Review: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver’s Travels is a classic novel. First published in 1726 it addresses political issues that were prevalent in Britain and also Europe, with particular focus on the corruption of society and the treatment of individuals. This political satire is intended to be funny. Lemuel Gulliver, the narrator and central figure, was a travel writer whom Swift created entirely, with a family back story which could have been supported by evidence and also a note from the publisher explaining why there is a lack of precise geographical locations in the text. Swift intended this text to be read as a factual travel document. Not long before this was published, Robinson Crusoe had been written and this was again, written as a travel document because it was a genre that would interest ordinary people. Ordinary working people, unless in the navy, would not have possessed the means to travel and so the only way that they could escape to these exotic places was for them to read travel documents.

With this in mind I feel that it is easier to consider the text as a satire on the early eighteenth century European society. The foreign lands that Gulliver visits are exciting and new, whilst at the same time bearing resemblances to their home. The visits to Broadbingnang, Lilliput and Laputa offer new ideas and people to be expressed whilst also subtlely criticising European society. The fighting over petty issues like the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians in Lilliput, which end of the egg should you use to break it, is an example of how trivial and often insignificant conflicts can be. Which is a reflection of Europe in the eighteenth century.

Gulliver's Travels Cover from the first publication

But for me the most poignant fictional country that Gulliver visits is the unknown island inhabited by the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos. I enjoyed this section the most because it was the only one, I felt, in which Gulliver was not treated as a Demi-God, Emperor, or a figure of extreme power and self-worth. If anything he was seen as nothing more than a yahoo, a brutish human-like creature but who considered himself to be sophisticated. A noble savage. I just did not like Gulliver as either a character or a narrator. He seemed to resemble all the arrogance, power and patriarchy that Swift himself was satirising. I would perhaps go so far as to say that Gulliver was misogynistic, particularly with the way he discusses women that he meets in the different societies. They are sexualised, objectified and generally inferior to those around them. Granted that this was written just under 300 years ago in a patriarchal society and there have been many feminist readings of the text, I still felt that there was just something, an aspect, that I couldn’t quite accept.

I cannot criticise the entire work however, because the ideas and concepts present in the text are fantastic. The floating island of Laputa and the experiments described in the Academy of Science seem to fill the text with hope. The attempts to improve the living conditions of the inhabitants, to me seemed to be an example of optimism for the future. That despite all the troubles and tribalism between nations, that the dream of a paradise exists. But again this dream of a perfect society is comprimised because none of the experiments in the society work, are useful to everyday working people and as a result living conditions in Laputa are awful. Furthermore, the irony that this is juxtaposed by the island of Laputa literally enforcing its dominance on the country below by threatening to crush them with their heavy floating island if they do not conform and agree to the demands of Laputa, takes away from the utopian concept a bit.

Which brings me back to my initial response to the text. It is interesting, no doubt about that. But I think that this is as far as I can go. I am unsure if entirely like it as a novel but I appreciate what Swift has attempted to do. His description of imaginary places (which even at times I found difficult and irksome to read. The vast quantity of description in the novel just made it even harder for me to engage with Gulliver as a narrator) which are at the same time majestic, mythical and fantastic are also full of corruption is a reflection of his contemporary society. But also a reflection of our modern day society too, so I guess this novel still has an impact with its question on morality and power.

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