This is one of the best things I have ever read. It is almost a cliche now to describe Gulliver’s Travels as a biting satire, but it is utterly true - and a wonderful one to boot. In a shortened, picture form, Gulliver’s Travels is one of the world’s most popular children’s book so the plot feels familiar and almost nostalgic. Along with rice cakes and marmite sandwiches, reading it took me back to my childhood. Suddenly I was eight again and running around the playground.
The story goes a bit like this. Gulliver leaves his wife and child to go travelling, and from then on has a set of the weirdest, most fantastical adventures ever set to paper. Shortly after leaving, Gulliver shipwrecks and stumbles upon Lilliput, the renowned land of little people that can walk around on his hand. After the ensuing adventures and a journey home, Gulliver embarks on a further bold voyage, but this time his ship flounders on Brobdingnag, a nation of giants where suddenly it is Gulliver who finds himself a little person. Next, after leaving, he finds all sorts of odd peoples – a floating island in the sky, magicians who can conjure the dead – and finally a land of wise and logical horses, the perspicacious Houyhnhnms. Alongside these omnibenevolent nags, he makes a discovery that turns his blood a-chill. Here, he encounters the infamous ‘Yahoos’. A savage, untameable, splenic animal that seems to bear more than a passing resemblance – in looks and habits – to the species of which Gulliver is a committed member: the unhumble human...
There is just something so special about this book. It might not be the most significant aspect, perhaps, but I even loved the 16th century-style writing style. For example, every proper noun is capitalised, and letters starting with ‘h’ are always preceded with ‘an’: I saw with mine Eyes, an Hundred Savages advancing upon my poar Self. This must have been standard at the time, but it now lends the books a delightful realism. I’m sure it gets edited out of a lot of modern editions, but I think that’s a mistake.
Gulliver’s personality binds the whole thing together like an egg in cake batter. His most striking characteristic is an ostentatious gallantry. Beached on Lilliput, and captured by the little people, he quickly pays tribute and accepts the rule of the tiny Lilliputian king, even though he is no bigger than his face; soon describing him as ‘my gracious majesty’. Ultimately, Gulliver feels entitled – being a British citizen of Her Majesty the Queen – to be treated civilly and with decorum. He expects to be welcomed into the court of every king, and for his needs to be met – food, wine and a new ‘suit of cloaths’ wherever on the globe he finds himself. This entitlement can lead him to be dreadfully naive, at times unaware of clear and present danger.
What makes us human?
Yet what makes the book interesting is how Gulliver sees the world. It is a fascinating sum of contradictions. Gulliver is overtly proud of his country, and acts as an ambassador wherever he goes. But he also embarks on new life-styles with gusto. In three of the places he visits, he settles, stays for years, learns the language and embraces their lifestyle - even though it’s almost the opposite of his own. However, Gulliver thinks of his own society as far more sophisticated and on a ‘higher level’ than any of the civilisations he visits. In fact, nothing gets him questioning his homeland, until he meets the Yahoos....
The Yahoos are a breed of savage humans. Gulliver is repulsed by them because he sees the character of the despicable Yahoo’s mirrored in humans, and the character of the horses as far superior. So, he never quite manages to critique British society and it’s institutions – something that is changeable – but just the human character – which isn’t (especially not en masse).
I think that’s quite significant, and clearly a Swiftian commentary on something. I see it as saying a range of things from a kind of Thatcherite proclamation that society doesn’t exist, to the idea that culture is just the emergent phenomena that arises out of the character’s of the people that live there. I think that’s dead wrong - and actually so would most sociologists today. Institutions are incredibly important, but Gulliver is only concerned with character. I can’t quite tell which side of the fence Swift himself sat on – but since his most vicious critique is on personality traits, I’ll put flag down and say that he got this one wrong. He savagely critiqued humans character - and finds fault with the echos of our animal urges in the way we live, but he didn’t stop to mention how amazing it is that we’ve developed institutions that work well despite all our Yahoo-like greed.
I think I missed a lot of the satire in the book – especially since I’m not au fait with the subtleties of George I’s court – but I think I got the main point, and it’s exceptionally clever. By creating and describing so many fantastical species – little men, big men, magicians, talking horses – the book is essentially an exercise in frame setting. It is priming us, by poking fun at imaginary beings, to be able to picture ourselves objectively. Gulliver rocks up at Lilliput and finds a bunch of weird little people, but what if he rocked up in Britain, what strange species would he find there? Humans.
Swift want us to take a long look at what we really are. For him it’s obvious. We’re just savages, monkeys, a slave to our urges. And we've painstakingly built a society that pretends we’re not. That’s problematic, because it means we’re literally unaware of how stupid some of our actions are. Once you start looking as Jonathan Swift wanted us to look, everything becomes ridiculous. From living in houses that are so far superfluous to our needs, to border conflicts, to political slanging matches. This is all comes from animalistic, primal urges – which are just stupid. And yet we pretend that there’s a good intelligent reason for everything, that things are the way they are for a reason. As a culture, we do not live rationally. Our selfish, grubbing instincts are built into the very fabric of our society. But, as I mentioned earlier, that’s only half the story. Actually, society is brilliant, amazing, incredible - and it’s a testament to human ingenuity that we’ve managed to design ourselves a system that succeeds not despite, but because of, the character of the human race.
And yet, we can do more. We can continue to strive towards building a better world. To be better, to live better together, and to help those that get left behind. It's not all doom and gloom, but there's no time for complacency either. Let's get cracking...