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Book club: Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift

by
29 May 2020

Alexander Faludy reflects on the forgotten threads in Swift’s classic Gulliver’s Travels

GULLIVER’S TRAVELS burst on London’s literary scene in 1726, and has been in print ever since. An adventure story that delights youngsters, it is also a work of social satire and moral theory.

Expecting controversy, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, initially concealed his authorship from the public — and even his publisher. The enduring success of Gulliver’s Travels immortalised Swift’s name, however, after his belated crediting in the second edition (Dublin,1735).

Adopting the conceit of an eponymous first-person narrator — Lemuel Gulliver, a surgeon and sea captain — Swift guides us through distant lands to gain a better understanding of ourselves. Across four journeys (1699-1715), Gulliver is thrown among midgets in Lilliput and giants in Brobdingnag. He experiences life on a flying island (Laputa), hovering over another, colonially subject, terrestrial one (Balnibarbi). Finally, Gulliver is perturbed to encounter another (Houyhnhnms Land), where horses embody civility, and humans, savagery.

Along the way, Gulliver extinguishes a palace fire by relieving his bladder, slays dog-size rats, and meets a government adviser seeking to harvest light from cucumbers. Repeated word-play on “spectacles” and “spectacle” suggests that moral judgement is a matter of cultural perspective. Belatedly, Gulliver intuits that he shares more with the Yahoos (savages) than the Houyhnhnm (stoics).

Gulliver is a text divided against itself. It pits subjective human experience of gigantism against that of dwarfism (Books 1 and 2); and the smugness of comparative wisdom against the humiliation of sensed folly (Books 3 and 4). The first half feels concrete and comic; the second feels abstract and acid. The discord sometimes makes editors break Gulliver in two, excising the second half when adapting the text for children or the screen.

Theistic belief manifests ambiguously here. Our narrator tells us how he pees, but not how he prays. The only overtly religious building encountered, a Lilliputian temple, is disused — serving chiefly as a convenient place for Gulliver to sleep and defecate. Possibly Swift alludes to St Patrick’s Cathedral: in a rare surviving sermon, “On Sleeping in Church”, he rails against worshippers who slumber inside it.

Alamy  Jonathan Swift in a portrait by Charles Jervas from 1718

Religious motifs associated with Gulliver’s interlocutors imply mockery. A controversy among Lilliputians over taking the “little ender” or “big ender” approach to breaking eggs is liturgical satire: a play with the dispute about adopting the north-end (narrow) or eastward (broadside) position at the eucharist. Fasting reception of a wafer sporting the letters IHS fails to transform the faculties of the inhabitants of Lindalino (representing Dublin): Swift here scorns Roman Catholic sacramental practice and piety.

Some critics allege that Swift evinces functional atheism: that his positing of a present, earthly paradise (the land of the Houyhnhnms) implicitly denies a future heavenly one. Likewise, scathing presentation of the Yahoos, and Gulliver’s own eventual degeneracy into gibbering madness, show that Christian civilisation is both illusory and elusory. If Yahoo-Gulliver is “everyman”, humanity is irredeemable.

Such arguments perilously ignore the instability of the part played by Gulliver as narrator. Swift does not make Gulliver into an “unreliable narrator” in the sense of post-modern fiction (while at the same time leaving clues to his unreliability); but he is also not the reliable “omniscient” storyteller of 19th-century fiction used by Dickens or Trollope. Rather, Gulliver hovers between these poles.

That Gulliver doesn’t deceive us does not mean that he is free from self-deception. His blindness to the absurdity of his own behaviour in the book’s closing chapters undermines our trust in his evaluative judgments, including his praise of the superiority of Houyhnhnm (equine) society over that of Yahoos/humans.

