Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Gulliver's Travels Part 1

I'm very excited about part one of the Gulliver's Travels read-a-long hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey. Gulliver's Travels is one of my all-time favorite books. I first read it in college, then again while working on my Master's. At that time, I actually decided to focus on it and some of Swift's political writings for my thesis and did a done of research, but then decided to just do the test option instead of a thesis since I'd already written an undergrad thesis. I haven't read it since then, so I thought it would be nice to reread it while not in research mode.

If you haven't read it before, part 1 is the part you're probably familiar with anyway. It features Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians, the little people who think he's a giant. What surprised me so much the first time I read this is that it's not a kid's book at all, so it's weird to me that the story somehow has been turned in that. If that's your perception of Gulliver's Travels, you need to read the actual book. It's a satire about politics and while their are many references to early eighteenth century politics and relations between Ireland and England, many of the overall comments are relevant today.

As Gulliver watches these tiny people fight over things such as the proper way to break an egg or the height of their shoe, he laughs at them and their wars and power struggles and basks in his own superiority. But Swift wants us to think about how we're like the little people. I'm sure God sometimes can't believe the stupid things we humans fight about and laughs at our power struggles when He is clearly so much more powerful than we could ever hope to be.

He also notes that essentially the Lilliputians and Blefuscans are the same, and it's silly that they're fighting each other and trying to take over the other. The same thing was happening with Ireland and England at the time. Swift was born to English parents but was raised in Ireland, so he was right in the middle of the fighting and was a case in point that the English had no right to try to take over the Irish or feel superior to them in anyway. Then of course even within Ireland you had religious fighting between the Catholics and the Protestants, causing yet more problems.

And yet Swift didn't just sit by and suggest everyone sing kumbaya. He wrote highly satirical and offensive pamphlets, letters, and essays to stir up the Irish to throw off the shackles of the English and for the English to realize they should leave the Irish alone. He wanted to get people to the point where they could all leave each other alone. I think this is something a lot of pacifists miss. They tend to think that if they stop fighting, others will stop too. And while that may work in some instances, in many, it doesn't. Trying to get terrorists to stop fighting by leaving them alone doesn't work. Both parties have to be willing to stop before this works. I think that's what Swift was trying to do with this section. I think he demonstrated this when he had Gulliver lift all of the enemy ships of Blefuscu out of the water, showing them they didn't have the power to overtake Lilliput. Then when the emperor of Lilliput wanted to take that opportunity to turn Blefuscu into basically a province of Lilliput, Gulliver convinces him otherwise and helps orchestrate a peace agreement between the two.

I'm probably making this sound rather boring, aren't I? Well, Gulliver's Travels is quite funny. Even when you miss some of the references to things of the time period, there are plenty of things you will get. And Gulliver pees on her Imperial Majesty's palace to put out a fire. That's pretty funny. And gross and crude. Apparently dirty and body fluid related humor just never go out of style. There's also the part made famous in the kid's version, with the tiny people tying the giant Gulliver down, which is pretty funny. And parts 2, 3, and 4 all see Gulliver traveling to new and exciting places, so make sure to follow along for the rest of the read-a-long or check out the book for yourself. For more thoughts on part 1, remember to go to A Literary Odyssey.


  1. Great post Lindsey. Very impressive that you delved so deeply into Swift and this book while in college. I've often wished I would sometime have the time to really, really plumb the depths of some of the great works of literature.

    The edition I'm reading does have several footnotes which help me "get" some of the satirical references, but you're right - even if you don't 'worry' about all that, the story can stand by itself.

    Looking forward to part II


  2. I am so glad you are participating!

    I love that you pointed out how it has turned into a children's tale. I have that image of a cartooned giant being attacked by little people.

    The satire is something that I think a lot of people don't get when they read it the first time. The straight out humor is appealing, but that underlying theme of politics and human nature seems to go unnoticed. I am definitely paying more attention to those themes now than I did the first time I read this!

  3. I agree that if you didn't know about the satire, you would get an entirely different view of the book. But then again, it is a lot of fun trying to figure out his references of the time in both politics and everyday living. I also enjoy having the footnotes. Great review.

  4. Glad you all enjoyed the post! I definitely haven't read many books as in-depthly as this one, but I love that you can enjoy it on so many different levels.