GENERAL KNOWLEDGE: Information to furnish the mind

Gulliver’s Travels Not Just for Children

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wrote Gulliver’s Travels in 1726. Its full title is Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships.

The book’s main character, Lemuel Gulliver, is a middle-class Englishman who tells the story in the logs of four voyages (Books 1-4), interspersed with intervals in England with his family.

The first voyage is to Lilliput where Gulliver is a giant in comparison with the tiny inhabitants.

Gulliver in Lilliput
Gulliver wakes in Lilliput to find himself being fastened to the ground by the tiny inhabitants.

The second voyage is to Brobdignag where the situation is reversed: the inhabitants are so large that Gulliver is as tiny as the Lilliputians were to him.

The third voyage is to Laputa, where Gulliver encounters scientists and theorists who are completely out of touch with human needs. Book Three is the least attractive to the modern reader because of its heavy use of symbolism and contemporary allusions. Much of the humor that marks the other three books is spoiled as Gulliver slips out of character, criticizing the foolishness of the scientists instead of merely recording their oddities.

The final voyage is to the Land of the Houyhnhnms. The Houyhnhnms (their name is an attempt to spell a horse’s whinny) are intelligent beings who physically resemble horses. Another species, the Yahoos, also inhabits this land. The Yahoos are irrational, emotion-driven, bestial creatures who look just like human beings. By the end of this adventure, Gulliver is ashamed to belong to the human race.

On the surface, Gulliver’s Travels is an entertaining fantasy that appeals especially to young readers. For the adult reader, Swift’s masterpiece is a thought-provoking study of mankind’s capacity for good and evil.

Gulliver’s Travels certainly belongs on anyone’s “must read” list of world classics. Plenty of free online texts are available. Here’s a link to the one at The LiteratureNetwork.

Gulliver’s Travels has enjoyed great popularity ever since its first printing in 1726. In a letter to Swift, English dramatist John Gay (1685-1732) said that everyone was reading it, “from the cabinet council to the nursery.” In 285 years, it has never been out of print.

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