Possibly Swift’s target in Gulliver is not theistic credibility, but human pride. Professor John Mullan argues that the supra-Pelagian Gulliver is “so confident in his own resources and intellectual powers, that he does not need religion”; this “experiment in godlessness leaves its narrator without hope”, however. Swift thus offers a profoundly Christian meditation on Original Sin and its continuing effects.

Swift was childless, but Gulliver has many offspring. Unauthorised 18th-century sequels were early examples of “fan fiction”. Swift disdained them, but loved his friend Alexander Pope’s poetic riff Verses on Gulliver’s Travels (1728). Pope imaginatively reconstructs the plight of Gulliver’s neglected wife in England. Swift had the verses printed alongside Gulliver in 1735; they still cohabit in some editions today.

Gulliver’s Travels inspired George Orwell in framing both Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). In the former, Orwell translates the ranking of Houyhnhnm above Yahoo into the animals’ defeat of the cruel farmer Jones. Orwell’s later totalitarian dystopia, though, shadowed by Swift’s melancholy estimate of human virtue, is also decorated with Gulliverian motifs. The prototype for the automated book-writing machines in Winston Smith’s Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four was first glimpsed by Gulliver in the Academy of Lagado.

In 1725, contemplating Gulliver’s imminent completion, Swift wrote to Pope: “The chief end I propose to myself is to vex the world rather than divert it.” Gulliver’s intricate tensions, no less than its colossal narrative drive, assure its place in English letters: it stubbornly resists a “final reading”. We can finish Gulliver in a day, but journey with him for decades.


The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is published by Collins Classics at £6.99 (Church Times Bookshop £6.30); 978-0-00-829651-3.



GULLIVER’S TRAVELS
— SOME QUESTIONS

  1. “No object ever disgusted me so much as the sight of her monstrous breast.” How are women described and given value in Gulliver’s Travels?

  2. What can Gulliver’s Travels teach us about difference, foreignness, and how we value the “other”?

  3. Are the Houynhnhnms perfect beings? If not, what are their flaws?

  4. How does Swift value reason versus emotion? How do you value them, and do you think them in opposition?

  5. Michael Foot suggested that everyone standing for political office should be examined on Gulliver’s Travels. Is it still relevant as a political critique? How?

  6. How does Swift describe eternal life for the Struldbruggs? Do you agree with his depiction?

  7. Is Swift a misogynist, or is he satirising misogyny?

  8. Are humans sinful by nature, for Swift? Does he offer us any way of improving ourselves?

  9. Does Swift’s commentary on religious conflict (e.g. through his description of arguments over egg-cracking) hold true today? What examples can you think of?

  10. Gulliver refers repeatedly to “Persons of quality”. How does Swift satirise class divisions?

 


IN OUR next reading-groups page on 3 July, we will print extra information about our next book, Honour by Elif Shafak. It is published by Penguin at £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-241-97294-6.

THE BOOK
In the preface to Honour, Shafak describes living in a neighbourhood that pretended not to see or hear violence. She dedicates the book to “those who hear, those who see”. Set in London and Turkey, Honour tells the story of three generations of the Turkish-Kurdish Toprak family attempting to make new lives for themselves in 1970s London. Tensions emerge between old traditions and new experiences, and the shadow of the “honour code” hangs over the family. In a sensitive portrayal of diasporic life, Shafak’s narrative questions notions of femininity and masculinity, loyalty and faith, in a family negotiating between two cultures.

THE AUTHOR
Born in France (1971) to Turkish parents, Elif Shafak is an academic, author, and advocate for women’s and minority rights. She has degrees in international relations and gender studies, and a doctorate in political science, and she has taught at universities in Turkey, the United States, and the UK. As a fiction author, Shafak has written 11 published novels in both Turkish and English. She was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019. She is often described as Turkey’s most widely read female novelist. In 2006, she was acquitted of the charge of “insulting Turkishness” for ideas expressed in her fiction. Shafak now lives in London.

 

BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS

August: Florence Nightingale: The woman and her legend by Mark Bostridge
September: Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

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