. Like the Balnibarbians, he is investing in faulty ideals. It also seems, like the immortal Struldbruggs of Luggnagg, that Gulliver is now stuck this way. I didn’t like this dismal ending, but I couldn’t help but suspect that Swift was being purposeful here, making a warning against letting learning to go waste by developing a swollen head.