Thursday, June 08, 2017

Satirical Voyages

Gulliver's Travels 

Gulliver's Travels

“He was perfectly astonished with the historical account gave him of our affairs during the last century; protesting “it was only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition, could produce.”  -  Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels

The first volume of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was published on October 28th in 1726. This was part of the onset of a literary tidal wave that included the novels of Daniel Defoe and would pick up speed by mid-century with the appearance of Fielding's masterpiece, Tom Jones.

Swift clearly relished the hoax aspect of his book, taking pains (under a pseudonym) to give his hero a genealogy and history, and a reputation for veracity so legendary “that it became a sort of proverb among his neighbours at Redriff, when any one affirmed a thing, to say, it was as true as if Mr. Gulliver had spoken it.” This kept up through the publication of subsequent volumes and editions, Gulliver himself now going on record to quibble over misprinted facts, or chortle over those “so bold as to think my book of travels a mere fiction out of mine own brain, and have gone so far as to drop hints, that the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos have no more existence than the inhabitants of Utopia.” The ideas are embodied in grotesques and fantastic creatures, in the six-inch high Lilliputians, the gigantic Brobdingnagians, the horse-like Houyhnhnms and the disgusting Yahoos.

The book itself is a fantastical satire that uses the ancient method of a journey (in this case multiple journeys) to foreign lands in the service of social satire and cultural commentary. The motivating force behind Gulliver's Travels is the author's apparent disgust with human folly and pretension. The Fourth Voyage is perhaps the most disturbing . Gulliver encounters disgusting ape-like creatures who "discharge their excrements" onto him from a tree, and then a pair of unusually thoughtful horses. These horses call themselves Houyhnhnms. They are super-rational beings who do not even understand the concept of lying, referring to it as "saying the thing which is not." For all their reasonableness they lack any passion and lead what would appear to most humans as dull lives. By contrast the "Yahoos" as they call the ape-like creatures are pure passion and emotion with no visible restraint. Gulliver gradually becomes enamored of the Houyhnhnms, so much so that when he eventually returns home he cannot abide the smell of of his wife and family and is happiest when spending time with his horses. While the land of the Houyhnhnms is superficially a utopia, this reader, after consideration of the life presented, found it to be a very drab and boring place. Nonetheless Gulliver, when relating life in England to his Houyhnhnm masters, is scathing in his attacks on lawyers, doctors, and the ruling classes. He confesses that he could be reconciled to the English Yahoos "if they would be content with those Vices and Follies only which Nature hath entitled them to. I am not in the least provoked at the sight of a Lawyer, a Pick-pocket, a Colonel, a Fool, a Lord, a Gamster, a Politician, a Whoremunger, a Physician, . . . or the like: This is all according to the due Course of Things: but, when I behold a Lump of Deformity, and Diseases both in Body and Mind, smitten with Pride, it immediately breaks all the Measures of my patience."

The characters imagined in this tale are so memorable that their names have become part of our culture. The journeys provide lessons for Lemuel Gulliver who is an honest if gullible narrator. Whether he learned the right lessons or ones that have value for others is for each reader to decide. Ultimately it is a satire that has stood the test of time and its relevance suggests the follies of twenty-first century humans are not so different from those caricatured by this brilliant eighteenth century satirist.


Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary James.

As you know I read this a few months ago. It is such an effective and entertaining satire.

As you mentioned, this is still a vey relevant tale. We can learn a lot from it.

Fred said...

No, unfortunately human nature has not changed at all. Have you read his "A Modest Proposal"?

Anonymous said...

I also like how Swift set up the book by pretending that Gulliver's voyages were authentic. I have read Gulliver's Travels at least 5 times. It is my third favorite book of all time. So I was excited to see that you read and enjoyed it. How do you feel about the Houyhnhnms. You wrote in your review that you thought their life was boring and passion-less. I definitely agree. In fact, I think they reveal something about Gulliver's character. I don't want to go into detail here as it would include spoilers that could offend readers of your blog, but if you are interested in my thoughts, voila :) :

James said...

Thanks for your comment. It is fascinating how many great books like this continue to be relevant today.

James said...

Yes, I have read a"A Modest Proposal". It is some of the most biting satire I've encountered.

James said...

exploring classics,
I noticed you had Swift high on your "Personal Canon" list. It is among my favorites also, if not quite so high.
My view of the Houyhnhnms is based on their complete lack of passion. While I'm a fan of rationality it should be leavened with a "reasonable" amount of passion. Gulliver seems to be much more impressed with the rational and mainly peaceful nature of the Houyhnhnms.