GULLIVER’S TRAVELS

Author: Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745)
Publisher: Penguin Books (2010 Edition)
Bought: Penguin Singapore sale 2012

Introduction

Gulliver’s Travel is the most famous work of the Dublin-born writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift.

In 1714, the Whig party came into power when the Protestant George I (the first king of the House of Hanover) became King of Great Britain and Ireland, replacing the deceased Catholic Queen Anne. The Whigs purged the Tories from all official institutions and would remain in power for 40 odd years.

Swift was a supporter of the Tories when the Whigs came to power and he wrote Gulliver’s Travels as an anti-Whig satire. Swift handed the manuscript to Benjamin Motte, a publisher in London. Motte, fearing prosecution, unilaterally edited the manuscript before anonymously publishing the novel in two volumes in 1726 with the 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. Motte prefaced the story with a note titled The Publisher to the Reader under the pseudonym Richard Sympson explaining why he amended Swift’s manuscript. Spurred by the success of the novel, Motte went to on publish a number of follow up books, none of which Swift worked on.

In 1735, an Irish published named George Faulkner published a new edition carrying the title Gulliver’s Travel. Faulkner included a note titled A Letter from Captain Gulliver to his cousin Sympson in which Gulliver denounced Sympson’s editing of the previous edition of Gulliver’s Travels. Faulkner also included an article titled Advertisement in which the (unnamed) publisher claimed that his version was based largely on Swift’s original manuscript. Faulker removed Motte’s amendments and presented Swift’s original manuscript but omitting passages in Part III relating to a rebellion of Lindalino against Laputa.

Faulkner published a new edition in 1899 with the full text.

It was picked as number 4 in a list of the 100 greatest novels of all time published by the Observer (2003).

What is the story about?

The novel is told in first person narrative by a Samuel Gulliver from Nottinghamshire, who combined his profession and passion by serving as surgeon on sea voyages.

Part I, A Voyage to Liliput, is the most famous segment. The narrator was shipwrecked in Liliput, a miniaturised world where the average person was six inches tall. A Voyage to Liliput has given the English language the term liliput for something small. It has also given popular culture the hilarious image of a people locked in a religious war over the question whether a soft-boiled egg should be opened at the small end or the big end.

In Part II, A Voyage to Brobdingnag, Gulliver found himself in a gigantic world where the average person was 60 feet tall.

Unlike Parts I and II, the narrator visited several places in Part III, A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib and Japan. He encountered the people of Laputa, a flying island, who were obsessed with mathematics and music. Then he visited the Grand Academy of Lagado in Balnibarbi where scientists and other ‘projectors’ carried out experiments with dubious practical value. In Glubbdubdrib, he talked with ghosts of historical figures. Finally in Luggnagg, he met a race called Struldbrugs, blessed with immortality but cursed to spend eternity in their ageing bodies.

Finally, in Part IV, A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver was marooned in a land where a race of noble horses called Houyhnhnms was the governing, rational caste while a race of brutish humanoids called Yahoo was held in servitude. After a year in the country, Gulliver started to display what might today be called Stockholm Syndrome. He identified more and more with the Houyhnhnms, took to calling the one looking after him as “master” and denounced his family, friends, countrymen and the human race in general as little better than the vile Yahoos. Unlike on his other adventures, he did not want to return to England this time but after about 5 years he was cast out by the Houyhnhnms. As the novel ends, a misanthropic Gulliver was back home with his family but struggling to get used to life amongst human beings.

Themes

The novel is a biting satire with dollops of humour (often scatological) thrown in. Swift skewers European and English ways of life, political and judicial systems, royalty, diplomacy, science, religion, social values and even eating habits in the early 18th century. Some specific allusions will be lost to the modern reader without annotation – for example, the Tramecksan (High Heels) and the Slamecksan (Low Heels) of Liliput are parodies of the Tories and Whigs respectively, the Grand Academy of Lagado is an allusion to the Royal Society, and the Lindalino rebellion is a nod to Irish resentment against London’s imposition of a new copper currency minted in England. But even with no annotations, much of Swift’s acerbic commentary would still make some sense even today. And that is a sobering thought.

How is the book?

This is a basic Penguin Books edition, not the one edited by Robert DeMaria Jr. There is no introduction or footnotes. At S$6, it is not worth the price for a work that is in the public domain. A Wordsworth Classics edition at half the price with introduction and notes will be better value.

Finally…

This is no children book – Gulliver does not even have that many adventures himself. This is definitely one for adults.

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