Monday, March 24, 2008

Jonathan Swift - Gulliver's Travels

Few readers can have failed to have heard the basic tenets of Gulliver's Travels. Written in the 1700s, it follows the voyages of Lemuel Gulliver as he, through a series of misfortunes, finds himself at a variety of stragen lands, populated by even stranger creature.

Most people will have heard of Lilliput - the first land that Gulliver arrives at, where the inhabitants are tiny - six inches or so - but have built a complex civilisation. Gulliver befriends Lilliput's King and in a series of conversations illuminates both his one country's society and the newley discovered one.

The author of course, uses the differing scale between Gulliver and the inhabitants of Lilliput to great comic effect. Some of this is moral questioning, some of it is humourous. Some of it is simple bawdy slapstick - as in the musings that Gulliver gives to the problem of his excretment for a civilisation of such small people.

Eventually, Gulliver upsets the status quo - society can deal with a giant, but not one who breaks social taboos (even accidently). He is forced to flee Lilliput.

The next destination for Gulliver is much less well-known. His voyage to Brobdingnag - a land of giants, as large to Gulliver as he was to the people of Lilliput, allows for further humour, social discourse and comments on the nature of Gulliver's own society. If the children's version of Gulliver's Travels omit the problems of Gulliver's waste in Lilliput, they surely omit the description of the maids in the royal court of Brobdingnag, who appear to use the naked Gulliver as a type of sex toy.

As Gulliver makes further voyages his becomes less of a proponent of the superior nature of English society with it's class system, laws and religious codes, and becomes more and more cynical about human nature. I won't give away the ending, but by the time that we (and Gulliver) reach the end of his voyages, our traveller has effectively given up all hope for man-kind, as well as any desire to spend time with them.

Jonathan Swift's book has, I suspect, spent too much time being read as a humourous account of fantastic voyages. It is really a powerful social critique of human society. From our petty religious squabbles (mirrored by the Lilliputten wars over which end of an boiled egg to start at) to the incomprehensibility of lawyers and our legal system to a society where lying is unknown, this pokes fun at every aspect of our lives. It entertained hundreds of thousands when it was first published and even now has the power to bring a wry smile to anyone out there who reads it today, in our more enlightened times.

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