Patti Smith voice: Horses, horses, horses, horses, horses…..
This book is amazing and more people should read it. I recently decided to tackle a few of my literature gaps, and 18th century British literature is probably my major one. I could say 17th century too, but I have read enough Shakespeare and other contemporaries plus later poets to at least appear respectable. I can ask questions at the every least.
Anyway, I recently picked up a Tobias Smollett book and while it was going okay for a little while, the syntax of his sentences are so frustrating for me that the whole process was frustrating. So what’s better that a Scot looking at British society and making judgments? An Irishman doing the same. Not only that by Jonathan Swift’s prose is just so clear. He’s also hilarious and that’s great too.
Satirizing (and parody in the best of ways where the satire is also an excellently entertaining version of the form) travel writing, colonial writing, and other forms of expansive British writing, we have Lemuel Gulliver narrating his four main adventures. Not only does he keep going back to sea, leaving a cushy (and horrible) post as a doctor in an asylum and a wife and son, he keeps getting immediately captured. He visits more than four lands, but the adventures of four particular lands matter most here. And of course they’re both archetypal fantasy lands, but they offer a point of perspective and comparison for us to look at British culture and society.
1) A Voyage to Lilliput — In the land of the small, Gulliver discovers what it means to be advantageously larger, stronger, and more equipped than the people he discovers. Although their politics and technology are similar enough to the British, the size difference creates a nearly impenetrable gap in what each is capable of inflicting. It is only through Gulliver’s sense of honor and responsibility does he allow himself to be held accountable for his actions legally and judicially. And it almost costs him, as they want to sentence him to death, even after he saves their skin multiple times, because he gives offense by pissing out a fire in the palace (fair enough).
2) A Voyage to Brobdingnag – A reversal, and now Gulliver is Lilliputian next to the land of giants. But for the most part, they too, like he was, are peaceful and caring. In fact, when Gulliver teaches the emperor about guns and cannons and the destruction they can wreak in their might (and what they would allow in terms of conquest), the emperor is horrified and cannot fathom the brutality.
3) A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib and Japan
A variety of small voyages, similar enough to the minor landings of Odysseus on various islands (with the added joke of Japan being a real place). In this section we meet a flying country who hurls rocks from above, a race of immortals who show the downsides of that particular issue, and an all bureaucrat islands where science is performed by never advanced.
4) A Voyage to the Land of the Houyhnhnms – The land of a horse-like race where wilding humans are the cattle, the savages, and the protectees of the gentle masters. Both a treatise of the way we treat animals but of course also a clear satire of the ideas of slavery and colonialism seen in paternal rawness.
Like I said, the book is funny and weird and just filled to the brim with funny and curious observations. It’s drenched in bathroom humor, which is also great, and like the best of satire, the specific targets are hit in broad strokes enough for this to stay with us. It’s of course important to remember that this is a anti-colonial novel as well.