Book #22: Gulliver’s Travels (1726)

aka: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships (phew)
By: Jonathan Swift
Language: English, gobbledigook and a bit of Latin
Finished reading on: 29 June 2012

I’ve been intending to read this for quite a number of years now. I even started reading it and got about halfway through before getting bored. I should have taken that as a warning sign, frankly… I think I assumed that with age I would come round to it, but no. I started reading this book in February. February, for heaven’s sakes! I don’t even have the excuse of being a couple of months behind on my blog this time, since I’ve caught up with it now and after this post I’ll have no backlog for the first time in over a year; I only finished reading it two days ago. So it’s taken me five months to finish this book. Phew. OK, technically it’s taken many years, but I don’t know when I did start reading it before. This, of course, stands in stark contrast to the last book I read, which I started in London and finished two and a half weeks later on the way back from work, on a cold evening, in a place that I realised later was not the most convenient way to get home, because I had to wait around for buses for ages. Anyway, that’s another story.

There’s certainly a lot in Gulliver’s Travels that made for a good story, and that I enjoyed reading. The plot itself is fun, and bears reading about; man goes on travels around the world and finds islands of strange people. Of course, most people have only heard of the first story, in which Gulliver meets the tiny Lilliputians, and perhaps the second, in which he meets the giant Brobdingnagians, but would be hard pressed to tell you what happens in the third – although the giant floating castle Laputa gave its name to a Studio Ghibli film – or the fourth, in which Gulliver meets the intelligent Houyhnhnm race of horses and the vile disgusting Yahoos, a wild race of human-like creatures. Again, this has given its name to a famous modern day company.

To be honest, I think this is partly because the Lilliputian storyline is the most interesting, and the story kind of goes downhill from there. The giants’ storyline is alright, but the third storyline isn’t particularly interesting to me and is more difficult to define with a high concept, unlike the others; he goes to many different countries, for one thing. Aside from the floating castle, there is a race of humans so caught up in their own thoughts that they need to hire people to flap at their ears and eyes with a soft paddle to get them to concentrate, and they are so caught up in scientific thinking that they never get anything useful done.

It’s often known as a great work of satire. This is obvious if you dig even a little deep; in the Lilliputian storyline there is a great holy war over which side of an egg should be broken first, and they use Gulliver as a weapon in the war to get the upper hand. Then there are the scientist race, probably a criticism of the enlightenment, and then in the Houyhnhnm storyline he ditches the pretence and starts properly railing against lawyers and politicians, calling them the most vile of all kinds of human, bred from birth to spread lies. The horse people just look to their own wild Yahoos and reply “Yeah, we know.” The most depressing thing about this exchange is that this is still the case today, three hundred years later. Certain things were worse back then, but overall they just spout the same bullshit to us these days as they did back then.

On a genre level, it is also supposed to be a satire of the then-popular genre of travelogue, but as to this I can’t say very much more, since this style of travelogue is no longer popular (now we just have Stephen Fry being sent away with a camera by the BBC).

There are a few other points that I did like about it. There are some jokes strewn about through the text here and there, such as jokes about the relative size of his knob compared to the Lilliputians, and toilet humour is certainly not shied away from – he pisses on a fire in the Lilliputian palace to put it out. There are numerous slights towards the Dutch, such as the implication that they’re not good people or good Christians, or that their language sounds horrible. And I laughed out loud when I saw the full title for Part III, which is “A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan”; seeing the name of the country I live in tacked onto an increasingly ridiculous-sounding string of names made me chortle. And yet I think it was only tacked on because Japan at the time was just as mysterious and unknown as any of Swift’s invented countries, having closed its borders to almost all Europeans at the beginning of the 18th century. Unfortunately, he only visits for a few pages before packing off back to Europe, and the passage was only used for making slights at the Dutch, who were the only Europeans allowed. I got a little bit excited when I saw references to Yedo, the old name for Tokyo, partly because it’s alongside such exotic names as Xamoschi and Nangasac (Nagasaki?) – but a google search for these only returns pages discussing this book, so I don’t know where Swift got the names from.

But let’s face it, for all that the book has going for it, it’s just a bit boring! I think the very dry style that Swift employs has a lot to do with it. I just don’t find his writing engaging, even though content-wise it should be sound. Part of this is that it all seems a bit impersonal. It’s written through the eyes of a man writing a travelogue for an audience, rather than as a story in itself. It rarely if ever employs direct quotation or conversation, although frequently it will use quotation marks for indirect quotation, which I found jarring and distracting. Events that should be exciting come across as just another dull entry in the man’s diary.

I can certainly accept that this is just a factor of time, and that this was a normal way of writing 300 years ago. Yeah, language changes. In that case, I’m just glad that extraneous capitals were excised from the Project Gutenberg version of the book, since I would have quickly grown annoyed by that. I understand that most people who have read this book were suitably gripped by it, and that it’s considered a masterpiece by many, but not me. I think it had its good points, as detailed above, but it didn’t grip me, and it felt like a chore to read, which is never a good thing. And hence it took me five months to read. I could perhaps point out that I’ve been particularly busy over the past five months, and I was almost willing to be more charitable on this point about this book, but I started the new Terry Pratchett book on the train yesterday and I was unable to put it down until I’d got home – I just kept reading as I got off the train. So I think this really is a function of how good the writing is, and how well it can grip me, and thus Gulliver’s Travels doesn’t quite make the cut.

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3 Responses to Book #22: Gulliver’s Travels (1726)

  1. Finlay says:

    Just while it’s on my mind… I did also notice that Swift had VERY CREEPILY correctly predicted that Mars had two moons that circle it on a very rapid basis. The text implies that this wasn’t known in Europe at the time, as it was discovered by one of the races of people that Gulliver meets. So I gotta ask how the hell he knew… was he privy to some kind of insider or unreleased information from the world of science?

  2. alex says:

    should we really listen to the Houyhnhnm? remember they’re horses. doesn’t matter what they say.

  3. Pingback: Book #114: The Jungle Book (1894) | reuoq

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