Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Gulliver's Travels

Reading Gulliver's Travels, one would think that Jonathan Swift was a misanthrope. He does not color mankind with a friendly brushstroke when he describes the behavior of the natives he meets and compares it with humanity back home.

Broken into four parts:

(I) Following a shipwreck, Gulliver famously finds himself on the island of Lilliput where he is the prisoner of 6 inch tall people. In exchange for his release he agrees to help the king defeat his enemies on the nearby island of Blefusco, which Gulliver does by capturing their navy.

Gulliver finds the long war between Lilliput and Blefusco to be trivial and foolish, similar to many European wars he has observed - especially concerning religion. The Lilliputian war began over the interpretation from their holy book on how to open eggs: on the big end or small end. The factions (Big-Endian and Little-Endian) cannot simply allow an individual to freely choose which end is best suited for themselves.

Gulliver is disgusted when the Lilliputians demand that he destroy the people of Blefusco. This decision, along with jealously, courtly intrigue and politics force Gulliver to leave Lilliput.

Before leaving, Gulliver comments that he admires the Lilliputians for placing morality over ability in their government officials, since people with great ability but no morals would quickly subvert government to their own needs. However, "moral" people still make bad decisions.

(II) Gulliver's next journey is to Broddingnag, a race of giant humans 12 times his size. Many of the giants regard him as a novelty, like a toy, and display contempt for Gulliver's intelligence and ability. The king of the giants, after speaking with Gulliver about the English policital system, concludes that, "ignorance, idleness, and vice are the proper ingredients for qualifying a legislature (in England)". When Gulliver talks about the secret of gunpowder with his majesty, the king expresses outrage that such a little man could know a secret which would equalize all races. In affect, making a small man (or commoner) as powerful as a king (or a giant).

(III) After leaving the race of giants, by way of a bird carrying off his cage, Gulliver's next notable adventure is reaching a floating island. The floating island is home to royalty and it circles a much larger "normal" island full of commoners and lesser nobility. Swift describes an ingenious way for keeping the floating island in the sky - it uses the earth's magnetic properties to levitate, sort of like a futuristic mag-lev train. The king of the floating island extracts tribute from the larger island below, and if he doesn't receive it he will hover above their lands depriving them of sunlight and rain. It is possible that he could use more force and crush the inhabitants below with his floating island. However, this could destroy his own floating island as well, so he doesn't choose to do this.

In this society, technology and science are considered the supreme good (at the expense of common sense). Devices are created at the academy that seem unproductive, wanting or are harmful - although some are quite clever.

Gulliver also meets a group of people who can speak to the dead. Gulliver summons eminent philosophers and orators, generals and politicians to talk with him. In another area, Gulliver finds a race that is immortal. Unfortunately, this race ages normally and so they spend the majority of their long life in the condition of extreme physical old age.

(IV) Gulliver finally encounters the Houyhnhnms. This is a race of intelligent horse-like creatures living on an island who cannot lie and prize reason above emotion. They exist in contrast to the barbaric, uncivilized humans known as "Yahoos" who respond to only to their base desires. The Yahoos are filthy, unshaven and are either running around free or used for physical labor by the Houyhnhnms.

The natives find that since Gulliver resembles the Yahoos he must be similar to them in intelligence, ability and behavior. They are surprised when Gulliver learns their language and is capable of sophisticated reasoning. Gulliver quickly identifies with the Huoyhnhnms and their culture. After all his travels, he begins to express his resentment for what he formerly called civilization in England.

He admits that in his land, people and princes fight wars over things that seem beyond reason. "Difference in opinions hath cost many millions of lives: for instance, whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh: whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine: whether whistling be a vice or a virtue: whether it be better to kiss a post, or throw it into the fire: what is the best color for a coat?"

The yahoos have conflicts too, over the possessions of shining stones and inebriating substances. These are things which cause the emotional desires of the yahoos to replace reason, something that the Huoyhnhnms cannot understand.

Gulliver declares that he never wants to associate again with humans, but he is forced to leave because of distrust among the Huoyhnhnms. He is, after all, a Yahoo.

Having returned to England, Gulliver takes no joy in seeing his wife and he writes "the sight of them filled me only with hatred, disgust and contempt" which is likely a result of Gulliver's lost faith in mankind. Gulliver seems to have given up on men, and he soon devotes his time to a horse he has recently purchased.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Jonathan Swift and Gulliver's Travels

It is quite interesting that "Gulliver's Travels" is often found in the children's section of many bookstores. Most of us know this iconic tale as the story of a giant Englishman surrounded by the miniature Lilliputians trying to subdue him. Although Gulliver's Travels (1726) is easy to read without dissecting it, I do not think that Jonathan Swift's (1667-1745) original audience was young English children.

Swift was an Englishman born in Dublin, the son of a father who backed the losing side in the English Civil War. Following his education in Oxford, Swift became a potent essayist and political activist for the conservative Tory party. He railed against the English treatment of the Irish and clashed with the Whig establishment in London. Most of his political diatribes were satirical; for example, he suggested that the English (Whig) solution for the overcrowding of Ireland would be for the Irish to sensibly eat their own children.

Gulliver's Travels was written to mock the exaggerated travel stories that were fashionable during this time of foreign discovery. In addition, Swift also portrays royalty, government officials, and humanity in general, with cutting mockery.

Gulliver describes several different groups of "people" he meets on his travels. These include the race of miniature humanoids 6 inches tall that we are most familiar with. He also reaches shores full of humans 12 times our height, a race of men that do not die, a group that can converse with dead people, a flying island, and finally an island populated by intelligent horses where humans are considered imbeciles and treated as slaves.