Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Review: Gulliver's Travels

After my car’s audio system was repaired a few months ago, I began listening to audiobooks on my daily commutes.  Thus far, I’ve listened to Kipling’s Just So Stories, which was delightful and on occasion made me burst out laughing – this was usually, embarrassingly, when I was stopped at a red light with my windows down – Orwell’s Animal Farm, and now, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver’s Travels.  I’d been trying to choose adventure stories, thinking that their faster pace and plot-driven prose would work better than a slower, more philosophical novel or one with so many characters that I would lose track of who’s who over the course of several weeks of listening.  Gulliver’s Travels is by far the longest of the three, taking up eleven hours spread across nine discs, and turned out not be as much of an adventure story as I’d always believed.

Everybody is familiar with the quintessential image of Gulliver’s Travels: a prone man held down by the countless small ropes of miniature men.  I knew that these men were Lilliputians from the island of Lilliput, but nothing more.  Jonathan Swift’s novel is a classic, and it was high time that I became familiar with more of the story than this single image.  As it turns out, this trip to Lilliput makes up but a fourth of Gulliver’s seafaring adventures.  The remaining parts tell the stories of his travels: an island of giants, an island floating in the sky and a few of the lands over which it rules (and, oddly, Japan), and an island on which horses are the dominant species and humans are their beastly servants.  One difficulty born of listening to this book rather than reading it is that I have no idea how to spell some of the very strange, long names of these islands!  In each part, Gulliver tells of a few of his adventures and discusses both his and the island inhabitants’ culture.  Some of these adventures are funny; others are tedious and could have benefited from some editing.  For example, on the island of the giants, Gulliver’s nemesis, a monkey at least as big as he is, proves to be a cunning enemy and made for some interesting tales.  On the other hand, long description of the boxes built for him to live in were less engaging.

Satire, as I understand it, is political or social commentary designed to point out the flaws in the existing system through humorous or unexpected means.  Swift’s novel accomplishes this through his descriptions of Gulliver’s extended stays with these other peoples.  In Gulliver’s process of explaining his own English culture to the monarchs of these various islands, Swift highlights the strange, bizarre, ineffective, or otherwise ridiculous habits that he saw in his contemporaries.  Swift is able to make further points about the violence, greed, and general absurdity of human culture as Gulliver details what he learns about these strange societies.  The miniature people, giant people, and inhabitants of the flying island are all, after all, humans, though of different size or elevation.  It is noteworthy that the only culture that Gulliver truly respects is that of the horses, and despite his final return to England and his wife, Gulliver never fully recovers and spends the rest of his days despising humans and their smell.

Beyond satirizing English (European?) culture as a whole, he is particularly vitriolic in his discussions of a few particular careers, targeting academics, lawyers, and doctors with wonderful tirades.  Lawyers and judges, according to Swift, are lazy, biased defenders of falsehood who cultivate unnecessarily complicated jargon to ensure that no one can do without them.  Doctors are petty and greedy, and as likely to kill a man than to heal him.  In my opinion, as an academic, the absolute best section of the book is in part three.  One of the islands ruled by the flying island is home to an academy.  The professors there have devoted their lives to stupid, meaningless research that is nonetheless hysterical to read about, and their teaching methods are absurd.  If I had a paper copy of this novel I would quote some of their experiments, but as it is I remember only one: a teacher lays out letters and punctuation, and his students randomly link them together.  In this way, this teacher is convinced, all the knowledge of the world will be produced.  It seems like a very early version of the monkey-with-a-typewriter thought experiment.

Despite my lack of context – was Swift satirizing specific kings or European nations? I don’t know enough about 17th-century European history to know – I found most of this novel to be entertaining or interesting, with plenty of his commentary on government and politics remaining applicable today.  And I most definitely would not consider it to be a children’s book, though I know it is often classified as such.  There is too much coarse innuendo and scatological humor to be appropriate.  Are children given abridged versions?  In all honesty, I wonder if an abridged version would be the way to go for anyone wishing to know the story (rather than just the one famous image!) without slogging through some very slow descriptions and unnecessary tedium.

Things to think about:
If you’ve read it, did you read an abridged version and if not, did you wish you had?

If you haven’t read it, are you familiar with any of the story besides the image of Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians?

What is satire?  Does Swift employ satire well in this book?  What are some other methods of satirizing culture besides having a single individual travel to another culture and comparing the two?

Things I’m reading:
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
Musicology and Difference, Ruth A. Solie, ed.
The Country of the Pointed Firs, Sarah Orne Jewett

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